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Wistia CEO Chris Savage: “Encourage Radical Candor. A healthy workplace requires direct and healthy feedback.” with Phil Laboon

I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Savage, cofounder and CEO of Wistia. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path? The simple story is that my co-founder Brendan and I had always talked about starting a company or project but couldn’t come up with an idea that […]


I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Savage, cofounder and CEO of Wistia.


Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

The simple story is that my co-founder Brendan and I had always talked about starting a company or project but couldn’t come up with an idea that we thought was good enough. In 2006, we watched the technology behind online video start to change very quickly as encoding software was being open sourced and it was becoming possible to democratize the uploading and playing of web video. We thought there would be a big opportunity and because it was a new space, we thought that a couple of naive 23-year-olds might have a fighting chance. We were right that the online video space would change dramatically, but wrong about how long it would take for businesses to adopt video… fortunately, we stuck around until they started to adopt video too.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Six years into building the company, we were struggling to figure out how to market the product better. We had hundreds of customers and people seemed to love the product, but we just couldn’t figure out how to break through the noise.

One day, we decided to update our team page to show all six of us who worked at Wistia at that point. We’d had two new people join the team and neither of them was represented on the website. We took some photos in front of a whiteboard, focusing more on getting photos that our parents would appreciate, than optimizing for a professional look. We put them up on the site and added an easter egg to the page — if you typed D-A-N-C-E then the photos of each person would switch with an outtake photo making the appearance of us dancing. This was very silly and purely for our own enjoyment. We shared this on Twitter and assumed nothing would happen. Instead, the page went viral.

In just a couple of hours, we got tons of new traffic to the website and tons of commentary on Twitter. We were completely surprised and blown away. Over the next couple of days, our excitement dissipated as we got back to reality. That was until two weeks later we suddenly started to get many new paying customers. It turns out that people who found our team page had decided to explore the site and unbeknownst to us had signed up for two week free trials and ultimately purchased.

We accidentally discovered that being authentic and building a brand mattered. This has had an enormous impact on how and why we have built Wistia the way we have.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Our goal at Wistia is to empower everyone to be creative, and our core audience is SMBs. We want to help small businesses grow into great businesses, by being their best and true selves.

Right now we’re making improvements to our video creation app, Soapbox, which has totally changed the way pitches and presentations are delivered remotely. Rather than massive PDFs attached to long emails, salespeople and managers can instead create a really professional looking video with our tool, which takes less time than a giant document and provides a more human, engaging experience.

We’re also working on a tool called “Wistia Channels” which allows non-technical marketers to build out a Netflix-like video gallery that provides a better, less-distraction filled experience than YouTube. We think this is beneficial to businesses (individuals watch more of your videos without clicking away) and users (we’re moving away from dopamine hooks to more rewarding viewing experiences)

Ok, let’s jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

The social media culture we now live in encourages us to constantly share snippets of our lives openly, and in return, we are rewarded with likes. We are looking at the world through lenses designed to make everyone else’s world more beautiful and editing tools that make everyone else’s lives more exciting. It’s become easier to compare ourselves to each other and there is always someone else who has done more, seems happier, is more of an expert, or just seems to have their shit together.

We’ve also blended life and work with always-on tools and always-on expectations. Combine this all together and there is no respite from comparisons, there is no time to decompress, and it can make it hard to be grateful or appreciate what we do have. If you wanted to design an environment that would make people unhappy, an always-on, constant comparison tool seems like a great way to do that.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Spinning the question slightly, I actually think that profitability has a big impact on employee happiness.

My co-founder and I recently chose to buy out our angel investors, and raised $17.3M in debt in order to move from a “growth at all costs” mindset where we were spending as much as possible, as quickly as possible, to grow revenue — to something we’re calling “profitable confidence,” where we run the company at a profit, and treat growth as a secondary consideration. As part of this, we also swapped out stock options for profit-sharing.

We have unequivocally found that being profitable has made for a happier company and a more productive workforce. Individuals have felt more empowered to improve efficiency in their respective areas, and knowing that we have sustainable, profitable revenue means we can make longer-term bets in our products and marketing, which has been much more inspiring and engaging for employees than chasing quick wins.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

Make the workplace as kid friendly as possible. New or old parents should feel comfortable bringing their kids in if they need to and nursing mothers should have a private space to breastfeed or pump. I have two young daughters, and it’s made me a better parent and a better CEO to sometimes be able to do both my jobs at the same time.

Encourage people to shut-off, leading by example. As CEO, I try to never send out emails in the evenings or on weekends, and I take real vacations where I shut everything off. It’s important for everyone to take a break and recharge and it creates healthier communication patterns.

Let people bring their whole selves to work. We need to build more inclusive and diverse spaces so that all voices can be heard and can be a part of tough decisions. A diversity of ideas and people will lead to stronger results. At Wistia, we have a group called “Diverstia” that puts on events throughout the year to help everyone be more comfortable being themselves and empathizing with others. They organize storytelling nights, movie showings, holiday celebrations, and are constantly teaching empathy. They have a huge impact on help us to be more inclusive and help everyone be more comfortable being themselves.

Run retrospectives after projects which allow for honest conversations about things which did and did not work, facilitated by individuals who were not directly involved in the project. It’s not until you have someone who wasn’t involved in a project leading the process on discovering what can be better or different that you truly gain real insights.

Encourage Radical Candor. A healthy workplace requires direct and healthy feedback. Great feedback will decrease politics and speed up innovation. Kim Scott wrote the book on Radical Candor. Read it and have your team read it. Then discuss.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

We can celebrate and encourage companies to have better parental leave. This may need to be regulated to truly take hold, but I believe it could have a huge impact.

We can encourage a culture of focusing on outputs, instead of inputs. It shouldn’t matter when or where you are doing your work in the ways that it used to, so give people the freedom to work when and where they are most productive.

We can stop celebrating the hustle. Hustling and working crazy hours can be manageable in short spurts, but it always ends up burning people out and you end up with worse work. We need to highlight the stories, companies, and culture that truly encourage balance in work and life.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

Devolving as much decision making power as possible, and trying to inspire, rather than dictate the best actions.

Being as transparent and open about my thinking as possible, sharing that often and frequently with the whole team.

Encouraging creative risk-taking, and rewarding bold failure.

Consistently acting with integrity, and expecting the same from others.

Drinking a lot of cold brew and getting amped up.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Ben Ruedlinger, the GM for our main video marketing product, is our longest serving employee and has stuck with us through thick and thin over the past 12 years. He decided to join us with no pay when we were just two 23-year-olds and he believed in what we were doing from day one. He has put an unbelievable amount of work and creativity into Wistia over the years and has turned down many opportunities, that I know of, to help us grow and scale the company. Without Ben, we would have been lost.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Through Wistia we work to support organizations like Silverlining Mentoring, Resilient Coders, and She Geeks Out. We are working hard to make tech more diverse and inclusive and supporting organizations that do just that is right in line with our beliefs.

I’ve also tried to shine on a light on the value of building sustainable companies that can priorities their customer, employee, and community experience over short-term revenue growth.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

We spend most of our lives at work. Work can be filling if you care about the mission you are working on, you are given the autonomy to own the problems you want to solve, and you can continue to learn enough. Companies that only optimize for revenue growth are often missing the freedom to invest in the people and projects that are long-term, which is much easier to do when you are profitable. We need more people to grow their companies with Profitable Confidence.

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