Women Of The C-Suite: “There are only two things you can control — your focus and your costs” with Fluxx CEO Madeline Duva

There are only 2 things you can control — your focus and your costs. I have learned this through many startups failures and successes. While I can’t guarantee you success if you do that, I can pretty much guarantee failure if you don’t! When I walked in at Fluxx, I saw that we didn’t have a great […]

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There are only 2 things you can control — your focus and your costs. I have learned this through many startups failures and successes. While I can’t guarantee you success if you do that, I can pretty much guarantee failure if you don’t! When I walked in at Fluxx, I saw that we didn’t have a great handle on costs, so that was one of my first tasks to really look at the budget and how we were spending. I made some changes that had immediate and direct impact on the bottom line and put us in a great position for moving forward.

As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Madeline Duva. Madeline is CEO of Fluxx, where she drives strategy and mission to elevate the company as a leader in the philanthropic ecosystem. She started her career at Fidelity Investments, and has held senior managerial posts Communication Intelligence Corp, PenOp, Dejima, Revere Data, China MobileSoft and PalmSource. After the successful acquisition by PalmSource of China MobileSoft, where Duva was CEO, she served as mentor, advisor, and/or board member of several startups.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Madeline! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

After grad school I worked at Fidelity Investment. Among other things, I was the project lead on our customer service solution for the phone reps. I approached it from the “customer development” point of view meaning I spent a lot of time with the phone reps to understand how they worked and what they needed to best support the customer.

This was well before I had heard of Steve Blank — who is recognized for developing the Customer Development method that launched the Lean Startup movement. It just made sense to me that the user should be helping me define the product, rather than me dictating the use of something that might not fit their needs. I’ve brought that approach to every job since then.

After successfully selling my previous start up, I set out to spend all of my time mentoring at various incubators here and abroad, as well as advising and investing in startups. Fluxx was one of those startups. I come from a civic-minded family — even with five children or maybe because of that, my mother was on several nonprofit boards and my father was vice mayor of our town. I have been volunteering at the same nonprofit for over eight years. Given what is going on globally and here at home, when the board and founders of Fluxx asked me to step in, I accepted.

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

Coming into a company as a new CEO can be a difficult transition for the clients and the team. Luckily, the outgoing CEO at Fluxx was super helpful with that transition, hosting joint calls to some of the top clients and welcoming me into the Fluxx family. And then it was up to me to do the work in order to transform the company from a “product maverick company” to established enterprise. The support of the Fluxx leadership and whole team has been amazing, I certainly couldn’t have done it without them and it is a reminder that the team truly is the company. The product is secondary.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of our clients asked to see another clients contract as they have worked closely together over the years. I was shocked and my knee jerk reaction was “are you kidding me?!” I nearly had a heart attack, as that is not the norm in any other industry I have worked in — enterprise or consumer. In fact, in other industries, that would be a breach of confidentiality. I took a few deep breaths and made a life line call to one of the CIOs I had come to know at another foundation. He counseled me to agree, as many foundations work very closely. I learned very quickly how different this sector is from any other sector I have worked in. The level of collaboration is extremely high and should be lauded. And the lesson for me was just to embrace it and go with the flow. It really forced me to think in a new way about my clients and how best to serve them.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Fluxx is a company that cares, as individuals and as a collective. They care about their clients, their team and the world. When there is an issue with a client, the whole team pitches in. If someone is struggling with a tough support ticket or bug, others help. When the issues were escalating on the boarder, everyone pitched in to raise money to get the immigrants help with legal representation — while there was no requirement to give, there was near total participation and everyone was excited we could do something to help, in spite of being so far away.

Fluxx is also part of the Pledge 1%, a program where companies pledge to give 1% of their product, 1% of their time volunteering, 1% or equity and/or 1% of profits. Many of our employees come from foundations and nonprofits, or like me, have been volunteering for many years, so this isn’t a hard pledge to meet!

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

For Grantmaker, our flagship product, we are constantly working on new features and solutions for our Foundation clients. These foundations granted over $7.2B dollars through the Fluxx platform in 2018, and our “fall off a log” number for 2019 is $9B+. We are awed by the amount of giving our clients do.

What I am really excited about, beyond what we are doing for the foundations directly, is the work we’re starting to do for the grantseekers or nonprofits. We, of course, have always touched multiple tens of thousands of nonprofits annually, but we are now building out our Grantseeker platform out to help nonprofits manage the grants they receive. This in turn helps the foundations as we are helping the nonprofits manage that money more effectively and efficiently. On average nonprofits spend 13 percent of the grant money they receive just managing the grant. Our platform helps these nonprofits increase their efficiency so those dollars can go farther. We are also helping them tell the impact of their stories which will ultimately help to increase the money they raise from other sources.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

You have to be focused on empowering your team. You’ve gotten where you are because you are good at what you do, but you must be clear about your north star and enable your team to do their jobs, even in those cases where you think you might be able to do it better. If you don’t give them the opportunity to step up, they often won’t, and the best will become frustrated with the lack of opportunity. But letting them step up means that sometimes they will make mistakes. We all make mistakes, and it’s your job to help them think things through, and if they do make a mistake help learn from it to become better leaders themselves. They only way you can scale is to delegate and help each member of your team be successful.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

It all comes back to empowering people — don’t swoop in and criticize them but coach them. Ask questions and show them what to do, rather than telling them what and how to do it. To do these things you need to build relationships via one on ones with each team member, which helps to build trust. Be demanding and focused on the goals, but also give them room and check in often to ensure you are giving them the support they need.

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?

There wasn’t as much of a culture of mentorship when I was entering my career as there is today. I think that’s why I spend so much time mentoring and participating as a mentor at incubators like the Founder Institute. That being said, the help and mentorship I have had has been invaluable and there are too many to name. In that group are my parents, who were very civic minded — even with five children my mom was on several nonprofit boards and city initiatives, and my father was a councilman and vice mayor. They taught me that there is always time to help others and that we are all created equal.

The other shout out is to Walter Wattles, a prominent insurance executive. I was granted a yearlong fellowship to work at Lloyd’s of London out of college. I will never forget as I was heading to the plane, he looked me in the eye and said, “Your word is your bond. If you don’t know an answer to a question, just say that is a great question and you will get back to them, and then do. There is no gray area here.” It is a simple and obvious axiom, but it has been a great guiding light.

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

That is a big question. I can only say that I hope that I bring goodness. I have been very fortunate, and though I have worked hard and had many tough times, I know that I am in a position of privilege. Not just because I am white, but also because of connections and opportunities that others, who are smarter and more accomplished, have not. So, I try to give back not only with money to many causes I care about, but also with my time as a volunteer — I have been volunteering weekly, though now as a CEO again it’s only monthly, at Project Open Hand here in San Francisco. I also have been mentoring at the Founder Institute, Highway One, and “Happy Farm” from Ukraine and now Kazakhstan. I am a connector and love helping those trying to realize their dreams.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Your word is your bond — I shared that story earlier.

2. The only thing that can hold you back is fear and not believing in yourself. That came from my father, he always encouraged my sisters, brother and I to try new things and get out of our comfort zone. This helped me greatly when I left Fidelity and joined a small startup out of Stanford Research Institute. We were licensing software to major PC vendors like NCR, Fujitsu, Sony, etc., those cycles were slow so I took a chance and wrote and SDK and created a partner program which afforded us an additional revenue stream while we waded through the larger negotiations with major global players.

3. There are only 2 things you can control — your focus and your costs. I have learned this through many startups failures and successes. While I can’t guarantee you success if you do that, I can pretty much guarantee failure if you don’t! When I walked in at Fluxx, I saw that we didn’t have a great handle on costs, so that was one of my first tasks to really look at the budget and how we were spending. I made some changes that had immediate and direct impact on the bottom line and put us in a great position for moving forward.

4. Everyone has an agenda, and it is not yours. Again, through years of working at and with startups I’ve learned that you have to remember to actively listen. It’s also important to recognize the perspective of the speaker. We all view things through our own lens, so make sure what you are hearing really lands for you, rather than be swayed by a different perspective. But also remember if you hear the same thing repeatedly, pay attention. For example, years ago, a company I was advising was building a destination video site with interstitial ads but had no consumer folks. Everyone (from partners to investors) that we talked to loved the interstitial ads as it was new and no one was doing it. We pivoted to focus on the interstitial ads as the product and as a result were acquired by a major media advertising corporation.

5. Be helpful whenever you can, whether to your benefit or not. I am a connector by nature. I love putting people together and seeing the results. Over the years, these connections have come back to me in surprisingly wonderful ways. From getting help on a chipset issue from someone I helped get relocated to the US many years before; to getting a loan restructured by someone whom I had helped 10 years prior sell a company, thus recouping their investment which was all but lost.

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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I am not sure I would say I am a person of great influence, but if I could use the influence I have to make a positive change, I would like to create a movement where every individual really took to heart their consumption. I do feel we are making small steps in that direction, but we only have a two ways to vote — at the ballot box and with our dollars. If we could get everyone to pledge to make choices that create the greatest good and least harm, we truly could change the world. A simple way to start would be to focus on packaging — if corporations were responsible for their packaging — and in the future their products — from cradle to grave, we could minimize waste. Policy can help make this happen, but individuals also have power to band together and effect change by making small but important choices every day.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

If you don’t have time to do something right the first time, will you have time to do it over?

I don’t know where I got that, but people who know me well, hear me say it a lot. So often we rush out of fear of being too slow, but I have learned more than once that you have to do the upfront work before you start or you end up going slower in the end trying to fix things that were avoidable. I’ve experienced this at every company I’ve worked at. The fact is, it’s hard to not rush, as sometimes you have exigent demands forcing your hand, but you have to try to carve out the time to think things and products through.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Nancy Lublin. Time and again Nancy has showed what grit is, and as a result she’s has created nonprofit organizations that are not only tackling real issues but also doing so at scale. From Dress for Success, which helps empower women by literally dressing them for success is in over 1,200 cities, to Do Something which has mobilized millions of young people to take part in their communities. And now Crisis Text Line is a global organization that is saving lives every day all over the world via SMS. Her ability to see a problem and scale a solution is beyond so many that are more known or lauded than she is.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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