We talked a lot about grit earlier, but I don’t want people to confuse grit with burnout culture. I hate when I walk into offices and I see banners that spout platitudes like “rise and grind” and “hustle harder” or whatever. I think it sends the wrong message to people. As a leader, your job is not to grind your team into the ground, chasing an ever-changing set of goals. Your job as a leader is to be clear and consistent with the vision and the goals that people have to achieve. It’s also your job as a leader to then help create the efficiencies and opportunities necessary for them to achieve those goals in a normal amount of time.
I had the privilege of interviewing Mike Donoghue,CEO and Co-founderof Pigeon. Pigeon is a social sharing app on Facebook Messenger where the community decides what content gets spread and what gets buried. Mike is a highly respected entrepreneur and an expert in developing and establishing innovative media and technology companies. In 2015, Mike founded The Alpha Group, an in-house tech and media incubator for Advance Local. Advance Local is a media company that specializes in the creation of informational web and local news sites. Mike was responsible for leading The Alpha Group on its mission to develop, accelerate and release innovative tech and media products to help Advance Local increase business and forge deeper connections with audiences. Pigeon represents The Alpha Group’s third and latest venture, after the successful development and release of The Tylt and Elsewhere. Under Mike’s leadership, The Tylt has become the web’s largest and fastest-growing social polling and opinion platform, with a monthly reach exceeding 300 million people. Prior to founding The Alpha Group, Mike served as vice president at Advance Digital (now Advance Local). Mike holds a degree in Sociology and Criminal Law from the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I had never intended to work in the tech or media space. I actually wanted to become a criminal defense attorney and it’s what I studied as an undergrad. After I graduated college, I was really unsure about what I wanted to do with my life. Faced with the reality that I couldn’t afford to pay rent I headed back to Chicago, where I’m from, and took a friend up on an offer to interview with a tech company for a sales job. I shrugged it off because I had never sold anything before and I knew nothing about the industry, but then my friend told me that if I got hired, both he and I would get $500 (which was my rent). Not wanting to be evicted, I borrowed a suit from my Dad (I did not own one at the time) and went down to interview for the job. That day, my Dad gave me the best business advice that anyone has ever given me. He told me to be kind to everyone in the elevator. Taken literally, I guess that meant to make sure people enjoyed being around me but against the backdrop of my entire career, I’ve always taken it to mean that no matter what your station in life or role in a company happens to be, there is no excuse not to be kind to others.
Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Of course! My first job out of college (the one I borrowed the suit to get) was an absolute grind, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything in the world. I said earlier that I was doing sales for a tech company. I was essentially a telemarketer. I had to make 125 cold calls a day or else I was fired — the same day. That, in addition to the sales quota, meant that you had to come into work every day absolutely ready and able to perform. I had one day where that was not the case. I was disenfranchised about the business, about what I was doing with my life and it was late on a Friday. I hadn’t made the calls that I was expected to make, and as I was standing up to walk out the door (which meant I would be fired), a colleague at the time (my wife now) stopped me and forced me to finish my work. She waited with me while I did it and when I look back at the arc of my life and career, I know that it was a hugely pivotal moment. I stayed at that company for many years and had the opportunity to do some truly amazing things. Looking back, this would not have happened without someone believing in me and motivating me to push forward.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Whenever I’m faced with a really difficult situation, I have this game I play in my own head as a matter of gaining perspective. I think back on everything that I’ve done throughout my career and I ask myself if this is the single hardest thing I’ve ever had to accomplish? If it’s not, then I know I’ve gotten through it before and it gives me confidence that I can do it again. If it happens to be the most difficult, I use examples from people I admire in my life. My grandfather received a purple heart in WWII so, at the end of the day, I’m not landing on the beach at Normandy. I just need to focus, rely on the people around me that I trust and push through whatever obstacles exist.
So how did Grit lead to your eventual success? How did Grit turn things around?
I think we’re faced with challenges and touch decisions throughout our lives that force us to make hard decisions. You may not necessarily realize the gravity of the decision that you’re making at the time, but I always tell people to bet on themselves. Whether it is starting a business, creating a new piece of technology that you’re unsure about, applying for a job, or reaching for a new goal, you’ll never regret betting on yourself. In that sense, I owe everything to the people around me that gave me the confidence to bet on myself every time I had the chance. I’ll share a specific example: when we were creating our first product — The Tylt — we soft launched it to the public as an MVP just to assess its viability as a platform and to see whether or not people were interested in the offering. It was a two-week old MVP and something that was highly differentiated from a technical standpoint. A reporter wrote something to the effect of “the product was no good and we were long overdue for a pivot” (after two weeks). I was livid, but my biggest concern was that this would shake the confidence of my very small team, working on a product in its infancy. I also feared that they would question themselves and the hard work they had put into it so far. Much to my surprise, the criticism had the exact opposite effect on the team. We used the criticism as a source of inspiration and went on to create the largest social polling platform on the internet with a monthly reach of 100M+. So, the importance of organizational grit cannot be understated.
So, how are things going today?
Amazingly well. We have 4 highly unique products in the marketplace whose users love them. Even though we know we have a long way to go in many respects, we know exactly what we need to do to achieve our vision for our products.
The Tylt: The largest social polling platform on the internet with over 100M users.
Elsewhere: A top 100 photo and video app that allows for simple, fun video customization and social sharing.
Pigeon: The only anonymous, merit based social network on Facebook Messenger.
Project Text: A unique text subscription and conversation platform that gives users unprecedented access to personalities and inside information delivered directly to a mobile phone.
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?
While I was in my first sales job, I arrived on a Monday morning to find that my badge to get up to my floor wasn’t working. I had really gotten the hang of sales and I was performing really well so when I swiped my badge and it didn’t work, I asked the person at the front desk what was wrong. She looked at her computer and told me that I didn’t work for the company anymore and I was incredulous. I thought I was the top performing sales person at the organization — how could they fire me? I convinced her to let me into the building and I walked into my boss’ office and fired off a litany of reasons around why I thought they were making a mistake by letting me go. If they were going to fire me, at least they were going to regret it. My boss let me go on and on for about 10 minutes and then she looked at me and said, “what the hell are you talking about — why would we fire you?” As it turns out, I had inadvertently swapped badges with someone who left the company months beforehand and had never known about it. If that taught me anything other than humility, it was to not make decisions based on fits of emotion, but rather to take time to assess the situation and make an emotionally agnostic choice.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We started with 4 people and we’ve created 4 beloved products that are performing at an extremely high level. We’ve been fortunate to build a team of amazingly talented, passionate individuals and they continue to take our products in directions that we had never imagined were possible. Let me share an anecdote about the culture this team has created: in mid-January it got very very cold in NYC. So cold that a lot of the electrical grid failed and many people lost power, myself included. As our team started to commiserate with one another on Slack about the cold and their shared experiences about losing heat, nearly every other person in the organization offered up their home, apartment or couch to people on the team. To me, that level of kindness and support is indicative of a strong team. Here are people that, probably at great inconvenience to themselves, would take in a colleague just so they wouldn’t have to suffer for a night. This sort of mutual support and caring is played out every day in our office and it makes me very proud.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
We talked a lot about grit earlier, but I don’t want people to confuse grit with burnout culture. I hate when I walk into offices and I see banners that spout platitudes like “rise and grind” and “hustle harder” or whatever. I think it sends the wrong message to people. As a leader, your job is not to grind your team into the ground, chasing an ever-changing set of goals. Your job as a leader is to be clear and consistent with the vision and the goals that people have to achieve. It’s also your job as a leader to then help create the efficiencies and opportunities necessary for them to achieve those goals in a normal amount of time. When I hear that someone is in the office too late or working all weekend, I can’t help but think that I’ve failed them in some way. It’s important to me that people have lives outside of work and that they take the time to enrich themselves outside of the office. It gives them perspective and ideas that ultimately enrich the organization. Companies that judge your performance based on how many hours you work are severely misguided. There’s a law of diminishing returns at play.● 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?
○ This is probably a little milquetoast, but I’m grateful for my parents and my wife. I’m grateful to my parents for instilling in me the understanding that nothing worthwhile comes easy and for letting me know from an early age that I had a duty to help those around me. And my wife, for not only keeping me from getting fired from my first job out of college but for also giving me the confidence to bet on myself.
● How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
○ Going back to the story about my Dad telling me to be kind to everyone in the elevator, I take no greater joy in my career than helping to develop or otherwise advise young people who are interested in the tech and media industry. Not because I think I know so much, but because I’ve made so many mistakes along the way that maybe sharing my experiences can help. I love seeing people that have been on my teams go on to achieve amazing things personally and professionally (even if that means leaving my team to do it). My hope is that, in a small and selfish way, I’ve helped contribute to their happiness and success.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started my company” and why?
1. Be sure to take time out of your day to learn something new. It’s easy to get tunnel vision and not invest in yourself but taking the time to indulge your intellectual curiosity will make you a better leader. I’m reading a book now called Understanding Comics that a member of my team recommended. It’s brilliant in its approach to visual iconography, art and human understanding.
2. The most unique ideas often receive the most criticism. We saw this early on with The Tylt, but we collectively rose above it and created a product millions of people love.
3. Just because you love something doesn’t mean other people will too. Passion is obviously a prized attribute of most entrepreneurs but being able to step back and critically assess your work based on what your potential customers are telling you is far more valuable in most instances than instinct. We’ve seen this across all of our products.
4. Asking people to change their natural behavior is a losing proposition. The example that comes to mind here is Rent The Runway. Years ago, a big department store had come out and said that they were sick and tired of people buying their clothes only to wear them one time and then return them. This was largely due to people using social media to project certain appearances. The department store said that they were going to implement new return policies to thwart people from doing this. Rent the Runway (brilliantly) said — you know what — this is what people want to do let’s find a way to facilitate it for them and they did. They recognized the natural behaviors of consumers and built a service that would support it versus forcing change.
5. Brand alone is not a business model. Your brand, product and/or service must be defensible and differentiated. For us, this is technology and patents but for other businesses it could be something entirely different. I can’t tell you how many startups I come across that say — “we’re going to be the X for something but cooler, or edgier or younger.” That is simply not a good plan. It’s not defensible, it’s not unique and it’s not going to stand the test of time. You have no competitive insulation.
Thank you for joining us!
About the Author:
Phil Laboon wants to live in a world where actions speak louder than words, people shout their stories from roof tops, and where following one’s passion is the norm. As a serial entrepreneur and investor, his personal and professional life has spotlighted in hundreds of publications such as People Magazine, Rueters, Forbes, Inc, HuffingtonPost, and CBS This Morning. Phil also writes a regular, nationally syndicated column on the subject of how great leaders build great companies. When he’s not building memorable brands or launching exciting startups, you can find him backpacking exotic countries looking for new inspiration and challenges. If you would like to book Phil for an entertaining speaking engagement about inbound marketing or growing a business, he can be contacted HERE.