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Episode 2: The Zen of Innovation with Sue Boehlke

In this episode, Brian is talking with Sue Boehlke, Managing Director at Tab Ventures. Sue has an impressive track record of transformational results and value creation in established corporate environments across the automotive, transportation, and general industrial arenas, including both B2C and B2B online and global multi-unit bricks­-and­-mortar environments.

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Brian (00:00):
Welcome, everybody. This is the first episode of a new series that we’re doing here at CodeScience called Innovation in the Enterprise, really discussing the challenges and opportunities that enterprises face in bringing enterprise innovation, and not just as a one-time activity, not just as a deadlift activity when things get difficult, but how does it become an everyday part of how enterprises operate, how they invest in it, the culture that it takes, how you groom leaders for it, really an exploration with so many different leaders who’ve gone through this to share with a greater audience of their experiences and what they’ve learned through it.

Brian (00:36):
And with that, today we’re starting with someone that I heard from so many people before I met her, that here is someone who is absolutely wicked smart, brilliant, gets things like that and can put something into work, and I had to meet her and I’ve been fortunate enough to work with her a little bit. And, I think it was understated how quickly she gets ideas and how quickly she can craft a plan. So, I’m thrilled to invite today, Sue Boehlke, to talk with us about innovation in the enterprise. Welcome, Sue.

Sue (01:09):
Thanks, Brian. Thanks for that lovely and way over-dramatic introduction!

Brian (01:15):
We’ll see by the end, I think everybody else will see what I’ve already seen in our time working together. I wanted to go a little bit through your career history to give people some of the background, because the variety, all of the different domains and verticals that you’ve worked in, it’s sort of incredible. If I go back to the beginning, I think it was actually Deloitte and Citi working as an engineer or within IT itself starting that. How did that come about? How did you start there?

Sue (01:46):
Well, I was an economics major in college and as part of that, we had to do a little bit of SAS and SPSS. So, when I got out of school in the early 80s, that looked like computer skills because remember, that was before there were degrees or training programs for people to do software. And, I got a job with a bank that had a great training program and actually taught me how to code. So, my first job was coding and systems analyst and engineering and database, and moved up to project management, people management, and kind of moved up the chain that way, but it really was, they were so desperate for people. If you even knew how to spell computer, they’d take you.

Brian (02:29):
Economist? Close enough. Is it a skill you still use today? Is it where if you had to program something could you?

Sue (02:41):

So, it’s funny enough. I think if you asked me like two years ago I would have said no, but I have a son in college who took a class where he had to build websites and he got a little stuck. So, I was looking at the book with him and trying to help him. So, I had to kind of dust off my chops and do a little bit of work there, but I would not say that the family’s counting on that skill for groceries or rent.

Brian (03:10):
So, after you moved from banking and you have such an interesting career, I have all these notes on it. So, I’m looking down to read my notes, but we moved from there into actually working in real estate.

Sue (03:23):
Actually, I worked for a real estate company, but in the investment management group, and I ran IT for that investment management group. So, really we had some things that looked like a money market fund you might know, or REIT, as well as portfolios for big clients, but it was a big data business. So, technology had to be pretty tight with the business because it was all about managing data, trying to forecast, reporting, doing analysis.

Brian (03:51):
And, how large was that organization, with AXA? I believe, right?

Sue (03:59):
Gosh, it was long time ago. I want to say it was about 250 million, so kind of a solid midsize division. We operated independently.

Brian (04:11):
That seems like for that time period, if we’re really focused on automating everything, that sounds almost like early versions of digital transformation going into real estate and management and investment and how you scale it.

Sue (04:25):
It absolutely was, and I think at this point I didn’t realize something I realized a little bit later about my career, but one of the big changes we made being a lot about data and analysis and communicating with the clients, I as the divisional CIO, I really pushed let’s get on the internet, let’s find a way to connect. And, it was early days, it was ’96, ’97, so pretty early days for a B2B company. But of course, as I said to one person, you have a kid in college, they email me. I said, “And what did they do in the email?” They said, “Ask for money.” I said, “So, it’s inevitable.” People will be doing financial business over the internet. It’s not if, it’s when, and how can we secure it.

Brian (05:15):
What was that transformation like? You’re talking about one of the oldest industries in existence, which, that being real estate and here you are in ’95, ’96 proposing, let’s do things on the

internet. At which point I remember being on the internet and it wasn’t anything of value yet. It was struggling to be what it is today. How would a conversation like that go inside of real estate?

Sue (05:42):
Well, also remember we weren’t dealing with consumers, we were dealing with big investors. So, it was a different kind of a connection than you probably experienced. I think it’s the innovator’s dilemma wherever you are, which is, is this a good idea? Do I see an opportunity or a problem? And, generally when the first people who see that see it a little differently than the way everyone else sees it. Some people in ’96 thought faxing a 50 page report was a good idea, and it was a good idea compared to mailing it and waiting for it to show up, FedEx or whatever. So, it’s kind of like where are you at a point? And if you look behind, it always looks like we’ve made enough progress. If you look ahead and see that problem and opportunity, so it’s really, how do you engage other people in seeing it or enough other people to say we’re going to do it. And, I am sort of a crawl, walk, run person. So, I didn’t propose every client got everything over the internet immediately, but really found those opinion leaders, the 10% that really get it, to kind of prove out the concept and defined, hey, they’re actually doing stuff on their personal email. We’re doing this already anyway. We’re really advanced people, but work with those people to do a pilot, to refine it, to test it, and then focus on the 80%. I think earlier in my career I had learned… I worked on some big change efforts for Citi and what I learned from some smart people I have seen my whole career is it’s very easy to stay focused on that 10% who really get it, and they’re great people.

Sue (07:27):
In real estate, you find those 10% of people who get it, who help you flesh it out, prove the concept, make sure it’s going to work, make sure the market’s going to accept it, the market will pay for it. But then, you stop worrying about the 10% because you get in this like iterative loop with that, you get all excited. What you really have to focus on is the 80%, not the 10% who will never get it.

Sue (07:51):
And in some industries, there’s more of those, in some industries there’s less than 10%, but the 80% who will get it, you just have to help them see the way and that is something you do with your partners who get the idea is to get out there, to evangelize, also to listen. I think a key thing as I was thinking about this session is I think it’s very tempting to really with your exec team or your project team get an idea so solid, you guys have thought of everything in your beautiful PowerPoints to explain it, typically in the enterprise. As you know Brian, I’ve been both startup and enterprise. In the enterprise, you must have a beautiful PowerPoint.

Brian (08:34):
Every time I go to work, I’m like, “Oh my God, our decks are ugly.”

Sue (08:39):
Which is probably great.

Brian (08:40):
Great content. We’re spending our money correctly.

Sue (08:45):
But you do that, and it’s a little bit self-gratifying that you do this, what you tend to do is socialize it. It’s a term you hear a lot in the enterprise, socialize it, get people to hear it and understand it, but you really are more selling and listening. So to me, the key thing to get a concept, to make a change, like we talked about, and also to make sure you got it right, that you can actually commercialize it with your customer is a lot more about listening than selling and that 80% of people that I talked about, if you give them a chance to tell you what’s wrong with it, what scares them, all the things they think you don’t know, by letting them ask you about it, you can actually either give them the opportunity to educate you or inform you.

Brian (09:34):
So, what’s interesting is I think that really speaks to this side of connecting with your customer, understanding their needs, where they’re going, and innovating in that solution. And, I’ll focus it on here as we’re way back in time is if we look at that ’95, ’96, ’97 timeframe, how do you as a real estate focused organization in IT now recruit and create a culture for the talent that you need to innovate in that fashion because at this point it is truly cutting edge.

Sue (10:10):
I will tell you that I think the IT part is easier because typically people, they want to do new code, they want to do new ideas, they want to learn new technologies. That’s what drives a lot of people in IT. I actually found that easier to find people who were willing to embrace things, and as I’ve done this in other companies over the years, obviously the chain cycles are much shorter because by 2002 you realize I grabbed onto Java, now here’s the next thing, now there’s this, now there’s that. So, most technologists, I find, are pretty embracing of new things. It’s a little bit harder on the business side because it requires the company and the people to say, what’s my real value proposition? So, my value proposition that I understood how to run it this way versus this is my value proposition that I understand how to deliver-

Sue (11:03):
value to customers or I’m an expert in real estate or an expert in car auctions or any of the other things she can do.

Brian (11:13):
Well, let’s use that as our launch point to your next step in your career, which was out of real estate and into a long string of car-related startups or enterprise movement.

Sue (11:24):
That’s right. Well, in between, I actually started a business that we had a good exit from.

Brian (11:30):
Oh, my gosh. I skipped a major one. My apologies.

Sue (11:32):
I don’t even think that’s on my bio, but then I did end up working for a company in the automotive business but primarily around automotive marketing and selling at a variety of the Cox companies. And I’d say I’ve probably found things generally true. Cox was really great, is a really great company in understanding that the market changes and that sometimes you have to make change, even if it threatens your own business. So, the things we did at Cox were really new business models, not just extensions of what we were currently doing, and those are a bit scarier, I think, for most companies. I really commend the Cox company to see that it needed to be done. If they didn’t do it to themselves, somebody else would do it to them and, and they continue to innovate in that way.

Brian (12:24):
It is the piece for me of not being familiar with a large enterprise brand, Cox as an example, of not realizing how diversified they’ve become over time, because I think of Cox as telecommunications, as cable, as entertainment, all of the plumbing for so many pieces, and yet here, this huge foray into automotive for it.

Sue (12:49):
Yep. And I think really they’ve had forays. They’ve been big in media. They have a long history of this is a way to connect people today, and here’s the new thing. Let me invest in the new thing in case it means the old thing’s over, and I think automotive, how they’ve handled automotive is consistent with that but a little bit of an ancillary business, which makes sense.

Brian (13:15):
And I should ask, are you a big fan of automotive and transportation?

Sue (13:21):
Oh, you’re going to put me on the spot. Well, most people I’ve worked with in automotive know that I’m not really a car person like most of them. What I know about car makes and models is about how it’s hard to manage the data related to it, and the makes and models that are particularly tricky more than how really the engine runs. What instead I do know a lot about is the automotive ecosystem of manufacturing, buying, and selling cars through, gosh, I guess it’s been 20 years now in one company or the other dealing with automotive, which is fascinating. Right?

Sue (13:55):
Because we think of it as a big monolithic industry, but electrification wasn’t a thing. AI wasn’t a thing. Connectivity wasn’t a thing 20 years ago, and the industry has had to reinvent itself. I say the industry. Some companies who were in it 20 years ago are reinventing themselves. Some are not. Right?

Brian (14:13): Right.

Sue (14:14):
But anyway, I think you asked me about Cox, and I’ll say that one was easier because the strategy there was to pull us out to do the innovation. And then when it was successful to, as appropriate, move it back in and start sharing more resources. I will say being pulled out is easier than doing it from within, and I think sometimes the right answer, but not always.

Brian (14:40):
I can’t wait to do it. I don’t want to skip, because you’re currently with Tab Ventures. Is that correct?

Sue (14:46): That’s right.

Brian (14:47):
Excellent. Well, what’s Tab? What are you doing nowadays?

Sue (14:50):
I’m really working with a lot of midsize companies on growth strategies, on M&A, on operational improvements. As we mentioned earlier, I’ve been in a lot of big enterprises. I’ve started two companies and helped other midsized companies grow. I love the midsize partially due to the topic we’re talking about. I think innovation is easier in a midsized company. While you have less resources, you got a lot of other advantages. So, that’s my focus right now.

Brian (15:21):
Indeed. It’s sort of like that growth point of not looking for every dollar where it’s coming from in the startup world, but also not having the bureaucracy of slowing it down in the enterprise world.

Sue (15:31):
Yeah, and also the risk. I mean, I don’t know what you think, Brian. I find that when we talk about innovation, a lot of why it does and doesn’t work is how the culture and the organization thinks about and handles risk. Right? So I think, a difference between midsize and big is midsize lives with risk every day, right?

Brian (15:53): Yep.

Sue (15:54):
Very, very comfortable managing risk. The larger you get, the less that muscle really is required. Right? If you’re a mid-level manager in a very large company, certainly you’re managing risks relative to your job, but the life or death risks that can come from a competitor coming at you or the business model shifting, it’s just not as relevant. You’re farther from the market, typically.

Brian (16:21):

Totally. I had a firsthand experience of that sort of spin out. It was in the early aughts, coming out of the bubble bursting, being in San Francisco, and running product and engineering at a startup that was fully funded by Diageo, Diageo being the largest liquor company in the world. Guinness, Johnny Walker, all the big… Jose Cuervo. That challenge of while we could be independent and we had all of their benefits, like in a startup world, getting the benefits of Diageo for health and everything else, was spectacular.

Brian (16:56):
But also the challenges of everything still having to be approved by legal or procurement or the choice of our hardware forcing us to go on enterprise-grade everything, hey, we’re a startup and let’s go. Linux is new. Let’s start working Linux. And we’re going to put cheaper engines in, and everything’s still having to go to Sun, and watching how many dollars we spent. It was an interesting dynamic of that huge company culture and risk management, as you are identifying, and then trying to be an entrepreneur. In our case, we were outside, but we were still shackled.

Sue (17:33):
Yep. Don’t you think a lot of that has to do with what services and what processes you share? That’s what I’ve seen is that there’s pros, but generally the cost of them is very high if you have to share too many things. I’d be interested in your experience. I think if you’re doing something that’s an extension of the core business probably, in my experience, works best inside. Even if you’re on a little special project team or something, but inside, because it’s so close to what you’re doing, and so many people need to have their hands in it.

Sue (18:11):
I think if it’s in any way could be perceived as threatening or something we don’t know how to do or we don’t understand it, maybe it’s different people at the customer, sometimes it’s easier outside because those shared services are appropriate for a certain… A mature business you’re protecting the core. Right?

Brian (18:30): Indeed.

Sue (18:30):
They’re protection devices as opposed to discovery devices. I mean, no one would have ever gone to a new continent if they weren’t willing to take on some risks.

Brian (18:40):
Well, I only learned after years and years of experience that it had been started as essentially marketing attribution by using supply chain data within the alcohol supply industry of three tiers, et cetera, to give them insights to it. And I didn’t realize until many, many years later that marketing attribution really is a fool’s errand, and every senior leader that got assigned on top of that organization really was their exit from the enterprise.

Brian (19:15):

I kept wondering why so many went through, but we won’t get to that level of frustration as a young professional. So, where I actually wanted to go first was where you had started addressing this idea of, can innovation exist inside the enterprise? What are the conditions for that to occur, or is it better suited being external? Is it better to spin it off and allow it to operate and more of just fund it?

Sue (19:45):
I think that I’m really going to be interested in your answer to that question. I think there’s room for both, and I think you really have to know your organization and know what you’re trying to do. As I said, if you’re doing a process innovation internally or I’ll call it something more incremental, it might be a new product but it’s really in the value proposition of your core business. It’s going to go to the same customers. Many of the same people are going to be involved in delivering it. Then I feel like it ends up being better to be internal.

Sue (20:21):
You just have to think about those things like how shackled it is, what risk the organization’s willing to take, and how you convey that to the people. Right? Because people also feel risk when they go on these ventures. So, I think those I’ve seen work better internally, and they don’t all succeed. Right? We’ve read about even the software implementations that go bad, that sort of thing. But I think we know a lot now about how to position those to succeed.

Sue (20:49):
I think when it’s a different customer, which could sometimes be a different contact at the same account, particularly when you’re dealing with larger accounts. It’s a different customer, a different value proposition. You’ll maybe deliver it differently. Those feel to me like if you can actually afford to do it, maybe you put them in a bubble. I think that’s certainly, as you said, it unshackles them a little bit. You can have some of the people there, people who know your organization. You’re going to have those threads back. Right?

Brian (21:24): Yeah.

Sue (21:25):
This is a policy plan. Maybe we should go talk to somebody. Maybe we shouldn’t. They’re going to keep the lines of communication open because I think it’s hard. It’s hard to really compete somewhere new and actually to figure out what’s there because, again, that sort of ‘protect the core.’ If you’re in the main chip, the ability to think, what really is this? People are always going to be thinking about, could I make more money doing this? Will it take a little away? Will it distract the customer if we buy the big thing because they’re going to buy the little thing? I just think it’s nice myself to isolate it. I wish I could figure out a way not to do it, but…

Brian (22:03):
Well, it really highlights, as you were talking, what brought for me is when we think about our core business and the innovation for that core, we generally go through three different groups:

accelerating growth for core, making core more defensible, or reducing costs. Right? Basically that’s all the areas that we’re at. And so when I think of a lot of digital transformation, so much of it is, “Hey, how do I have a less hands-on check-in environment for my hotel?” Right? And there’s a huge cost associated with them with that. How can I reduce the number of front desk personnel? How can I make it easier for my customer to differentiate for me? And so, many of those digital transformations are in that world, but you’re right; they’re not really expanding the audience, they’re not about inviting a new product or solving a new problem, it is how do we enhance our core product… And it would be hard to say, “I’m going to introduce touchless check-in outside of the company.”

Sue (23:09):
That’s exactly the way I think about it is, you might have to push it, but eventually you’re going to need people to get that. And I’ve done some bricks and mortar to digital back in the day, and ultimately you have to get everybody engaged. You can do the software separately, but the actual process of interacting with the customer, if you don’t have those frontline people engaged and they say, “I’m not going to take your return. That was online return,” or the whole, we’ve all experienced this gamut of issues with omni-channel, it’s in everything, I think you’ve got to do that with people in place.

Sue (23:50):
But the other piece of it is you’ve got to know your people, right? You got to know their risk tolerance. You have to know, I think, how close they are to the customer. I find in most places, people do care about their customer, in most good places, they care about the customer. And if you can kind of come at it from the customer perspective, that really helps people get it. And while I wouldn’t probably pick a hotel based on… Well, maybe in COVID I would, but prior I probably wouldn’t have picked a hotel based on, can I remote check-in. Once I’m used to it as I am now, I kind of like it. I like-

Brian (24:26): Can’t go back.

Sue (24:28):
Right? So it would be hard when you did that initiative to say, “We’re going to actually get business because of this.”

Brian (24:35): Right?

Sue (24:36):
Right. But once it becomes the norm, first of all, it’s table stakes; you have to do it. It’s really what happens. And that it might even be a differentiator because I actually, now that we’re sort of starting to travel, I think we can travel again, I’ve actually looked at my traveling, and I remember I have a strong preference for one major chain for the other, and it’s a lot about the app, which I did not realize until-

Brian (25:01):
It’s 100%. Though, in all honesty, I went the other day to start looking at my apps to see if I could still make reservations, and I forgot how.

Sue (25:09): I know.

Brian (25:10):
I don’t even remember my password for United. This is horrible.

Sue (25:16):
So, while that’s a little threatening to front desk staff, right? Because obviously that reduces the need for staff, I think if they get that, it’s something they have to do for the customer and they’re still valuable in a different way, so you can get people there, I think you can do it internally.

Brian (25:32):
Indeed. So I want to actually focus on hat other side of it, which is when we’re looking for really growth through expansion, solving new problems, bringing new products to market, there’s either a new persona within my existing customer, or an a net new customer here is outside of my ideal of where I’ve actually grown my core business. And there are some companies that intrinsically innovation is just grounded in, right? I do think about a Salesforce, and constantly focused on the customer and what does the customer need next? And whether through acquisition, that’s obviously another way to bring this in, but also through a good amount of just internal innovation, if we look at Work.com saying, “Hey, we’re moving into focusing on the employee, focusing on students, and how do they get back to work? Or how do we manage their health?” Looking at healthcare and vaccination or manufacturing, all things traditionally outside. There are certain organizations where it is built in that innovation needs to be there in order to thrive; it’s what they do day-to-day. And there are others where it feels as if, if they’ve missed a quarter, or if a pandemic hits, something catastrophic when we’re in crisis, the first thing we look back at and say is, “We have to find innovation again.” What is that underlying condition between those two states, as we look at constantly launching new things, connecting with customers in different ways?

Sue (27:00):
Well, I agree with you, there are some very large enterprises who continue to do this very well, so I kind of look at them and say, they seem to be data oriented; they’re operating from the facts and they’re open to data about trends that are starting, that are not there yet. And there are people listening to the customers. So, it is interesting when you said people a little bit, are in innovation because of the pandemic, and I think it’s that scenario where, and not that really, probably many of us expected this, but the boat’s got a lot of water in it after what’s happened. So, they’re driven to say, “What else can I do?” Probably not the greatest time in one way, or the other way, a burning platform is a good rally cry for people, right? We’ve got to do something. Sometimes I find that actually that has helped me get some things in companies because-

Brian (27:59):
In crisis, all the rules go away.

Sue (28:01):
You’ve got to do something, but you want to orient it in the right way. Not like we’re just throwing pails of water, some of them at each other, but we’re actually headed to an island somewhere. I think it’s got to do with a couple of things. I’ve said, “The customer” over and over and I’m sorry, I keep saying it, but I feel like you cannot say, “Focus on the customer” enough. And some of the companies that I’ve seen, some success I’ve had, there’s a product management approach, a process, and I unfortunately can’t remember which one it’s called, but they have a saying, NGHITO: “Nothing good happens in the office.” And I think companies with that culture, and I think if you can bring that in, I mean, that’s how you’re going to understand what’s going on with the customer, right? You look at the hard data, and then you have the context that you get by listening to the customer.

Brian (28:49): That’s right.

Sue (28:51):
But I do think companies want to innovate, but I also think when they’re scared, they got to be really careful, right? Because that’s when you don’t want to invest. And-

Brian (29:01):
Even the companies that I’ve worked with that really are good at staying customer focused, the challenge that I always feel is this tension, this polarity inside of, “Hey, I want to be outside with the customer and listen, but to make anything move inside, takes 600 meetings, that I have to focus inside so much.” Is that just inevitable? Is that just based off of size, and the fact that humans can’t scale communication, how do you move around that? Because you’re right; we should be with our customers constantly, but how-

Sue (29:41):
Yeah, I’ve been part of the bad side of that, of adding meetings and making it happen, and then I’ve also tried to try to correct it. I think it’s a priority question, don’t you? And it’s funny when you talk about the meetings, because one of my sort of favorite things to say is, “We cannot move at the pace of our calendars.” It drives me crazy when you hear, “Well, we can’t resolve that because we can’t all meet for three weeks.” And structure is great. I am a structured person, but there’s times where you have to say… Which is the great thing about a burning platform like we have now; this is life or death. Let’s reprioritize some of the other things. It’s really priorities, don’t you think?

Brian (30:23):
Yeah, 100%. And you’re right about this sort of burning platform. I recall our journey last year through COVID, professional services through a global pandemic, and recession, maybe

depression, it’s very difficult to keep an eye on, where are we going, what’s happening, and having a forecast that you can trust. And what that allowed for me personally, as a leader, was to now change the rules, to inspire people to go a little bit deeper, a little bit, let’s try new things. Let’s experiment. Because it was, “Hey, the boat’s sinking. What did we do? How do we do this?” In our case, thankfully it was never actually sinking, but it was, we can’t get back on the growth path we were, so what now? And so again, crisis allows us to move differently, and inspire people, and actually lead, not just manage.

Sue (31:14):
Yeah, it requires you to do that, right? But, it is interesting that sometimes we need that burning platform. I think part of what we need to do and it’s really the world we live in now, compared to the early part of my career, where change is happening every day. It was the pandemic, and that was in all our face affected us traumatically 360 degrees of our life. Right?

Brian (31:40): Yep.

Sue (31:41):
But I mean, there’s something right now happening for every business that potentially is cataclysmic, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next year, but in the next five years that’s going to really change the game. So how we bring that sense of urgency in, I think to innovate, you have to have a sense of urgency, but you have to balance it with patience. So that’s, to me the Zen of innovation that I strive for, I can’t say I’ve ever perfectly reached, but how do you have the urgency, the, I’m in the market, I’m testing concepts, I’m listening and responding, and I’m iterating, and how do you balance it with the patience to say, “There is timing. It takes time to get it right. It takes time to build the business. It takes time to get traction, certainly takes time to get a return on your investment.” It depends on what you’re doing; that might not be very long, it might be a couple of years, but it’s tough.

Brian (32:38):
And yet, for the entrepreneurs that I’ve seen who can truly operate, who are able to connect or create, one of the things that I’ve watched in awe, at times, is their ability to play those tensions off each other. Meaning, I have to actually move faster to get started, to get moving, to show traction,

Brian (33:03):
because if we don’t, I know they’re going to lose interest in me and I may lose funding, right?

Sue (33:08): Exactly right.

Brian (33:09):
And it is leveraging those tensions to actually create movement and energy and get going. And the other side of, “Hey, this is crawl, walk, run,” to use your own language, right? We do

hundreds of billions of dollars of revenue. I’m not going to move the needle. So what is my leading indicator of success today? And how do you build that patient story with constant leading indicators? Because the ability for us to actually generate a $4 billion business in two years is incredibly rare.

Sue (33:45):
I think even many of the stories we hear where we think that’s happened, you have to really look at when did they start counting those years.

Brian (33:53):
It was 10 years. And then that last year was magnificent.

Sue (33:56):
But I think you’re absolutely right. And I think even for your core business, how do you get a sense of urgency that isn’t driving people crazy, but that’s a positive sense of urgency is really an interesting trick. It’s almost like you need the rest of the world to be patient, but you need your internal team to be urgent. I don’t know. Something I’ve thought about.

Brian (34:19):
And we often lose sight of urgency and healthy environment, urgency and self-care can go hand in hand.

Sue (34:28): Thank you. Right.

Brian (34:29):
They don’t have to be a binary. It’s not a choice between the two.

Sue (34:33):
Urgency doesn’t necessarily mean a death march of hours, right?

Brian (34:37):
I mean that’s how I do it, but sure.

Sue (34:40):
Well thank you. That’s the easy way to do it. But I’ve seen some people not do it and it’s more an attitude and a mindset and how do I tackle this problem and get it done? But urgency, the most important thing, what’s your probability of success? And as you know, when you have to make payroll, that’s a pretty good reality check on probability this is going to work.

Brian (35:06): Yeah.

Sue (35:07):

You don’t have to worry about payroll and benefits when you’re internal. Sometimes, we can get lost in the idea this is a great idea. The market research says it’s going to work, but the actual execution and how do I get it to market? If it’s a SaaS product or data product, how do I actually deploy this with people? How do I sell it? Things that we haven’t had to build in a long time, if ever, in that enterprise. Those things can be gotchas, even if the idea is great. So building a business is as much about the execution as the idea, or the software even sometimes.

Brian (35:47): Even more.

Sue (35:48):
Right? So to me, that’s the end. But you’ve got to get out there fast because that’s how you figure out the probability you’re going to succeed.

Brian (35:56):
Yeah. I mean having founded companies and gone through that state of, “Boy, we have to get to a point where we can take salary. Boy, we have to get to a point where we can hire others. Boy, we have to get to a state where we can hire non-billable.” There are those growth states that you go through. Does it actually pull away from our chance of success when it’s easy to get money? When it’s easy to get those things? I mean do we actually create an environment where startups are actually hungrier and can maneuver faster because of that?

Sue (36:31):
I think it’s the leadership maturity of who’s running it, right? So I mean you were around in the dot-com bust in the early 2000s, right? And people were doing crazy stuff with the money they got, and I’m sure some of that still happens. But I think if you have the maturity to say, “How am I going to make this money last? And what’s the best way to spend it?” And it’s probably not a fancy office, particularly this year.

Brian (36:55): Yeah.

Sue (36:56):
Or other things, having money in the bank for payroll so I never miss payroll, or I can outsource things, or whatever. So I would never say having money is the problem, particularly for an experienced leader or an experienced founder like you are. I feel like people only make those mistakes hopefully once, and then nobody passes on them again. So I like having the money, but I absolutely see your point of it may take some urgency away. I think you can innovate in the enterprise, but I think until you’ve had to worry about making payroll for your people-

Brian (37:42): Yeah.

Sue (37:43):

There’s a certain kind of urgency you’ll never know.

Brian (37:47): There is a-

Sue (37:47):
I don’t know how you feel about that.

Brian (37:48):
There is a speed with which we move. I mean there’s no more pride I have as an entrepreneur and watching all employees buy houses.

Sue (37:56):
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Brian (37:56):
But each time there’s that responsibility that grows too, knowing the decisions we make have real world ramifications for everyone that’s betting on us.

Sue (38:05): Yeah.

Brian (38:06):
There’s a huge responsibility. But I want to come back to urgency because it actually brought me to this place when we were talking about it, of that idea of urgency and not making it a death march, making it healthy, sustainable. Is that a key characteristic then of organizations for which innovation is just ingrained into their culture? Meaning when innovation’s driven by the platforms burning, our boat is sinking, driven by a pandemic, driven by missed quarters, that that can lead to unhealthy urgency versus when it is in every day of yes, we should connect with our customers and yes, we should solve new problems, that that becomes more of a healthier environment, more sustaining for innovation, which again comes back to that magical word, “Culture.”

Sue (38:53):
Yeah, it does. That’s a great question. I haven’t really looked at, are you more innovative if people are rested? I think on the creativity and listening and identifying a potential opportunity in the market, probably people do need some energy, however they get that. Everyone’s different. And I think a piece of this, and we’re a little bit talking about work-life balance, right?

Brian (39:21): Yeah.

Sue (39:21):

A piece of this is very individual in terms of what you need and what you want. And mostly, I think feeling empowered. I’ve found when people feel empowered to not work crazy hours, sometimes they still do it, but they feel good about it instead of bad. So I don’t know. That’s an interesting question of, are you more creative if you’re not burnt out? In the execution phase, I think that’s a tough one. I have seen one person do it, actually in a couple businesses. I’m actually invested in, have been an investor with him, that he manages to pull that off and not have it be totally crazy. I’ve not seen it inside or outside myself. So maybe that’s my weakness that when we get to execution, people don’t get a little bit crazy.

Brian (40:08):
Right. It is hard in that execution, especially when things are moving rapidly and you actually start finding success, because we can really invest ahead of success in all of those cases, right?

Sue (40:22):
Yeah. Probably a bit easier inside where you have capital, right? You’re being funded then outside.

Brian (40:28): Yeah.

Sue (40:29):
But even still inside, I think everybody who’s an internal innovator knows that they’re the next steering committee away from not getting funded.

Brian (40:37): Again, the pressure.

Sue (40:43):
So yeah. So I’d be interested. It’d be great if you’ve got comments from people. I think many people would be interested in how do you pull that off? The best I’ve done is to make it very okay for people to make their own choices. And I think that’s healthier. As you said, it’s a cultural thing of valuing people and empowering them.

Brian (41:05):
Yeah. Yeah. I think if you were to draw a map in there and where people sit, those that can inspire a culture that actually enables the teams to actually accomplish, whether it be innovation or process or growth, that the culture is such a key portion of that and actually defines the organization over the long-term for it.

Sue (41:29): Yeah.

Brian (41:29):

So with that, I want to thank you. I know that you carved out a specific amount of time for us today. And so Sue, I want to thank you for your insights here and being open about some of the challenges you faced or what you’ve seen in the market.

Sue (41:43):
Okay. Great. Thanks, Brian.

Brian (41:46):
All right. Thank you everybody very much. And I’m really thrilled to kick off this series of content. And we’ll be publishing more of these I believe on a schedule about one a month going forward. So thank you, Sue.

Sue (41:57): Thanks.

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