By most people’s standards, I’m a professional success. In 2002, with one partner, I founded WaveMarket, eventually renamed Location Labs. Last fall, the online security company AVG acquired us, for $220 million. The days following the announcement were a blur. I barely slept. Congratulatory emails from people I hadn’t connected with in years flooded my inbox. Twitter and LinkedIn buzzed with shout-outs. I got ecstatic calls from my parents, Greek immigrants and business owners who know what it is to build something from the ground up. And of course, our investors were pretty happy.
These days, as our two teams gradually integrate, I’m thinking more about what this experience has meant for me, as an entrepreneur and a person. Everyone calls acquisition an “exit.” An exit into what? Is this the “end”? What will life be like now? What do I want it to be? And what have I learned about what it took to get here?
You Can’t Go It Alone
There is no way this deal and our day-to-day functioning would be anywhere near as positive and seamless as they’ve been without Joel Grossman, our COO. This guy handles an astonishing number of situations in parallel, executing down to every last detail. When you’re integrating two companies, lots of requests come in from the parent organization, a whole layer of work on top of what you’re already doing. It’s all good, and we’ve worked hard to create a true partnership with AVG. We adopt practices from each other that make sense and make us better together, without forcing changes in either direction.
Is this the “end”? What will life be like now? What do I want it to be?
But you actually have to get together first. The nitty-gritty of making that happen is more work than I ever could have imagined, and it all has to get done, by someone. That someone is Joel. Because he’s so good at what he does, I can let go of details and do what I do best, as someone who has an entrepreneurial mindset: “Focus on the single most important thing today.” l like to attack a small set of broader issues and work deeply on them. But this approach would bomb if my job were to marry two entities and have the result — not to mention the process — be great. People need to be introduced. Meetings need to be set. Communications systems need to intertwine. Regulations have to be met. Protocols have to be examined. Without someone who quickly dissects broad changes into individual tasks — then gets those tasks done — you’ll fail. I trust Joel. Which means I can do my job that much better. Which means this will work, long after the ticker tape parade is swept up.
Without someone who quickly dissects broad changes into individual tasks — then gets those tasks done — you’ll fail.
What’s My Role Now?
Speaking of my job, what is it, now? It’s not like I’m sitting in my office, twiddling my thumbs. There’s plenty to do, and I’m actually busier than ever. But the contributions I need to make now require a shift. First, the weight of being a VC-backed company and worrying about being disrupted any day by a bigger guy has been lifted. The company’s value has been captured and distributed. Meaning, ironically, I’m now free to worry about increasing shareholder value, which demands that I view my work through a different lens.
Today that means ensuring the practical pieces that will let us all internalize and contribute to our collective goals fall into place. See: Joel Grossman. Meanwhile, we need to continue the Location Labs product work we were already doing. So my workload has actually increased. Because in addition to running the business every day, it turns out my most important role right now is to usher our team through this transition, person by person. I’ve been meeting with every Location Labs employee, in small groups, to make sure each individual here has a chance to ask me questions, share things they’re worried or happy about, anything. And I’m an emotional guy. I get fired up about stuff, I’m intense. Listening takes a lot of energy, and connecting and engaging with the people here, whose well-being I care very much about, is a lot of work. It’s great work, but I don’t think I could have predicted both how exhilarating and draining it would be. Because ultimately, this partnership will only succeed if we retain and continue to hire the people who can make it happen. And one of my biggest jobs right now is to make sure those people have what they need, starting with feeling heard.
My most important role right now is to usher our team through this transition, person by person.
So This Is What It’s Like to Have a Boss
For the first time in more than a dozen years, I now report to someone. My team has gotten a big kick out of this, obviously. Granted, I’ve always been accountable to our board, but this is different. And I honestly haven’t worried about this particular transition at all, even though it made a good punchline during the announcement to the company, because I now report to Todd Simpson, AVG’s Chief Strategy Officer. I have a great deal of respect for Todd, and he’s a perfect complement to me. He’s even-keeled. I’ve already mentioned my emotional intensity. But Todd’s entrepreneurial by nature, and he wants people who are disruptive, even a little volatile. Lucky for me.
Both our teams recognized, as we worked through the deal, that our corporate partnership would only work if the one-on-one relationships that needed to happen were not just good, but would also force us all to grow. I’m realizing that having my “place” shaken up a bit is a chance for me to develop new ways to bring value to the people I work with and for. And, frankly, it’s a little humbling. Which often isn’t a bad thing.
The Marriage of True Minds
Cultural integration is as much an art as it is a science, and if this aspect of an acquisition doesn’t work, nothing else will. Ideally, when two companies come together, they share visceral values, and even the ones that aren’t identical are closely related. We grab some of theirs, they grab some of ours, but the foundation is mutual and solid. Having a new set of values and practices thrust upon us — or thrusting them on someone else — would be a disaster.
Having my “place” shaken up a bit is a chance for me to develop new ways to bring value to the people I work with and for. And, frankly, it’s a little humbling. Which often isn’t a bad thing.
Our most powerful value at Location Labs always has been that initiative drives meritocracy. We hire people who have no expectation that success will be handed to them. The kind of people who thrive here wouldn’t even want unearned success. They’re the kind who dive into the deep end and figure things out. And who inspire their colleagues to do the same. We win as a team here, as a phalanx. Personal credit is sometimes given, but never expected. There are a lot of brilliant, unassuming people walking around this office. And if this core attitude were to be disrupted, we’d have a big problem.
Because our union with AVG was so right, I don’t worry about losing this. In fact, one of the best meetings I’ve had since the acquisition was with AVG’s Chief People Officer, Steven Scheers. We walked through the Location Labs culture and values, and he immediately began incorporating a lot of our approach into how AVG operates. I have to say, it’s pretty rewarding to see the heart of something you’ve helped build be admired and absorbed by a whole new group of people. They get it. They get why it works.
There are a lot of brilliant, unassuming people walking around this office. And if this core attitude were to be disrupted, we’d have a big problem.
And one of the things we’re eagerly learning from AVG is transparency and efficiency of communication. When your whole team fits into one room, as ours did in the early days, keeping everyone informed is easy. When you’re a 200-person team, like Location Labs now is, that can break down. It’s one of our biggest challenges. Because we’ve grown fast, we just didn’t have the resources to build the infrastructure you need to let people know what’s going on, simultaneously and quickly. We’re learning as fast as we can from AVG how to do that in smart ways, to make people who may not even work in the same country still feel genuinely connected to each other and to the company.
A New World
AVG is a multinational, multicultural company. We are, too, in that a significant number of our employees are either immigrants or children of immigrants. But the Location Labs team is based in the US, and having become part of a company headquartered in Amsterdam, with offices in London, Brno, Tel Aviv, Ottawa, Pensacola, San Francisco, opens up an amazing number of doors for me and the team, pretty much overnight.
I’m lucky enough to have been brought up in a Greek household, where I spoke Greek; in Canada, where I learned English; and in Montreal, the second-largest French-speaking city in the world, so I know French, as well. And I’m fortunate enough to have been able to travel to Europe, the Far East, South Asia, and to meet people from all walks of life. But to now have more opportunities to do work in a greater variety of places, with a greater variety of people (not to mention to use my languages more!), is incredibly exciting. The Silicon Valley tech community is fantastic, but I don’t think anyone would disagree that it can be monocultural — largely male and white, almost singularly focused on fulfilling the hunger for “the next big tech thing.” Stepping outside this familiar setting is something I really look forward to.
Most surprising is how I’ve felt in those inevitable “Now what?” moments that follow any big milestone. For so long I focused on the massive accomplishment that we’ve now attained. But if I stop and think about it, was anticipation of “the prize” really what made me happy all those years? No. I’m happy coming to work every day. I’m happy building a team and great products. I’m happy knowing and encouraging the people I work with. I’m happy learning from them. I’m happy doing what I’ve been doing. And I don’t want that to change, that desire to do the work, to be in it, with these people, some of the best people I’ve ever known.
For so long I focused on the massive accomplishment that we’ve now attained. But if I stop and think about it, was anticipation of “the prize” really what made me happy all those years?
I never thought I’d say this, but now that I’ve “done what I was supposed to do,” I realize I was doing what made me happy all along. If you gave me a billion dollars today and said I could never come to the office again, I’d turn it down. It’s not about the outcome, the payout. It’s about getting there. I’ve been tremendously inspired by Tony Hsieh’s book, Delivering Happiness, where he talks about telling Jeff Bezos of Amazon, after they bought Zappos, that he didn’t want to give up doing the work he loved. Jeff wisely agreed. I’m lucky to find myself in a similar situation.
So now that I’ve “made it,” I’ve started to take more interest in what’s going on outside me, my company, my world. I have a real hunger to put energy into things bigger than I am, to contribute. I’m much more excited about becoming involved in other people’s entrepreneurial endeavors and helping them achieve success than I am in buying a Lamborghini. And honestly, this evolution is perhaps the best aspect of my “success story.”