Be The Wolfe
Insights from a front row seat watching Mike Farley build the team at Tile
“To be a great jazz saxophone player, you do a lot of great imitation and then you can kind of alter it yourself.” That’s Mike Farley, CEO of Tile, talking not just about his years playing a mean tenor sax, but about one of his secrets of running a great startup.
You may have heard of Farley’s company, Tile, that makes the popular smart location technology that helps millions of people find their keys, wallets, backpacks, passports, bikes, cars and other important personal items every day.
Not nearly as well known is how in just three years Farley has turned a $2.7 million crowd funding campaign into a company on track to hit $90 million in revenue this year, selling over 6 million Tiles with customers in over 200 countries and territories. And all accomplished with a team that has grown to just 90 employees.
As an early investor and board member with Tile, I’ve had a front row seat to seeing this pretty unique story unfold. And while the growth has been phenomenal, it’s that last data point I want to zero in on — the team. The team and culture at Tile is one of the most successful I’ve seen in my 20 years in Silicon Valley — all the more surprising since Mike had never started a company before, and as he explains, “I think I’d hired five people in my career before I started Tile. So it didn’t come from experience.”
So how exactly has he been able to execute so successful, so quickly? I asked Mike if he would be willing to share some of his insights for this post. He was reluctant at first, but after promising it would be focused on sharing lessons learned with other entrepreneurs, we had a great conversation. Here are some of the highlights.
Get Lean Early
When we first invested in Tile in 2014, Tile had about 10 employees. The company had raised $11 million from its Selfstarter campaign and was scrambling to deliver the product promised to customers. “It was brutal,” Mike says. “We had to scrape and claw every day to figure out how to build this product and make it consumer-grade so someone with no technology experience could use it. We made a lot of mistakes, but I think that scrappy first year really set the tone for how we operate today.”
It shows. There are very few, if any, $100 million businesses in Silicon Valley operating at a run rate of over $1 million in sales per employee. “We had to figure sh*t out and work together,” Mike says, “and that created a tight-knit team culture that carries forward to where we are today.”
Create the Culture You Want
Few startups make culture a big priority in the early stages, but for Mike it was important. “Most of us have never worked at a company that had a real culture, beyond something that was written on the wall.” So he brought in a consultant early on to help the team hammer out a set of values they could use to drive decision-making and set a clear tone for new hires. “When someone new starts at Tile, they should immediately see that we live, eat and breathe the cultural values we’ve laid out.”
The first value was a bold one that any company should consider adopting. Remember tuxedo-clad Harvey Keitel as Mr. Wolfe in Pulp Fiction? Of course you do. He was the grim-faced fixer, the guy you call when you need something done ASAP, no questions asked — a model of efficiency under pressure.
Inspired by Keitel’s handiwork in the movie, and in critical need of efficiency under pressure, the team came up with a core value for execution — “Be the Wolfe.” Own it, get it done. “Execution is hard,” Mike explains, “especially when you have a small company and so many things can slip through the cracks. We were gearing up to launch our first product, and we started recognizing people for being ‘the Wolfe’ — people that owned a project or owned a task. We wanted to encourage everyone to be ‘the Wolfe’ not just in their manager’s eyes, but also in the eyes of their peers.”
Building a “thank you” culture was another value Mike set down — in part because it was something he’d never had in previous jobs. “At the previous company I worked at,” he says, “you didn’t thank an employee for something because the thinking was — it’s their job to do it. If you thank them, they’ll take the foot off the pedal and start slacking off.”
The team wound up with a set of five values they all agreed on — and it’s proven critical to everything the company does. “It sounds trivial, but it’s not,” Mike says. “We’ve had people join from Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft and other companies and tell me this is one of the best places they’ve ever worked. I’m pretty proud of that, and I want it to continue for the next 5–10 years and beyond.”
Prioritize Hard Decisions to Move Fast
One of the hardest things for young entrepreneurs to learn is how to effectively and quickly make decisions. Every day we see case studies of companies that take weeks or months to make key decisions — costing time and money and often driving employees nuts. It’s an especially challenging process when it comes to hiring. One of the costliest mistakes startup CEOs make is waiting too long to initiate a search — and dramatically underestimating the time and effort it will take.
A sense of urgency pushed Mike to take a different approach. After a successful 2014 (during which the company launched its product, finished with over $14 million in sales, and was profitable), Mike plotted out two big goals for 2015. First was to add three executives (a CFO, a sales VP, and an engineering VP). Second was to break into retail — the company had sold its product almost entirely via direct ecommerce until then. “I was buried,” he says. “We finished 2014 with super growth and profitable, but we were undermanned. I needed help.”
In just a few weeks, Mike hired three executive search firms, let his team know about the plan for the new hires, and asked me to run the CFO search. Then, when one of the search firms was slow to send good candidates, Mike switched to plan B. He asked me to call the CEO of the firm, and we replaced the recruiter with a senior person that cost us $10,000 more, but within 60 days we had our hire. Mike says, “I couldn’t wait for the vendor to figure it out — we had to move.”
Hire Now — Don’t Wait
One of the biggest challenges of running a startup is trying to hire top talent, especially in the Bay Area where you’re likely competing with Google, Facebook or the next Uber. “I always laugh when I hear a CEO say ‘we take our time to hire great people,’” Mike says. “Maybe our situation was unique, but we didn’t have time to wait. We needed to hire the best people we could for the moment in time. And when you’re a small startup no one has heard of, it’s pretty damn tough. Thankfully, some great people took a chance on Tile.”
Mike also learned early on that new talent can make immediate impact. “We’ve had people join who literally made a 10X impact on their functional area. So we tell our execs and managers to hire now — don’t wait.”
It’s pretty difficult to capture the essence of terrific execution around organization and people in a blog post, but as the saying goes, “When you see it, you know it.” Mike and the team at Tile are building something special — I feel it every time I walk in the building. Hopefully this post contains a few tips you can put to work in your own company.