Bill Balderaz of Futurety: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO
You are not your own boss. You have more bosses than you ever did before. Your team is your boss. Your clients are your boss. The tax collector is your boss. Your role is balancing all those stakeholders.
As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Bill Balderaz.
Bill Balderaz is the president and founder of Futurety, a data analytics and marketing consulting firm. Bill is a serial entrepreneur, having founded several multi-million dollar businesses. He is also an angel investor and advisor to nearly two dozen startups.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I’m from a small town in Ohio. I attended college at Bowling Green State University (Go Falcons!) and moved to Columbus during the dot com boom and subsequent bust of the mid to late 90s. I worked for four venture-backed start-ups that all had some kind of equity event.
In 2006 I started my first business. We doubled every year for five years, were debt free, and had a nice exit. Since then, I’ve been starting, building, and investing in businesses.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I suspect this is the most unoriginal response ever, but COVID and the subsequent fallout. 2020 was poised to be our year. We had the right team, we had a solid client base, we had a verbal agreement on one of our biggest clients ever. Then it all fell apart. Cash flow came to a halt. Mass confusion reigned. Clients and team members panicked. Vaccines and masks became landmine topics. Political unrest followed. Then the work-from-home battles. Followed by the Great Resignation and now mass layoffs. It’s been crazy.
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?
We launched a co-working space to take advantage of open space in our building. It was a comedy of errors all the way around. We called it The Common Wealth and I kept sending the logo design back to the designer with more input. He finally put together a design I loved. When I showed it to my team they informed me that I had just designed the Hamilton logo. I knew it looked familiar for a reason!
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?
I’ve had three great career mentors. I’ll choose Pam to talk about now. Pam Springer was my boss at the last place I worked as an employee. When I told her I wanted to start my own business, she said she would be my first client. Pam helped me grow and ultimately sell that business. She’s an amazing CEO and has built great companies. I’m so lucky to have her in my life.
Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader?
We are a self-funded startup so we need to make smart financial decisions. During COVID, our clients continued to sign agreements with us but most were large companies that could not process payments from home, so cash flow just stopped.
At the same time, real estate prices dropped. Clients, especially in healthcare and public health, needed a lot of data work. Talented people were getting laid off.
We had to decide if we were going to hunker down, conserve cash and ride it out. Or if we were going to spend aggressively and have faith that things would be better on the other side.
We ended up buying real estate at a steal. We won a lot of clients in healthcare and made big hires. 2020 ended up being a great year financially for us.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
You are not your own boss.
There is a perception that a CEO is “their own boss.” This is just not true. As a CEO you have more bosses than you will ever have as an employee. Your clients are your boss. Your investors are your boss. Your landlord is your boss. The local newspaper is your boss. Most surprisingly, your employees are your boss. Ultimately there is no company without a team and in a competitive labor market CEOs are accountable to team members more so than the other way around.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
As CEO, especially once you hit $1 million or more in revenue, you are spending less time doing the work and more time working on your business. Our core business is data analytics and digital communications and I couldn’t do the work of our most entry-level person. My time is spent on hiring, training, finances, long-term strategy, sales and marketing. When people hear I am CEO of an analytics agency, they expect me to have a deep knowledge of math and statistics. I’m a failed journalist who took stats pass/fail in college.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
No. That’s not a crack on anyone. The Executive is not inherently more important than a great strategist, ops person, or admin. We need to stop holding up the idea that becoming an Executive is everyone’s ultimate goal.
Executives need to have deep empathy. You are leading people, not a company. Executives need to be tough. If you get upset over client feedback or stressed out because you need to get to work a little early, you’re not cut out to be an Executive. The demands and stress are high and not worth it to most people. Finally, you have to be willing to work really hard. I have my hobbies and appreciate a work-life balance, but as an Executive, the buck stops with you when there is work to be done. If you’re a clock watcher, you’re not an Executive.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Hire slowly and fire fast. Hire for culture. If you hire someone who is angry, negative, and difficult, you’ve just invited that into your culture. Don’t assume you can change them. Don’t assume it’s because their last employer treated them badly.
Howard Schultz, the turnaround CEO for Starbucks was famously asked why employees at Starbucks are happy. He replied that he hired happy people.
At the same time, when someone does bring poison into the workplace, get them out. No one ever says they fired someone too soon.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I am active in several nonprofits, including Chapel Hill House, a pediatric cancer retreat celebrating 20 years of service to families who need us. In our real estate business, we focus on professional, affordable, inclusive space. Nearly all of our tenants are MBEs or WBEs. We also have built a workplace environment that is open, supportive, and close. Our team members are friends who spend time together outside of work.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1 . You are not your own boss. You have more bosses than you ever did before. Your team is your boss. Your clients are your boss. The tax collector is your boss. Your role is balancing all those stakeholders.
2 . It’s more important to be good at running a business than it is to be a subject matter expert. I know two great entrepreneurs who ran a successful business in arts college admissions. Neither are artists and neither knew anything about college admissions, but they both are very good at running businesses. I’ve known great writers who could not get their writing business off the ground. A CEO is good at running a business, whether that business sells real estate or lawn chairs, or sunglasses.
3 . You don’t need to have all the answers first. When I started Futurety, I didn’t know what the company was. I met with a lot of past clients and asked them what they would write me a check to solve. Most answered “data analytics”. It’s a topic I knew nothing about, but I decided that we would be a data analytics company and I started recruiting talent.
4 . Being too early is as bad as being too late. In 2005 I tried to launch an online textbook company. I was certain the market would move away from paper books. I could cut production and distribution costs for publishers and retail costs for students.
But this was 2005. The market wasn’t ready. College kids didn’t have tablets, no one really did. Publishers didn’t know how to format content for electronic delivery. Payment systems weren’t set up for digital content.
Today, digital content is the norm, but I made a big mistake on timing when I launched this business.
5 . The market is always right. You can spend hours on refining a product and talking to the experts. However, no matter how well you plan, you’ll be wrong most of the time. Or you can get a version of your product in the market and see if customers buy. If they don’t, you modify and try again. You keep going until you find a product the market loves with margins that work for your company.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I want to inspire a culture of giving among all people. I think there is a dangerous trend with a lot of us thinking our time and money is too scarce to help others, but that billionaires or the government need to be our saviors.
Most of us will never be in a situation where we save someone from a burning building. But, every day we can let someone merge into traffic ahead of us, donate to a local food bank, volunteer at a dog shelter or give up our seat on the plane for that mom who wants to be next to her kids.
Whether it’s time or money, We make excuses to not help because we compare ourselves to Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. We think of ourselves as not having enough and needing to hoard every dollar, every minute, our plane seat and our spot in traffic. I challenge people to think of all we do have and share and give more.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Everyone’s life needed an organizing principle, and relentless forward motion was Reacher’s.” That is a quote from author Lee Child in his bestselling Jack Reacher novels.
As a business owner, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. You’ll lose a client. You will make a bad hire. You’ll bomb an investor presentation.
Figure out what went wrong, fix it, and don’t think about it ever again. Don’t look back, you’re not going that way.
In one of my other heroes, Homer Simpson: “You can’t keep blaming yourself. Just blame yourself once, and move on.”
Keep moving forward.
We are very blessed that some very prominent 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
Dolly Parton is my hero. She is a great entrepreneur and entertainer. She outworked everyone around her to get where she is. She is true to her roots. Most of all she gives and gives and gives to make the world a better place.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
About the Interviewer: Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA was born nearly blind, crippled with club feet, partially deaf, and left-handed. He overcame all of these obstacles to become a successful civil trial lawyer. In 2000, he abandoned his law practice to become a peacemaker. His calling is to serve humanity, and he executes his calling at many levels. He is an award-winning author, teacher, and trainer. He is a highly experienced mediator. Doug’s work carries him from international work to helping people resolve deep interpersonal and ideological conflicts. Doug teaches his innovative de-escalation skill that calms any angry person in 90 seconds or less. With Laurel Kaufer, Doug founded Prison of Peace in 2009. The Prison of Peace project trains life and long terms incarcerated people to be powerful peacemakers and mediators. He has been deeply moved by inmates who have learned and applied deep, empathic listening skills, leadership skills, and problem-solving skills to reduce violence in their prison communities. Their dedication to learning, improving, and serving their communities motivates him to expand the principles of Prison of Peace so that every human wanting to learn the skills of peace may do so. Doug’s awards include California Lawyer Magazine Lawyer of the Year, Best Lawyers in America Lawyer of the Year, Purpose Prize Fellow, International Academy of Mediators Syd Leezak Award of Excellence, National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals Neutral of the Year. His four books have won a number of awards and commendations. Doug’s podcast, Listen With Leaders, is now accepting guests. Click on this link to learn more and apply.