Doug Edwards of Smarty On Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup
An Interview With Doug Noll
Have values and a purpose — Make your values real, and in line with the character of your leadership. Have your values and purpose very, very clearly outlined. And don’t forget to include some fun in those values, don’t take yourself too seriously.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles. Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup? In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experiences about what it takes to create a highly successful startup. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Doug Edwards of Smarty.
Doug Edwards is the President & COO of Smarty, driving strategy and change. He offers a wealth of knowledge as he comes from a background of helping businesses grow. Prior to joining Smarty, Doug was the President and General Manager of TestOut Corporation where he helped develop organizational structure, hired and mentored new executives, and grew TestOut by more than 25x in revenue. Edwards’ insights into how companies can grow and improve while maintaining their unique cultures has helped Smarty become the company that it is today.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in a military family and lived around the world, but spent my later teenage years in El Paso, TX. After living in Hong Kong, and later studying in China, I completed a bachelor degree in Chinese languages from BYU in 1989. With a goal to work in international business, I completed a Masters degree in business administration from Utah State University, emphasizing international business and technology management.
Upon graduation, I joined WordPerfect, where I performed a more technical role. A year later I was recruited by a small company with about 3–4 employees — United Education Centers, a company performing cooperative marketing campaigns for computer training centers around the world. This company later became TestOut, and I spent 23 years with them as a general manager and President. As the “right-hand man” to the CEO and founder, we grew the business from 4 employees to well over 100. It was at TestOut that I learned to build organizational structure and strategy while understanding the importance of culture in all that you do.
From here, I took some time in investments before finally joining Smarty in 2019 where I came on as Director of Business Operations, and the current President & COO.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to you joining your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Once my time with TestOut came to an end, I began to do some investing. However, I wasn’t really enjoying this experience, which wore on me over time; and I knew I had to pursue a different path.
Originally, I only knew Smarty’s CEO & Founder, Jonathan Oliver, as my neighbor. He was working on building Smarty at the time, but the business wasn’t growing as he intended. He was speaking with a mutual friend of ours about the challenges he was facing, and this mutual friend noted to Jonathan that he and I should connect. Jonathan then invited me to lunch which began a 2-month-long conversation about Smarty, and led to the eventual moment where we decided I should join the team — being brought in to grow the business and impact change.
The “aha moment” for me was when I observed just how many address validations Smarty was performing day in and day out. I started to see opportunity after opportunity in the business and realized that my skill set and personality could make a positive impact on the organization. As time went on, my role at Smarty became my dream job. It’s the best place I’ve worked at, and I greatly look forward to coming into the office each and every day — making a good technology solution even better.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
My father. He was a colonel in the military and spent time as a hospital administrator. In a sense, he just always did what was needed. He even played racquetball up until COVID hit. So, at 88 years old, he was still very active, playing racquetball and hitting kill shots from the back corner. He was truly an anomaly of a person. But, what inspired me the most was seeing him as this leader at the hospital. I enjoyed being able to observe his decision-making ability and the way he worked with people. He always had a great demeanor at work and that was something I always wanted to follow and strive to replicate in my own career.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Smarty is a technology solution that is extremely useful and needed; if you have a solution that’s needed across various industries, you’re on the right track. In fact, we recently announced an upgrade to our US Address Verification — Enhanced Matching product by adding 5 million addresses to our list of U.S. non-postal addresses, increasing total non-USPS addresses from 15 million to 20 million. With the additional addresses, our total list of U.S. valid addresses reaches over 210 million, which is the most complete, commercially-available U.S. address dataset in the nation.
In addition to this, one aspect of the business that stands out about Smarty is the ease with which the product can be integrated into organizations, which has enabled the company to grow organically.
Further, Smarty also stands out through the principles on which the company was founded. These are based on the book, Leadership and Self Deception by the Arbinger Institute. You really don’t find many organizations that are based on such core principles that everybody can relate to, and this gave us a common language to interact with one another and our customers.
The final trait that sets us apart is that we don’t take ourselves too seriously in the office, but we are serious about the quality of our work. Everyone at Smarty aims to find the fun in what they do, and truly enjoys coming to work every day.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve had the opportunity to live in good places, interact with good people all over the world, and build good relationships. I’ve been lucky with how my life has worked out and fortunate to have the ability to live in a great community. This has given me the opportunity to do things, even outside of my work where I can serve in my community, like in my church, including working with our youth group. I believe once you’ve achieved a certain level of success in life, you are granted the unique opportunity to help those around you, and everyone should take advantage of that opportunity.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Seeing the bigger picture — I am able to visualize what a small business can turn into through growth opportunities, and I understand how to build towards that goal. This is a process that never stops, and once we hit one goal, I’m already thinking about how we will achieve our next goal, and the steps we’ll take to get there.
- Judging character & forming trusted relationships — While I wouldn’t say I’m perfect at this — nobody is — I have a knack for creating a dialogue between people in a 1-on-1 setting. For instance, I can sit next to you on an airplane, and after only a few minutes, we will likely be having an extremely in-depth conversation. One time, I was in London with my wife, she ran to the bathroom, and I saw this man sitting at the table next to me. Within 2 minutes or so, we were having a very intimate conversation about the challenges in his life.
- Liking your work — It’s a curse and a blessing. I take ownership of my responsibilities and have enough confidence, or anxiety (whatever you’d like to call it), to do my best and give it my all in everything I do, especially when it comes to my work.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
I thought about how to respond to this question quite a bit, but in doing so, realized that the bad advice I was given and followed, helped shape me into the business leader and person I am today. If I didn’t follow the poor advice I’d been given, I wouldn’t have learned all the lessons I did. For me, bad advice has always provided me with a teachable or learnable moment, and honestly, I’m better for it.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
I was hired at United Education Centers (TestOut) because of my Chinese language and technology background. Those things combined gave me an opportunity to grow our marketing campaigns in the Asia / Pacific area. The first place I looked at was Australia and within a few months of being hired, I’d made enough contacts down there that we decided to take a trip and close some cooperative advertising deals. Remember: This was 1993; it wasn’t easy to make international phone calls, and technologies like Zoom did not exist.
The owner and I took the trip together, and we had a few days of great meetings. But, all of a sudden, a large and influential company took note of our trip — and put simply, they were not a fan of what we were doing, in what they believed to be their territory. The day before I left Australia, they made a call to all their distributors and let them know there was an upcoming conference in which they were going to roll out cooperative marketing campaigns.
The evening before we left the country, I called all the individuals that I had met with to confirm their subscriptions to our service. However, because of the call from the other large company, all but one company pulled out. That flight home was the longest of my life. I was hired for this one thing, and it all went wrong. At that moment, we realized that this other company could, with one phone call, take our entire business from us… anywhere we wanted to do business.
Through this experience, we saw our vulnerability. It led us to think differently about the business and ultimately, even changed our entire business model.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
When things get hard, I tend to always believe there is a solution and light and the end of the tunnel. A switch is flipped in my mind when stress and anxiety reach a certain level, and I just go into overdrive. It helps that I’m not afraid to ask questions or be vulnerable in these moments.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being closely connected to a founder?
You need to get to a point where you don’t feel like a victim at all. You can’t feel like you’re being acted upon. Instead, you need to feel that you’re empowered and in charge of your own destiny. Even if you’re working with a difficult partner or somebody that is throwing a lot at you, you still have a choice — you can choose if you want to work with them or not and you can choose how you respond or react in the situation. Just know that you’re more empowered than you may feel at any given moment. Even when the world sometimes seems like it’s crashing down on you, you still have choices and often, a path forward.
You also need to get to a point where you can forgive quickly, and not take things so personally. If somebody comes at you and berates you in the workplace, stop for a second, bring in a bit of humility, and ask yourself how you can be humble enough to listen to challenging feedback or experiences.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks for your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
Truthfully, the most successful experiences I’ve had in the startup space have been with bootstrapped companies. In fact, Smarty is a completely debt-free startup; we are not funded by anyone other than ourselves. If you have any chance of creating a product where you can prove the concept and get it out into the world on your own without anybody else’s money, that’s always the best way; you’ll always put yourself in a better position for negotiation in future funding discussions if needed. But, as a founder, you need to ask yourselves a few questions to really determine the correct answer here: do you need to hit the market fast? And strong? Are you going to get competitors tomorrow?
And if so, well, then maybe you do need a lot of capital now to beat somebody to the market. But with that, know that at some point in time, you’ll lose control. You’re going to be Pinnocio, and somebody is going to be pulling the strings. However, in the end, I would always suggest that if you can bootstrap it, do it — this ultimately drives you to create something of value that somebody else will want and that will drive revenue.
Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- Have values and a purpose — Make your values real, and in line with the character of your leadership. Have your values and purpose very, very clearly outlined. And don’t forget to include some fun in those values, don’t take yourself too seriously.
- Build an enduring organization — Many founders think they’re going to create a product that will sell in a few years, but it rarely happens like this. In your mind, you should think of the long game. Make business decisions that will create an enduring and long-term valuable organization.
- Understand there is no crystal ball — As much as we want it to, it just doesn’t exist. So, research, study, and put the effort in. And, once you’ve put in the work, trust your gut in the decision-making process and go for it. Remember, a step forward is better than no step at all, because you will learn a lot in those first steps.
- Realize it’s bigger than you — Build a team of good, outward-minded people who are capable, then empower them — and remember, a sense of humor also doesn’t hurt.
- Don’t forget to assess and challenge yourself — Make sure you are consistently, and respectfully, challenging current thinking or best practices.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
We all make mistakes, right? None of us are perfect in every way. That said, sometimes when CEOs and founders are starting out, they don’t openly acknowledge those that work the hardest for them. Sometimes they don’t see how much time and effort people are putting in at all levels of the organization. This is important to acknowledge because ultimately, they’re putting in that effort because they buy into what that CEO or the founder is trying to create and want to help them reach those goals.
Another aspect that can be hard for younger CEOs and founders is building trust. They can hire people and bring them in, but truly trusting these individuals without micromanaging can be difficult. Though this is something most founders realize over time, it can be one of the most significant problems hindering their progress. As I said before, trust your gut. If you elected to bring someone into the company, you did this for a reason. Trust they know what they’re doing and have the organization’s best interests in mind.
To avoid these pitfalls, identify and bring in a right-hand person or a second-in-command that you can trust. This should be someone who can identify issues in the organization that sometimes you don’t even see. You need someone who is confident and will be comfortable enough to point those hurdles out candidly, so you can solve the problem and move forward more effectively.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
Founders should keep in mind the broader perspective. Even though you love being involved in what you’re doing, and you have a passion that drives the business forward, keep in mind the long-term goal you’re trying to build a solution for and how it will function when you’re not around. Yes, the business is always going to be on your mind, but you should build the organization in such a way that you can take a day off to spend time with family, take a vacation, and not lose your mind. You need to build time for yourself as a founder/CEO, so crafting a business that can also be self-sustaining is critical. And again, trust the people you’ve brought into the company and know that they can handle a day or two without you being present.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Talking to the person next to you and making small talk with strangers. Someone once told me that the best thing I could do to train my children for adulthood was to have them go talk to the neighbor. This could be about anything, or about nothing! If they’re out washing their car, go ask them about it. You never know what that conversation might turn into or what might spark because of it. We also need to collectively see others as real human beings with their own challenges. If everybody spent just a little bit more time getting curious about the person next to them on the train, or the bus, walking down the street, or standing in line, we’d all be better for it.
We are 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, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I don’t generally buy into the cult of personalities too much, but I am inspired by people who have gained notoriety through their actions and not because they sought it. With that in mind, I would enjoy a meal with the likes of President George Bush (Jr.), Condoleezza Rice, Roger Federer of tennis fame, John Stockton of the Utah Jazz, or David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs. These are individuals who were really really capable and good, had to overcome some challenges and setbacks, and didn’t let the notoriety they achieved necessarily define them. They achieved notoriety because of their personal preparedness leading up to their actions when called upon, in and out of the office, or on and off the courts. They were well respected by their peers and have inspired me.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can follow me on LinkedIn and learn more about Smarty by visiting our website at Smarty.com.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!
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.