Surround yourself with great, hardworking, and resilient people. One of the core foundations to building a resilient company is having the right talent on-board. We actually screen for resilience in our interview process.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Toby Gabriner, CEO of NextRoll. As CEO of NextRoll, Toby Gabriner oversees three divisions of the marketing and data technology company. AdRoll, a growth marketing platform for direct-to-consumer (D2C) brands; RollWorks, an account-based platform for B2B marketing and sales teams; and NextRoll Platform Services a marketing-technology-as-a-service offering for brands, agencies, marketplaces, publishers and marketing platforms. Gabriner has a proven track record as an industry veteran who is not afraid of taking risks, and as a driver of transformational change and breakout growth for tech businesses. With leadership experience at high-growth companies that spans two decades, Gabriner’s been at the forefront of positioning NextRoll as an innovator in the marketing technology sector. His experience includes serving as president of Carat Interactive, one of the first large digital agencies, CEO of [x+1], one of the first demand side platforms, and president and CEO of Adap.tv (and pioneer in the video platform sector). Under his leadership, Adap.tv saw revenue grow from $200K to over $200M in just four years and was acquired by AOL in 2013 for $465M. Gabriner has also served as a board member and investor of a number of early and mid-stage technology companies. He earned his MBA at Boston University but is a San Francisco native, who enjoys a myriad of fitness activities, reading, volunteering and hanging out with his wife and three children in the sunny state.
Thank you so much for joining us, Toby! Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’?
The path to where I am today wasn’t a conventional one. Growing up, I was definitely seen as a troublemaker. After barely graduating from high school, at 18 I was kicked out of my house. With no real skills to offer, I found myself working for a year in an unrewarding entry-level position.
It wasn’t until I encountered a particularly difficult boss, as a sales coordinator at Parenting Magazine, that I realized I wanted more for myself. But, honestly, it motivated me. I wanted to have more control over my career. That’s when I decided to go back to community college and committed myself to working hard. I got straight A’s, transferred to a four-year college, and went on to earn my MBA.
From there I spent two decades working with various high-growth agencies, startups and martech companies including leadership roles at Carat Interactive, one of the first large digital agencies, [x+1], one of the first demand side platforms, and then, Adap.tv which was acquired by AOL in 2013 for $465M.
Now as the CEO of NextRoll, I oversee the three divisions of the company, AdRoll, RollWorks and NextRoll Platform Services. And, I hold myself to significantly higher standards than the “bad” boss that started me on this ultimately very productive trajectory.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
It’s not my most interesting story, but it was certainly an impactful moment in my career. During my first few years as an executive, I was running a 60-person digital agency and we were bootstrapped. We had a phenomenal run in the late ’90s and but then hit a wall when the dotcom bubble burst in the early 2000’s. Almost overnight we lost 40% of our revenue and our only chance for survival was to make significant layoffs. At the time, I was in my early thirties and had no experience of dealing with this type of crisis, and all of a sudden, I was tasked with navigating the company through financial peril. One of the hardest decisions I had to make was to let 40 people go, all at once.
Ultimately, I made the cuts and although it felt horrible, I sucked it up and tried to be as transparent and honest with my employees as possible. I made sure to personally meet with every single person to deliver the news and explain why we had to let them go. The folks that were let go, while sad, were appreciative of the way we handled the process.
I grew a lot as a leader in that experience and learned the importance of treating people with dignity and respect in the face of bad news.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Something that is special about NextRoll is our commitment to evolving with the needs of our customers. We’ve devoted ourselves to helping our small and mid-market customers grow in this complex and ever-changing marketing landscape and to do so, we too have had to transform and reinvent ourselves to better serve those needs. These last few years we’ve pursued an ambitious vision to evolve. We were once simply an ad retargeting player. Today, we are a marketing data and technology company that offers marketing platforms and services to everyone from small D2C startups, midmarket B2B companies and fast-growing enterprises. We did this while maintaining independence and focusing on customer needs.
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?
A year after my first company, Freestyle Interactive, was acquired by Carat (a publicly traded global company) in 2003 I had a dinner with a senior executive (who was not only very influential in the company, but also someone I admired) who provided me with some tough feedback regarding the way in which I was comporting myself within the “corporate” construct. At the time I was very dismissive of this feedback as the division I was running was crushing our revenue and profit goals and I did not understand why anything else mattered. Unfortunately, it took me a year+ to really absorb and understand this feedback. Not only did I likely leave a bad impression with this exec, I likely wasted a year of not improving, growing and becoming a better leader. This incident had a profound impact on me and has led to my deep belief in always having a growth mindset.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
I see resilience as a persons’, or a business’ ability to grow, adapt and (hopefully) win. A willingness to constantly reinvent, learn, and adjust to what’s going on. As a business leader, that sometimes means asking hard questions about culture and innovation and how to do things better. It means taking risks and being OK with failure because there’s always a second chance to get things right. Resilient people are those that have a combination of determination and grit. They recognize that the journey is never easy and are willing to fight through the tough times.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
I have had a number of occasions where I have been doubted or told that something was not achievable. I have always found doubters to be very motivational. Most notable was when I was a sophomore in high school and my English teacher told me that I would never amount to anything. To this day, I am motivated by this these words of doubt!!
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
I have had many setbacks in my life, a troubled childhood, two failed startups, even a failed marriage. But those things didn’t hold me back. The key to overcoming adversity is to view your failures as lessons that can inform better choices for your present and your future. I’m a firm believer in this. I even have a tattoo of a phoenix rising from the ashes to remind me that my past failures have gotten me to the great place where I am today.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I grew up in a working-class family in San Francisco’s Mission District, which taught me a lot about working hard and exposed me to a unique community made up of diverse cultures and people of different backgrounds. Resiliency is about adapting to the world around you. Being raised in a community that celebrates diversity opened my mind to many different perspectives and ways of dealing with the challenges that life can throw at you. This is something we instill at NextRoll too. We are actively working, across levels, locations, functional areas and business units to improve diversity and inclusion.
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
These are my five steps to becoming a resilient business leader:
- Don’t be afraid of taking risks if it means driving transformational change and growth for your business and for yourself.
- Remain maniacally focused on the customer problem you are trying to solve. Don’t lose focus and always chase the new, shiny thing.
- Embrace reinvention.
- Surround yourself with great, hardworking, and resilient people. One of the core foundations to building a resilient company is having the right talent on-board. We actually screen for resilience in our interview process.
- And last but not least, practice patience, this is something that I wish my twenty-year-old self had known and practiced.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. :-)
I deeply believe in Social Justice. And, I am also deeply concerned about global warming.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders 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, especially if we tag them :-)
There are so many leaders that I admire, but if I could be granted the wish of a lunch with a single person it would Barack Obama. There is no one who embodies resilience more than President Obama and I deeply admire his ability to maintain his dignity and integrity in the face of so many obstacles and challenges.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can reach me via Twitter @tgabriner
Thank you for all of these great insights!