“How To Create A Fantastic Work Culture” With John James of Engine

Jason Malki
Oct 2, 2019 · 7 min read

Young managers are often afraid to challenge their employees to achieve seemingly impossible tasks. Employees crave challenges, and the best of the best want to be pushed to greatness. They’d rather work tirelessly on innovative, crazy ambitious projects than simply punch a time clock doing the bare minimum. Along the same ilk, employees also want to know their work has a sense of urgency and how it fits into the overall plan of the enterprise.


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Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I started my first e-commerce business from my college dorm room in 1995. That business, which was selling quiz bowl questions, financed my medical school education. I started another online business while on call one night in the hospital and its success led me to leave medicine for entrepreneurship.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I paid for medical school with that e-commerce business I started in the mid-90s, but had no intention of becoming a full-time entrepreneur. I launched my second business one night while I was on call as a family practice resident in 2001. It was the only slow night of in-house call I had my entire three-year residency at the hospital. The lack of patients that fateful night radically changed the course of my career. My brother and I bootstrapped that business to eight figures of annual revenue, and I never saw another patient after I finished my residency.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes, I’m the founder and CEO of Engine, an e-commerce platform. I hope that our software will enable countless small- and medium-sized businesses to achieve escape velocity by catalyzing their growth.

From an internal perspective, I want to help my employees by building a high functioning workplace that is a joy to work in, helping them achieve their individual and collective career goals.

More importantly, I’m hopeful that building Engine into a world-class technology company will catalyze a movement of entrepreneurship in my hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas. Every region known for their startup culture had a seminal success whose workers spawned multiple generations of new companies. I want Engine to be that success story in our region.

OK, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

Perhaps more than half the workforce is working on something that doesn’t excite them? I was incredibly unhappy as a physician and now I’m incredibly happy as an entrepreneur.

While I was certainly a competent physician, the job didn’t enable me to utilize my full set of skills. My creativity and imagination were rarely used as a doctor. Medicine was, for the most part, boring rote work … Amoxicillin for sinus infections, Zyrtec for allergies, Propranolol for high blood pressure. Creating a company from scratch is NEVER rote work, and NEVER boring. Entrepreneurship suits me perfectly and I’m super happy in the role.

I recently fired an incredibly talented individual who was “phoning it in.” He was competent and meeting all the stated goals of his position, but he was FAR more talented than his mediocre performance indicated. When I was a physician, I did the bare minimum. I’m hopeful that he will find a place to shine much like I did through entrepreneurship.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

When an employee is unhappy, they check out. Their productivity declines, they gain weight, they always look tired. In my opinion, company productivity, company profitability, and employee health are highly correlated variables.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

Young managers are often afraid to challenge their employees to achieve seemingly impossible tasks. Employees crave challenges, and the best of the best want to be pushed to greatness. They’d rather work tirelessly on innovative, crazy ambitious projects than simply punch a time clock doing the bare minimum. Along the same ilk, employees also want to know their work has a sense of urgency and how it fits into the overall plan of the enterprise.

Finally, employees crave a sense of working on something greater than themselves. Being an integral part of a high-functioning team is extremely rewarding. And if that team is working on a project that changes a small portion of the world in some small way, it’s even better.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

Think bigger. Demand more. Build something great together.

The rest takes care of it self.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I’m a very, very hands-off manager until deadlines are missed.

Our company has a long history of hitting deadlines. As such, we have no enforced work hours, no vacation limits, and very few arbitrary rules. With this freedom comes incredible responsibility and necessitates self-motivation. I trust workers to do the right thing and not to abuse the system.

Poorly performing individuals or teams stick out like a sore thumb, and the highest performing members of the team shouldn’t be punished by arbitrary rules designed to remediate the worst performers.

When deadlines are missed, I ratchet my intensity level from a 1 to a full blown 11. When a team or individual is missing deadlines, I dive in with the tenacity of a bulldog. If nothing changes, I quickly remove the cancer.

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?

My ninth-grade English teacher, Judy Parker. I had a C-minus in her class, yet she saw something special in me. She invited me, despite my very mediocre grade, to play for her Quiz Bowl team, an academic competition usually reserved for students in the Gifted and Talented program.

While I had one of the highest ACT scores in the class, I was unmotivated. Her confidence and encouragement spurred me to academic excellence. Our team won the state quiz bowl championship a few years later, and I made straight As from 10th grade through my second year of medical school. Thirty years later, she still visits me whenever she’s in town!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’m hopeful that building a great company with a great culture can someday count as “goodness.”

But in the traditional sense, I do nowhere near enough to bring goodness to the world. I wish I could do more. Perhaps my only tangible, traditional contribution of outside goodness was spending a couple years between companies mentoring aspiring local entrepreneurs. After raising $100 million in venture capital then selling my last business, I decided to have coffee with any entrepreneur who wanted to spend time with me. I’m certain I learned more from these — often struggling — entrepreneurs than they learned from me. Through those meetings, I decided to start Engine and build an e-commerce platform to help entrepreneurs similar to the ones gracious enough to share coffee with me.

After perhaps 300 coffee meetings, my focus is now dedicated to my family and building Engine. I hope to have another season of life where I can do this exercise again.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” G.B. Shaw

Starting a company, and expecting it to succeed in the light of insurmountable odds is unreasonable.

I am quirky, high functioning, demanding, and cannot stand the status quo. I am, by all accounts, unreasonable.

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 might not be bold enough to change the entire world, but I’d love to further spark a movement of entrepreneurship in my region. I want Engine to be the shining success that catalyzes an entrepreneurial revolution in our area. The success of every region known for their startup culture can be traced back to a single success. I want Engine to be that primary success story. I want our early employees to eventually leave Engine to start their own companies, and I want the success of those companies to spark yet another generation of companies.

My career will be incomplete until I see that perpetual motion machine working!

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Jason Malki

Written by

Jason Malki is the Founder & CEO of StrtupBoost, a 30,000+ member startup ecosystem + Flex5, a startup investor relations, marketing, and design agency.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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