A lot of it comes down to a lack of upward mobility. A lot of companies, and industries, place artificial ceilings on employees that prohibit them from moving up. It’s important to give people the opportunity to prove themselves and let them find their own ceiling based on their performance. We also spend so much of our time at work, so if you aren’t happy at work you won’t be happy overall.
As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Cohen and Brett Cravatt, Co-Founders and Co-CEOs of Centerfield, a digital customer acquisition company headquartered in Playa Vista, CA. Originally from New York, Jason is a recognized leader in the interactive marketing industry. He began his career working for a well-known ad network and worked his way up to become the company’s top global sales representative before leaving to start his own company. California native Brett left his promising law career to pursue his true passion for entrepreneurship. A seasoned entrepreneur, he has founded and served on the boards of multiple successful companies. The two decided to build Centerfield one night after a few too many beers. After Jason invested in one of Brett’s previous businesses, Brett suggested the possibility of joining forces to build a powerhouse media company. A week later and with a clearer head, Brett followed up and the rest is history.
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Jason: My father was an entrepreneur, so those values were instilled in me at a very young age. I was previously working for an ad-tech company, and I knew I would have more freedom and be able to create more opportunities for success by working for myself. I decided to take the leap and start my own venture. I was fortunate to be able to take some of my clients with me and help them place and sell ads. Brett and I ended up meeting through mutual friends and we connected over our experiences as entrepreneurs. We built Centerfield using the skills we had both gained throughout our careers.
Brett: I went to law school after college and started my career doing contract law. I didn’t find it to be very fulfilling, so I started saving up to start my own venture. I saved up $30K and launched an online fantasy sports company. I was always interested in sports, and at the time fantasy sports were relatively antiquated. I knew they could be done faster online, with much less time-management. The company did very well, and I ended up licensing games to Yahoo, Fox, and a few other companies. In 2002 I sold the business to a digital ad agency. That was my first major stint as an entrepreneur, and it’s what I’ve been doing ever since. At its core, entrepreneurship is about solving problems. At Centerfield we solve problems for customers daily.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Jason: Centerfield’s acquisition of Qology was a huge milestone for us and arguably the most challenging and rewarding experience we’ve had. We transformed from a 100-person ad-tech business to a 1,000-person full-service marketing company overnight. That evolution was super interesting. When we started out we specialized in lead gen, and we always felt our clients could use some help on the sales side. We knew we could do it better, but we didn’t have any proof. We started testing different strategies to prove we could do end-to-end customer acquisition better than our competitors. We almost unexpectedly went into a new line of business through testing, because we realized we could create more value by delivering a closed customer to our clients.
Brett: One of my most memorable experiences was back when Jason and I had just started Centerfield. For the first year we worked extremely hard to accrue tons of data, develop new technologies, and refine our business model. We weren’t making much money, but the experience was incredibly rewarding. We traveled a lot, pitching to potential clients while getting to know each other along the way. We spent many nights just talking about life and laughing. That year laid the foundation for our partnership and for what Centerfield has become today.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Brett: Absolutely. We have a consumer guide called BroadbandNow that was built with the goal of making high-speed internet more accessible to all Americans, so we have shifted our charitable giving to help achieve that goal. We are combining our business mobility with charities to provide broadband to underserved, lower-income communities. We are currently working with a city in California to test this initiative. If it works well, we are hoping to roll-it-out on a national basis.
Okay, 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?
Brett: I think a lot of it comes down to a lack of upward mobility. A lot of companies, and industries, place artificial ceilings on employees that prohibit them from moving up. It’s important to give people the opportunity to prove themselves and let them find their own ceiling based on their performance. We also spend so much of our time at work, so if you aren’t happy at work you won’t be happy overall.
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?
Brett: An unhappy workforce leads to people spending less time thinking and solving problems, because they aren’t motivated to succeed. Depending on your business model, you might be able to stay afloat for a while with unhappy workers if your company can depend on technology. Long-term, however, it will have a negative impact on profitability and will ultimately lead to your demise.
In terms of employee health and well-being, if you’re spending 8–12 hours working each day, you have to enjoy what you’re doing, or your mental health will suffer. Being unhappy at work will not only affect the time that you’re there, but it will affect other areas of your life too.
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?
Jason: At Centerfield we have a lot of baseball references. Our top 5 mantras that are crucial to our company culture are: no egos on the field, study the playbook, keep track of your stats, leave your uniform at home, and give back.
No egos on the field means everyone is equal in terms of what they can contribute, and we hold each other accountable. It also means that as Executives, we run a flat organization where our employees can feel comfortable reaching out to us and working alongside us. Every day we get in the weeds to help solve problems.
Study the playbook and keep track of your stats are about making it a priority to learn our business, learn about the companies we work with, and figure out how we can help our clients’ bottom line. We’re a numbers-oriented company, so we send out daily reports to almost everyone in the company so everyone can keep tabs on profitability and help as needed.
Leave your uniform at home covers a few bases. We don’t have a dress code, because we want our employees to feel comfortable at work. In a more figurative sense, it also means that we are not a cookie-cutter environment and we want people to push boundaries and be creative when solving problems. We want to empower our employees to make their own decisions, study the market, take risks, and have fun doing it.
Give back is fairly straightforward. As a successful business, we want to give back to our community and the world around us. We do this through multiple avenues, including charitable events where we volunteer our time to help local causes, and our internal charity program that gives employees an additional bonus every quarter to donate to the charity of their choice.
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?
Brett: We need to change the way we view work as a whole and provide better work-life balance. The U.S. is one of the only industrialized countries in the world that doesn’t offer mandated, paid family leave for new parents. There should absolutely be a minimum requirement for paid leave for employees to be able to spend time with their families. Unlimited PTO should be more common too. As long as you’re performing well and not abusing the program, you should be able to take off as much time as you need provided that your work isn’t impacted.
Jason: As Brett mentioned earlier, something else that can help is to stop putting artificial ceilings in place that prevent people from reaching their full potential. One way to circumvent this is to become an entrepreneur, but companies can also step up by providing the tools and training necessary to let their employees grow and fill gaps for higher roles.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
Brett: We like to empower people to take risks and think for themselves. We’re very hands-on and try to provide leadership by getting in the weeds and helping to find solutions instead of just assigning work. We want to help people define and reach their goals while also giving them the freedom to be entrepreneurial and make decisions on their own.
Jason: We also try to lead by example and stay positive. We want people to be just as excited about their potential here as we are.
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?
Brett: The person who bought my first sports business, Keith Cohn, gave me a huge opportunity. I also wouldn’t have been able to get to where I am without Jason and his incredible work ethic. Jason deserves a lot of the credit for our success and the clients we’ve managed to work with over the years.
Jason: My father definitely pushed me to work hard. He instilled a strong work ethic in me from a very young age. Brett and I have had a great partnership, too, and I owe a lot of our success to him. It has been amazing getting to learn from him and work with him for the past 10 years.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Jason: Brett and I concepted Centerfield’s charity program. Each quarter, employees receive a bonus that they can donate to the charity of their choice. As of this year, we will have donated over $1M.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Brett: Live each day to the fullest. To me that means giving my all, whether in terms of work, family, friends, hobbies, or something else. It might sound cliché, but when I leave this earth I want to feel like I’ve truly lived every day to its fullest potential.
Jason: Learn from your mistakes and don’t make the same mistake twice. I’ve made a lot of mistakes over the course of my life, but I have rarely made the same one twice.
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. :-)
Brett: We would love to figure out a way to get leftover food to poor countries in a way that is economical and sustainable. So much food goes to waste every day and yet so many people go to sleep hungry. It would be phenomenal if we could figure out a way for restaurants to package up leftover food and deliver it to those in need on a wider scale. We haven’t been able to solve the problem on an international level because everything perishes so quickly, but with all the great minds in this world, there has to be a way to solve the problem.