A good company might be a ‘fast follower’ chasing a market leader, or a legacy business whose scale suggests market leadership but has stopped innovating. Attributes of a great company must include innovation at its core, an acceptance of change as the norm, motivating people to stretch themselves, not wanting to be ‘like’ any other company, and fundamentally changing or redefining large markets. Without the creativity of innovation and the ability to change and adapt rapidly, businesses fade and are surpassed.
As part of my series about “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Bartlett.
Passionate about the opportunities created by talent and technology, Paul Bartlett is the CEO of CloudPay, the global pay and payments company that serves more than 1,500 organizations around the world. Bartlett holds an MBA from Stanford University and an undergraduate degree in Economics from Princeton University.
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?
My career has been a combination of operating roles and investor roles in venture capital and private equity firms. I’ve moved back and forth several times … so it would seem I like variety, change and challenges. I’m glad to report that I am extremely happy and engaged in my current operating role as CEO of CloudPay! In fact, I’m probably the most energized I have been in my career.
Can you tell a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue?
There was one company I invested in as a VC, hired a CEO, and later joined as part of the senior team. I subsequently discovered fraud within the company and was asked to become the CEO and to ‘figure it out’. It was a public company, so there were lots of legal issues alongside the operational challenges. Ultimately, we had to put the company through bankruptcy and a sale process. During this time, my family and I received numerous threats. Also, the company was based out of the Twin Towers in New York, so after 9/11 and records were lost, the investigations dragged on for years.
I never really thought about giving up. I felt a responsibility to the employees, our customers, and investors to find the best solution.
I get my drive from my father primarily. He grew up with very little, went to 13 schools before graduating high school, and ultimately became a Rhodes Scholar. Starting in the 6th grade through college, I worked alongside him on our extended family’s farm every summer, doing serious manual labor, 7 days a week, with few distractions.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
While working on Wall Street, I organized for the banking group to play paint ball out in New Jersey. The head of the firm, who was a young guy, joined the outing. During one of the battles, I saw someone’s back sticking out from behind a tree. I snuck up really close and hit him on bare skin right above the pant line. It really hurt and he was furious … after all, this was the boss! I was petrified and thought I was going to be fired. After he recovered (including his bruised ego), he actually laughed about it and enjoyed feeling like one of the team. I learned that the worst is rarely going to happen, and sometimes scary people just want to be treated like everyone else.
CloudPay (Paterson's, as it was called then) was started in rural England, in a community where people were naturally helpful, co-operative and very competent. At the beginning we were primarily a service provider, so those traits were critical to our success, especially when customer service challenges ensued. In our midst, we had a junior payroll operator who late one night at home, searched the web for an opensource workflow solution to automate his manual processes that had led to recurring errors. He found a solution, customized it for his needs, people noticed, and eventually he was asked to help design and implement that solution for the entire company. The company benefitted because our culture recognized the value of his creative approach rather than making a judgment based on his lack of seniority
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
One way to look at what our company does is to manage and automate a huge amount of complexity in the form of the rules and requirements created by each country’s widely differing tax, banking, and compliance requirements. Our company is constantly finding innovative approaches in big and little ways, from people in all functional areas of the company across various countries. So, what makes us different is that innovation is happening all the time and bubbling up from everywhere within the company. For example, one of the many products we developed that was unique in our industry originated by a junior front line payroll operator, who wandered around the internet looking for some open-source workflow software to help them automate a regularly recurring manual process. This person used the tool to help themselves, then introduced it to others which eventually led to them becoming part of the team to enhance and expand the product capabilities and embed the functionality into our overall platform.
Which tips would recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not burn out?
Remember you are no good to anyone if you burn out … so avoid the ‘hero syndrome’ at all costs. Pre-pandemic, I worked from home for five years and had already learned to adjust my old work patterns when Covid struck. Daily, I take short breaks, and since I get up early, I am not shy about taking a power nap. Because I have been travelling less, I collaborate as much as I can with my team on an unstructured basis, so we have frequent short exchanges on video. These interactions always give me energy. I am disciplined about not having long series of grueling, consecutive 12-hour days. If I can’t avoid them, I impose a complete escape on myself, so I may take a half day of hiking, go to the gym, or have some family time. And I pay attention to what I dread at work, and once I identify a pattern, I figure out ways to change the dynamic, often by asking for help or insight from my team. Reducing burnout starts with recognizing patterns.
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?
Early in my career, I had a dynamic boss who was largely self-taught and full of charisma. She hired me way above what my operating experience justified (for which I was eternally grateful) and encouraged me to lead more from the experiential and emotional parts of myself, and less from the analytical and intellectual aspects. When I joined her company, my inexperience emerged quickly, and I was bringing people around me down. I was quick to raise issues, and this was perceived as negativity. She suggested self-awareness parameters on my behavior: I could not point out issues unless I was willing to suggest some solutions; I had to provide five compliments before I even implied anything critical; and if I wasn’t in a good mood, I had to stay home until I could be.
How would you define a ‘good’ company and how would you define a ‘great’ one?
This is tough question and a difficult distinction to make. We often ‘sense’ what makes the difference rather than being able to clearly define it. But here are a few attributes of a good company — it competes well, delivers incremental value based on the existing industry norms or metrics, employs good people, and treats them well. A good company might be a ‘fast follower’ chasing a market leader, or a legacy business whose scale suggests market leadership but has stopped innovating. Attributes of a great company must include innovation at its core, an acceptance of change as the norm, motivating people to stretch themselves, not wanting to be ‘like’ any other company, and fundamentally changing or redefining large markets. Without the creativity of innovation and the ability to change and adapt rapidly, businesses fade and are surpassed.
Can you articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business or consider having a social impact angle?
On an abstract level, the emergence of this trend may be partly driven by lots of uncertainty and change and the resulting confusion in people’s lives outside of work. The pandemic, strong political divides in the U.S. and in Europe, Brexit, and concerns about global warming are just to name a few. Maybe people see business organizations as having relatively more clarity and as places people are more comfortable participating in non-politicized activities. Companies can benefit as their employees develop relationships beyond their day-to-day work activities and the positive sentiment becoming part of the culture overall.
Do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and ‘restart their engines”?
There are many strategies to boosting revenue growth. First you must identify where the new opportunities are. Are they product innovations in your existing market? For this you might either ask your customers what they need or want, or you might investigate what new technologies are available to apply to your existing market. Another place to look is for closely adjacent markets to your existing products that will serve existing customers. And if you are lucky, you can combine new products with your existing ones for an expanded offering, and both upsell existing customers and attract new ones. There are many more approaches, for example entering new geographic markets or through acquisition, so the trick is figuring out what suits the company the best.
Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not losing growth traction during a difficult economy?
It may not always make sense to try to grow during a downturn. But if you think it does, you first want to minimize churn or the loss of existing customers. Then the options may be to enter new geographies or find new channel partners. One of the tough decisions is regarding price versus margin. Sometimes contrary to existing inertia and a perceived rigidity to costs, you can drop price and costs, maintain a decent margin and grow your market share. The trick is driving down costs quickly enough when everyone tells you that you can’t. It’s easy to drop prices and everyone tells you that you ‘have to.’
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be the most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
It’s the human and even the emotional aspects of managing and leading a company. Most people running companies started developing their technical, analytical, and reasoning capabilities during school and early in their professional careers. And often these shape early successes and become what we think are the keys to success the further we advance: out-thinking, out-working and having better skills than others. The more senior we get, understanding people, managing them, learning how to help and motivate and treat people well, all the while meeting the organizational objectives, that takes longer to learn. And now as a CEO, I often find myself thinking about ‘how can I be of service to my direct reports the most’, because I have an amazingly capable senior team. Sometimes it’s finding ways to reduce their stress, or listening to them think through an issue, or knowing when to volunteer resources from across the organization to collaborate on solutions. People who haven’t run businesses may believe that CEOs have lots of power, and in some important ways they do, but most of the time, they are serving, helping, listening or generating enthusiasm for people and teams who are making most of the decisions. Knowing how and when you can be of service requires more emotional intelligence than analytical or technical skills.
As you know, “conversion’ means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience, what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
This is a bit of an overly simplified question to me. A snide response could be, find the single best lead, close that one deal, and have 100% conversion rate! But seriously, conversion rates versus cost of customer acquisition vs deal value, are just some of the variables one needs to consider. In our business, we are selling complex large deals with a long sales cycle. So, our conversation rate is first driven by tightly qualifying what is a legitimate lead, so there are not as many deals going in the pipeline (the denominator of the ‘rate’ calculation) and the ones that are, have a higher probability of closing (the numerator). We can’t afford our sales organization investing huge amounts of time and resources on low probability deals. Sometimes sales thinks they can never have enough leads, and marketing thinks they are responsible for generating large absolute volumes.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as trusted and beloved brand?
I have spent most of my career in the enterprise market space, where service and innovation are two primary drivers of reputation. There are clearly the traditional aspects of providing great customer service and listening to your customers to find out how to help them. But here some additional ways of looking at service and innovation. On the former, great service may need to include honest engagement, collaboration and regular reviews which produce true partnerships and trust. Finding problems, fixing them and preventing reoccurrence, is your first order of business. Avoid the blame game. In the area of area of innovation, sometimes customers don’t know what’s possible so they can’t always express what they ‘want’. For example, lots of people didn’t know what to do with the first mobile phones and so they didn’t ‘want’ them and today we practically can’t live without them.
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand…. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer experience?
I want to focus on the “great customer experience” because it’s no longer merely about having great people providing great service. Instead, with the advent of cloud-based enterprise software-as-a-service products, the distinctions are blurring between service and product, and who is using the software tools. It’s complex. “The customer experience” may consist of ‘services’ provided through products in the cloud used by people who work for the customer, an outsourced service provider or even the software provider, all interacting with a platform. So, in addition to having great people engaged in a solution, the usability of an application makes a huge difference to the customer experience. Contributing to the “wow” factor is the harmonization of people with the technology, things like the workflows, user interfaces, data capture, and analytics rolled into a cloud application.
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?
CEOs tend to try to do too much, staying at the center of product development, strategy, sales, etc. and wait too long to build a team and truly delegate. Early-stage businesses usually have lots to do, have limited experienced talent, and are making foundational decisions about the business model that will govern the business for a long time. Look for signs of excessive “control” and the funneling of decisions all through one person. And the problem can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, since good senior talent often senses these issues and won’t join the team. Awareness is one way to start to avoid or solve this issue. A CEO does well to ask direct reports what it’s like in the senior team, listen, and then do something about it.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
It would be about the private sector getting much more focused on global warming and environmental impact. And really focus on the policy aspects of getting changes implemented, even very small ones. Though the private sector prides itself on getting things done and being effective, it generally hates the notion of dealing with governmental and regulatory groups. There are lots of viable solutions that are not being adopted or rolled out because getting policies agreed and enacted takes so long. Even if the improvements are small, the awareness and credibility that the private sector engenders is important.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!