“Hire for 3 A’s: Attitude, Aptitude, and Adaptability” Words of Wisdom With Sam Gerace CEO of Convey
“My first several hires had solid resumes and great references — evidence that they had succeeded in the past at what we needed them to do. Nothing in our process, however, assessed whether these candidates could do anything other than what we needed them to do at the time, nor whether they would be happy doing it. That might be OK for a large company with a relatively unchanging business environment (does that exist?), but we quickly discovered that it doesn’t work in entrepreneurial companies. The market changes quickly, and growth companies must adapt quickly, meaning that roles change fast and frequently. Our first few employees “did the job” well for a few months, but then couldn’t figure out what to change (aptitude), didn’t have the desire to change (attitude), our just couldn’t make the change (adaptability).”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Sam Gerace, four-time successful tech entrepreneur. Sam currently serves as CEO of Convey, an organization dedicated to helping people effortlessly building better connections with each other.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Believe it or not, I’m a scientist at heart, and by degree. I earned a B.A. in Biochemistry from Harvard University with the intent to go into medical research. In my sophomore year of college I discovered some things called “computers.” That was far enough in the past that they were mainframes and minicomputers, but I fell in love with the ability of software to empower people with insights and the ability to act on them, so I immediately began to take programming courses, and I started a software company right after I graduated. After about 6 months of writing code, I figured out that someone had to attend to the business side of things — culture, people, strategic planning, sales — so I did that, and I haven’t managed to get back to coding since.
Over the last 3 decades, I have had the good fortune to start and lead several successful companies, most recently Be Free®, a digital marketing platform company that we took public and was later acquired by Valueclick; and Veritix®, a sports and live entertainment SaaS platform acquired by AEG/AXS. When most people talk about those companies, they focus on numbers, citing things like: Be Free processed more than $2B in commerce annually, processed 2,500 transactions a second, and collected more than one billion facts a day about retail purchasing. Veritix, which tickets the largest venues in the US and Europe, had more than 9 million users on any given day, and processed more than $1.2B in commerce annually. When I think about the companies, it is the people that I think about, not the numbers. That’s my real takeaway after 33 years — great teams accomplish incredible things. That means my most important role (and in some sense, my only role) is to create, nurture, and sustain terrific teams.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
My height doesn’t approach 6 feet, so it’s no surprise that you don’t see me on an NBA court, but I have been in almost every basketball arena in the country…and in almost every NFL stadium, soccer field, large live-entertainment venue in the US, all as the CEO of Veritix. Our FlashSeats system is used at venues of every sort, and that gave me the chance to go behind the scenes at great events like NCAA Final Four tournaments (‘07-’16), Garth Brooks concerts, and NBA Championships. But I never spent all of my time watching the event. As the Veritix team will tell you, I like to see how things work, so they would often find me wandering in places like catwalks 110 feet above the court (Quicken Loans Arena), or 3 levels below the football field where the power distribution systems live (ATT Stadium).
One evening during the 2010 NBA playoffs, I turned a corner and found myself in the Cleveland Cavaliers team locker room with Campy Russell, whom I had met before. We had a nice chat, and then he reached into a locker and handed me something — Shaq’s shoe. I have seen big shoes before, but nothing like that. I looked at it for a few seconds, and then I put the shoe on the floor, and sure enough — I could fit my foot in it with my dress shoe on! And that’s as close as I’ll ever get to playing NBA basketball…
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The thing that makes Convey stand out is that it is Team First. It really mean that it was the first thing I did — create the team. I didn’t have a business plan or a budget — I didn’t even have a concept. For my first four companies, I had always started with a concept, then created a business plan, and then performed some initial validation before putting together the team. That’s the order in which most entrepreneurs do things, and I hadn’t given it much thought. When I decided to start my 5th company, I stopped to examine the order of things. The most critical success factor for my past companies was always the team, and I asked myself why I should limit the first few steps to my thinking alone. Ideation, planning, and validation require decision making, and teams make better decisions. So I reversed the order! I put together the best team I have ever assembled. Then, together, we ideated around several business needs, performed validation on each of the resulting concepts, and went to work on the one that validated best.
It was while selling my fourth company that I came face-to-face with the pain that led me to create Convey. In nine years at the company, I met over 2,000 people who mattered to me in some way — that’s how many records I had in my contacts database. As I prepared to turn the reigns over to a new parent company, I wanted to let my contacts know how much I valued them and to give them the information necessary to keep in touch. After pressing send on that email to 2,000 contacts — one by one I started getting the bounce backs. All in all, more than 40% of my emails bounced!
As I mentioned, I’m a scientist by training, so I decided to do some research on this problem. In that research I found that the average life of contact information these days is 18 months! As people change jobs, emails, and other contact info at a faster rate, contact information expires quickly — over 21% per year. Obviously this was a major problem, but I couldn’t find any tools that would easily and effectively allow me to communicate contact changes or updates when a valuable connection’s information changed. So my team and I built Convey to solve this problem.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
You are responsible for the culture. Whether you are starting a brand-new company or stepping in to an established one, culture is the most important thing to establish and maintain. It is the single most important driver of a company’s long-term success. Defining the core values of a company helps guide the behaviors and environment to support those values. Culturally aligned teams result in faster and more sustainable growth, increased team engagement and productivity, and increased retention.
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?
In the United States, we champion the ideal of the rugged individualist, the “self-made man,” but if you look behind most successful people, you will find exceptional mentors. The people I am grateful towards are too numerous to count. There is a small group that stands out though — those that had two things in common: they gave me simple and direct feedback with no sugar-coating, and had enough faith to give me the chance to try, fail, reflect, and learn. Thanks to them, I lead a self-examined life of continuous learning.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Helping to build the growth-stage ecosystem in NEO through entrepreneurial mentoring programs.
The first thing you see as you enter our offices is our 5 core values at Convey, of which working for a purpose beyond our walls is one. This value provides a pathway for everyone in the company to bring goodness to the world. We value community service, we hold active learning sessions on community building, and we ask our team members to connect the company to service opportunities in the community. That is one of the biggest ways that I try to bring goodness to the world — by making community participation part of our core culture so that every team member gets involved.
More personally, my wife and I like to roll up our sleeves and get directly involved with community organizations helping children in critical need and students in low-income school districts. I also use my leadership experience to help these organizations grow — as chair of the board of Minds Matter of Cleveland I have helped it quadruple its service capacity to the community.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Begin with culture! — The company was growing fast, and we did our first ever nationwide search for a key leadership position. After interviewing 30 incredible candidates, we chose the perfect candidate for the new VP role. His prior role gave us confidence that the job was within his ability, but represented enough of of a challenge to maintain his interest, and represented a growth opportunity over the long term. 3 weeks after he arrived, he came into my office and said “I convinced my old boss to give me my job back.” Our 2nd and 3rd place candidates had taken other jobs, so we had wasted tens of thousands of dollars and had to start from scratch — but before we did, I needed to figure out why the prior “best practice search process” had failed. It took me 3 months of cross-referencing in business libraries (pre-Internet…) and conversations with researchers to discover and operationalize the knowledge that cultural alignment is the single most important factor in team effectiveness, and in an individual’s longevity with a company. I immediately articulated our culture and made it the basis of search, hiring, recognition, and celebration.
2. Hire for 3 A’s: Attitude, Aptitude, and Adaptability — My first several hires had solid resumes and great references — evidence that they had succeeded in the past at what we needed them to do. Nothing in our process, however, assessed whether these candidates could do anything other than what we needed them to do at the time, nor whether they would be happy doing it. That might be OK for a large company with a relatively unchanging business environment (does that exist?), but we quickly discovered that it doesn’t work in entrepreneurial companies. The market changes quickly, and growth companies must adapt quickly, meaning that roles change fast and frequently. Our first few employees “did the job” well for a few months, but then couldn’t figure out what to change (aptitude), didn’t have the desire to change (attitude), our just couldn’t make the change (adaptability).
3 Uncertainty is an essential component of any strategy. When I started out, we crafted 40-page business plans, covering every aspect of the strategy and tactics we would employ. I thought the team, investors, and customers would expect it. But it only took a few years to realize that, without a crystal ball, we couldn’t predict what would emerge next month, much less next quarter. Over the past 3 decades, our business plans have become smaller and smaller. In 21st Century terms, they are more and more “Agile.” Agility and adaptability are essential ways to address uncertainty. Our key strategic objectives center around making sure the organization conducts experiments frequently and adapts rapidly.
4.Your board should add strategic value. In law, boards exist for “governance,” that is, to represent investor interests. Make no mistake, fiduciary duty is of critical importance. However, I wish someone had told me that a properly-constructed board could add material strategic value to accompany. This was certainly not the case with my first board. I ended up with a group of people who very-effectively protected the investors. They did little, however, to move the company forward beyond approving our strategic plans. In a Harvard Business Review article, I saw a quote about how much strategic value a particular board member added to a company during a particular effort. I immediately began to ask questions of CEOs and board members of other companies. While I could not quickly remedy my error, I have had the great benefit ever since of boards comprised of individuals who are experts in disciplines critical to the company, and who can confer great strategic value the company even as they attend to their fiduciary duty.
5. All Investors are not alike — Investors are people who put money in… That was my level of knowledge as I started my first company. Fortunately, two of my first investors were experienced and interested in adding value. They helped me find other investors, and made business introductions, etc. However, several other early investors seemed to care only about their rights. It is painful to remember the hours I spent catering to the information requests and meeting demands of those investors when I could have been generating revenue or otherwise advancing the company. After that experience, I started doing due diligence on investors! I call companies in which they have previously invested it is to ask the CEOs whether they added value, more reasonable in the requests, and works to promote the advance of the company in general. If the answers come back in the negative, I do not take their investment.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
Roll rocks down a 10,000 foot mountain and they cannot be stopped — this is because of the mountain, not the rocks. — Du Mu, adviser to the Chinese imperial court, 700 A.D.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
Pope Francis. There is no greater example of compassionate, courageous leadership.
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If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series In Huffpost, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.