Our guest today is COO Alliance Member, Derek Knorr, who is the COO for Sprious.
Sprious is a tech startup located in Lincoln, Nebraska as part of the ‘Silicon Prairie’ and primarily plays in the web scraping space, providing SaaS sales of its web scraping services as well as product-based sales for the underlying infrastructure to other web scraping companies. This allows the world to make use of the vast amount of open data on the web today.
Derek joined Sprious as COO in late 2019. He is accountable for running the business operations and growing both top- and bottom-line earnings. Derek dual hats as head of sales and data analytics, as well as product owner for the main product line.
Prior to Sprious, Derek grew through a variety of projects and roles over a decade with Deloitte Consulting. He focused on the US Federal market, and is one of the few people in the world to have worked at a variety of intelligence community agencies before switching to the civilian sector. Derek focused on data management and analytics, and led large IT systems modernization efforts for a number of years.
Outside of work, Derek enjoys camping and traveling with his wife and four children (ages 7, 9, 11, and ‘almost’ 13). He grew up on a farm, so loves getting away from the computer to work outside on his acreage mowing, landscaping, gardening, and woodworking. He is also an avid reader, typically reading a book per week on average (and is proud of the “Sprious Reads” program at work, where they will buy any book for anybody on the team for any reason).
In This Conversation, We Discuss:
How Sprious ‘scrapes the web’ and how the everyday user can use their service
What are the cultural differences in different regions and how it affects communications between CEO and COO
How the Core Values side of the business translate between regions
What tools Sprious uses to manage remote teams
How to filter through the ideas from the CEO, when to say yes and when to say not right now
Connect with Derek Knorr: LinkedIn
Sprious – https://sprious.com
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Our guest is COO Alliance member Derek Knorr, who is the COO for Sprious. Sprious is a tech startup located in Lincoln, Nebraska as part of the Silicon Prairie, and primarily plays in the web scraping space, providing SaaS sales of its web scraping services, as well as product-based sales for the underlying infrastructure to other web scraping companies. This allows the world to make use of the vast amount of open data on the web today.
Derek joined Sprious as COO in late 2019. He’s accountable for running the business operations and growing both top-and-bottom-line earnings. Derek wears dual hats as Head of Sales and Data Analytics, as well as a product owner for the main product line. Prior to Sprious, Derek grew through a variety of projects and roles over a decade with Deloitte Consulting. He focused on the US Federal market and is one of the few people in the world to have worked at a variety of intelligence community agencies before switching over to the civilian sector.
Derek focused on data management and analytics and led large IT systems modernization efforts for a number of years. Outside of work, Derek enjoys camping and traveling with his wife and four children. He grew up on a farm, so he loves getting away from the computer to work outside on his acreage mowing, landscaping, gardening, and woodworking. He is also an avid reader, typically reading a book a week, and he is proud of the Sprious Reads Program at work where they will buy any book for anyone on any team for any reason. I love that idea. Derek, welcome to the Second in Command Podcast.
Thanks, Cameron. It’s great to be here.
Tell me about the book program. What was the impetus for that?
I’m actually really proud of that one. It was my idea when I came in. I think it was probably the second or third month after I joined Sprious. We were looking at different ways to improve the overall employee experience, try and enhance our core values, and make it a better place for people to work. We’ve done a lot of the typical startup stuff. We’ve got a ping-pong table upstairs. We’ve got a pool table. We’ve been known to have a keg in the fridge as well. We wanted to look at something that people could use to improve themselves on a personal level.
Both, the CEO Neil and myself, are avid readers, and we thought this would be a great idea to offer people any book that they want to. There’s a big bookshelf behind my desk in the office that you may have seen in some of our previous Zoom calls, and it’s starting to grow quite a bit. If people want to keep the books, they can. If they want to bring them in the office and share with others, they’re welcome to do that too. It’s been fantastic. We get a lot of use out of that.
Do you tie in any reporting on that? Do they do a book report after they read the book, or is it just, “If you want to read it, go for it?”
The latter. There’s no mandatory aspect of it. A lot of people do write book reports. We will write those up in Confluence, share the highlights with people that we think are relevant, and go from there. I’d say that’s a small percentage of the total number of books that are purchased though. There are a lot of fiction novels and cooking books and things like that.
Which is great, I think the reality is you’re supporting reading and growth and personal development. Like you said, if they want to read a fiction book and they want to read something for fun, go for it. We’ll pay for it. It’s a nice little additional perk. One of our former COO Alliance members, Theresa LaBranche, their company used to pay for any training that any employee wanted, regardless of what it was. They never even tried to see if it fit or tied into work. One day, there were seven people who wanted to go to a Tony Robbins seminar that is going to be like $6,000 per person. The CEO said yes and everybody is like, “What? Really?” They go, “We’ll pay for your flights too. We want you to grow.”
They had about 200 employees at one point, but they had spent $2 million on 1 year on training their people. What they realized was no one quit, and everyone wanted to work there. Because they were attracting all these people that wanted to learn and they were excited about learning, and they said yes to everything, people did naturally take stuff that tied into their roles as well. It was a cool concept.
I love that. We’re trying to step in that direction. Right now, our development budget is a little bit smaller than that. We try to keep things business focused, but we’re also trying to be very open minded about it. Basically, if somebody wants to do something, we’re trying to say yes as much as possible. Putting it out to Tony Robbins.
They’ll get there, and you’re a member of the COO Alliance, so that’s good. Tell me about Sprious, put it in layman’s terms for us. What does scraping the web or scraping the world mean, and who are your typical clients? How could the everyday client use a service similar to yours as well?
It can be a very complex environment to understand. I’ve been here for a few years. I will be honest, I feel like I learned something new every day still. The general premise is that there’s so much data on the internet today across any number of sources, whether it’s government or private or commercial, and finding ways to tap into that information to make decisions, usually for commercial purposes, but not always. It could be government in these that are collecting data for analysis on new businesses or latest trends or economics or things like that.
There are a lot of different people that play in the space in terms of using the data. The tough part is actually getting it. What we do is we’ve basically got two different primary product lines within our company right now. One is we provide the underlying infrastructure for companies that do data scraping. That means we’ve got servers and data centers all over the world. I think we’re in 26 countries now, and we have hundreds of thousands of IP addresses that we lease out to different companies that are doing web scraping.
On the other side of the business, we actually have our own web scraping product as well. For that one, we’re basically selling to businesses that don’t want to invest the time and resources to build their own web scraping technology because it does take some time and talent and a lot of figuring it out. There are many different things to be aware of in terms of how websites go about monitoring for bots that are scraping data and banning them and so forth.
Probably the best use case that people can connect with is understanding there are companies that aggregate travel information. You’ve probably booked through Travelocity or Expedia or Orbits or different websites like that, and I’m not giving away any customer names here. These are just websites that collect data from other websites. They’re going out to the Marriotts of the world and the United.com and Delta and other places.
They’re scraping that pricing data from them in real time. The way they do that is with IP addresses. If you were to go to United.com ten million times a day from one IP address, United.com would say, “That is way too much. We can’t handle that. We’re going to block that IP.” They get lots of IP addresses to spread the load out and move forward.
Without telling me your revenue numbers, what percentage of your revenue is on the SaaS side versus doing it for the customer side?
On the SaaS side, on the web scraping, this is a new area that we’re going into. We’ve just started to experience growth this year 2021. It’s less than 5% of our revenue. The bulk of our revenue now is by providing that underlying infrastructure to other companies that are doing this at scale.
I called it backwards then. What do you call that when you’re providing it to the other companies? What’s that called?
That’s our proxy IP business. We’re selling IP proxy.
That’s 95% of your business is giving them the underlying infrastructure?
Yes. Our ideal customers are those who are primarily playing in the eCommerce space. They’re doing pricing analytics and comparisons, either for themselves or for other companies in the Fortune 500 so that they can dynamically monitor prices on say Amazon or Walmart or other places. Maybe even adjust their own prices in real time as they see, “This item went out of stock. We can increase our price accordingly, or Amazon increased their price over here. Maybe we can decrease our price and get some more sales that way.” There are many different ways, and it moves very quickly.
Do you partner with analytics companies or do you sell to analytics companies?
We sell to analytics companies, yes.
Are you familiar with one out of Cincinnati called InfoTrust?
No, I’m not.
Take a look at it or just make a note, I’ll introduce you later. The COO of InfoTrust is a member of the COO Alliance now and only in the last few months, and I coached their cofounders a few years ago. They do analytics for a lot of the big brands, but they might be either an interesting client or partner for you on this that we should talk about offline.
I’d love to connect.
In your bio, you said you know the Silicon Prairie and you made a comment that Lincoln, Nebraska is the Silicon Prairie. When I think of Silicon Valley and I think of tech companies, I don’t think of Nebraska. Is there truly a tech hub there? The second part of that question is, with COVID, is it becoming more of a tech hub? Are people bailing out of the Bay Area to come home to the prairies?
I don’t know if I can answer the latter one directly, other than anecdotally. I personally know a lot of people from California who have moved somewhere East. A lot of them actually have landed here in Nebraska, which I think is a great sign. As far as the Silicon Prairie and the tech hub, we’re definitely not to the Silicon Valley level yet. There is getting to be a definite tech scene here in Nebraska, in Lincoln, Omaha. If you look more broadly at the Silicon Prairie, Kansas City claims to be part of that, maybe even as far as Chicago and other areas. There are a lot of people that want to get that Silicon into their name. Over the last decade, there have gotten to be a whole slew of small startup companies, and there’s going to be that start vibe in this area that we did not have before. It’s pretty cool to see.
I was just in Bozeman, Montana on a hiking trip, and they’re calling it Boz Angeles right now. It’s all the people bailing out of California. I think you’re going to see it’s going to be easier to recruit talent. Are you a fully office-based company? What percentage of your employees are remote?
We have about 25 employees here in Lincoln. About half of us go into the office on any given day. We closed down for about maybe six weeks when COVID started in 2020. Then we reopened the office and we just left it 100% optional. Whoever wants to go in, can. Whoever wants to work remote, can. Here, locally that’s about where we are. It’s about half people are there in a given day, but then over half of our team is actually international. We’re spread out around Ukraine, Poland, Philippines, Malaysia, India, and Kenya now. We were already accustomed to doing remote work. There wasn’t really a transition from in-office to remote because we were all used to doing the video calls constantly anyway.
You just rattled off a bunch of countries there, and Kenya jumped out at me, which is interesting. Hit me with the countries again.
Ukraine, that’s where most of our tech team is, our 24/7 system monitoring and most of the developers. Poland, India, Malaysia, Philippines, and Kenya.
Why are you in so many places? Is that by design? Did you just start stumbling on people in different markets? Are you using the Philippines for call center and India for tech? How is it all working?
Broadly speaking, the Eastern European team is our tech team. Then the folks scattered around all the other countries are part of our CS Team, our Customer Success Team.
Kenya would be a part of the Customer Service Team?
Is that becoming a customer service hub now?
I think it’s getting to be more so. One of the newest members on our team is from Kenya, and she has been fantastic. Great addition to culture, hard worker, understands our product, and how to work with customers. You’ll definitely see us expanding there.
I used to coach a CEO who is based in Kenya. He is Kenyan, Nairobi, and Tanzanian. It’s a really interesting culture. What is it like working with these teams in all the different areas? What have you learned about them, and how do you have to change your style? Or how does the company have to adapt on a Kenya versus Ukraine versus India kind of basis?
It has been interesting for sure. In my prior career before joining Sprious, I was in the consulting profession. I worked with a lot of folks from India, but that was really about the only country that I worked with at that point in time. Then coming here now, it’s been another half dozen countries. It’s great to see the different cultures and how people interact and think through things, and just the diversity of opinions that people can bring to the table as a result.
It’s great to see the different cultures, how people interact and think through things, and the diversity of opinions that people can bring to the table.
That’s not to say we don’t have our fair share of challenges and language barriers that come along with that because we certainly do. I’d say for me personally, that’s probably where I’ve had to adapt my communication approach the most. I try to tailor my writing and messaging so it’s a little bit simpler and that’s not to insult anybody, but just to keep it in a little bit simpler English than what I typically would because I like to use big words and I can’t lie.
They don’t help because the reality is, I don’t know what the age is, but I think people speak it or read that like a grade eight level. The longer we write and the bigger the words are, the less it gets and we’re skimming everything. Can you speak to any of the real cultural differences? Is there something you have to do?
I coached somebody over in India, the COO of a company in India, and they had a few thousand employees. I said, “You have to go tell the CEO that you’re frustrated with him in this one area.” He goes, “I could never do that.” There’s no way he would ever tell the CEO he was pissed off. In North America, we just do that on like, “That would be before lunch every day.” You probably tell. Is it Neil that’s your CEO?
I’m sure that on any given day, you’re like, “Neil, you’re being a dick. Neil, you’re f****** this up. Neil, I don’t like your decision.”
It’s a two-way street, Cameron. We both do that.
It would happen in Thailand’s CEO down. The CEO would absolutely tell the COO. Is there anything that you’ve learned that way that culturally is just very different that you’ve had to adapt to?
Yes. One of the things that we’ve struggled through is implementing a consistent performance management process and the review cycle across the entire team. When I first joined, we didn’t really have a set cadence for any reviews or promotions or raises were done. My Head of People Ops, Sarah, and I worked on putting a plan in place for how we can get into a semi-annual review cadence. Also, establish a more formal process for like, “What are the types of questions we need to address? How do we help people identify their strengths or development areas and go through that?”
We created a more formalized structure for what we call functional managers to have people report to them, and they do their weekly or biweekly check-ins and go through things. As we did that, it was really eye-opening the first time we went through it, just the difference between when people write up their review documents.
The folks in America would write pages like, “Here are your top three development areas.” A couple paragraphs on each one. Then our folks, especially in Ukraine, I think this is probably where we’ve had the most challenges with this. We’d ask for development areas on somebody else during our peer feedback process, and it’s like pulling teeth to get anybody to criticize anybody else. It’s not that we’re looking for things to attack people on. We just want to figure out how can we help people improve and become better at what they do.
We get maybe one or two or three short bullets as part of the written one, but even in the verbal feedback, just couldn’t get the same thing. As you said, I think Americans are very willing to share that stuff like, “Here’s what you’re doing great, which is awesome. Here’s where you can help to improve a little bit, and I’m happy to help you do that.”
Internationally, it’s definitely a little bit different there. I think some of it is just the hierarchical aspect concerns about criticizing either your peers or somebody above you rightly or wrongly. That was a learning experience and we don’t have a master yet, but I feel like we’re making progress. The last couple reviews have been a little bit more smooth. I think people are starting to understand what we’re looking for and how we go about things.
How about the core values side of the business? Do the core values transfer across each of the regions or do you have to adapt those, do you think?
I think they’ve translated pretty well. Starting in December of 2020, Neil, the CEO, led an effort to reassess our core values. We had a structure in place that they put in maybe a year or so before I joined. It was okay, but nobody really even talked about it. It wasn’t part of what we did. As a leadership team, we sat down and said, “Do these even reflect who we are now and what we’re doing?”
Neil embarked on this journey that ended up being probably four or five months, where we did different surveys across the entire team globally. Heated smaller focus groups and one-on-one conversations with people, proposed set of core values, we iterate on amongst the leadership team, and we’d send those out for feedback. Hopefully, it doesn’t sound like it was more work than what it actually was. It didn’t actually turn out to be that many hours, but it was stretched out over a period of time.
We’ve got inputs from everybody. Now, we’ve got these core values that I feel like everybody is really bought into because they’re part of that process of creating them. Now, what we’re trying to do is figure out how do we really bake these into our ongoing day-to-day conversations? Make it part of our compensation and rewards and things like that. We’re in that phase right now.
Even bring it right into the recruiting. How do you bring it into your recruiting side so you actually are turning people away who don’t already live the core values, then it’s easier to get them aligned? What kind of technology tools are you using to manage? You said you got about 25 people at the head office, but how many people are global roughly?
I think it’s like 24 in Lincoln now, and then we’ve got 26 internationally. It’s about 50/50.
What kind of technology tools are you using to communicate with them, manage the business with remote teams? What are you using? What’s your text stack look like?
This was probably one of the hardest transitions for me when I came in. Previously, everything I did was in email, all my interactions with customers, all my interactions with my teams. Here at Sprious, we barely use email at all. We’ve now started to use it for some company-wide announcements, but otherwise everything internally is in Asana and Slack.
Asana is where all the work is allocated and basically gets done and most discussions happen. Then Slack is something more quick or anything like that. We have the discussions there, and then Slack is our water cooler as well. There are a lot of fun things in Slack at a company-wide level as well as smaller team levels. Those are our primary communication tools. On the CRM side, we use HubSpot for our sales team. Then we use Freshdesk, which is part of the Freshworks suite for our CS team for ticketing.
Freshworks is coming along. We actually incorporated Freshworks on the CRM side, but our sales cycle is very different from what yours is. You joined the company in 2019. Why did you join, and what was it that attracted you to the company?
There were a few things. I probably have to back it up about a year before I joined. I think I mentioned before the interview, I do some real estate investing on the side, and I put some apartments under contract at one point in time, and I didn’t actually have the money to pay for them when I got them under contract. I’d go out and find some other investors to join this new LLC with my brother and me.
One of those investors turned out to be Neil Emeigh, who’s the CEO of the company. We got to know each other through that avenue as partners in a real estate investment. Over the next year, just through various interactions and conversations we’d had, we both realized that he needed somebody that could help run operations and I was getting a little bit burned out on the consulting side. I’ve been traveling basically full time for over a decade, four or five days a week, primarily out to Washington DC, and I’ve got four little kids, and I was looking for maybe something where I could be home more.
The idea of helping run a company in an early phase right in my backyard was very appealing. We courted for about four months. We had different dinners. He came to my house. I went to his office. We did a lot of different things and talked through what that might look like, whether it was good for Sprious, whether it was good for me. We ultimately decided that it was and we haven’t really looked back since.
You guys had a bit of a trust baseline already established because he was investing with you as well, I would imagine. When somebody starts putting their cash on the line with somebody else, there’s an implied level of trust there. Was that a benefit for you coming in as the COO to have that trust already?
I think so. I don’t know how well we sustained that the whole time. In the pre-interview, one of the things I shared was Neil and I hit rock bottom here where there was a Friday afternoon where we went to a meeting, and I had taken the day off beforehand to think through things. I came in ready to resign, and Neil came in ready to fire me and we both agreed going in the meeting that we’re going to see how it went and come to a decision coming out of that meeting. I’m okay sharing this publicly. We’ve shared it very much so, especially with the leadership team, and shared a lot of the details around that.
There’s this disagreement that sparked the whole deal, but that meeting was probably one of the most productive and most impactful ones of my working career. Neil and I both have gotten into studying stoicism, and we framed the whole discussion around different stoic principles and what it really means for Sprious and for him and for me, and what we appreciate and what we don’t. It basically came down to the only thing that we weren’t liking at that point in time was how we were treating one another.
We said, “We can work on this. It’s a relationship.” It is basically like a marriage. We talked through what are some of those tactical things that we can do to make sure that we are on a positive foot every single day. We agreed on three basic things. The first one was every single day when we get in the office, whoever gets in the second goes to the other one. We shake each other’s hand, we’d check in, see how we’re doing. It’s just like a very positive note to start the day. It sounds small, but it’s actually a really big deal.
Neil actually started going around the entire office and shaking everybody’s hand when he comes in, which I think is cool. Then another one is he’s got a personal coach that he has worked with for a number of years. Now, we have a monthly meeting where the three of us get together and talk about Neil’s and my relationship. What’s going well? What are some things we need to think through?
It’s been hugely impactful on that. It’s crazy. We had to scrape the bottom there, Cameron, to bounce back hard and get to where we are now. It’s truly phenomenal. The growth that we’ve had as a team between the two of us as well as our extended leadership team. We were trying to be vulnerable and share things with our group and get that filtered out throughout the rest of the organization. It has led to some great things, and we continue to grow rapidly as a company. I think it’s a result of that.
Being vulnerable and sharing things with your group and getting that filtered out throughout the organization can lead to great things.
There’s actually a model, I can’t remember exactly what it’s called, but it’s forming, norming, storming, and performing. It’s a model that teams go through and relationships go through. The forming is in the initial stages of when you’re getting going. Then the storming is like the fights and then the forming, storming, norming. The norming is when you start building some of what you guys are doing, some of the shaking hand, the date nights. You’re putting some of the systems in place and then the performing and then you’ll go back again. You’ll go through another storming period.
I’ve actually sent you a link as you were explaining this to the CEO event that we’re having. This will be too late for anybody reading. It will already have happened. We run an event every 2 to 3 years. It’s the only time we allow CEOs to come into the COO Alliance. You and Neil should strongly consider attending it. We have David Kolbe who built the Kolbe profile with his wife, and built the entire Kolbe model is coming to present and then doing breakouts with all the CEO, COO partners that are coming.
We have one of the top marriage counselors on the planet. She’s a marriage counselor of all the Wall Street executives, and she does the high-powered relationship, marriage counseling. She’s coming, and then I’m going to be there. It’s going to be two and a half days of CEOs and COOs building those high-performing relationships. What you’ve identified is very similar to a marriage. I’m sure that it’s got to have been easy for you and your wife to raise four kids for fifteen years, right?
It’s been a walk in the park. No problem at all.
No fights, no arguments. Every day has been a breeze.
That was right. I agree on everything as long as I say yes.
You guys have had to go through similar iterations in your relationship, where you slam the door and you walk out, you come back and say sorry, you have the makeup sex. You have to figure out those components of the CEO, COO relationship. How did the discussion go? Can you open up the kimono a little bit? How did you go in thinking you might be quitting and he coming in thinking he might be firing you, and how did you get through that in that half hour?
Tactically, what I did to start the meeting off, on Thursday the day before, I cleared my calendar and I took a few hours in the afternoon. I journaled for an extended period. Just wrote out my thoughts and my feelings, trying to really figure out, “What do I really want for the company, for myself, for my family?” Depending on which direction it goes, what decision was where I want to make? The way I felt was, “If I were to resign, it would feel like I was quitting rather than completing.” Because I feel like there’s so much more that I have to do here. I wrote a lot out, and I started off the meeting with Neil. Actually, I read through pages that I’d written out.
Explaining my thought process and how I thought about things and what I loved and what I didn’t love and where I saw the future going with us together. Then after that, he shared his perspective and we both got a little bit emotional. We’re people at the end of the day and I think that’s okay to admit. It just turned into a great discussion. We just got down to the brass tacks of it all.
I love that you actually included some of the stuff that you loved as well.
The list of things I loved was like this, and the list of things I didn’t was like this. Not that anybody can see my hands there, but the first one was a big list, the second one was a short list.
It’s so important to do that, to sit down, and make that list because often we end up spinning out of control in any relationship on the stuff that’s driving us crazy and we forget about the gratitude of all the things that we really love about the person or the relationship too. It is great that you did that. Do you have any signals to let each other know that they’re pissing you off? Carol Burnett is an old school host.
I know Carol.
She used to have this thing back in the ‘70s at the end of every show. She filmed live every night or once a week, whatever. Because it was 10:00 at night that she was filming, her kids were already going to sleep, she wiggled her ear as she was saying goodnight to the audience. The wiggling of the ear was a sign to her children to say, “I love you.” Do you have any sign with Neil to go, “You’re pissing me off.” Do you wiggle your ear or do you touch your nose? Or do you have a safe word? Anything that you guys do to make sure the other person knows, “We’re going off the rails.”
No, but that’s a great idea, Cameron. What I have learned is if we start to sense that conversation is going south, if we’re having a Slack discussion or something, we’ll stop and we’ll actually get together in person and talk through stuff. That’s usually more effective than trying to do it in writing.
I have a friend of mine. In their relationship, if one of them says the word meatballs, it just stops. They go back, they take a half hour, they reconvene, they tell each other that they love each other, and then they start up again. As soon as you say meatballs, it means, “*You’re right. I know you’re pissed, but this is escalating for no reason whatsoever.” Hopefully, you guys can find your safe word. What’s your date night with Neil? Do you have a date night or a morning or a midday or a midweek thing that you guys do to disconnect and hang out and have fun?
Yes, we do. On a weekly basis, we have a touchpoint every Wednesday afternoon, but then on a monthly basis, we try to do something where we get outside the office all together. We’ll either go grab drinks somewhere or dinner, or he’ll come out to my place, whatever it is. We try to do something that gets us out of the office. Even on Wednesdays when the weather is nicer, what we try to do is actually go outside for a walk while we do it. I’ve found the walking-talking meetings to be really effective because it changes the atmosphere and you’re not sitting across the table from one another which by its very nature feels somewhat confrontational, but you’re actually walking alongside one another and sharing your perspectives.
You’ve done your Kolbe profile. Your Kolbe A profile is an 8-8-1-3, which is classic COO, that you ask a lot of questions, high fact-finder and high follow-through, which means you put the playbooks and systems in place before you start a project. What’s Neil’s Kolbe profile? Do you know what his four numbers are?
I don’t know his numbers, but I do know that he’s basically exact opposite of me. He’s very visionary and I’m very integrated.
Is his third number very high?
It would be, yes.
Most entrepreneurs have a very high third number, which is a quick start, which means that they execute now and they plan later. They’re winging it, they shoot from the hip, they make it up on the go. They’re perpetual motion machines. The reason that the walk and talks, which is what Brian and I, when I was the COO at 1-800-GOT-JUNK and Brian was the CEO, we used to have these walk and talks. I’d be like, “Let’s go for a walk.” We’d say, “Let’s walk and talk.” We would get out the door and start going. We were both very high quick starts. We just needed to move. The fact that Neil can go for a walk while talking with you is way better than forcing him to sit at a desk.
I would tend to agree with that. We’ve definitely figured it out that I moved slower on some of that stuff. He’s definitely a mile-a-minute and he comes up with so many ideas and brilliant ideas. The problem is we can’t do them all at the same time. What we’ve struggled with is trying to figure out, “How do I basically nicely shoot something down?” Or at least say we can’t do it right now. I think we’ve figured out some of the stuff.
Talk to me about both of those. First off, how do you tell him that’s a great idea, but not now? Then secondly, how do you say, “Thanks for the idea, but no. Let’s go with the first one.” How do you deal with the ‘not nows?’
I don’t know if we’ve got it mastered, Cameron. I think the approach that we’ve been taking with that is we’ve actually defined a little bit of a process. If he’s got a new idea, we’ve agreed up front like, “Here are some of the questions that I’m just naturally going to have. If you can answer these in a document first, that heads off me asking a lot of questions, which feels like a no to him, even though it’s not really my intention. It’s just more of that fact finding that we we’re referring to.
Then, we also look at the priorities for the team overall and what we’re doing. We do regularly assess, “All right, where do we need to be spending our time?” We roughly follow EOS and we do our quarterly planning and set our priorities in that regard. We try and always bring things back to that, and if it’s not tied into one of those, then we look at, “Should we replace it or should we hold off on this until the next quarter and revisit at that point in time?” Using Asana helps quite a bit too because we can set in the task discussion there. We can say, “We’re not going to be able to do it right now, but we’ll revisit this in six weeks.” Then we set the due date for six weeks, and it pops up at the appropriate time.
I’ve found that giving the entrepreneurial CEO the example of it’s like a vacation, “Let’s do it, but we can’t leave today to go on vacation. Let’s do it in six months.” “Yes, you’re right. Let’s do the cruise in six months.” Or, “We need to do that house renovation, but not this afternoon.” “Let’s start that house reno in three months. Yes, you’re right.”
As soon as they realize it’s like a renovation or it’s like a vacation that we’re going to do it just not right now, they feel safe. Then to your point, it’s about asking enough of the questions to catch up with them. What I like doing is saying, “I love that idea. Let me ask you five or six questions to catch up to speed. Let’s go walk and talk.” You go for a five-minute walk around the building, you get to ask them questions, they don’t feel cornered and they realize you like the idea, you’re just trying to catch up with them. Then you can go, “I love that. Now, let’s put it on our list and we’ll revisit it in a quarter.” They go, “At least you understand it.” It’s almost like a game, right?
It is and we just recognize, “We just think differently and that’s okay.” It’s where how you work together most effectively.
Was that part of what was pissing him off about you?
Yes. Some of it was, he didn’t feel like I trusted him as much as I should.
Because you’re asking all the questions.
Saying no and asking questions but from my perspective, I wasn’t saying no. I was just asking questions. I think we’ve figured that out and reconciled it between us now.
Honestly, it’s one of the reasons why one of the two speakers at the CEO COO event is David Colby is so that the CEOs understand that the role of the fact-finder COO is to ask questions and that doesn’t mean we don’t like the ideas. It means we need to get the who, what, when, where, why, and how so that we don’t have to come back and ask them again. The biggest gift he can give you is the gift of time to ask questions. What I try to let CEOs do now is I teach them to say, “What other questions do you have?” which for you would be amazing. If he would one day say, “What other questions?” You’d be like, “He gets me.”
Actually, Neil is very good about that. It is interesting because Neil actually loves it when people ask him lots of questions. It’s just more when I personally ask him questions because of our relationship. That’s when he has more concerns, which is perfectly fine and understandable.
Let’s go to the next one, which is, “No, we’re not doing that.” What’s the art that you’ve figured out or the system to tell him, “Thanks for the idea, but no. We’re not doing it and here’s why.”
A lot of times, it’s helpful to get a second or third perspective on it, so we can look at it from another angle, and get Sarah, our Head of People Ops or maybe our Tech Director or somebody else involved and just say, “What do you think of this scenario and what are some of the other impacts of it? What do we need to do?” Really trying to get to that decision jointly, so that it’s not just one person saying no but we all come to the conclusion that, “It’s a great idea, but we just can’t do.” Either we don’t have the funding or the time right now, or whatever the case may be, or maybe it doesn’t align with where we’re going as a company.
I’ve got two more questions. One is how do you manage a technology company and a growth company and 4 kids under 13? How do you organize your time because you seem like a good dad who’s very present with your kids and how do you do that?
Thank you. I try to be. I don’t know that I always meet my own expectations there. Taking this position was one of my big steps in that direction though because I didn’t feel the travel I was doing previously that I was being the father that I wanted to be. The biggest factor here is absolutely my wife. We’ve been married for coming up on 17 years in October 2021.
There is nothing that I have done that would’ve happened had it not been for her. She’s just been my rock throughout. I can’t express enough appreciation for her. She was a nurse, technically probably still is a nurse. We made the decision together that she would stop working before our third child was born. She stayed home and helped raise the children. Then we also have her mom that lives with us. We’ve actually got seven people in my house, and for a while we had her grandmother that lived with us too.
We had four generations under our roof. We’ve got a good family support system, and a big part of the reason why we live right here where we do is because all of her extended family, for the most part, is right in the local area. My family is all in Nebraska, and we get together regularly. It was really important to us for the kids to grow up close to their grandparents and their cousins. We used to live out in Washington DC, and then we moved back here for those very reasons.
It seems like when you keep that as the center, the focal point, everything else just works out from there.
It really does. The other big part is just time management in general. I’m constantly looking for ways to improve how efficient I am with things or doing things or prioritizing work or life and just making sure that set priorities accordingly, eat the frog first, things like that. It’s a continuing journey, but I’ve done a couple things that I think have had a really positive impact on my life, which were about seven years ago. Basically, I made the decision to stop watching TV, and I still watch movies with my kids on Friday nights and whatnot, but I haven’t watched a television show in seven years, and I think just cutting that out was a huge time saver. It’s opened up so much of my calendar to do other things that I enjoy doing.
Cutting watching television out is a huge time saver. It opens up so much of your calendar to do other things you enjoy.
What you’re working around the prioritization, it’s one of the modules of my Investing Your Leaders course is time management. I’m blown away by how few people have actually ever been trained, even in the basics of time management, priority management. It’s astounding. Let’s go back to the 22-year-old Derek Knorr. What advice would you give yourself at 22 that maybe you know to be true today but you wish you had known back then?
Neil will actually laugh when he hears this one, but it would be make decisions faster, which is I guess probably telling because of my personality. There have been a few different things over the course of my life and career where I had opportunities to either invest in something or do something a little bit differently, and I hemmed and hawed on it, and the opportunity passed and then in retrospect I’m like, “That was a big deal. I should have jumped all over that at the time.” It is seizing the moment a little bit.
It’s hard because your natural profile is again that high fact-finder and that high follow-through of putting the systems in place. It doesn’t lead itself to make decisions quickly. It’s good that you recognize it and you’ll work on it. Derek Knorr, the COO for Sprious, I really appreciate the time that you spent with us today. Thanks so much for sharing with us on the Second in Command Podcast.
Thanks, Cameron. Have a good one.
I appreciate it. You too.