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My First Year as CEO of Searchspring

It’s been one year since I took over as CEO of Searchspring. This past year has been a wild ride, not one that anyone could’ve expected or predicted. Here is just a short (or rather long) synopsis of my first year, it may be a good lesson for others.

The story starts back in February of 2019, when I met with the Scaleworks team on a referral from a friend. There was no job, just a get to know each other meeting. After I left, they sent me two potential acquisitions they were looking at, Searchspring and a second company. I don’t think they fully grasped that Searchspring was identical to the job I had recently left and the timing couldn’t have been better. I helped them through some of the due diligence of the deal, with the understanding that upon close of the acquisition, I would become CEO of the company.

We closed the deal on May 10th, 2019. It was both exhilarating and nerve-racking. When you take over a company, you can’t be sure what you are going to take over. You have no way of knowing how people are going to react. It can vary based on the prior management style, how long someone has been with the company, who hired them, etc. I stepped in hoping to bridge the gaps, whatever they might be, and earn the trust of the team.

To take over, I laid out a personal plan. It was roughly the following:

  0 – 30 days: Do nothing other than meet the team and observe
30 – 60 days: Make subtle changes but hold any large changes
60 – 90 days: Start making large changes

To earn the trust of the team, I said there would be no changes in the first 90 days. Some of them labeled that date on their calendar and constantly reminded me when any sort of change was made. Oddly, they never said anything when it was a change they requested. I held pretty true on my word and we didn’t change much, there really wasn’t a whole lot to change. The team was very strong, and really, the biggest change was that I let them run. My management style is to trust first, instead of making someone earn my trust, so I gave them a lot of room to run. In the words of Dennis Rodman: “you don’t put a saddle on a mustang”.

Speaking of management style, I sat down prior to starting the job and planned a lot. I believed I needed to have a plan and I followed it as much as possible. Over the years, I have always held some personal management principles that I learned from others. In some cases, I observed the opposite principles and ensured I never followed that path. Not to get sidetracked, but you can learn a lot from a terrible leader or boss. Sometimes those experiences are as good as – or better than – working for a great leader. The principles I hoped to instill were:

  • Transparency – Open by default. Private only out of necessity.
  • Customer First – People take care of customers, customers take care of the company.
  • Grow our People – Provide growth paths and training/learning that helps each employee grow, whether to help the company or help themselves.
  • Empower employees – Give employees the tools they need to be successful and let them do their thing. Do not micro manage.
  • Trust first – Don’t make someone earn trust, make them lose it.
  • Equality – Keep it equitable in everything we do – pay, gender, work/life balance.

I didn’t push these as anything more than my own personal principles, I only shared them with prospective hires so they could understand how I think. While many (almost all) of them eventually made it into our company values, my goal was to live by them day in, day out.

Fast-forward to the 90th day (really the 85th day), and Scaleworks, the fund behind Searchspring, announces it has bought Nextopia, the main competitor to Searchspring. We announce the deal as a separate acquisition and I am going to run both companies while we figure out how we are going to eventually merge them. This was not exactly a popular move among many, but there are 10 options when merging two companies, and we were not at all prepared to pick one out of the gate. It was just too soon and I didn’t have a good enough feeling on the best path forward. This acquisition presented new challenges. It added a new city, a new team, and a lot of “what are we going to do with these two companies?”. I will hold off on the details of that onboarding for a different blog but I followed a similar approach on the Nextopia side.

With the first 90 days behind me, I started to make bigger changes. The biggest change was over the next 90 days, while I hired an executive team and promoted two people internally. This was a huge decision: hire from outside or promote from within. While you would love to promote from within, I was juggling the need to manage a merger and two different companies, and I thought it was best to hire for experience. I have a long-standing belief that you can only hire from outside if, and only if, the team can look at the person and feel they can learn from them. If they feel they will learn nothing then they will resent your hire. To judge the impact, I can now look back a year later and see that only three of the original Searchspring team voluntarily left. That is super low turnover for any company, let alone one that just went through an acquisition.

Six months in and things were humming along. We had increased our growth rate and the teams were all coming together nicely. It was time to start the merging of the two companies. We picked February 4th and spent the next three months planning and executing. We wanted it to happen after January but before our busy season starts and all the shows begin. It went off with great fanfare and we were now a family, wearing one t-shirt and marching to one drum. We were all set for the new year and the challenges ahead of us.

Or were we?

March came around and suddenly we were thrust into change with COVID-19. While we put up a great month, it was clear there were new challenges ahead of us. Working from home isn’t an issue for our employees, except for the fact that they were thrust into it without warning and we have families sharing their work-from-home environment with kids and distractions galore. While there are likely some people that feel their productivity has increased, mine is probably around 80%, and I think that is great given the circumstances. I could write an entire blog devoted to our response to COVID-19 but for brevity I will skip the details and say that my team has done a tremendous job coping with a very unique situation. I have a lot of things on my bucket list, but “manage a company through a pandemic” is not one of them, nor will it ever be. This has been the best worst experience someone can manage through and I am grateful for the team.

That brings us to today, one year (and a few days). I am super proud of where we started from and where we are now. The Searchspring team teed up our success nicely and the team rallied together throughout the year. The addition of Nextopia further solidified this success.

Bring on year two!