, inc. (CRM), Google Inc (GOOG), Netflix, Inc. (NFLX): An Interview With Ryan Smith

Smith: Yeah, it’s challenging. We’ve onboarded 150 people. We doubled our workforce last year. We’ve got a very transparent culture — extremely transparent.

Everything we try to do is to get information into the hands of the employees. We’re hiring people to think. I think that’s very important to understand, because it’s not 1985, where you’ve got specific roles for people, that that’s all they’re doing.

We’re actually hiring people to sit in front of a computer, and go blow it up. With that being said, I think the No. 1 reason why companies fail is because they either get inward focused, or they’re externally focused on a million different things. It’s not because they’re stupid or they’re not smart.

What we tried to do is figure out, “What would people want to know? What’s going to enable them?” and turn the default from being closed with information, to being transparent, and try to get everyone rowing in the same direction.

Doing that while onboarding that many people is definitely challenging, but I think that our culture will change over time. It’s always going to change. I can’t set that, but I think our culture keeps getting better and better, as we grow, which is the goal.

Brendan: Taking kind of a 30,000-foot view, big data era is here. How do you see it evolving over the next 5-10 years or so?

Smith: It’s a question I get all the time. What does big data mean to you? I’ve sat on a couple of panels where they’re discussing big data and everyone’s describing it differently.

I think that the big data… it’s a problem. I don’t think for many people it’s the terabytes of data that people are worried about. It’s more — not the depth but the breadth.

Now, there are companies that are worried about the depth of it, but most people I’ve talked to, it’s more around, “We’ve got so much of it. How do we interpret it? How do we make it actionable?” That’s the problem we’re solving.

I believe in getting data fast. If I were to make an argument it would be that the most important data in your company — or the stuff that you need — is the data you don’t have, which is, “What’s the name of the new cruise ship?” “What should I do with this product?” because that’s not sitting there.

How do you get it quickly, then how do you get that and make it actionable and have it in one spot that can integrate with all your other data initiatives? That’s the problem that we’re solving.

Brendan: What have you learned in the past? I don’t know if you’ve looked at high-growth companies in the past, maybe, that have been big successes or big failures in the tech world. Do you take any lessons from them, specifically?

Smith: Very much so. I think they’re equally important. A lot of times I look at some of the companies that have failed, or haven’t achieved their potential, and tried to digest what went wrong. I surround myself with some of those people, who have regrets or had a huge opportunity that didn’t pan out the way it could have.

Then I also look at companies that I admire. I really admire, inc. (NYSE:CRM). I admire what they’ve done. I’ve admired how they’re scaling. LinkedIn Corp (NYSE:LNKD) is a fascinating company to follow and watch, and I think they’re as disruptive as anything that’s out there, and that’s been amazing to watch.

Brendan: How about leaders? As a young CEO do you look to different leaders, learn from their example? Are there any in particular that stand out to you?

Smith: I think I look a lot more at the companies, and what’s going on, but as you look at that… You look at, inc. (NYSE:CRM) and see Benioff. It’s definitely an impressive company, but I think it starts with the leader. The LinkedIn side of it is very similar.

I read a lot. I read a lot about leaders, not only in tech but outside of tech. I’m reading a book right now about presidents of the United States. I’m going through all of that.

Yeah, I think you’ve got to. If there’s anything… we’re all trying to get wisdom beyond our years. How do you get 20 years of experience, or not fall into the same traps, or the holes that other people have fallen into?

I think it’s absolutely critical. I think it’s critical for organizations to do the same thing as well. It’s something that we’re trying to do with our employees. How do we get everyone five years more experience, tomorrow?

Brendan: When you’re talking about a triple-digit growth rate, that we spoke about earlier, do you worry about growing too fast?

Smith: You can often run in front of the team, which is scary. We’ve gone with this “nail it before you scale it” philosophy.

There’s a strong argument, and we’ve seen it, that if you can nail it — or have more certainty that you’re growing in the right direction — you’ll be farther ahead because you’re actually plowing through growth at a 95% certainty rate, and you’re coming in with more aggression than if you were 40% of the way there and thinking you’re doing the right thing.

As far as growing too fast, I think it’s a concern. I don’t think we’re anywhere near that yet.