Here is the full transcript of Firespring’s CEO Jay Wilkinson’s presentation on Company Culture at TEDxLincoln conference. This event occurred on November 10, 2011. For more details about the speaker, read it here.
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Jay Wilkinson – CEO, Firespring
Thank you very much. I was worried that you all might forget to do that after the break, because people were off talking and forgetting things.
So in 2002 I was fired as the CEO of my own company. In June of this year, just a few months ago, as the CEO of that same company, I was able to celebrate as we were named as one of Inc. Magazine’s top 50 small company workplaces in America. Thank you.
The journey has been a fascinating experience, very humbling, very exhilarating and I’ve learned along the way that people more than business plans or physical assets are really what makes a strong company. And I’ve learned that leveraging by deliberate design a company culture, a company has opportunity that goes far beyond what they can imagine. But let me go back to the beginning of the story.
In the mid-1990s, many of you may remember this: Al Gore had invented this thing called the Internet, remember that. And it was a fascinating time; the world around us was changing at a rapid pace. And people were starting to use websites for the first time in a commercial way for our companies and for our businesses. And we were really excited about this. We were able to create an opportunity to launch a company that developed websites and we were one of the first in the United States that was doing this in a commercial level. We called it Level 100 Communications and when we started we spun off of a printing company that I had owned at the time and about four or five of us literally operated in the basement of this printing company. There was no air conditioning, no heat, nails were sticking out of the ceiling, we basically took a concrete mess and cleaned it up and we called it home.
And our biggest fear at the time was if one of our customers might want to come and visit us, because we were terrified at the thought of them figuring out where it was that we lived. So we developed quickly some really fantastic tools and opportunity. We were able to build technology that made it possible for people to modify and update their website with the click of a button and just drop and drag simple. And at that point in time no one else anywhere in the country was doing something like that. And we were very excited about all the things that we had in front of us. In fact, we were so excited that we decided we wanted to leverage and ramp things up.
Back in these days, if you recall, was before the bubble burst and companies like ours were getting really high ridiculous valuations and we decided we want to take advantage of this and we were going to leverage and grow quickly. I’m going to go court some venture capitalists. So I spent many many late nights till three, four in the morning with kind of an unhealthy Daily-ians with Microsoft Excel, building spreadsheets and forecasts and models and did lots and lots of business pitches. And we finally found someone who would give us the money. And it was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had in my life to date. When I remember logging into my bank account, the day after we closed that and I looked and I saw that we had more than $1 million in cash sitting in our bank account waiting to be spent.
So I spent it. We added technology, we added lots of people in our company. Perhaps the biggest thing we did is we expanded quickly into 10 cities all around the United States by adding people and offices everywhere we could reach. And we started to really think this is where our growth is going to be; this is where it’s at. And we started to really quickly learn the difference between our vision of growth and what the money guys that had come in thought we should be doing.
One of the first things you learn when you have other people’s money and you’re running your business using other people’s money is that you don’t always agree on how you’re spending it. The thing is when I look back all these years later, I know that they were right to a large degree. And we started this infighting and jousting back and forth over what we should be doing and what we should be doing and in the middle of all this 9/11 happened. The economy completely tanked and one by one like dominoes falling, the offices that we’d opened up all across the United States started to fail and closed down.
And the infighting with my investors and board continued and got worse and worse — until the guy from the money shop we were working with called a meeting with our Board of Directors. There were seven members of our board and there was a 4-3 vote and they voted to remove me as CEO of the company because I wasn’t managing it properly and replace me with a management committee. You can’t even imagine how it felt to walk out of the office that afternoon which I did with a couple of co-workers that I was really close to, and went over to a local pub. And I sat down and I told them, “Look, I’ve been fired. I’m not the CEO anymore. What are we going to do?”
Over the course of the next several months I leaned very very heavy on the people in our company. The people that I had learned to grow and trust, the people that were there with me in the beginning and we started to slowly figure out how to get control of this. And over time we were able to put a plan together and with the help of some other people, including my father and my brother who are my business mentors, we figured out how to find new capital, private investors and some bank financing and eventually was able to regain control of the company.
So all of this time went by, now fast-forward seven years, Firespring today is a thriving and profitable company. We have more than 75 employees, 3,000 customers around the world in 12 countries and we’re just now preparing to begin to build out of our new corporate headquarters at 1201 Infinity Court here in Lincoln; we’re very excited about that. It’s been a long journey.
And what I’m going to share with you today is how that amazing ride that I’ve taken, how we were able to get from there to here. And the first thing we did in this process was literally open the kimono and share everything with our team. We told everybody everything. We told them the things we did right, we told them mostly about the things we’d done wrong and we shared our financial statements which is something we still do to this day. Every month we get together as a team and we share our financial statements with our company. We share everything. We open the door, we’re authentic and we’re genuine and we’re real about what it is we’re experiencing because we knew that the only way we could make this and get through this is if we had this mentality that we’re all in this together.
Because, you know, building a company culture, it’s not about having free soda in the breakroom. It’s not about putting food out on the table so people feel like you’re giving them these fringe benefits. It’s not about that at all. Building a company culture is about building a team of people who are committed to the same purpose, the same passion and the same ideals. And building a company culture is something that is possible if you’re really focused on doing all those right things. And it has a huge ROI.