Tone at the Top - Aaron Roe Fulkerson, CEO MindTouch on strong cultural pillars
- How does leadership maintain a winning culture when it is in hyper growth mode? Aaron Roe Fulkerson, CEO MindTouch offers his perspective.
Regular readers know I have a soft spot for Aaron Fulkerson, CEO MindTouch. For those that don't know, I've known Fulkerson since 2007 when his fledgling company was into open source, enterprise wikis - remember those? For all his infectious enthusiasm, Fulkerson drove me nuts by diving into all manner of geeky stuff that to this business minded person spelled one thing 'solution seeks problem.'
All that changed when the company pivoted around 2010 to providing a SaaS solution designed to unlock the value held in support documents. That made business sense across a broad range of industries and today, MindTouch offers solutions that enable self-service, improve selling opportunities and enhance customer service - all 'features' of a 21st century business. For more on the background, check this profile piece I wrote in 2016.
In that profile, I made a point of emphasizing the company's efforts at creating a 'no douchebags' culture. Fast forward a year and I wanted to update on what that means and, more to the point, dig into how that translates into success.
Fulkerson is up front in remembering the dark days of yore when it was unclear whether MindTouch would succeed. At that point, he and his co-founder Steve Bjorg who acts as CTO sat down and:
...came up with two guiding principles, one being that we intended to build a product that our customers love so much that they recommend it and the second principle was around was very specifically it was a creating a culture that attracted smart, good people that wanted to work hard doing great things.
For Fulkerson, the two go hand in hand because he believes that the nut of creating a great culture is to ensure that everyone is focused upon making customers successful. What does that mean?
When I say the success of the client it's really important to point out that I'm not talking about their happiness. A lot of times customers will pick short time gains for long-term pain and it means having the courage to do what's right for the customer even if that makes them unhappy in the short-term.
But how does this scale? Since I last met with the company, they've added a ton of people, moved offices, done a total office refurbishment, entered into important partnerships with much larger organizations and grown at 40-45%. The question comes, how do you maintain the principles that you know work for you?
What I do is I seek out people who've been successful with it before so I talked to Jay Simons over at Atlassian a few years back and I said, "How have you managed to maintain a positive culture at Atlassian when they've been through this massive massive growth right?" and his position was, "You can't maintain your culture and grow faster than 45% annually." So Mindtouch has been maintaining 40% to 45% annual growth and headcount ever since I spoke with Jay.
In short, MindTouch has deliberately throttled growth to an upper limit that allows it to maintain the things that make it a great company. On the flipside, Fulkerson talked about what happened at Zenefits:
Zenefits did it faster and I spoke with the team over at Zenefits and I said, "How did you guys maintain the culture?" And their response was, "Oh yeah you don't, you just don't there's no maintaining the culture."
We have written plenty about the car crash Zenefits became.
What Fulkerson didn't say but which is obvious from his answer is that the company leadership remains in learning mode. It has not made the mistake of assuming that success equates to some magic pixie dust the founders sprinkle over the employees. Having said that, Fulkerson tries to keep very close to the hiring process, which he restricts to what is termed a 'cultural interview' and then feed back to the departmental hirer.
Most of my questions will focus on their personality, things that they've liked, challenges they've faced in their life and how that has impacted their performance professionally or their behavior personally, but occasionally I'll talk to department head and I'll say, "This person could absolutely do the job but I think that you deserve somebody who will perform better," So there's been times where Mindtouchers and their rush to hire because they need to have wanted to hire people who aren't a slam dunk culturally and I won't veto them because they're not necessary bad hire, they're just not the best hire and I'll provide that feedback in that form it's like, "I think you deserve, they can do the job but I think you deserve better." And so far the department heads have taken that advice and then come back to me and said, "I'm really glad you said that you were right because this person I hired instead really is, I get it now."
Couched in those terms, you can see how MindTouch leadership provides for a culture of failure that serves to uplift and support people.
Asked what's the one thing he regrets, Fulkerson says that compromise in hiring is probably the most common problem and one that gets repeated time and again.
As we concluded our conversation, I could not help but be reminded that Fulkerson is very public about his life and the things that matter, especially on Facebook. There are many schools of thought on that topic but if I was researching a potential employer, then the insights I get from seeing what he does go a long way towards instilling confidence. It's how you end up with gems like this: