Today, Proof is right at 17 employees, and we launched a little over a year and a half ago. In this quick transition, it’s gone from just three of us kind of hacking away, to a realization of “Oh, wow. We’ve got a lot of people here now.”
Something I’ve been thinking about lately is now that we’ve got an actual company with 17 employees, I have to do certain things to run that company, and I can’t just be this growth marketer in the weeds. I have to step out and be more of an active CEO.
I want to share seven of the key shifts that I made to retrain my brain, rewire how I think, reorient my calendar, my schedule, and my decision-making process to be able to lead the team.
My job at Proof is to help align everybody else and be CEO — here are the 7 shifts I’ve made to make the shift:
Develop a systems mindset
About two years ago, right before we started Proof, we were running a separate company and we were just dog-tired. At the end of the year, we stopped. We said, “We don’t want to run a company like this next year. What should we do differently?”
Scaling Up & SOPs
We started searching for solutions, and eventually, we found a book called Scaling Up by a guy named Verne Harnish, that has basically become our textbook for how to build a company. And more specifically a guide on how to build systems, process, procedures, principles, and policies that make up a company.
I used to think that things like this were so corporate-y and horrible that I didn’t even want to discuss them. But one day I had to say, I need to change my mind. I’d been told the success stories of Scaling Up, and I decided, “We’re going to do everything that this book says. We’re going to trust it, and we’re going to see how it goes after six months.” We applied the lessons, and voila, our lives changed.
One of the most important thing I learned from that book — and I’m going to talk about a few of those processes more in-depth — is that when mistakes get made, it’s not because I have a people problem. It’s because I have a systems and a process problem.
For instance, we might launch a new web page, and maybe there are a few broken links on there. I used to just get really mad at the person that was running that project, and say, “Why didn’t you check all the links? Why didn’t you do all the QA?”
But after implementing the lessons from Scaling Up, I realized we didn’t have any QA process. My employee wasn’t equipped to a complete QA without a system in place. It was my fault as the leader by not creating a process for them to go follow.
After implementing the lessons from Scaling Up, our process has changed. Now, when a mistake is made, we pause and say, “Okay, let’s stop. What happened? What can we learn from that?”
Then, we go a step further and ask, “What process can we put in place to make sure that doesn’t happen again?”
This mindset has been a game changer for us. As soon as we started systemizing our approach, we started seeing a huge decrease in mistakes being made and errors going out the door. We established SOPs and kept them in a company Wiki. If there was ever doubt, we could go, “Hey, what’s the SOP? What’s the standard operating procedure for this?”
That was a huge, huge process improvement that really helped us out.
Another leadership change we implemented was called the Daily Huddle. Every day at 10:15, from 10:15 to 10:25, our entire team hops on a meeting call. A couple of team members are remote, but most of us are in the office in Austin.
The first section of the call is just one minute where we share exciting things happened in the last 24 hours since we last met. Next, we ask what’s your number one priority for the day? And we go through step by step, person by person — Brad, A.Z., Ashley, Chris, everyone… we each share the number one priority for the day. It helps to get people focused and thinking of the biggest thing that helps us reach our goals. The third thing that we ask everybody is where are you stuck. People jump in and share any items they are delayed or roadblocked on. And then finally, we go through and share a few different metrics about the company — just a couple of performance indicators everyone needs to know. Overall, this is a really, really great time for all of us to come together and just build momentum at the beginning of the day.
One last thing that we’ve done as far as developing a systems mindset is we host a Weekly All-hands meeting, which is the time of the week where we get everybody together in one room. It’s an hour long. And during that meeting, we go through different highlights of the week, and we’ve got a whole process for that.
Learn solving big problems is easier than solving little problems
As I’ve become a more active CEO, I’ve learned that solving big problems is actually easier than solving little problems. When you think 10x, you can inspire people to help solve big problems."If you try to solve a really hard problem, I think what you'll find, and what I've found, is that it's actually easier to do that than it is to solve a little problem."
For instance, if I’m trying to create some little app feature, nobody cares. Nobody wants to work on it. Nobody wants to tell their friends about it. It’s not remarkable. It’s this little thing. But when I say, “We want to personalize the entire web” or “We want to humanize how marketing is done online,” people get excited.
They start asking questions. They start telling their friends. They go, “Hey, I’d like to work on that,” or, “Hey, can I consult with you on that,” or, “Hey, can I be an advisor for your company? That sounds really cool,” and good things happen there.
I’m constantly as a CEO trying to push our vision bigger and grander, and I’ve found that the more we’ve done that, the easier things have become, which is very paradoxical.
Think of people like a product
Proof has two main products. First, we have the product that our customer buy to personalize their websites, to increase conversions through social proof. And then we have a company. That’s the product that most people don’t think about. Early on, it’s not the product that you really need to be thinking about.
But as we’ve grown, I’ve started to think, “Okay, this company is a product, and the employees here are the customer. How can we make this a really great place to work?”
When we do that, we’re going to build a more sustainable, long-term business. At Proof, we’re trying to build a company that’s going to last a hundred years. These employees have to be happy. I’ve got to continually be tuning that product wheel just as they are building products for our customers.
Survey your people
A few ways that we do this is that we send surveys to the teams every month. We actually are customers of a product called Gusto, and it sends out a monthly survey that asks 5 to 7 questions about how employees are currently feeling about your company. It’s been really, really insightful.
We take those surveys and we learn from them. It’s kind of like an internal employee net promoter score (NPS).
It’s been really insightful to learn about how can we make our health care better, how can we make our hours better, understand the value of the remote day, choose better snacks, and see if people find the work engaging. All those different things come to light when you ask for that feedback regularly.
We really try to build the company with the team not just for them. We’re on a big mission here, and we invite everyone into that.
What can we do all together — all 17 of us? What can we do to make this place better and make this place more engaging? What are our core values? We do all that together as a team, and it creates a lot of buy-in.
Then finally for people, one lesson that I’ve learned is to standardize compensation. In the beginning, I used to just kind of pull the number out of thin air because it seemed like a good salary. Finally, I realized this is not going to scale.
A really easy thing that we’ve done is start using software called HiringPlan.io. They basically pull in all this market data. You can go and type in the title of the employee is, what the role is, the location, and all these different factors, and they’ll say, “Okay, the 50th percentile, or 70th percentile salary for this role in this location is is $75,000 – $90,000.”
What we’ve done is we’ve kind of adjusted everyone’s salaries, put everybody on that format so that everyone’s salary is very consistent and they know exactly what they need to do to go up or to go down based on the description of the different levels.
Build a process to find all stars
As you hire people, you realize hiring is actually pretty tough. I used to hire just by thinking of who’s the one person I know that I think is pretty cool that I could work with.
I’d send them a Facebook message. I’d say, “Hey, do you want to work with us?” They’d say yes or no. If they said yes, again, we’d hop on the phone the next day, figure out salary and all that. They’d come on.
That worked fine, but several people ended up leaving because it was obviously not a good process at all. A book that I read, and that I just reread, is called Top Grading and it changed the way I hire. It is a great book outlining a step-by-step process for hiring great people.
When it comes to hiring, most people (as did I) think it’s kind of this gut feeling.
But when I don’t treat anything else in my business that way, so why would I treat hiring that way? Why would I treat what is arguably the most important assets in our company the people with such little strategy?
We followed that Top Grading process to a T — it’s outlined in both Top Grading and in Who.
Since implementing these changes, we’ve had much better talent coming in the door. We’ve had better retention. People have been happier. We’ve been happier.
Basically, these two books help you create this funnel where you kind of fill the top of the funnel with high-quality candidates. They give you a step-by-step interview process to go through there. It is really, really impactful.
Acknowledge culture is made, not born
I think a lot about the culture at Proof. But how do you make and craft this culture?
Culture is one of the only competitive advantages that you have that nothing else in the market can impact.
I can’t control what my competitors do.
I can’t control what the overall economic market does.
I can’t control a lot of things, but I can control the culture that we have at Proof.
We created core values, which I’ve explained before. We created a program called The Proof Way, which is this personal development program everybody that joins Proof can do in the first year, and you basically read one book for every one of our core values. You fill out a four-question report at the end of reading the books — and have a conversation with me about what you learned along The Proof Way and these core values.
You have a quiz around what are the core values, what are the books associated with them, what’s everyone’s name in the company, what’s everyone’s role in the company, what’s our mission statement, what’s our goal for the quarter, and what’s our quarterly theme.
Then I grade that. You can only miss one. If you pass all that, you basically win. You unlock several rewards, one of them being $3,000 a year of personal development money to kind of put towards whatever you’re working on in your career. We also have a couple other awards in there. But that’s been a really cool way to highlight and say, “We are willing to invest in you if you’re willing to invest in the culture.”
Part of our interview process, one of the last steps, is our core values interview, which is with J.P. and myself, go through core value questions and try to figure out if the candidate fits the team, aligns with where we’re headed, and knows how we’re looking to do things.
We use our core values in everyday language. We’re always talking about how do we 80/20 this? Or we say, “you’re just playing the long game with that decision.”
During our yearly reviews, we review everybody on the core values. It’s not so much about did you hit your numbers, and did you do this and that.
It’s more about did you play the long game this year and how? How could you do better at that? Or did you protect our people and help them flourish this year? How did you do that? Well, how could you improve on that?
We are really, really big on culture here, which a lot of companies aren’t into it this early on, but we really think it’s a competitive advantage that we want to stoke.
Know my job as CEO
I’ve studied a lot of CEOs here over the last two years. I have researched what does this mean to be in this role, and it is not anything like I expected it to be.
A couple of insights I’ve had is that as CEO, I had to learn where I’m spending my time, and look at that deeply, and then systemize my work from that. I was spending a lot of time doing repetitive things, and I had to go in and systemize those items. I was spending a lot of time doing things that other people could do, so I had to fire myself from a lot of different tasks. Today, I’m continually asking myself, “What tasks am I doing that only I can do?”
We’ve got a lot of really smart people here, and they can do a ton of this stuff in the company. Most of them can do a ton of stuff better than I can. I don’t need to be doing things that I can hand off to them to go do.
Oftentimes, it can be better, and there’s are certain things that only the CEO, that only the leader can do. Only I have the right perspective, or all the pieces, or all the information on to be able to go do that and lead that. I’m constantly looking at this task saying, “Am I the only one that can do this or, in fact, is there somebody else that can do that?”
80% of my time is spent finding and attracting “A” players, doing a lot of recruiting, setting the strong vision and mission for the company, and setting that North Star, and then aligning the team around that. Usually with goals and “here’s where we’ve headed” type missions. I’ll say, “Okay, 90 days, we need to hit this number,” but then I don’t decide how we’re going to hit it. Everybody then kind of breaks down from that, saying, “Okay, how are we going to go hit that number?”
A lot of my time is spent thinking about where we are going, where we need to hit goals, and then how we can reinforce that day over day over day because people forget.
People totally forget where we’re headed, what we’re doing, what we’re building. I’ve got to be a constant source of direction.
I really think that traditional org charts are upside down. I used to think, “CEO’s at the top, he’s got everybody serving him and everybody reporting to him, and he’s got it easy. That’s the job that you want.” But what I’ve realized over time and as I’ve grown as a leader, I’ve realized that I flipped the org chart upside down. Truly, the CEO, the leader, should be on the bottom of it.”
I spend most of my days thinking, “How can I serve everyone here? How can I give them the right information, the right tools, the right team members, the right resources to accomplish their job well and do work that they can truly thrive in?”
Finally, you’ve got to look at every decision and you’ve either got to do it, delegate it, or cut it. I spend a lot of time delegating. I spend a lot of time cutting. I’m very, very particular about the things that I do. I’m very ruthless with my schedule and the tasks that I take on. I make sure I leave a lot of open time in my schedule.
I don’t want to come into the day and just have the entire schedule filled up in 15-minute increments, because I need time to be able to dive into different issues and problems. I am continually setting the vision and the direction of the company at Proof. I spend a lot of time delegating and cutting.
Develop financial acumen
One thing that’s been really hard for me, but has been great is know thy financial numbers and obey them.
A couple of years ago I had no idea how to do a profit and loss statement, or a balance sheet, or anything like that. Again, I think early on those things don’t matter a ton, but they do matter some.
I had to learn how to read a balance sheet, prepare a P&L, do cash flow management, calculate profit margin, find gross margins, and much more. I also had to consequently know how to impact those numbers, determine what levers to pull, and learn how to affect finances as CEO.
These are all numbers that you should be starting to familiarize yourself as CEO, and I had to just stop and spend about a month working with an accountant and a coach, just teaching me how do all these things work. Now, we do a daily and weekly reporting, and I get a daily report, from our Head of Finance AZ who will say here’s how much cash we brought in, how much cash we spent, our net margin, and cash flow in/out.
Then every week, we do a budget review. We set the budget at the beginning of the month, and then every week we’ll go through and say, “Are we doing on that budget here right now?” At the end of the month, we reconcile the whole month and look back on that, and that has been really, really valuable to help me drive the ship and know where we’re headed.”
For a lot of startups, you’re not thinking about profit right now. You’ve probably raised money. But you’ve got to know these things because there will be a time that comes when you either run out of money, have to get profitable or have to raise more money. It’s important to know those things or else those things will sneak up on you. Plus taxes, too.
Those are the seven big shifts I have made to go from marketer to CEO. I hope that’s really helpful for you.
I’m continually learning, and I’m continually trying to figure this whole CEO thing out. But I’m still early on in the journey here. These are my lessons from zero to 17 employees, and I’m excited about the next phase of growth.