Why did Qualtrics co-founder and COO Jared Smith make the fundamental mistake of going into business with his family? At the Startup Grind Europe 2016 Conference, Smith stated that family is a benefit for their founding team. “The benefit of being brothers is since we were little kids we could beat on each other and have the hardest arguments, then still be buddies 10 minutes later.”
Smith asked the audience to relate to their own experience while pointing out that there are conflicting answers when it comes to hard decisions. Many people have a tough time working together past that. Smith says: “We have it even more complex because we still have to go to dinner with each other and kids’ birthdays, and so it’s probably the only reason the company survived. It had to go through all the hard things to get here, and we were glued together whether we liked it or not.”
The brothers are completely opposite. Smith describes Ryan, Qualtrics co-founder and CEO, as outgoing and the hardcore marketer. “He has an engine in him. The motor is just huge.” Ryan may see a situation as a crisis. Smith, as the operational technology person, usually has a different point of view. The response to Ryan’s crisis may be that the problem is an easy fix. The opposite personalities have created a yin and yang effect. “I think you need the yin and yang in your founding partnership of a team,” Smith says.
Background: The Bridge from London to Google
When Smith traveled to London in 1997 to attend the London School of Economics (LSE), he didn’t get into LSE the traditional way. Instead of applying, he made an appointment with the Dean, and talked his way in. Smith stated to the audience, “I think not only in startups, but in life, you’ll occasionally get someone who does you a very nice favor, and I was fortunate that someone admitted me when I shouldn’t have been.”
In between London and returning home for Qualtrics, Smith worked at Google. While at Google, he became a master at hiring and scaling. Smith estimates he spent slightly more than a year’s time looking at resumes and conducting interviews during the six years at Google. The amount of employees increased from 300 to 900 by the time he left.
The Qualtrics Evolution
Qualtrics is on a similar scaling track and Smith is the leader behind the effort. Last year, Qualtrics employed 600 people. They have doubled the amount to 1200 employees.
At a high level, Qualtrics is all about surveys. Smith states that a simple explanation is the shift that occurred from paper based to online surveys. The goal was to be able to take a dynamic form, tabulate it, and send out the results. Qualtrics solved the problem with their software. “What happened when we launched was that no one wanted to buy it because most corporations were still outsourcing research. The only people who did want to buy it were the universities,” says Smith. The universities became the market that grew the company.
Smith notes “Mainly, if any student goes to a university, they learn to do market research or surveying on Qualtrics. And no surprise if you play that out over 12 years it becomes the number one product in corporations.”
The product has since evolved from the original focus of measuring experience. “In terms of how the idea morphed, it went from surveys to ‘How do you measure experience? Do you want to know how your products are doing on the market? Do you want to know how your employees are enjoying working for your company? Do you want to understand the customer satisfaction experience?’ and how you measure it at every step of the way and report on it and optimize your operations for it.”
Balancing the Scale
What maintains Smith’s level head to deal with the day-to-day operations includes getting up by 5 AM. He says, “I don’t like wasting a lot of time in the morning, because if you think about it, that 5 AM to 8 AM slot is when no one is going to bug you.
As a leader, what you always struggle with is the balance between individual contributing and leading a team, but you can’t lead a team effectively unless you get your think time and your preparation time. That block is the only block I know in a business day where I have three hours uninterrupted and then I can be everyone else’s until whenever to help advance the business.”
Smith tries to maintain a sleep schedule of 8 hours, which means he goes to bed early in order to be up by 5 A.M.. He tends to work at least a couple of hours everyday and is only gone one week a year. “I would rather go to work two hours a day to keep going and to keep the organization moving then to completely unplug.” Smith’s reasoning is based on how he sees his role- “I believe when you have a lot of employees, a lot of responsibilities, a lot of families depending on that, you don’t have the novelty to be able to turn off.”
Circling back to the original question, was it a fundamental mistake for Jared Smith to go into business with his family? Jared and Ryan Smith definitely complement each other in skills and personality. The brothers have also been able to maintain their business partnership because their sibling relationship is strong. Finally, the combination of the talent and relationship has equaled a million dollar business. Is this an exception? What would you do?
Watch the full Startup Grind interview: