The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in the Arts district! Harrison and Mike delivered an excellent talk at General Assembly about their journey towards profitability. With humility and candidness, they opened the door for an informative discussion centered around learning the product market, building an effective team and the importance of creating a culture of transparency. Here are some important takeaways from two extremely successful thought leaders:
Learning the Product Market
Understanding who would buy the product and where to find them was one of the greatest challenges Harrison and Mike faced early on. Once they built Spokeo it simply sat there with no users. Harrison stated “I learned later on that it takes time to find the product market. There will always be someone interested and wanting to buy your product. The real question is can you find them? In the very end there will be someone interested in what you have to offer.” Mike then followed by saying that “The true test was not building the website, it was the willingness to keep it going.” Constant trial and error are part of the process. Simply start somewhere and begin analysis. This will help you understand the needs of your customers.
At the end of the day, the Spokeo founders strived to make a product that was different from what already existed in regards to people search engine tools. The websites available back in 2006 were geared towards private investigators – they were complicated and difficult for the average user to navigate. This is what caused the shift from a product that centered around records to a product that was centered around people.
A member of the audience asked a question concerning privacy and the potential barriers that may come with public concern. After all Spokeo is a product that has information linked to real people. Harrison highlighted that it is important to understand that “we believe that privacy is about empowering people with the control over their information, not hiding and stopping the free flow of information. That said, Spokeo understands that the definition of privacy can vary from person to person. This is why a one-step opt-out process exists for those who want to keep their information from being publicly displayed on Spokeo. So, the power remains with the user no matter where their feelings lie on the issue. At the end of the day, Mike and Harrison are building a brand anchored in transparency with a mission to “use data to help make the world around us more transparent.” Though this is a constant work in progress Spokeo is committed to help people better understand and manage their information.
Building and Maintaining an Effective Team
Mike and Harrison were college roommates who went on to live together for seven consecutive years as they launched Spokeo from Harrison’s parents’ basement . Through this time they highlighted one common theme: It is important to have a good business partner who is willing to have honest conversations and challenge important decisions. This particular area prompted some very informative dialogue:
Harrison: “You want people who compliment your skill sets. Mike and I have very different skill sets and this is why we stayed together out of Stanford.”
Mike: “It is the people who have kept me at Spokeo all these years. One good lesson I took away was it’s good to have a partner. Someone to argue with and tell you the hard truths.”
Harrison: “At the very end we are different people. How do you leverage that skill set and be open minded? That is one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned.”
Mike went on to stress that the people you hire are the most important thing as a company grows. Harrison advises the group not to be afraid of change or conversations that are hard. Utilize the team to combat these challenges and learn from them. Mike followed up with the fact that mistakes present a platform on which to figure out how you can communicate better with the team moving forward.
Creating a Culture of Transparency
Transparency at Spokeo manifests in two places: The actual product and the company culture in which teammates operate. When it comes to the product, Harrison states that “there is a general cultural trend around a fear of technology. Transparency is key to helping people feel confident around their people-based decisions.” This is the heart of what Spokeo aims to do for its customers. The second transparency element is transparency within the working environment. When posed with the question of how to implement this, Harrison responded with:
“The hardest part is identifying problems and admitting that you have problems. Once you do this, you will be amazed at human ingenuity. How do you work with the team to break that problem down into smaller chunks? The way to solve problems is to divide the problem into smaller problems…A lot of times you just have to listen. As the CEO, a lot of people are afraid to talk to me. How do you build these mechanisms and create these loops? How do you create a safe environment? We have a culture of nice people, we do not yell at each other. That is the culture we have, it is the opposite of The Wolf of Wall Street.”
So how do you get a group of nice people to speak up? The answer is a Human Resources and culture team dedicated to hearing the concerns of the entire company. Mike followed with a note that “internal transparency means how you share with your teammates. Share as much as possible.” This channel should go both ways between founders and team members.
Our thanks to General Assembly for hosting this talk and to Aaron Wheeler, for moderating the discussion. Spokeo continues to lead the people search engine industry. Aspiring entrepreneurs have a lot to learn from Mike and Harrison, who chose to make their business profitable from its early days. Click here to learn more about working for Spokeo: https://www.spokeo.com/culture