Gary Swart’s Journey through Silicon Valley
After the merger of oDesk with Elance, it took Gary Swart, former CEO of oDesk, 90 days to finally shed the “weight,” or mental burden, of being a CEO for eight years. It was an intense time for him building a company that reached $1B in work booked through the oDesk platform.
Gary Swart was always willing to trade a “secure” job for the chance to make a difference. He began in Silicon Valley as an early employee at Pure Software, a small startup that grew quickly.
The company was acquired by IBM and Gary become one of the thousands of employees at IBM. Unfortunately, according to Gary, his growth and development stalled. Though his director-level compensation was very good, he had very few “chips on the table” and was not able to make the impact he desired.
So, he left IBM to go work at another startup, Intellibank. His experience at Intellibank is what he calls his “character-building experience,” because “Experience is what you get when you don’t get all the other things you want.”
Intellibank, a company he describes as, “sort of like Dropbox done wrong,” did not make it. However, Gary’s 18 months of experience at a failed startup made him a much better candidate as the CEO of oDesk (currently Upwork after the merger with Elance).
“Experience is what you get when you don’t get all the other things you want.”
Four job characteristics that motivate people to stay or leave a company
People want to work at a company that has a clear vision and where they can have a great impact.
2. Growth & development
Money is not enough. People want to continuously grow professionally and personally.
3. Work-life balance
Everyone’s idea of work-life balance is different. Companies need to be flexible.
4. Financial reward
Even though money is not everything, a good paying job will allow the employees to focus on their work.
Gary on company culture
When asked how much time should be spent creating company culture, Gary answered: “a tremendous amount of time,” because,
“You can’t build a great company without great people with a great culture.”
Gary on hiring
Gary considers that personal characteristics are more important than knowledge or skills.
He mentioned his top four aspects that he is looking for in a future employee:
1. Personal characteristics
The people whom you hire need clarity on where the company is going and how it’s going to get there. He gave oDesk as an example. When he first started, the company had two potentially different pathways, but ultimately he had them pick one direction for the company. He had to let go of anyone who did not align with the new vision of the company. When building a company you need to make sure everyone is on the same page, they know what they are responsible for, and how you will measure success for their role.
How to Measure Your Startup’s Potential for Success
When Gary begins to analyze a startup, he needs to first see its product-market fit. He said that there should be such a great need for the product, it’s almost as if people should be “bleeding from the neck” (people should have an explicit pain point), and that there should be a large market share (a lot of people “in pain”). Second, you will need some route to market — this answers the question of, “how are you going to sell your product?”
Gary also suggested looking at the following measures of potential success:
- Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC), which is the cost associated with convincing a customer to buy your product or service.
- Customer Lifetime Value (LTV), which is a prediction of the net profit over the entire future relationship with a customer.
- Is there a “virality" factor present in your business? This refers to whether a friend will tell a friend, or how well your product or service spreads. You should aim for a virality coefficient >1.
- What would it take to get more “word of mouth?”
- 1) deliver a better service or product,
- 2) give people a reason to tell a friend, and
- 3) give people a way to tell a friend.
- Any kind of evidence that you can cost-effectively scale the business.
As a VC investor, Gary looks for companies that:
1) have product market fit
2) already have sales, and
3) there is evidence that they’ve nailed a repeat business.
As an example he mentioned a recent investment in Accuvit, whose product uses voice recognition and natural language processing to capture a sales call, and then converts the transcript into relevant data points.
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