Startup Culture: Why Michael Litt says Vidyard will Always be a Startup

When does a startup stop being a startup? Is it at certain revenue earned, number of employees, after achieving a repeatable, scalable business model? According to Michael Litt, CEO at Vidyard, the answer is, hopefully, never.

There is much debate in the business world about when a startup loses the trendy label and transitions into a “regular company.” However, notable tech giant, Facebook, has been around for more than 10 years and employs over 1,000 people, and Airbnb has raised over $3 billion dollars to date, yet, both are still regularly acknowledged as startups. So that begs the question, what makes a startup a startup?

During our interviews for “Startup’s Guide to the Galaxy” we found one common theme among successful entrepreneurs. For them, the startup label is more than a stage of their business development, more than a metric that can be tracked and identified on a revenue statement – it’s a mindset and a culture, centred around innovation, customer experience, and continued improvement.  

We sat down with Michael to discuss Vidyard’s journey from bootstrapping to success and learn more about how Vidyard fosters a culture of continued innovation to ensure they will always be a startup.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Clinton Ball: So when is a startup no longer a startup?

Michael Litt: Good question. Startup-ism is a frame of mind. The feeling drives innovation, keeps the business fast-moving and fast-reacting. Companies that stop being startups are the ones that cease to the the most innovative and fastest-moving company in their category.

Vidyard will be a startup till the day I leave this company, because innovation and moving-fast are core mandates of mine in terms of how we retain a competitive advantage and stay ahead of the field.

Clinton Ball: That is interesting. Silicon Valley serial-entrepreneur Steve Blank says something along the lines of a startup is no longer a start up until it reaches its repeatable scalable business model, but it sounds like what you’re saying is that it’s more rooted in the culture.

Michael Litt: If you develop pockets of a repeatable, scalable business model, then that model is under threat by macro-economic things like competition or talent issues. If you’re constantly fixing these things, then that’s a big company problem.

I agree with him to a point, but businesses that get to a point when they just have one repeatable process that they manage and work on and focus on will get out innovated by new startups… so you have to keep that sense of urgency with business.

Clinton Ball: So at the level you are at now, how do you stay innovative and how do you make sure that you don’t fall into the trap of just of just being driven by business metrics and board objectives?

Michael Litt: Everyone at Vidyard is responsible for thinking creatively about new and innovative ways we can approach the market. To foster that development, we host company-wide quarterly events called “Pitch Yard” where the whole company breaks down into groups of ten or so that are cross-functionally aligned. They discuss ways Vidyard can improve our product and go to the market with something new, the present them in front of the whole company. The winning team is rewarded with a dinner anywhere they want!

The intent of Pitch Yard is to create new, inspirational ideas for how we can go and impact the market. It helps us constantly look at the field to see what the competition is doing, what companies are doing in the very early stages, and to see if there’s something that we missed in the market that someone else has picked up (and if we should focus on it too).

Clinton Ball: That’s great, so obviously a big part of it is a clear strategy around the people that you hire and how you attract them. What are some key principles that guide culture in your organization?

Michael Litt: Continued transparency is always on my mind within our business. We call this radical transparency because we communicate everything to everyone. If we expect people to be as creative as possible while making the best decisions for the business, we need to get them all the information they need to make the best decision. This is where cross-functional communication, exposure to market challenges that the company may be facing or more is vital. Whether it’s a customer service lead, a marketing rep, a sales professional, or a product developer, transparency inspires people to think creatively because everyone feels empowered to solve the problem. We hire so many problem-solvers, whether they’re makers, builders, or people with creative outlets on the side – they bring this type of thinking into the company. This is why transparency helps us collaboratively share a set of values that inspire creativity and critical thinking.

Want more pro advice from Michael? Check out “Passion vs.Purpose: Building a Startup Brand

Purpose vs. Passion: Building a Startup Brand

Passion: The powerful emotion that drives you to work for your own success.

Purpose: The why behind what you do. The impact you make on your customers, your community, the world.  

After years of working with startup founders, we’ve seen countless innovative products and services and a lot of passionate people along the way. But with so many passionate entrepreneurs, how do we select the best-of-the-best, those most likely to succeed in the AC’s Accelerator Program?

When we evaluate applications into the program, we weight founder attributes like curiosity, a willingness to continually learn, and having a clear purpose as primary criteria for admittance, and for good reason.

Passion alone is not enough. In the recipe for success, passion and purpose are needed in equal measure. If you are in it for the long haul, and you should be, passion and purpose feed into one another. Before you have an established brand, your purpose – the real problem you solve – is the first thing that helps you get customers. Your passion is what sells your customers on your ability to deliver on that purpose.

An excellent example balancing purpose and passion when building a startup is Waterloo tech company, Vidyard. We interviewed CEO, Michael Litt, to learn more about how they leveraged their purpose and passion to build the Vidyard brand.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Clinton Ball: The first question is Purpose vs. passion, what have you learned as it relates to running your business today?

Michael Litt: I would say that…Purpose and passion should be aligned. When we started Vidyard, we identified our purpose as helping businesses put their videos online. Our purpose was plain and simple. We built a long-term vision around what that could become.

My passion was always for our customers. It was the only thing I could be passionate about, because when we built Vidyard, it was just a couple co-founders and I writing code – trying to throw ideas around and see what sticks.

The passion for the product came later once we saw it in our customer’s hands, providing them with value, and changing their careers. This inevitability lead to the development of our stakeholder list, which is what I’m passionate about. That list includes our customers, Vidyardians (our staff), shareholders, and our community. The stakeholders get me out of bed every morning.

Clinton Ball: What about storytelling. What is the purpose of telling a good story and around branding?

Michael Litt: Storytelling is absolutely essential. When you start your business, you have no customers and therefore no customer stories. The only reason someone would buy something from you is because you have purpose and you’re passionate about it. You need to have a story about why you have that purpose, and why you have passion to draw your buyers in.

At scale I don’t think that changes, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it, and that’s why both purpose and passion are both so important.

Our story was a video content production company. We made videos for businesses that didn’t know how to put them online. We built software to help them do that and then built software helped us analyze it. All of a sudden our customers realized there was huge value here, and that’s kind of when the journey started to scale. Our purpose inevitably drove our passion, and that story is what really aligned us with the first few customers.

Clinton Ball: For startups that are just starting out, what do you think is the best approach to marketing and getting that first customer? How do you sell when you don’t have a brand yet?

Michael Litt: When you’re getting started, you have to put yourself out there in front of people. It’s the only way to sell when you don’t have a brand and no one is visiting your website. When we got started, we built a crawler to scan the DMOZ for every business that had a video on their home page. That list extracted 80,000 companies. I’d spend the first few hours of every day sorting through that list, and prioritizing 100 companies that I would contact the next day. The next day, I’d contact those 100, and prioritize my list of 100 for the next day again. This happened over months.

When you have no brand, and no customers, the only way to communicate is to sell your vision, your purpose, and your passion by putting yourself out there in front of people. I’ve seen so many companies that build the digital site of their business, but they miss out on the sense of urgency to put themselves in front of the customers. Maybe they don’t have the experience, or they’re introverted so it’s scary – but it’s ultimately why the never moved into the next phase of their business.

Clinton Ball: Lean startup methodology vs. a design centric approach. In your opinion, do you think it’s a mix of both of those things, or do you prefer one over the other?

Michael Litt: Well Steve Jobs and Elon Musk both got their career started doing exactly what I just described. By the time you have the personal brand, by the time you’re Apple, by the time you’re Tesla, it’s a completely different story of design first and they will come. So we’re talking about 2 very different ecosystems. Any company story, like Nike, McDonald’s, Oakley, always has that essential starting point of like just grinding it out and putting stuff in front of people.

Clinton Ball: Speaking about first clients, how did you land them? Was it a product of many meetings, how long did it take to find someone that was willing to take the risk with Vidyard and believed in you and your vision?

Michael Litt: In the early stages of our business, we were making videos for companies, so we had a client list of those who trusted us and had bought from us. We built software to solve their problems. We were easily able to communicate what we were doing because that line of communication was already open. We were able to implement out Vidyard software in their business, and that was essential because it was a service-based sale. We were then able to talk to the customer and develop a feedback loop so that we could iterate our product accordingly.

Clinton Ball: Let’s talk about leveraging that feedback. How powerful do you think it is to leverage testimonials, and a positive customer experience in order to generate new sales?

Michael Litt: When you start your entrepreneurial journey, FOMO (fear of missing out) is a major driver for people. If you’re able to develop a relationship with someone who will be a reference for you, they’ll be able to communicate your passion and purpose about how you’ve changed the way they do business. Others will hear that, lean in, and start buying your product too. If you have someone who becomes that hook and is willing to make that commitment to you, it’s so important to hear their stories and keep the relationship strong so that you can leverage it for future buyers.

Want more pro advice from Michael? Check out part 2 of our interview with Michael “ Why Michael Litt says Vidyard will Always be a Startup.

Show
Hide