As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Allan Jones, Founder and CEO of Bambee.
Allan dropped out of college when he was 19 to join a startup technology company called Helio in Westwood, California. He is now a 2x entrepreneur and has held executive roles at a number of startups, including Head of Product & Subscription at Docstoc (acquired by Intuit), Founder & CEO of venture backed online clothier Fourth and Grand, and Chief Marketing Officer at ZipRecruiter, which raised $63M and is one of the fastest growing companies in the country. His expertise and successful track record in subscription businesses largely fueled ZipRecruiter’s massive growth where he founded the company’s first marketing team. Including analytics, customer success & account management and new product development. Today, Allan is the Co-founder and CEO of venture-backed bambee.com, a first-ever, HR Manager solution for small businesses. He is passionate about finding the good in people and searching to unlock the potential in businesses and society. He’s committed to contributing to social change, community activism, involvement in political campaigns & time donated to non-profits are a representation of this.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, in a town that was wedged between Compton and Watts. The neighborhood wasn’t very safe, and I mostly grew up behind a chain-linked fence in my Grandmother’s front yard. Most of my early memories are running between the front and back yards and the hallway that connected them. My grandmother ran a childcare business from the house, and my parents also ran their own small businesses. So growing up, I witnessed a family that was consistently figuring out how to make ends meet — while never making that very apparent to me. It was a very hard-working family, though no one ever complained about how hard they worked.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
The most sustainable innovations come from a collective string of experiences that tie together. Coming from a family made up mostly of small business owners and growing up working behind a cash register, my inspiration came from an earnest insight into the friction and struggles of running a business day-to-day, while also having a seat at the table where those owners came home and talked about their actual business problems each night. The seeds for my company Bambee were planted 25 years ago. It’s why we think about leading through authenticity. I truly believe I have an understanding of the stressors for small business owners, and I have a level of empathy for these business owners because of my formative childhood experiences.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
In my first job, I was an associate product manager. My mentor was a successful, brilliant product mind, and he knighted me as his product chief of staff. Part of my job was to send him a summary of the most important things happening in the product team each week, so he could report on those things every Monday. For my very first attempt, I spent maybe five hours crafting an extremely long and detailed email. I spent a nauseating amount of time agonizing over the details and phrasing, and I packed it with as much information as possible. I made the mistake of thinking “most important things” meant “everything.” On Sunday afternoon, I sent him this long, maybe 100-line email, thinking I nailed it. Two hours later, I get a response that says, “Fifty percent less.” That was it. So, I whittled my brilliant email down by about half and sent it again. And again I got a response, “Fifty percent less.” I went on to eventually send him a condensed version, thinking he was going to be furious because it did not provide nearly the level of detail he needed — but I never heard another word. The lesson was clear to me only years later, which was — smart people are hired to filter their thoughts and impose their opinions on the information they provide their leaders, not to give them all the information.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are an army of people who’ve been helpful to me throughout my life, but my best friend of 20 years has been as, if not more, delusional as I was about how good I was early on in my career. When I decided to quit my job and start my own company, I was a 10 on the delusion scale, but she was a 15 — always betting that I had what it took to succeed, unequivocally. Whether she was delusional or just a gambler, she was authentic. And her unwavering support helped solidify a muscle memory in me to consistently bet on myself. The belief and the instinct to keep betting on myself eventually paid off. And she’s been on my side ever since.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When I was first beginning my career in tech, I was a college dropout who didn’t have that typical Silicon Valley, Stanford network. When I set out to launch my first company — Fourth and Grand — I couldn’t get a single response from an investor. And when I eventually did get a meeting, they would often say things that were extremely insulting, like “Why should we believe that you won’t spend all the money without creating any value?” There was a posture that the community was willing to hold with me that would probably have not been true had I had a different profile. The expectation was not just, “convince me you’re smart and you have a good idea,” but also, “you’re probably a failure — convince me why you’re not.” That’s a much bigger hole to dig yourself out of. The good thing is, I didn’t know that that wasn’t the typical experience for everybody, so you just adapt. The ability for investors to hold that posture with me came very easily for them back when I was first starting out. It doesn’t anymore.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When failure never seems like an option, stopping doesn’t seem like one either.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
2020 was one of the hardest years I’ve experienced as an entrepreneur. The company is thriving, and we thrived all the way through 2020, but though it may have been our most successful year, it was also the most difficult. We had to make some of our toughest choices ever. But when you really believe in the mission that you’re charging towards as a company, no matter how bad the market gets, there are things that keep driving you forward every single day. I thought about the people at the company, I thought about the clients that we’re serving, and I thought about our mission, which is to add fluidity and decrease friction in employment so people can carry their career equity with them from company to company. I thought about those things every single day, and that helped make 2020 feel no different than any other year. Every day is difficult when you’re running a startup. There are problems every single day. If you only look at the challenges, you eventually won’t be able get out of bed in the morning! You have to condition yourself to only look at the opportunity. Overtime, you build muscle memory to ignore the potential downsides, until at some point all you can see is the opportunity. So psychologically it gets easier and easier because you train yourself to push through the friction, and that’s where resilience is built.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The thing that makes Bambee stand out most is our understanding that the human beings that run companies want to deal with brands that are empathetic, that create relief, and that see them as people. And that’s who we are.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Don’t think about rest as rest. Think about rest as taking time to wash your cape. Resting when there’s so much to do is often really hard to wrap your head around, but by making sure your flying tools are pristine, so that so you can fly at warp speed — that’s a psychological tactic that has helped me. Building companies from a place of joy provides an infinite power pack. It’s the one thing that persists. You can have good days and bad days, but if you run a company from a place of joy, it changes your approach every day.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I try to bring goodness to the world by coaching, mentoring and investing in people just as people coached, mentored and invested in me. That’s the most exciting part of what I do. Anytime you bring your authentic self to anything, you’re inherently bringing goodness to the world. To create a company from a place of authenticity is to create something new for the world that is meant to be there. Our culture is built around that.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Following your instincts while valuing the opinion of others is the key to becoming successful faster. This concept seems simple, but oftentimes, doing both of these things at the same time creates what feels like an internal contradiction. If I am meant to follow my own instincts, then how does this leave a place for the opinions of others? Instincts are part biological and part experience make-up. Who we are and how we got here make up our instincts — the magic in our decision making as leaders. But magic is nothing without a potion. And the feedback and opinions of others are what helps us shape the number of choices that CAN be made — the potion. Value other opinions to understand the choices and use your instincts to narrow and select a choice and direction. The best CEO’s have mastered this equation.
- Running a company is like a Rubix cube inside a Russian doll — Complex puzzles and problems constantly evolve over time but never stop. If you are an engaged founder that cares deeply about your business, there will never come a day when you wake up and see smooth waters — there is always chop. Every day you run your business, your job is to solve problems repeatedly. The number of problems you need to solve and the speed at which you need to solve them expands exponentially, the more innovative and ground-breaking your business is. Problem-solving all day long, over and over and over again. This is how durable businesses are built.
- Your people are your best asset. No, really. Read this out loud: “My people are my best asset.” When you care deeply about something and you truly value it, you take care of it. You nurture it, help it become as good as it can be, falling more and more in love with it over time while watching as it increases in value. The people that work for you are no different. This takes an incredible amount of emotional grit and warmth in your interaction with them. Relentless energy toward telling them what’s on your mind, an obsession with candor wrapped in kindness as to expose to them pathways to find their best professional selves while not bruising them too terribly along the way. And lastly, you need a level of authentic concern about the state of their well-being, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Founders and the companies that truly believe in people see this reflected in their programs, daily dialog, and ultimately long-term enterprise value. Be willing to make a holistic investment in the people that follow you. Read this one over and over again — it’s the most important.
- Your philosophy and worldview matter. Don’t assume your team knows these — tell them. — At Bambee, this starts with our recruitment process. We tell recruits to come as they are — upbringing, background, and education are unimportant to us when determining fit at the company. We care about the characteristics people will bring to the job and the approach they will take day-to-day toward their fellow Bambae’s (team member’s). We don’t care if you have an MBA or a GED. It’s 2021 and there’s a surplus of talent without college degrees-including me. Sharing your position on things like this with your team helps increase the fluidity of your culture and gives them permission to act in a way that’s hopefully more aligned with their own intuition.
- You are a mere mortal. “Rest is for the weak. I don’t need rest. Work hard, play hard.” Quotes you’ve said to your younger self or heard someone say to themselves. Unfortunately, you are just like the rest of us, a human with an equal amount of unrealized potential. Because of this, the science of the body still applies to you; give everything you have to build a well-rounded, psychologically-sound version of yourself. Your employees will benefit from your example in the short term and in turn, your business will benefit in the long term. Exercise to give yourself clarity. Rest to find higher quality decision-making. Take time away from the daily grind of your business and boost your creativity and capacity to innovate. You need to apply the love you have for business optimization to your mind and spirit. The positive results that will occur will greatly benefit you, the people around you, and your enterprise as a whole.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
Experience doesn’t change your leadership style, it shapes it. Has my experience shaped my leadership style? Unequivocally, inextricably yes.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
I’m actually happy no one ever told me those five things. They would have been useless pieces of information had I heard them at that point in my journey. These five things are only valuable in retrospect, after having crystalized my experiences into learnings and turned those learnings into practice. Even a perfect application of someone else’s learnings will not lead to the same outcomes. Ultimately, you have to make your own mistakes, learn from them, and forge your own destiny.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
My movement would be a one where everyone showed up to work not afraid to be themselves — supercharging how much creativity they could add to whatever conversations they were involved in. It would revolutionize how we think about innovation, consumer value and doing good in the world if we spent less capacity wondering how we were meant to be perceived.
How can our readers further follow your work online?