As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Brendan Finucane.
Brendan is CEO and Founder of Ecanvasser. He studied Business Information Systems in University College Cork where, having always been passionate about history and politics, he became involved in political campaigns and canvassing for various causes of importance. It was during one of his canvassing excursions whilst he was still in college that he first developed the concept for Ecanvasser. After going door to door and forgetting his pen and paper while out and about, the idea to build an app that would enable better campaign organization and execution was born.
He began developing a simple android app to demonstrate the potential for the concept. Encouraged by the head of his Local Enterprise Office, Brendan decided to join incubator program ‘Ignite’ in UCC after graduating. It was a time of trial and error. Brendan spent the entire summer working in a windowless office, developing the concept and infrastructure for Ecanvasser. Having started with just one person, today Ecanvasser has grown into a company with a significant global footprint that powers campaigns across five continents, engaging with millions of voters.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I always had an interest in campaigning and organizing and I would have been quite actively involved in campaigns in Ireland. As I was still in college, I researched the way campaigning was done in other countries and found that the current way was still heavily reliant on paper-based processes that hadn’t changed since the 1960s. There were a few technology solutions but these were mostly focused on the upper end of the market and looked too cumbersome to use. It was through this personal interest, coupled with my technical skills that formed the initial idea for Ecanvasser which started out as a college research project. From there, I was accepted onto an incubator program and by the end of it, I had raised the first round of private investment.
In the very early days of the company, I was still able to undertake campaigning activities but as the company grew, all my time and attention went into growing the business. Now my days are spent building Ecanvasser and seeing our customer base expand across 70 countries. Although I still get the same excitement tracking how our customers are using Ecanvasser to better organize their community outreach and canvassing programs — so the campaigner is still in me!
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?
I started Ecanvasser straight out of college which naturally keeps the cash burn quite low in the early days. However, I made the rookie mistake that is often repeated by younger founders — I hired people that had very similar backgrounds to myself. Although it did make company outings great fun, it impacted our growth trajectory in the early days.
The key lesson for me was to put more focus on our hiring and attract people with different backgrounds and experiences, something which we now put a lot of emphasis on as a company.
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?
Our company Chairperson, Owen Curtin, was our earliest investor and he has been with the company ever since. Owen has extensive experience in the technology and political space as well as having great commercial acumen so he was an obvious fit for the company from the outset. He was also involved in the initial early product development. and we are extremely grateful that he has continued to contribute across all areas of the business at a strategic level.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Ecanvasser is a mission driven business, we aren’t selling HR tools or customer support software instead our software plays a huge part in how people can better engage with political and community outreach campaigns. That belief in the mission is central to our company values and culture which drives everyone in the company every single day. Our culture is our secret sauce, and it shows by the simple fact that employee attrition is extremely low. We are extremely proud to be able to say that many of our employees have been with us from the very start.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
People talking to one another is central to how our product works. Over the past 12 months or so this has been heavily impacted by Covid-19 and social distancing measures. In particular, Q2 2020 was a difficult time where we needed to look strategically at the business to ensure company survival. In the space of two weeks we saw a 50% decline in monthly recurring revenue based on accounts closing and customers looking for discounts.
After recovering from the initial impact, we revisited the short to medium term plan, and gathered as a management team and tested every assumption. When a crisis hits the status quo cannot be allowed to be maintained unnecessarily but also not changing processes for the sake of change. I’m certain our Covid-19 experience will be one of those moments I will look back on and see it as a learning curve for me as a CEO and an inflection point for the business.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Absolutely not! The only time that I would consider quitting is when the opportunity for learning stops. Every day brings new challenges and it’s about responding to them to ensure the best result for the business and team.
The motivation for me comes from seeing the progress from the team and seeing how people grow into their roles. Also, it’s seeing the impact that our customers are making when using our product.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Being able to have a vision for your company and helping your team put the best processes and people in place to deliver on that vision. It can be hard as it can mean personnel changes but it’s having that determination to see through those changes for the betterment of the business and wider team.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
It comes back to culture and the vision of the company. If the team can’t see the wider vision in their day-to-day work regardless of their role, it’s game over. Culture can manifest itself organically but without clear values that underpins that culture then it can be easily lost. Culture needs to be guarded as that is the best and most impactful way to boost company morale. Obviously, great company culture is in tandem with basics such as competitive salaries and perks as well as empowering employees in their day-to-day roles.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
It’s a cliché but honesty is the best policy. In many cases (albeit not all) it’s communicating effectively and honestly about the current situation with your team.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
It’s balancing ego, self-belief, being open to feedback and testing assumptions with concrete data if possible. Keeping your ego in check so you don’t go down a rabbit hole is key and being open to feedback is crucial but at the same time having the self-belief to ignore and trust your instinct to make the right call. Like many things in life it’s a balancing act!
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
World class is a phrase that I use nearly every week. It’s about a commitment to developing a business and product that can compete at a global level but also exceed customer expectations in every facet.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
I’m not sure about other businesses but I can definitely run through the top 3 mistakes I’ve made over the years.
- Don’t rush into hiring or hire for the sake of completing a headcount plan.
- Clear and documented HR processes and what success looks like in each role.
- Be mindful of the titles given out — I have seen this mistake repeatedly made by early-stage companies.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
A clear pricing strategy backed up by customer data has seen huge revenue growth for us. It can be challenging to move from a specific price-sensitive market segment but is crucial for maintaining a growth trajectory.
Smaller more price-conscious competitors may emerge as you move slightly up-market but are worthwhile as a growth strategy.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be open to change and not let the status quo become the company norm (unless your company is a MNC). I had let a culture of the status quo fester for a period of time and it took many difficult conversations and planning to remove it from our company culture.
- Keep the ego in check! An ego can creep up if you don’t actively evaluate yourself periodically.
- Delegate! This can prove to be an expensive opportunity cost if delegation is not part of your mindset. I took on too many projects in the past where I was probably not the best person for the specific task.
- Make the hard calls. This has been an incredibly expensive lesson for myself. In the past, I let underperforming people stay in their roles for too long as I delayed having difficult conversations. This impacted both the company growth and the employee’s personal growth who were better suited to another role or company.
- Use data and processes to inform decision making. So many of my most successful business decisions have been on the back of data and building out processes so that success can be measured.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’ve made a career of taking action and throwing myself head first into a project so Theodore Roosevelt’s man in the arena quote is my favorite life lesson quote.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
How can our readers further follow your work?
I post regularly on my personal LinkedIn page or else visit Ecanvasser’s blog to keep up to speed on our latest news!