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 Brian Cruver.
Brian is an entrepreneur, investor, and author, and is currently the CEO and founder of AlertMedia, an emergency communications software provider headquartered in Austin, Texas. Prior to AlertMedia, Brian co-founded Xenex, a XYZ. He is also an investor and advisor to dozens of early stage startups through his investment firm, Marketdriver Ventures. Brian’s focus on starting companies with a positive impact stems, in part, from his experience working at Enron, where he was part of mass layoffs when the energy giant went bankrupt in 2001. He turned his Enron experience and the lessons learned into a best-selling book and later a movie. Brian is a graduate of the University of Southern California and received his MBA from the University of Texas.
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?
My entrepreneurial journey began at the age of nine, although I didn’t realize it at the time. ‘Entrepreneur’ was simply a word I couldn’t spell. I grew up in a neighborhood right outside of Houston called Sugar Land, and I spent most of my time walking around golf courses collecting the golf balls that got stuck at the bottom of lakes. I’d package them up into egg cartons, price them, and sell them back to the golfers who lost them in the first place.
A few years later, I began delivering pizzas for Domino’s Pizza, and to this day, it’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. If I ever write another business book, it’ll be about that experience.
But perhaps one of the more defining moments in my life that set me up to eventually start and lead AlertMedia began at the University of Southern California. It was the early 90s, and many of the major world events taking place were happening in Los Angeles: the Malibu fires at Pepperdine University, the OJ Simpson police chase (he drove his Bronco right past my apartment), the Northridge earthquake, and the Los Angeles Riots in 1992. Little did I know 25 years later, I’d be running a company that deals in emergencies and natural disasters.
After college, I spent a few years in LA consulting before heading to graduate school to get my MBA. I chose to go to the University of Texas at Austin, and I fell in love with the city. There is something special about Austin, and it’s why I live here and headquarter my company here.
Upon graduating, I went chasing after my dream job, which was to be a corporate finance guy at an energy company. I first worked at Shell in Houston before landing at Enron. I worked at Enron for a total of nine months on the trading floor before my experience ended in a corporate scandal, mass layoffs, and a lot of people going to jail.
I lost my job the same day as thousands of other people. But instead of going out and finding my next corporate gig like everyone else, I decided to do something a little different. I wrote a book about my experience at Enron called The Anatomy of Greed, and it later got turned into a movie. As a result, I spent the next two years of my life on tour promoting both the book and the movie.
After that, I took a step back and asked myself, “Okay, what do I do next? Do I go back to a big company and work in the corporate world?” But I realized I wanted to go back to my origins of selling golf balls and starting my own company. I had learned a lot of valuable lessons at Enron, one of which is that a big company doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a safe place. I had a different view of risk at that point, and I knew that whatever company I did end up starting, the most important thing for me was that it had to impact the world positively. So that’s what I set out to do.
In 2009, I met two Ph.D. epidemiologists working with UV disinfection technology. Together, we co-founded Xenex, a company that makes germ-killing robots for hospitals and emergency rooms and prevents infections. I led Xenex for four years through the startup phase, then we had Morris Miller, one of my mentors and the previous CEO of Rackspace, to come in as CEO. Our technology is now deployed in hundreds of hospitals around the world, saving thousands of lives every year — and to this day Xenex continues to thrive and is even being used to fight Covid.
With the success of Xenex, I decided that I was ready to retire.
My wife and I flew out to Las Vegas to celebrate, and my retirement lasted only that weekend. On the flight back to Austin, the idea for AlertMedia popped into my head, and I ended up handwriting the business plan for the company on my flight home. That first page from the notebook is now framed and hanging in the AlertMedia office.
Can you share a story about a mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
In the early days of AlertMedia, we needed to find our focus. We wanted to do anything and everything for our customers, but we soon realized we couldn’t boil the ocean. We had customers asking us for specific features, and we wanted to try to solve every problem, but those soon became distractions. We had to learn to say no and focus on our core business, not saying yes to everyone simply because we thought that was key to our survival.
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?
I’ve met some incredible people throughout my career, but perhaps no one more influential than Morris Miller. Morris cofounded Rackspace, and I met him while I was doing the book and movie tour for Anatomy of Greed. We were both guests on the same business talk show, and we met for the first time in the green room. We started talking by comparing our BlackBerry models, and we hit it off. We developed an excellent personal relationship after that first meeting, and then a few years later, we built Xenex together. Not only is he an incredibly talented businessman, he brings a unique perspective to the table and is always willing to share that perspective with new entrepreneurs who want to learn and benefit from his experience.
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?
Starting a company with the sole purpose of making a positive impact on the world can be challenging. A lot of people will doubt whether it’s even possible. Quite a few people told me, “If you want to have a positive impact, go start a nonprofit or a charity.” But I believe businesses can serve a greater purpose while still making a profit.
At AlertMedia, our mission is to save lives and minimize loss by facilitating timely communications when an emergency threatens personal safety and business continuity. One of the harsh realities of emergencies is that we don’t get to control how, when, or where they happen. Consider the past year, for example, and how virtually every business worldwide was suddenly faced with a crisis they had never before experienced. Employee safety has now taken on even greater importance, and we want to help organizations keep their people safe no matter the threat. People want to work for companies that make them feel safe, and that sentiment is what continues to drive our business forward.
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?
At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March of last year, I remember three things specifically occupying my thoughts. First, I wanted to understand what COVID was and if we needed to be worried about it. When I worked for Xenex, we dealt with infectious diseases all the time, so I wanted to understand the science behind this new virus before taking any action.
At the same time, our business started to change dramatically. We saw a massive spike in demand, an acceleration in our pipeline, and within two and a half weeks, we closed more deals than we expected to do that entire quarter.
Lastly, we had to decide whether to move our entire workforce remote. I remember at one point walking around the office early in the day, explaining to individual teams the decision not to go remote. Then a few hours later, after being given some new information about the trajectory of the cases, I took that same walk and explained that actually, we were going remote — and overnight.
That’s perhaps one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned as a leader, especially when dealing with emergency scenarios. You have to be receptive to change, and you have to be willing to listen to information even when it’s inconvenient. At that moment in time, things were evolving quickly, and we were receiving new data every hour, so we had to adjust our plan hour-by-hour.
We ended up being one of the first companies to go remote in the city of Austin, closing our office several days in advance of the lockdown because I felt it was our duty. As a leader, you have to hold yourself to a higher standard and do what’s good for the greater public, including your employee base, customers, and community. We are lucky to be able to do our jobs remotely and still service our customers, and we knew we needed to do our part to prevent the spread of the virus in our community. It was a tough decision to make — we have an in-office culture at AlertMedia — but we made it quickly, and as soon as we did, everyone immediately got on board.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Before co-founding Xenex and later, AlertMedia, I had two startup companies that failed, and several others that never got off the ground. The most painful part is having to go back to investors and tell them you lost their money and are shutting down operations. But my commitment remained the same: to build great teams and companies that would deliver products that do great things.
Aside from our focus on keeping people safe and out of harm’s way, AlertMedia also strives to be the type of workplace that helps our employees grow and develop and succeed in their careers. What we represent and the reason we exist, it’s all positive. That keeps me excited and keeps me moving forward every day.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
At AlertMedia specifically, I make sure each of my employees feels a sense of purpose, and I think that applies to any stressful or uncertain situation. When you realize you’re one of many people struggling, you feel a greater call to step up and help get them through it. It helps to know you’re part of the solution, and when you can help employees better understand that, you’ll be able to rally everyone to act.
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?
We have a very open, collaborative, and transparent work environment at AlertMedia, which is why we’ve been named a Best Place to Work in Austin for several consecutive years. Everyone’s in the loop on everything, which has been a goal of mine from day one. I want every employee to feel a sense of ownership of the company, which means everyone wants to do a good job not just for themselves but also for their colleagues and customers.
We’re also headquartered in a very competitive city for talent, and we’re recruiting against companies that are doing cool things with artificial intelligence, drones, and more. But we continue to win on talent because of our mission, because of what we do. We have an impact, and we help keep people out of harm’s way. There’s no bigger motivator during uncertain times than that.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
First and foremost, be clear, be honest, and be timely. Logistically, make sure you’re communicating often and over multiple channels. No emergency will be one and done, but constantly changing, so your communication has to follow the same pattern.
Another thing to consider is that the people you’re communicating with may know more than you, and they may find out something before you and have critical information that you need to make a better decision. As a leader, it’s my job to listen and solve problems, so any communication should also be bi-directional and two-way.
Leaders are accountable to their employees to give them direction and context to be successful. Still, employees are also responsible to leadership to let them know when and where they can be better. Give your employees a voice and make sure you are soliciting their feedback.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
You have to embrace the uncertainty and know that if you plan for something and only get it 50 percent right, you’re still halfway to where you want to be. Always prepare for the big picture, and in the short term, make constant adjustments along the way.
I also approach planning for my businesses similarly to how you’d prepare for an emergency. Think about all of the events and scenarios that could potentially happen to your business. For each scenario, outline the next steps you’d want to take, including who you need to communicate with. Then, when one of those scenarios occurs, as things are happening, make minor adjustments and tweaks to the plan along the way to account for new information that you may not have had previously. Of course, every decision I make continues to be in pursuit of that bigger picture.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
What most companies lack, and why most startups fail, is that they don’t have the right team. People who are committed and can solve problems for the market and your customers. Building the right team has been my focus since day one.
When I first founded AlertMedia, I didn’t get paid for two years. My wife, Catherine, joined as Chief Customer Officer, and she got paid for a fourth of what she could have had she explored other opportunities. We all took a massive risk in pursuit of a bigger vision. Commitment to the company’s mission and overall purpose is so important when hiring. Yes, we hire talented people, but they have to be fun to work with, be willing to do the right thing, put customers first, and be aligned with our company values. If you hire purely on talent alone, it’s not going to work out.
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?
When people come to me and ask for advice on starting a business, I tell them, you better love that business and everything about it. You better want to be thinking and eating and sleeping and talking about that subject matter, whether it’s killing germs or emergency communications software 24x7. Many people don’t realize the commitment they’re making when they decide to start a business. If you’re just in it for the money or success, when difficult times hit, you’re going to be a whole lot worse off because you’re not fully committed, and you’re not going to survive.
Additionally, as an angel investor, the number one red flag I often see from entrepreneurs is a focus on their exit strategy before they have any evidence that customers will pay for their product or service. When you focus on building a great business that can grow big and fast and that you can have fun with, when hard times hit, you’re going to be able to weather that storm a lot better than if you only focused on the eventual exit. Once you build a great business, eventually, someone will make you an offer you can’t refuse, or you go public. All options will be available to you at that point.
Lastly, you have to think about minimum viable product (MVP), even after you’ve been in the market for several years. In the beginning, your solution has to be useful to somebody. Then, once you’ve sold it, focus on building the additional pieces and parts that will give your product staying power in the market.
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?
It’s important to take time to celebrate as a team. We celebrate all kinds of milestones, from feature releases and sales targets to positive customer feedback and marketing launches. We celebrate it all. That focus on what we’re achieving keeps the team motivated to keep pushing and keep trying harder. But it’s also that commitment to a bigger purpose.
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.
- Communicate clearly and often: This may seem obvious, and I touched on it above, but a leader has to communicate well, especially during a crisis. When you can help make sure everyone is on the same page and has clear guidance on what next steps they need to take, you’re going to avoid making any costly mistakes.
- Situational awareness is critical: Take into consideration the world around you, and ask yourself what your people may be experiencing as a result. The pandemic not only put people’s health at risk, but it put a lot of strain on their mental wellbeing as well. When you can put yourself in your employees’ shoes, you’ll be able to empathize and make decisions that consider your people.
- Be transparent: The more transparent you can be, the more trust you’ll receive from your employees, and that is especially true during times of crisis. When you can commit to keeping your employees informed, even if that means admitting when you don’t know something, you’ll gain more respect, and your employees will be more committed to sticking out the tough times.
- Invest in your people: It’s hard to ask people to be at their best when you’re not giving them the resources to do so in the first place. Take the time to get to know your people, understand their goals, and how you can help them achieve success.
- Trust your team and other leaders: You’ve spent a lot of time and effort hiring the right people, so trust that they know how to do their job and have the company’s best interests in mind. As a leader, you can’t do it all, so you have to rely on those around you to get the job done, especially when it requires navigating a difficult situation.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I always turn to the following Latin proverb: “Fortune favors the brave.” It sums up my business career and the people who have joined me along the way as I’ve started and invested in early stage companies. The decision to become an entrepreneur takes courage to go out on your own, work for free, sometimes even go into personal debt, risk everything, and ultimately bet on yourself that you will succeed.
How can our readers further follow your work?