As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Umansky.
Michael Umansky is the CEO and Co-Founder of INK and Edgy. Michael is driven by the power of next-generation technology to shift the way businesses market themselves. At 21, he started his first technology venture, one of the world’s first video streaming companies, seven years before YouTube went live. By age 24, he was instrumental in growing the early-stage startup, Idera Software, into a global enterprise of over 250 employees. In 2008, he co-founded Gazzang, a Big Data encryption startup, that was acquired by Cloudera. In 2016, he co-founded EDGY Labs, a trend forecaster and SEO incubator that provides end-to-end enterprise-level SEO solutions for Fortune 500 brands. By leveraging the innovation refined at EDGY, he formed INK to empower writers.
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’m the Co-Founder and CEO of INK & EDGY. INK is a content technology company built for writers and dedicated to the future of Content Performance Optimization (CPO). We are driven by a vision of a world where storytellers control their own search destiny.
As a seasoned ‘starter’ — driven by the power of next-generation technology to shift the way businesses market themselves — I was involved in my first startup at the age of 19. Just two years later, I started my first technology venture, Blastro.com. It was one of the world’s first video streaming companies seven years before YouTube went live.
Then at age 24, I joined the early-stage startup, Idera Software. We grew the company from a small team into a global enterprise with over 250 employees. In 2008, I co-founded Gazzang, a startup committed to cloud computing security that is recognized as an early player in Big Data encryption. Six years later, Gazzang was acquired by Silicon Valley bellwether, Cloudera.
All of those startups lead me to where I am now. In 2016, I co-founded EDGY Labs, a trend forecaster and SEO incubator providing guidance and end-to-end enterprise-level SEO solutions for Fortune 500 brands. By leveraging the automation developed at EDGY, we formed INK, the first AI web content optimization platform for writers, to help writers take the power of search back into their own hands.
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?
Early in my career, I made the mistake of starting a pizza company. The only thing I knew about pizza was how good it is. We put money in, raised a little capital, and hired a team. The entire process was a calamity of errors. We had a great opening and sold some pizzas but were not capitalized to go much further.
These are the lessons that I learned. Stick to things you know. Even if you have experts on your team, be sure you are entering a space you are familiar with and have experience in. Make sure you are capitalized for the long term. Nothing happens overnight, and it requires work plus time to find any momentum. Have a clear leadership structure. Leadership by committee is not a successful formula. Hubris is a common flaw for many entrepreneurs, so be careful not to be led by pride. Confidence is good, but overconfidence often leads to failure.
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 been extremely fortunate to have great mentors and advisors. This is something I continue to seek out every day. From my first boss, Rod Endo, to my wife, Laura Umansky, who is an amazing entrepreneur, having people to bounce ideas off of is critical to ideation, clarity of thought, and measuring the validity of a plan.
Early in my career, I worked closely with an entrepreneur named Mike Clark, who had and continues to have a profound impact on me. Even to this day, when I am stuck on an idea, I call him. Mike has founded, funded, and advised many successful startups. He has a unique view of the world and of business based on humor, realism, focus, and has a gift of always asking the right questions.
I’ll never forget a meeting we had at 6 a.m. at a Starbucks in Houston’s Highland Village area. I was maybe 23 or 24 and working as an account manager for a new software company Mike had founded. As a rookie, I really valued these early morning sessions. We were talking about a deal with a large bank. It was my first big six-figure deal, we were close to closing, and I could taste the win. We discussed how to close the deal with some specific strategies.
I’ll never forget what he said: “Deals are like buses. Another one will come along in 5 minutes. You can never get too excited or too down. Celebrate this win and move on to the next.”
I’ve received a lot of sage advice from Mike over the years. But for some reason, sitting in that Starbucks on that hot August morning, about to close that deal, those words stuck with me. It’s especially helpful as an entrepreneur. This is a roller coaster, and those that survive are the ones that can keep a level head through the highs and lows.
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?
Our purpose was simple: We saw that AI was going to fundamentally change the future of work and culture. We had a specific theory that Google moving from rules-based search to a neural-network based search engine was going to have a profound impact on content creators and businesses.
We were driven by curiosity to understand these changing market conditions. We envisioned a web where storytellers control their own organic search destiny. Our mission is to empower digital content creators to take performance into their own hands.
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?
2020 has been a very challenging year for so many, including our team. I am lucky to have amazing partners in Edgy and INK. We took the approach to lead our team through the view both as a business and as a human challenge. This meant continuing to speak with our team as transparently as possible.
Before we could be transparent, we needed to understand the landscape and have a plan. Starting in March, we built out financial models through the end of 2020 based on many different possible scenarios, and then stress tested them.
This gave us clear plans on how to act quickly if needed. We spent a significant amount of time planning early when it became clear that the pandemic and financial crisis were going to make for a tough year to navigate.
Once we felt comfortable that we had plans A, B, C, and D fully vetted, we then spent a lot of time having town hall style meetings with our teams. We ended up having to implement one of the plans in mid-July. Because we had built out the model, it took us less than 48 hours to implement.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I have considered giving in but never giving up. What that means is there are for sure days that I am stressed, tired, and just want to hideout. And what I do is try to back off that day, then remember why I am doing this.
There are several motivating factors in my life — the first is ego and fear of failure. I probably shouldn’t admit that in such a public forum, but it’s the truth. I want to win, and that motivates me. But why I want to win is motivated by my family and my partners. I want my little girls to feel empowered. My wife is a successful business person. We all want to support each other. As tough as COVID has been, one big silver lining is our girls have seen how hard we work, day in and day out. I think they are starting to get it.
My drive is sustained in a belief in what we are doing. I truly believe that AI is going to change our world. I want to try to inform that change rather than be informed by it. I discuss that often with my partners. How do we leave a positive, lasting impact on this world with the technology we create?
When you see that Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple were responsible for 68% of the GDP growth in 2019, it’s hard to deny their power in this world. We believe the only way to adapt is to democratize access to the same type of technology that those large companies are deploying so that the people can take some power back and use our tools to create their own success stories.
So, I am motivated by our ever-changing world and sustained by our focus on making our contributions to the evolving, changing technological landscape as positive as possible.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
My belief is that great leadership starts with having a plan, reading the market, and adopting that plan with surgical precision. During very challenging times, leadership is about making any realignment of a plan crystal clear and then communicating with a team as transparently as possible. Kim Scott’s book Radical Candor has been very helpful for me to have the hard conversations as openly and honestly as possible.
The other critical thing about leading during a crisis is to try to stay grounded and true to your mission, vision, and values. We made all decisions this year through that lens. Staying true to who we are and who we set out to be as well as taking a long-term view beyond the immediate changes in the market is what allows leaders to stay true to their vision.
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?
Be open and honest with your team — not just in hard times but always. If you establish a culture of openness and honesty, you will establish trust with your team. The other important points are to have a long-term vision that everyone is driving towards. When times get tough, focus on that vision like it’s on the horizon. Having a common place where everyone is going makes it easier to get through the short-term pain.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Openly and honestly. Do not sugar coat it. Tell the truth, and explain as much of the why as you can. Then have a plan on what will happen next.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
We are big planners. We leverage the Entrepreneurs Operating System (EOS) to run our businesses. This is a system all about your business’s overarching, guiding plan. We believe that in an unpredictable market, it’s about having a plan and then building multiple scenarios around that plan.
Once you have built those options out, then stress test them. Look for holes in your plans. Although you cannot plan for everything that will be thrown at you, having options and ideas on how to adapt to change is important.
For example, with our business, we made multiple scenarios for managing through COVID. We then put those to the side and ran our day-to-day operations. But when we were faced with a challenge, we were able to look at the options we had drawn up months earlier and implement those changes rapidly and with the least amount of impact on our team.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Operate your company with a vision and the values that you believe in. Communicate that vision and those values often. When you hit turbulent times, make all decisions based on those values that you have established. If you stay true to who you are as a leader, if you establish open and honest communication and have a long-term vision, then you can let that be your guiding principle through tough times.
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?
There are 4 common mistakes that businesses make during difficult times.
1) Entering into markets that you are not an expert in. It is critical for success to be an expert in your domain to build out your business. If you are not an expert, work for someone who is until you learn the skills needed to start on your own. Operating a business during turbulent times is already difficult and entering into a market that you do not have experience with adds an additional challenge.
2) Failing to understand your buyer persona intimately. Do not assume. Speak to your audience, and know what drives them. Then start to sell. During difficult times, things change frequently and so do buyers’ wants and needs, so continue to check in on the changing motivations of your buyers.
3) Not having a team you can confidently rely on to execute their roles successfully. It is crucial to build a team that you trust, and who have different skills than you. A team you can rely on can help your business through challenging times.
4) An unwillingness to pivot when necessary. This is a mistake that I’ve experienced and learned from. Leading a company means learning, testing, adapting, and evolving. It’s rare that things go exactly according to plan. During turbulent times, there can be ever-evolving market and economic conditions. The ability to be flexible to pivot is critical during such times.
The key to avoiding these types of mistakes is really about getting back to basics: Read. Read as many books as possible on startups, culture building, and of course in the area that you aim to start a company in. It may sound cheesy or cliche, but knowledge really is power. Continue to learn every day! Too often, leaders are afraid to change. But real leadership is about learning, adapting, and then taking decisive action.
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?
The plans in February and March that we made inform our long term POV for our businesses. This is a moment in time and it will pass, although it might take longer than we all thought. We tried to think about what the world will look like in 2021, 2022, and beyond. We asked ourselves: How does the pandemic impact the work we do over the long-term and how do we best position ourselves for the future? From there, we made strategic bets on where to invest in anticipation of the years to come.
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.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we made several scenarios for what might happen. We took probably 3 weeks of working 7 days a week to build these plans. At the end of March, we stuck those plans in a drawer and kept moving forward. Over the summer, we lost one of our largest customers. It had a profound impact on our business. However, because we had the various plans already built, we were quickly able to adapt. Within 48 hours, we changed course, we made the necessary adjustments, and we had very little impact on our team. We approached the challenge with a scalpel, not a chainsaw.
The five most important things we believe in: having a strong company vision, values and mission; having a plan; being open and transparent with your team; having a long-term approach to problem-solving; and staying focused on your customer.
1) Establish your company’s vision, values, and mission. Then, let those factors be the lens through which you make decisions. Make sure your team knows and has bought into that vision and your values. We spent a lot of time on this by leveraging an operating system for our company called EOS (Entrepreneurs Operating System). This system gave us a clear framework for identifying our vision, values, and mission. It also helped us clearly disseminate these to our entire company so we are all working towards the same goals.
2) Have a plan, and then build scenarios around those plans so that you are not caught flat-footed. At the start of the pandemic, we spent six weeks working seven days a week to build and test our plans. It was tough to do, but it was super helpful for us as we have gone through 2020.
3) Speak with your team openly and honestly — always. Not only is this the right thing to do, but it makes communicating during challenging times a lot easier. Your team needs to trust you. We have a weekly meeting every Friday called the Week That Was. This is a standing, mandatory, company-wide meeting. It’s dedicated to celebrating our wins from each week. It also serves as a communication platform each and every week.
4) Having a long-term approach to problem-solving is critical. Know that some of the best companies were born out of turbulent times. 2001, 2008, and again in 2020. Think about the problem you are trying to solve, and then look at where to invest for the long-term. By building our plans at the beginning of the pandemic, it made things crystal clear on where we wanted to invest for future growth. This is a plan we are executing against today.
5) Stay focused on your customer. This is especially important during tough times. What are they saying? How can you invest in their success? My co-founders and I are continually speaking with our customers to understand how and where they need help. This is something we have always done, but it has proven to be even more essential throughout 2020.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love the quote: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” When starting my career, I thought it was important to be the smartest person in the room. But what I’ve learned over the years is that to be a true leader, your focus should be on finding smart people and helping them to be their best. Building a team of smart people, of focused people, and of people who are passionate about the things I am passionate about is essential to building a great company.
How can our readers further follow your work?
There are several ways to follow our work. You can visit the INK For All site to explore our INK editor, discover our story, and download INK: https://inkforall.com/
We also have a blog we are constantly updating with ranking tips and grammar guides written in INK, so you can stop by https://blog.inkforall.com/ and let us know what you think.
You can connect with me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/michael-umansky-0152841/
Or follow me at https://twitter.com/theuman76