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 PJ Taei.
PJ Taei is Founder & CEO of Uscreen, a video monetization platform for users to build their own “Netflix like” streaming service. Uscreen is a video monetization SaaS company headquartered in Washington DC with remote team members located all around the world. Uscreen helps content creators distribute their content safely and profitably online and through OTT (over-the-top) devices.
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 remember the day my dad introduced me to computers as a teen like it was yesterday.
How could a box full of plastic and metal show visuals and create these invisible connections? I was hooked. From that moment on, I knew I’d always work with computers and other incredible technologies.
That fascination in computers led me to my first job as part of the Geek Squad at my local Best Buy. This is when I became attracted to the business side of things. I enjoyed helping customers, and took great satisfaction in solving their pain points.
After doing tech-related jobs and learning more and more about business, I eventually started my first company in 2004; a web hosting provider called WebNet Hosting. After 14 years, I sold it to Entirely Digital in Canada.
By this point I knew the entrepreneur in me wasn’t satisfied — it was time to start a new project. As I mentioned earlier, I spent a lot of time around computers growing up, and I was thrilled to be experiencing an age of rapid online growth — especially for video creators. I saw this as an opportunity to build a software company that would help anyone monetize videos. I noticed there was no all-in-one platform out there to do this, and so by 2014, Uscreen was born.
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 didn’t believe in remote work! This one makes me laugh, because remote working is one of the hottest topics out there today. When I first started Uscreen, I didn’t want to hire remote workers because I thought it would make things complicated and I wouldn’t be able to manage them effectively. Oh, how wrong I was! Fast forward to today and I’ve got a fully remote team of over 100 working all around the world. I can’t imagine doing it any other way!
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 was very lucky to have a dad who always wanted to share his excitement and interests with me. I can still remember his excitement in showing me that big hunk of plastic that was one of the old model computers. That excitement got transferred to me, and so without my dad, I wouldn’t be in the position I am today.
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?
Solving customer pain points was ingrained in me very early on (shout out to Best Buy Geek Squad)!
When I started Uscreen, I had the vision to create an amazing all-in-one product for the purpose of helping people make money. You could say in order for my business to be successful, I needed to make sure my customers’ businesses were successful too!
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 height of COVID-19, my team was growing faster than ever. When leading a team, particularly a remote team, it’s imperative to make sure everyone has a clear understanding of the mission. And that always falls upon the leaders to communicate that. Our challenge in these uncertain times was if we would be able to deliver on a great opportunity that we were in a unique position to take. Suddenly, we were responsible for the businesses, and often even the livelihoods of people from all over the world. So many creators and business owners needed a digital pivot, and it was up to Uscreen to deliver a really incredible product.
As I mentioned earlier, it starts from the top. If I were to ensure my rapidly growing team was to be on the same page, it was important that I took the time to connect with them. Whether it’s in a Slack message or a quick Zoom call, reaching out to your team and great communication goes a long way. Accessibility as a leader is important to me, and it allows me to share my passion for what we do.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I never considered giving up as an option. Even when we nearly ran out of money and I didn’t take a salary, I always believed in this company. However, being bootstrapped did mean that hiring the right people and figuring out our product and audience proved to be very difficult.
The motivation to push through came from seeing my customers earn healthy incomes through their passions. It also comes from seeing my team grow into their roles and move up into their dream roles.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
100% the ability to motivate others and to trust the process and keep going.
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?
Great communication and lead by example. Be accessible and remind them of the incredible contributions they are making! If you want your team to share their wins on Slack, you may need to jump start the process! Show your team the amazing things you’re accomplishing together, and don’t be afraid to be excited about it.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
One of the best things you can do is offer candor and transparency, as well as an action plan to help them meet their goals.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Experience helps you learn to trust your intuition. Set your goals and then push forward to meet them — business is a puzzle, and while the pieces don’t always fit together at first, the best thing you can do is keep going. Keep trying, keep innovating, and you will eventually find the missing piece.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Stay flexible and keep innovating. If you are too set in your ways, you won’t be ready to pivot or to meet an opportunity when it lands.
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?
Several common mistakes that I have seen other businesses make are not leading with purpose, not innovating when they need to and lacking adaptability and flexibility.
Mistakes can and do happen to all of us though, you need to use them as key learning moments that’ll help you know what not to do next time.
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?
Constant innovation and flexibility is the best strategy. It means you’re always on the lookout for more efficient methods. In the case of my own business, this has meant learning when to cut costs, building certain tools in-house, negotiating existing contracts, and also finding new ways to add revenue and expansions from existing customers.
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.
Firstly, clear communication and transparency . Leading this way ensures everyone is on the same page about where you’re headed. This is how you keep everyone on track to hit goals!
Next, stay flexible! Be ready to pivot at any moment. Adaptability is a survival skill.
Third, remember to constantly innovate — don’t get too comfortable! You never know when you’re about to strike gold.
Fourth, listen to your team. Great things aren’t possible without a great team. Listen to their needs, their ideas, and their concerns.
And finally, have clear goals. For us, it’s providing a great service. Customers stick around when they’re delighted by the product and the service.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great.”
— John D. Rockefeller
Greatness often requires sacrifice. When we nearly ran out of money in the very beginning of Uscreen, I gave up my salary. Things were tight, but I believed in what I was doing enough to make the necessary sacrifice to keep the lights on. It was worth it because now, our customers are making over $100 million dollars per year with Uscreen.
How can our readers further follow your work?