As part of our series about the “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a CEO,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Simon Taylor, Founder and CEO at HYCU, Inc. HYCU is a Boston-based multi-cloud data protection SaaS company. As CEO, Simon creates and executes on the vision and strategy of the fast-growing global company. Prior to HYCU, Simon held senior executive positions at Comtrade Software including President and CEO. Simon also held management and leadership positions at Putnam Investments, Omgeo and Forrester Research. Simon sits on the board of directors of Boston Uncornered and is an active member of YPO (Young Presidents Organization) in Boston. He holds an MBA from Instituto de Empressa (Madrid) and an BSc Operations Technology from Northeastern University.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I think I have always been entrepreneurial by nature no matter what job I have had. I have made a point of taking ownership of any job. Even in my early jobs in the hotel business when I was 16 or 17, valet parking cars my friends would always joke with me that I was taking the jobs too seriously. I think that for me trying to do my best and take it to a new level was always something that was a part of my personality. So as I grew up, I always wanted to start my own business. I had left Forrester Research with an idea that I would move to a new part of the world where I had never been before and try and identify hot and new technologies. I started my first company when I was 24, raised some Seed Capital and moved to Prague in the Czech Republic. Ultimately that led me to meeting the individuals that allowed me to learn and grow as a professional. It has been a terrific entrepreneurial journey for me. I have seen large swathes of Planet Earth in the process and met amazing people and I have always been excited at the prospect of meeting new people who can enrich the journey I was on. That was all ultimately what led me to found HYCU.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
There are so many interesting stories. I would say that one of the most interesting ones has to do with the founding of HYCU. You learn so much not just from the opportunities you take but also from the opportunities you pass on. We had a number of companies approach us early on in the business when we had really just gotten started that wanted to acquire the company. It’s very easy to say you love a company and love what you are doing but the true test is when someone offers you money for your business and you turn it down. I think I am very privileged to have had founding investors like Veselin “Vesa” Jevrosimović and others who really helped me to see the value of what we were building and stopped me from exiting too early. I would say being courted and going through that process and learning about myself and the strength of the executive team and many in the company that weren’t ready to let go of their dreams, going through that process and witnessing first hand that you have lightning in a bottle and you have something that you can truly scale was really exciting.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting?
When we first got stared we assembled an incredible advisory board of folks from all over the industry that could give us a sense of what the market was doing, that was grounded and could make sure we were building a company that could scale. I thought it would be terrific as a bonding experience that it would be great to get everyone together and surprise the board with a fun event to celebrate a good quarter. I had everyone load into trucks at 6 am in the morning and we all drove out to this field where we would all take hot air balloons into the sky. It turned out two of my board members had a terrible fear of heights. What I learned there was that good intention was half the battle, you definitely want to celebrate success but you want to make sure you are strategic and thoughtful and doing the necessary research that you are getting the desired outcome you are looking for.
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 about that?
When I first moved to Central Europe and was getting to learn the market there was one individual who was my mentor, friend, coach and advocate. I mentioned him briefly before. His name was Veselin “Vesa” Jevrosimović. Vesa is an interesting guy. He’s an Olympic athlete, competitive pole vaulter. He runs 20 different companies around the world. One day we were visiting a company and after meeting with the CEO, he turned to me and said, the challenge he saw with this company was that the CEO was thinking for a thousand people. I asked him what he meant. He said you should always have an organization where you have a thousand people thinking for you. Not an organization where you are thinking for a thousand people. I think that stayed with me. I think seeing the ways he ran his companies and the level of trust he placed with people running his businesses and the support he gave them was a huge learning for me.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Diversity is such an important issue not just today but always has been. I am happy and thrilled to see that it has become more prominent in people’s minds. I grew up with a father who was half Indian, and living in England. He told me when I was very young that he came to the US because he had been treated very badly by his peers and co-workers and it wasn’t until he came to the US that people could see beyond his color and base him on his merits. So, I grew up in this sort of warped reality that maybe it was better over here in the US. It took me some time to realize that the US has so much to fix and improve to get to equality. The most important thing we can do as leaders of businesses is to make sure we are intentful with our diversity creation and that we are not reactive to the market. I truly believe that if we do not go above and beyond with your recruiting practices, your training practices and your cultural belief system you won’t build that diversity into your organization. I think sometimes that is hard to say to a recruiter that I am looking for candidates that are going to bring a diverse set of backgrounds. I have struggled with the appropriate way of doing that but it is something that is incredibly important to me. I want to do and what I want all of us at HYCU to do is to make diversity hiring first and foremost on our agenda when it comes to talent acquisition. I also think that payroll gaps is a travesty that people are paid based on gender, race religion or anything that separates them. I think that work should be a place where you become a member of that community. Not a place where you are treated differently because of your background. The best way to deal with that is to make sure that you have got very process driven compensation models that allow you to pay team members for the role they are going into not basing their compensation on the role they were in previously. I think if you do that then you avoid falling into the trap of perpetuating someone else’s mistakes when it comes to income or payment inequality. So, I think closing the gender gap on payroll is incredibly important and I think being intentful of our diversity hiring processes is a big part of building a diverse culture.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
There are a lot of great facts and figures about the advantages of having diversity in your executive team or at the Board level. It’s been proven that Boards that have women or executive teams that are more diverse ultimately are more successful. To provide a more qualitative response, when you are building a culture, one of the hardest things to do is to create a culture in which people feel a part of the company. Where people feel a part of the culture, that the culture is something they are living and breathing every day. If everybody comes to your company with the same experience and challenges, what you will find is the culture is secondary to the culture in which everyone grew up. The culture will not have a soul. When you bring together people from a very diverse background, the backgrounds they come in with are complemented by the culture of the company itself.
At HYCU, we have an engineering team from the former Yugoslavia. This is a group of countries now that went through a tremendous conflict. It’s incredibly important that everyone that comes in to HYCU feel included and not have to be defensive for any reason from where they come. The blending of those different cultures allows those teams members to accept HYCU as the community. They join HYCU and become HYCUers plain and simple. That only happens if you have got that level of diversity. The second thing I would say is when you bring on board a very diverse executive team, you are adding to the institutional knowledge of the company in a very direct way. We all based on our backgrounds, families, living experiences, living situations, education levels, we have all learned differently. We have all gone through very different challenges in our lives and it is those challenges that have made us who we are. And allowed us to develop certain talents.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders? Very simple.
A CEO creates the vision. They sell the vision and they build the culture. I break it down in those three buckets because I truly believe that almost everything else the CEO touches or works on falls within those three pillars. Creating a vision that matters that is going to have an impact on the marketplace. That is going to be disruptive, that is going to create change that is going to do what it is going to do is core to the company. If you can’t sell your vision and convince others to buy in then you won’t have success. The seller in chief has to be the CEO. The individual who not only has to crate the vision but show others the value of that vision is crucial. The third part is culture and it is more than just hiring. Sure it is about hiring great talent. But, understanding how to take the core values and ethos and instill in the marketplace and your team and then hire A+ talent is extremely important. Those three pillars really embody the role of the CEO.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I don’t play golf and I don’t know a lot of CEOs that play golf. The CEO’s job is not cushy. You are ultimately responsible for everything that is going on. You can’t phone it in or do it part time. If you do not wholeheartedly embrace your business and truly feel passion for your business at all times then you will likely fail. In order to achieve that you do have to bring the company with you wherever you go. Through every conversation there needs to be some level of learning and growing constantly so you can make a better place. I think there is this idea that the CEO has to be the smartest person in the room, I think that is patently false. The CEO needs to be learning and growing as much as if not much more than everyone else in the company. The way they learn and grow is not being the smartest person in the room, it’s by giving other people the space to teach them. Exposing that kind of vulnerability is a real challenge for people but it is ultimately what helps you get better at what you do. Constant learning and constant growth is critical in whatever you do in life, but for a CEO it’s crucial.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I almost feel like a founder or being a startup CEO in many ways is a way of life rather than a job. I think that you already understand the commitment before you get started with a company. If I step back and look at where we are today, I would probably say the most important is that having a title simply means caring more about your team. The idea of servant leadership, the reality that the bigger a company gets, the more the company makes, the more you hire, the more critical it is that the executives that own parts of the business can take full ownership of those parts. The CEO’s job should not broaden and they should not own every aspect of the business. In fact, letting go and ensuring the best experts in different practice areas are really owning those areas becomes critical. I think the letting go process is something that is learned and which is difficult to put in words. It goes back to what I said before, the CEO’s role is about building the vision, selling the vision, and creating an amazing culture. Part of that culture is hiring top talent. Talent that you can trust and believe that will do a better job than you would do in a specific area. I think that has been very apparent and an important part in the way we run HYCU.
Presumably not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I actually disagree with this question. Let’s first define what is an executive. In many ways people often think about an org chart and who’s closer to the top. Or who has more people under them. Those things are irrelevant. If everybody in the company takes true ownership of their job and is not simply carrying out roles and tasks and not simply managing but owning their responsibilities then they are an executive. They are providing an executive level service to the company. I don’t care if you are cleaning up the office or building a product. There may be different pay scales attached to different jobs but we can all take ownership and can all act in an executive capacity to execute on the jobs we own. That’s the critical difference between old school businesses that were so hierarchical that you didn’t own anything and were just a doer. I think anyone that can step up and take ownership for the role that they have is likely to get another role in the future. They are likely to see their role expand and is very likely to be adding a tremendous amount of value to the organization they work in. From my perspective, that is executive level thinking and executive level work.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Understand that culture is not marketing. The concepts you create for your culture may be leveraged b marketing and used by talent acquisition, but the culture is the soul of your business. It is what keeps the company alive. It is what will differentiate you in the marketplace. It is what will make your employees, managers and executive team feel great about where they work and make them believe in the organization that is something more than a producer of widgets but that has purpose and truly matters. If you think about work culture from the perspective of providing purpose, creating purpose, in people’s lives not just work, you have to start there. The second piece is be honest. I would rather hear a company say we’re arrogant. I may not want to work there but they likely being honest. I think today too many companies just say what they think people want to hear. In reality the companies that are successful mean what they say when they talk about culture. Being authentic in how you think about culture, and to design a lasting and meaningful culture I think is incredibly important.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I would say we can always do more. I do not claim I have done any better or worse a job of improving the world than anyone else. What is important to me is to make sure that any skills I have learned or resources I have that if we can find ways to leverage those resources to make the world a better place than that is a great thing. One of the ways I have chosen to do that is through an organization called Uncornered. It’s a gang intervention program and an education program that has helped more than a thousand people get out of gangs and away from violence and into college. What I love about that program is it is helping to overcome systemic urban poverty by giving people a much needed chance to get out of the cycle of violence that they may have found themselves in since they were born. Being able to disrupt that pattern and put people in a better place is something that I am incredibly proud to be a part of. I sit on the Board of Uncornered and I think it is a terrific organization run by a terrific leader run by Mark Culliton who lives in Boston, Massachusetts.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Giving is more important than taking. In the movies we see business people being cut throat and I think to some degree we grow up believing that’s the only way to succeed. In reality I have found that by building real relationships with people, helping others and taking time to understand what people are trying to achieve is a far more meaningful way of achieving success.
2. Be comfortable hiring people who know more than you do. Insecurity is a killer and it’s critical that you understand early on that no one is great at everything. Hire incredibly smart people who are better than you at their areas of expertise and you will get a lot further.
3. Be transparent: companies are built on culture and culture is built on trust. It’s hard to be vulnerable with hundreds of people on an all hands call but DO IT! Let people in to your successes and failures and you will be surprised at how much more willing people will be to dive in and support you and the company.
4. Don’t mortgage your future for a fast buck: companies and cultures that succeed create real value. It’s easy to get side tracked with projects or requirements that will make you fast money now, but at the expense of the company’s ability to execute on its vision down the road. We were offered a highly profitable professional services arrangement 2 years ago with a customer and while it would have helped us beat our numbers for the year it would have eaten up half our development capacity, compromising our product roadmap.
5. Be kind: it’s a simple one. No one wants to work for people they don’t like and don’t want to be around. In high pressure startup world it can be stressful, never let your stress compromise your ability to show kindness to your team, your customers, and your partners.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
As the job market changes and we see the rise of artificial intelligence and the evolution of the digital economy, one of the most important things is we ensure income inequality not with short-term fixes that help us make job numbers today, but with long-term systemic change that will support a happier and healthier world. One of the core ways I think we do that is through education. Knowing what we do, artificial intelligence and software engineering and technical skills are going to be so critical to such a large group of industries tin the coming generations that the ability to enable more people to learn the basics of coding is incredibly important for example. One of the things I would love to see and support is to build a movement specifically those who are born in humble beginnings are given access to the training and materials and equipment that they need to learn those engineering skills. So, they in turn, can grow into incredibly productive and healthy members of society. I think if we don’t start when people are young and teaching them those skills and providing those resources, we are handicapping our entire economy and preventing the country from closing the income inequality gap.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My father taught me something when I was very young. He used to say, presentation is everything. He never explained it to me. He never said what it meant but I have absolutely found that to be the case. Whether it is selling a vision or helping a team to understand why something is important, you can have all the facts and figures in the world but if you cannot find a way to reach into people and connect with their hearts and minds, and communicate with people the way they will understand it, believe it and feel it, you’ll never be able to share your passion. And, you will never be able to grow your ideas beyond yourself. The idea that presentation is everything is something that I have taken with me throughout my life.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Satya Nadella. I think that almost nobody could have taken a company like Microsoft to such great heights the way that he did at the time that he did. Microsoft has transformed itself since he took the reins into the leading technology company in the world. I think their ability to understand how to partner and work with others is second to none. I think their ethics as a business is unique for a company of that size. I think also having a lot of friends that work at Microsoft, the incredible ability that he has to influence the culture of such a large organization — not just influence the culture — but the lives of so many employees by bringing back a sense of true balance. By making it truly okay to spend more time with your families and baking that into a high-performance culture. The work Satya has done is incredible. He is a true inspiration for anyone in business. He is a hero of mine for what he has done at Microsoft.