As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Aulet.
Tom Aulet has taken a decade of financial and analytical expertise from his time spent at consulting firm, Cornerstone Research, and marketing technology platform, MediaMath, to thrive in his current role as Ergatta’s co-founder and CEO. Along with his co-founders and team, Tom has created a new category of consumer experience: game-based fitness. This offering was created to bring a regular home fitness routine, and the mental and physical health benefits that come with it, within reach for more people.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us about your backstory? What led you to this particular career path?
I’ve always been a little bit underwhelmed by traditional career paths and company culture at massive corporations. My dad is a serial entrepreneur and gave me the bug at an early age. I’ve wanted to start a company since my early 20’s and I frankly can’t believe it took me this long to do so! I started my career in quantitative analytics and quickly moved to technology and ultimately into revenue leadership for an enterprise software firm focused on digital marketing, where I met and worked closely with my two Co-Founders. Finding the right partners was always going to be the biggest challenge and when we started getting together to workshop startup ideas, I knew we had the right group. We were looking for startup ideas that represented problems that we cared about, opportunities that were large and exciting, and that we had a reasonable chance of executing effectively. We began to obsess over the idea that eventually became Ergatta in late 2018 and we were off to the races by early 2019.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The day we announced our Series A funding, Peloton’s stock happened to tank. Our funding ended up getting picked up very widely by the business and tech press, a blogger ended up linking our announcement to the Peloton stock price fall, and pretty soon outlets like Nasdaq were attributing billions of dollars of losses in market cap to our funding announcement. We got a kick out of it, our team and investors loved it, and we got a nice little uptick in purchases from financial professionals who had never heard of us!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Our first major shipment of tablets from China, which arrived a few weeks after lockdowns started, arrived in the country both very late and with the wrong software installed — the result of a miscommunication. This basically could have sunk the business because our first several hundred paying customers were at risk of getting their units both several months late, with potentially defective software, at a time when they were absolutely desperate for home workout solutions and not in the mood for delays or defects. We felt we had to install the software ourselves in order to assure that it was done correctly but it was the height of the first Covid surge and our manufacturing partner was taking Covid very seriously, so we were not allowed on the premises. We ended up having them forklift several hundred tablets to an abandoned gym, we met up and drove to manufacturing partner in Rhode Island at a time when the Governor was threatening to pull over anyone coming from New York and send them back where they came from, and spend two 18-hour days unboxing, installing new software, and re-boxing hundreds of tablets for our very first customers. We ended up getting the units out with not too much of a delay, very few customers cancelled, and those members have been our earliest and loudest and most helpful advocates. Our manufacturing partner also appreciated our hustle and saw that we were going to do what it took to build a successful partnership and business. The main lesson here was ‘do whatever you need to do to keep your customers, especially your earliest customers, happy and it will come back around many fold’.
None of us can 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?
My dad, Bill Aulet, was absolutely foundational to our success. He literally wrote the book on tech entrepreneurship, which we followed basically to a tee, and he advised, motivated, and pushed us forward on a daily and weekly basis in the critical early days of the business. We absolutely would not be anywhere close to where we are today without his help, involvement and support.
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?
Diverse teams make better decisions, are more self-reflective and self-critical, are less prone to overconfidence and groupthink, and are more likely to see around corners. We specifically seek out — and have found and recruited — a leadership team from a diverse set of backgrounds from a race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic, and professional perspective. Good decision-making and strategy development is the result of a group of smart and collaborative people approaching problems and opportunities from different perspectives, through different lenses, and colored by different historical biases. Diversity of background and thought and perspective is critical to that process functioning effectively.
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.
I think the two points where business leaders have the most leverage in this regard is in choosing who to hire and who to do business with. In the hiring process, it’s imperative to remove as much bias as possible and to do proactive outreach to underrepresented groups. One way that we do that at Ergatta is we have a policy of interviewing at least two members from underrepresented groups for each role. As for choosing who you do business with — by this I mean, as an owner of a business that has an annual budget in the tens of millions, you have the ability to shape which people and organizations get access to that financial opportunity. This is a huge responsibility and point of leverage. By choosing to partner with people and organizations that align with our values, we can help to create an inclusive, representative and equitable society.
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?
I think the two main things that differ with the job of the CEO and that of other executives is around strategy development and evangelization and making sure we have enough money in the bank. More than any other person, it’s my role to develop a compelling strategy, stress test it externally and internally, effectively communicate, evangelize and motivate people around that strategy, and make sure everything that we do is consistent with that strategy. Making sure there is money in the bank is more complex than it sounds. In order to make sure there’s money in the bank, you have to understand the fundraising landscape, the metrics and milestones that the business needs to hit in order to raise the appropriate amount of money on the right timeline from the right people and on the right terms. Then of course when the time comes you have to actually go out and raise that money
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Myth #1: that you have to understand every function within the business well enough to run it yourself. This is not true. You need some rudimentary understanding of every business function, but the more important thing is that you have the ability to recruit the right people to run that function and then manage and motivate them effectively to run the function better than you can yourself.
Myth #2: that you need to have all the answers and make all the decisions. I feel most of the mistakes CEO’s make are mistakes of overconfidence. It’s OK to not have all the answers and make all the decisions; what’s important is that you create the team and the space to get to the right answers and decisions in a timely manner.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
How much time I would spend recruiting.
Do you think 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?
Probably not. The specific traits that I think make someone a good executive are extroversion (as you spend all your time talking to people), emotional intelligence (as your ability to develop and manage relationships is critical) and priority management (as there are always endless things you can do and your ability to focus on the ones that matter is paramount). I think the types of people that should avoid being an executive are those that don’t really enjoy people management. I think most people don’t really enjoy and aren’t actually effective at people management. Being an executive is all about people management so if that’s not your thing, I would not recommend becoming an executive.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
I think the most important factor is getting the right players on the field. If you get great people professionally and personally who are excited to be there and are brought into the right roles, you are probably going to have a fantastic culture no matter what your actual HR or culture programs or policies are. The inverse is also true. One thing we did that was effective here was defining our company values early on, and making those values real, meaningful and attainable things that certain people fit into and certain people didn’t. We then explicitly screened all new candidates for those values in the recruiting process. E.g. is this person actually excited about mission and company vision? Do they strike you as low-ego and fundamentally collaborative? Having to answer these explicit questions in an interview feedback form increases the likelihood that you hire people that are going to be good for culture.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I think we’re lucky enough to make a product that actually makes people’s lives better through the power of habit-forming daily fitness. That said, we understand that not necessarily everyone is in the market for or can afford at every given time in their life. Every single month, we identify a non-profit organization to partner with and we raise and donate money through monthly challenges for our members. Organizations have included everything from Meals on Wheels to a local public school in Brooklyn to Know Your Rights Camp.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- That the people around you are absolutely everything. Not just their professional capabilities, but the trust, personal relationship, and empathy you share with them. I think I knew this but the extent to which it is true can not be overstated.
- That you would spend your whole time fundraising and recruiting and less time than you think actually building the business internally.
- People will never, ever stop being skeptical of your business, no matter how much success you have. The sooner you let this go, the better.
- That the single most useful skill as a CEO is sales. You will constantly, constantly be selling your vision and your business — to recruits, investors, partners, employees, the press, and everyone else. Your ability to do this effectively, authentically and energetically will go a long way towards defining your success.
- The nature of the startup CEO job fundamentally changes at every new company stage, so just when you feel like you are getting the hang of it, your job will change.