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How to Build a Passionate Startup Culture (Episode 82)

Robert Alvarez is the CFO of BigCommerce, which went to IPO last year and is now valued at nearly $5 billion. He’s behind about four IPOs, starting with a company called Crossroads Systems, which raised $85 million back in 1999 and 2004. Additionally, he was the CFO of Liberate Digital, another technology company that helps consumers discover and read books, and serves tech to Amazon, Google, and Apple Books.

Robert joined BigCommerce in late 2011, but started his career working for Dell as a financial analyst in 1994. He’s worked across a whole range of companies in tech, but it took him a long time to discover his true calling within popular startup culture.

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Early Life and Development

Robert is the youngest of three kids, and after seeing them struggle with their degrees and careers, found himself motivated by finding a secure job.

By the time he got to school, he was already able to pay his own way. His only goal was to make sure that when he graduated, he got a job.

He went to the University of Texas Business School, and clearly remembers asking the counselor which major would guarantee he would have a job after he graduated. When the slightly surprised counselor responded “Accounting”, his immediate response was “sign me up!”

About six months into his accounting degree he realized three things:

  1. He was in it to make good money
  2. He chose accounting for all the wrong reasons
  3. He hated it

Robert finished his first year, hung in there, and then pivoted to being a teacher, still majoring in accounting.

During his third or fourth accounting class, Robert began to seriously struggle. Luckily, his mother was a professor of accounting in the Philippines, so she invited him home for the weekend.

That weekend, his mom was able to lay out the material in a way he could totally understand. She was critical in his ability to get that degree.

Accounting was his major, but his passion was around business. Robert believes he ended up being able to stick with accounting simply because he was fascinated by business, what it took to run businesses, and in the end accounting is a really great foundation for that.

After his various experiences helping businesses start out and max out, and polishing their financial policies, Robert truly began to tap into his gift.

What Makes a Great Startup Culture?

There are three main things that Robert has identified as keys to success in the world of startup culture:

  1. Market Size
  2. Product Impact
  3. Team Potential

When Robert joined BigCommerce, he ended up adding a fourth to the list:

  • Does it resonate with you on a personal level?

You can work at a lot of tech companies and have great success whether or not there’s an amazing outcome. It’s the same amount of work, it’s the same amount of commitment, so you might as well apply a “lens” or filter to decide which companies to join.

Robert didn’t even realize the possibility of the fourth piece until he began working at BigCommerce and noticed the change. In his first month at the company, after seeing the merchants that they were helping, and their success stories, it really hit him. He resonated with the work they were doing on an incredibly personal level.

It wasn’t just a product or technology company, they were really making a difference. He thought of his father, an immigrant from the Philippines. They moved to the states when Robert was three and a half years old, and he remembered his father’s business in the Philippines. His father had dreams of doing the same thing in the U.S., but it wasn’t that easy.

The merchants they were helping reminded him of his father, and their struggles, and he couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like if something like BigCommerce had been available for his parents.

Adapting and Innovating

During his 10 years at BigCommerce, eCommerce has evolved rapidly.

It took 20 plus years for eCommerce to be even 10% of retail, in 2017, and experts were predicting that it would double in five years. We’ve already pushed far past that mark.

As we think about the next 10 years, knowing the pace of innovation that’s taken place in the last 10 years, it’s exciting to think about what could happen in the next 10.

Thinking about all the innovation that’s going to come from companies like BigCommerce and the whole ecosystem of technology partners that are all working to make the consumer buying experience better, faster and more reliable, there’s no question that the field is going to experience explosive growth and change.

Looking Ahead

Back in the day, you’d have to go to a branded website or marketplace to buy products, and we’re already seeing ways that the buying experience is evolving far beyond these conventional platforms.

Those buying experiences are just going to get better and better as media, advertising, and apps improve. Now, you can buy a product right there, when you see someone you follow and trust using it.

Consumers are getting the products quick enough to meet their expectations, and they’re actually receiving what they want.

As these buying experiences get better and better, it’s really important for merchants to think about expanding their exposure, giving access to a larger target audience.

If you’re a merchant on BigCommerce, in one click your products can be found on Amazon, eBay, Wish, Walmart, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, or whatever channel you want. The goal is to ensure that wherever consumers are browsing for products like yours, they will drive that demand to your business.

Their whole model is about shared success: they price based on their merchant success, and if they’re successful, they know that they will be successful.

Digital Startups

When it comes to preparing and handling a digital startup, Robert has found a few things to be incredibly important: Investors, and Scaling.

Investors

For most of Robert’s venture startups, they raised money through venture capital and he quickly learned that it’s really important to bring on the right investors. What is the criteria?

Investors that are aligned to the vision.

Investors that believe in the potential of the company, and are willing to play the long game.

Finally, there has to be conviction. The investors who are your early board members must share that conviction and unity in order for the project to succeed.

Scaling with Soul

The second thing, scaling, is a bit more complicated.

Scaling itself is a huge undertaking, and often incredibly frustrating.

When you start hiring hundreds and hundreds of people, it’s really easy for companies to lose not only it’s organization or control, but the startup culture.

They lose sight of the culture, the values, and the heart of the mission.

To counteract this, you have to put a system in place to preserve the culture you seek to create. Recruit for the culture, manage performance around the culture, and promote people based on the culture. You must hold the leaders and team members accountable to maintain it, especially when the scaling means multiple offices in different parts of the world.

It’s one thing to have values on a board, or to talk about culture, but actions always speak louder than words.

If you talk to anyone at BigCommerce, no matter what location, they’ll talk about something called “Bucket One and Bucket Two”.

Bucket One is your resume, your skillset, or experience. Bucket Two contains the intangibles that they look for. They really love people who are selfless. They look for people who are purpose driven, passionate, and ambitious in their thinking and their goals, but maintain a beautiful degree of humility.

They look for those who seek to learn, and who are unafraid of failing when trying something new. These people are brave enough to reach out for advice and ask for help.

At BigCommerce, humility is considered a superpower.

Bucket One, Bucket Two

To give a clearer picture of what this theory is, Robert has offered an insider look at the “Bucket One, Bucket Two” method.

Bucket one is what you see on your LinkedIn: your experience, your education, your skillset.

Bucket Two is what Robert considers to be the things his parents taught him, and the things that he and his wife strive to teach their kids. These are the things that are difficult to “teach” after a certain age of development. These people almost seem wired to be selfless and team oriented.

They play the we game, not the me game. When things go right, they give credit to other people, and  when things go wrong, they take responsibility for what they need to, and their desire to grow allows them to see themselves and their faults clearly. They focus on things that they can get better at, not only the things that they’re already good at.

Most importantly, however, Robert emphasizes that it’s the humility that brings the team to the next level.

They have a “No jerks allowed” policy. You check your ego at the door.

Robert’s team is built on that philosophy.

You can teach a lot of Bucket One. It’s really hard to teach Bucket Two.

Starting Up

Life is simple, but people are complicated.

Having values or a defined startup culture, but not exhibiting them with your actions will break a team apart.

Keep it to the basics: do the things that you know you’re supposed to do, and don’t worry as much about the rest.

Days can be long, but if they have a strong sense of purpose, and your team believes in the impact you’re making, then you’ll find your team will stay around a lot longer.

In the end, when you’re building the team and the culture, you’ve got to follow your gut, or your heart, whichever speaks louder.

Steven Spielberg says that what you’re meant to be doing in life never shouts, it whispers; listen for those whispers.

For more content like this, check out the Jeff Bullas Show, or scroll through our free resources.