Podcasts

The big fish and little fish of leadership

November 11, 2015 – Marten Mickos is the newly announced CEO of bug bounty platform HackerOne.  Marten, a native of Finland, is a proven CEO; he led the iconic open source database company MySQL, and later worked for Sun Microsystems after their acquisition of that company. He then led cloud software company Eucalyptus Systems, which was acquired by HP. He has also served on the board of Nokia & has been spearheading the online School of Herring, which focuses on leadership.

In this podcast, he discusses leadership lessons, the evolution of open source and the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Europe.

The full transcript is below.

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Marten on leadership:

I started a blog about leadership, and I call it the “School of Herring,” so it’s the schoolofherring.com. For two reasons I picked the name. One reason is I love herring in all its forms: smoked, and grilled, and pickled and everything. It’s a delicious food. But secondly, it’s a little bit of a protestation against a leadership culture where you look up to some hero, and you talk about big fish and small fish. In my view, at the end of the day, we’re all just human beings, or we’re all just herring. We’re small, small fish, and we’re not that much different. Leadership is not about finding the biggest fish, but getting the whole school of fish to swim in one direction and to move and change direction quickly.

Marten on the shared experience of difficult times:

We had a quarter with zero sales. Our sales had dropped down to zero, from a very good number down to zero, and then we started climbing again. We did, and it’s just very empowering for you and for anybody who was on that team. They can go on and do anything after this, because they’ve seen the zeros there in their face. Meaning, the possibility that the company goes out of business and returns nothing to anybody. But we avoided it in the last minute, and we got the company turned around. So that’s just huge. It will stay with me forever.

Marten on the European ecosystem:

There’s good news and bad news. Good news is that it’s much more popular in the young generation, which ignores all the problems and just goes after the opportunities, which is the exact right thing to do. But Europe is called the “Old World” for a reason. There’s still old legislation around labor and how labor works and other legislations that prevents things from happening. There’s an avoidance of failure and risk that’s difficult. Making money by building a business isn’t that common yet. Sometimes I joke, and it’s just a joke, that in Europe, you can steal your money, and you can inherit your money. And both of those are okay, but it’s not okay to make your money yourself.

So the climate isn’t the best for entrepreneurs, but, as I said, there’s good news. The young generation doesn’t care about that. They are born global. They build businesses for worldwide consumption. They are sitting in Barcelona, or Berlin, or Amsterdam, or Stockholm, Helsinki, or near those areas, in places where there’s a lot of entrepreneurs, and they have a community that supports them. We are seeing already just fantastic companies coming out of Europe, and there will be more.

Marten on hiring:

Then I’ve learned something which is very difficult to learn. Maybe it comes only with experience. But you need to hire people that you share values with and you enjoy working with. But that doesn’t mean you should hire people who are like you. You need to hire people who are not like you but who you still can work with, and it’s difficult to find that sufficient contrast. Don’t hire copies of you, but hire opposites of you who still share some values so that you could work together. That’s very difficult.


Transcript

Navin: Hi. Welcome back to Chat with Champions. I have the pleasure of hosting my friend, Marten Mickos, with me today. Marten is an accomplished entrepreneur and a seasoned CEO. He was CEO of MySQL and worked for Sun Microsystems after the acquisition of MySQL, was CEO of the cloud software company, Eucalyptus Systems, which was acquired by HP. He has also served as a board member of Nokia and has been spearheading the online School of Herring, which focuses on leadership. Marten, welcome to the show.

Marten: Thank you very much, Navin. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Navin: So let me start by asking you to walk us through your journey from Finland to Silicon Valley and your learnings along the way.

Marten: Yes. That’s an interesting story. When I was young, when I was a kid, I had no idea I would be an entrepreneur and a startup CEO. But as a student in college, we did start a company with three friends, three college buddies, and we just decided that we have to do it for the fun of it, and for the fame of it, and hoping to make money, and we did all of that. I still didn’t realize it would be my lifelong calling. After that, that was back in the 80s, I did a number of startups, some more successful, some less so. Then in year 2000, old college buddies, again, of mine asked me to join MySQL as the CEO. I’ve been joking that the only reason they called me was that they didn’t know anybody else who had ever been a CEO. So that was my qualification. And I then started working with them and ultimately took the job in Spring of 2001, and that was just such a roller coaster, mostly going up, sometimes going down, but just a huge thing instantly. It didn’t take long, and we got an investment round from Benchmark Capital in the Bay Area.

I told Benchmark, then I said, “If you invest in this company, I will move to Silicon Valley,” and they responded by saying, “If you move to Silicon Valley, we will invest in the company.” So that deal was done, and I came over with my family in 2003, 12 years ago. We built MySQL, continued to build it for another five years until Sun Microsystems acquired us for $1 billion back then. So we were one of the first unicorns even before people called it unicorns, I guess.

Navin: Absolutely.

Marten: So that’s briefly how it happened. Then over all these years, I learned more and more that building something, building teams and building new concepts is really my passion, and I love doing it, and that’s why I stayed in doing what I do and why I enjoy it so much.

Navin: Got it. So any key learnings at MySQL that you could share with our audience today?

Marten: There are many. There’s a lot of them. One, I think, which for me personally was very important. When I joined MySQL, I did not know Open Source, but I decided to become an expert on it. I didn’t know that you could just decide on something and then it starts happening. But after a number of years, I realized that I was an expert on Open Source, and people came to me for advice. It dawned on me how quickly things change. And even if you feel that there’s something you know nothing about, if you just decide to become an expert and you set your mind to it, you can actually do it in a reasonable time so that today, people somehow believe that I always was an expert on Open Source.

But that’s not the case. I just decided to make it a core skill of mine. And that has had profound impact on how I approach new challenges, because I realized that a human being can learn a lot in a short amount of time if he or she really is devoted to it.

Navin: Got it. And in your journey, what’s been the importance of teams and starting a company culture early on? So could you elaborate or comment on that?

Marten: Yes. It’s funny, because I come from a background of being a Boy Scout and doing my military service and being in various clubs in college. So I was used to a lot of camaraderie and fun people, smart people, active people working together. But I didn’t, perhaps, think about the fact that that is the foundation of a team and the foundation of success. It took me probably 10 more years to see that even in business, even though it’s not the Boy Scouts, or it’s not just university students having fun together, but there’s similar dynamics. And if you get that positive spin in a team, it can do amazing things that a normally good team cannot do.

So I’m not talking about the difference between a dysfunctional team and a functional team. I’m talking about the difference between a functional team and a super-functional team. So I started realizing that even if your organization is great and everybody is happy, everybody is productive, everything looks good, if you can get to that still higher level of execution, then with the same people, you can do 10 times more. Maybe a little bit like in boating, a boat may be in the water and go at a certain speed, and if you can make it plane, if you can lift if above water so it runs on foils, then with the same boat, the same wind, the same energy, you can go much faster. And you wonder how it’s possible, because just a moment ago, it went slower.

There’s something similar in how teams operate. Therefore, that’s why I think that the difference between a good team and a great team is about 10 times, and that’s why it makes sense to invest so much in finding the right team, building the right team and having the strongest team, because you can get the 10X improvement in productivity, and it’s amazing. We had it at MySQL, and we still go back to that same team, and we meet. The feeling is still with us, although it has been many years since that team was together.

Navin: Got it. Got it. Let’s switch gears a little bit to an area which is related to team building. It’s leadership, right? I know you’ve recently been spending time on School of Herring and publishing your thoughts on leadership. Can you please share more details about it?

Marten: Yes. I’m very excited about it, Navin. I started a blog about leadership, and I call it the “School of Herring,” so it’s the schoolofherring.com. For two reasons I picked the name. One reason is I love herring in all its forms: smoked, and grilled, and pickled and everything. It’s a delicious food. But secondly, it’s a little bit of a protestation against a leadership culture where you look up to some hero, and you talk about big fish and small fish. In my view, at the end of the day, we’re all just human beings, or we’re all just herring. We’re small, small fish, and we’re not that much different. Leadership is not about finding the biggest fish, but getting the whole school of fish to swim in one direction and to move and change direction quickly.

So that’s the name of the blog, and I’m just there sharing my silly thoughts about an experience about leadership, what worked, what didn’t, how I solved it. Because I know that when I was a young CEO, I didn’t know all these things, so I’m trying to help the younger me in learning these things, reflecting over them sooner.

Then based on advice from good friends, it’s not really a written blog. It’s a written blog as well, but it’s a video blog, so I do short video snippets that are two to three minutes long only. They are intended to serve what I call 25-year-old startup CEOs who have a short attention span, and are very busy, and in between meetings, or in a taxi, or in a bus, or somewhere waiting at an airport. They can quickly check one video and be done, and it doesn’t have to be a huge investment of going to class and doing a lot of work, but they can just get one idea quickly and then get on with their day. So that’s the purpose and goal of the School of Herring. And I do it for the joy of sharing leadership advice with the next generation of CEOs and then seeing them succeed. It’s very rewarding.

Navin: It indeed is, right? That’s the purpose of what I am trying to do. And honestly, I’m a big follower of what you are doing and a big believer in leadership. So let’s switch gears. Things always don’t just move upward and to the right. Everybody sees difficult times, and you and I have had many chats about your experience at Eucalyptus, which was a much harder journey than MySQL. Can you share how an entrepreneur can benefit from a challenging experience in their career?

Marten: Yes. I’d be happy to. We really faced every conceivable problem at Eucalyptus. And we survived and came out on top of all of that. Of course, an entrepreneur will always, in retrospect, say, “It was worth it. I regret nothing,” because that’s the nature of an entrepreneur. But I know how it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, and you learn so much.

When I joined Eucalyptus, everybody had joined in order to build something huge, a huge success. So we all had that ambition to build something amazing. But then, when we run into problems, technical problems, marketing problems, team problems, all kinds of problems, it turned out that it’s not enough to have these desire to win, you must also have a refusal to lose. And that’s what we ultimately had.

So we had a big organization. We cut it to half its size and the remainders were survivors who just refused to lose. And with that much smaller team, we actually got the company in shape. Because not only were we there to win, but we also refused to lose, and we just fought through every challenge with practically no money. We had a lot of money, but we had to make it last three times longer than otherwise, because we knew we couldn’t get funding anytime soon.

So just a very hard experience but extremely rewarding when you see that you can come back from… We had a quarter with zero sales. Our sales had dropped down to zero, from a very good number down to zero, and then we started climbing again. We did, and it’s just very empowering for you and for anybody who was on that team. They can go on and do anything after this, because they’ve seen the zeros there in their face. Meaning, the possibility that the company goes out of business and returns nothing to anybody. But we avoided it in the last minute, and we got the company turned around. So that’s just huge. It will stay with me forever.

Navin: Yeah. I have a strong belief: building startups or running startups is like running a marathon. It’s not a sprint. And if you invest in A+ people, their initial product or market may not be the right one, but they’ll have the perseverance and will pivot to find the right market and the right product. And I think Eucalyptus is a good example of what you guys did, so kudos to you and your team.

Marten: Yeah, thank you. And Navin, to be specific, we never pivoted. That was the scary part. Because in the board and in strategy sessions, we said, “Okay, we still have money. Should we pivot?” And every time we discussed it, we came to the conclusion that the original vision was so strong that we should not pivot. We should just keep going. Adjusting a lot of things, but not pivoting. That was nerve-wracking, because of course, in Silicon Valley, everybody says it doesn’t work on the first or second attempt. Just pivot quickly and forget about the old. And we never did. We were stubborn, and I was worrying that we’re too stubborn to stay with the vision. But we stayed with the vision and changed the execution, and it worked. But it had no evidence or no…I couldn’t be certain that it would work, but it ultimately did work.

Navin: Yeah, absolutely agree, right? My belief is nimbleness is everything, because dinosaurs never survived, and you are a living example of what you did. And sometimes, companies have to pivot, or they need to focus on building the right product and the right market for it. So I think it’s a combination that people end up doing.

Marten: Yep, I would agree with you there.

Navin: So I think let’s switch gears to what’s happening today. And given that you’re an authority on Open Source, what are the few key trends that are exciting you in the Open Source area?

Marten: The greatest thing with Open Source is that it’s so common place now that it’s not a big deal, and it’s not necessarily a business of its own as it used to be. And that must be seen as a sign of success. The fact that we now have, broadly in society, we have a new level of transparency and openness, which is something Open Source pioneered. We have much more peer production, network economies. People call them “sharing economies” although that’s a little bit misleading. But production methods that use many individual players in one just like Open Source, and then there are many businesses who state publicly that they will do something good.

Of course, a business needs to produce profit in the long run. That’s the top goal. But many businesses now are expressing how they improve society and how they help society. Again, Open Source wasn’t the only place where it happened, but Open Source certainly was a pioneer in this space. So that makes me most happy, and then the fact that Open Source is sneaking into everything and not being a market or business of its own. That’s also good news. It’s a sign of success.

Navin: Got it. Got it. I tend to agree with that. Let’s shift gears and talk about Europe where you have had a lot of experience. For our audience, how has the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Europe evolved over the last 15 to 20 years, what’s different today versus the mid to late 90s?

Marten: There’s good news and bad news. Good news is that it’s much more popular in the young generation, which ignores all the problems and just goes after the opportunities, which is the exact right thing to do. But Europe is called the “Old World” for a reason. There’s still old legislation around labor and how labor works and other legislations that prevents things from happening. There’s an avoidance of failure and risk that’s difficult. Making money by building a business isn’t that common yet. Sometimes I joke, and it’s just a joke, that in Europe, you can steal your money, and you can inherit your money. And both of those are okay, but it’s not okay to make your money yourself.

So the climate isn’t the best for entrepreneurs, but, as I said, there’s good news. The young generation doesn’t care about that. They are born global. They build businesses for worldwide consumption. They are sitting in Barcelona, or Berlin, or Amsterdam, or Stockholm, Helsinki, or near those areas, in places where there’s a lot of entrepreneurs, and they have a community that supports them. We are seeing already just fantastic companies coming out of Europe, and there will be more.

So overall, the trend is good. I would just wish that societal changes would be in lockstep with those entrepreneurial changes that are happening; the positive ones I mean.

Navin: So one other thing that I strongly believe in is that people are everything. People make products, products don’t make people. So hiring people is one of the most important things in building companies for entrepreneurs. In your experience, what do you look for when you hire these people?

Marten: That’s such a difficult question for me, because I’m not sure I can describe what I look for in people. I actually happen to believe that there’s a lot you can do with people once they are on board. So of course you have to look for the best possible candidate, but you shouldn’t believe that it’s just a question of identifying one. You could hire the best candidate ever, and if you don’t build the team, then it’s wasted money and time.

So sure. You need to get onboard, those who have the best initial abilities to do good in your team. But you also then need to work on them to put them together, put the puzzle together, of all the people, and their strengths and weaknesses.

But when I look at people, the first thing I look at is values and what I call integrity. Are these people honest with others, honest with themselves? Do they behave the same behind your back and in your face? Do they say the same things to somebody else as they say to you? That’s integrity, that they are solid players. They don’t try to gain the system for their own benefit. They’re not trying to present different things in different circumstances, but it’s the solid same stuff always. That’s integrity and honesty that you need. When you have people of that sort, then you know you could work with them. Then you need to look for energy and the skill for that particular role that you do.

I think it’s very difficult to know what people are capable of. So when I interview, I give them homework. I say, “Could you please write a short essay about our strategy?” or, “Could you answer this question?” or, “Could you figure out how we should price something?” Then you see how they approach a problem. It doesn’t matter what they respond, because they don’t know much yet. But you see how they approach it, and that tells you whether they fit in or not.

Then I’ve learned something which is very difficult to learn. Maybe it comes only with experience. But you need to hire people that you share values with and you enjoy working with. But that doesn’t mean you should hire people who are like you. You need to hire people who are not like you but who you still can work with, and it’s difficult to find that sufficient contrast. Don’t hire copies of you, but hire opposites of you who still share some values so that you could work together. That’s very difficult.

The other very difficult thing, and this I learned from Peter Drucker, that you must hire for strength, and you must focus on their strengths, and then you just make sure that in the team, their weaknesses become irrelevant. But as a young leader, many times I said, “I can’t take this candidate because he or she has this weakness.” And now I’ve learned that sometimes you must accept the weaknesses even if they are pretty bad, because the strength you’re hiring for is there. That’s how you build very diverse teams, where you tolerate weaknesses in the individuals, because they’re so amazing at that strength they have. Then as a leader, your role is to make these people work together. It’s nearly impossible, but it’s not impossible. It can be done. And once it works, it works fantastically well.

But I know from Eucalyptus and MySQL and other teams that if I ask really honestly from my team, they can name some really bad weaknesses in their colleagues. You could say, “Wow, how could that ever work?” Well, it worked, because we decided to focus on the strengths, and work around the weaknesses, and tolerate the fact that even if we had a holy principle of something, there was also always one person who couldn’t live up to it, and we tolerated it because that person was so good and so important and vital for the success in some other dimension.

But all of this means that leadership is hard, because I can talk about this for hours, but those listening may not know how to apply it to their situation. They don’t know whether something is too much of a deviation in values or too little of it. So it becomes an art where you need this, what the Germans call Fingerspitzengefühl, “You must feel it in your fingers,” when it’s right amount of obstruction, and objection, and coherence, and values, and weaknesses, and strengths. It’s very difficult.

Navin: Marten, right? This has been a fascinating conversation. I personally learned a lot over the last 25 minutes, and I’m sure the audience is going to feel the same way. I want to thank you for taking the time. It’s a pleasure to have you as my guest today.

Marten: Thank you, Navin. Always a pleasure and a joy to discuss with you. I really enjoyed it. Thank you.

Navin: Thank you very much.