When life gave him lemons, Brian Cruver started a lemonade factory out of that. Coming out of a horrendous experience at the demise of Enron, Brian has been starting companies with positive impacts such as Xenex and AlertMedia, to name a few. He is also an investor and advisor to dozens of early stage startups through his investment firm called Marketdriver Ventures. With everything he’s gone through, Brian has some very interesting experiences to share on building great company culture on today’s show.
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Building A Great Company Culture with Brian Cruver
Brian Cruver is with us to bring considerable experience in developing culture in companies that he has founded that employ primarily people in their 20s and 30s with the average age of about 35. Brian is an entrepreneur, an inventor, an author and is the CEO of AlertMedia, a company he founded in 2013. AlertMedia is now the world’s leading provider of emergency communication software used by over 1,200 enterprise companies in 90-plus countries to keep employees safe from threats to their health and safety. AlertMedia is ranked 285th in the Inc. 500 fastest-growing companies in America and is the second fastest-growing software company. Huge kudos to Brian on that. As if that is not enough, before AlertMedia, Brian cofounded Xenex, where he and his team developed a germ-killing robot used over 500 hospitals around the world, preventing infections and saving thousands of lives each year. He is also an investor and advisor to dozens of early stage startups, which should be of a lot of interest to this group, through his investment firm called Marketdriver Ventures.
Brian’s focus on starting companies with a positive impact stems in part from his experience working at Enron in Houston, Texas where he was part of mass layoffs when the energy giant went bankrupt in 2001. He turned his Enron experience into a bestselling book called Anatomy of Greed, which was rolled into the movie, The Crooked E. Brian is a graduate of the University of Southern California and received his MBA from the University of Texas. Brian, welcome to the show. You have some very interesting experience to share on building great culture. As the old saying goes, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” You sure did that from what was a horrendous experience and the demise of Enron. Would you tell us a little bit about that experience?
Thanks, Bill, for having me. Yes, life does give you lemons and I like to think I’m starting a lemonade factory out of that. Enron was quite the experience. As you mentioned, I wrote a book about it. There’s a lot of details that go into what I went through there. I’ll start by saying it was my dream job. I was in business school at the University of Texas, looking at various energy companies at that time, we’re talking about the late ‘90s, early 2000s, Enron was the place to be. It was the Fortune number seven company. It was on track to be Fortune number one. Who wouldn’t want to be in those shiny glass towers at Roosevelt downtown Houston? That was a dream job for me. Feeling like I’d hit the jackpot, the day I started, the wheels started coming off. I was not there that long in all of those nine months.
My nine months journey there was pretty wild, pretty bizarre. I was working on the trading floor. I was in a group that was trading bankruptcy risk, which is both ironic and gave me a unique perspective on things as it was unfolding. The culture at Enron was, as most people know, very cutthroat, very competitive. If we talk about company values, the value there was make a profit, show Wall Street a good number and that took precedence over everything. Among the more interesting values when I look back was the value of innovation. They wanted everyone to be innovative, which might have made a lot of sense for certain groups within Enron, but probably not for the accounting department.
Weren’t the people down in the trenches gung-ho and loved Enron?
Absolutely. Those towers were filled with brilliant, super smart, talented people. To this day, even looking back years later, they’re still the sharpest group of people I’ve ever worked with. The culture, the way Enron was structured and the mechanics of it all, it was all about the numbers and what you could show Wall Street, whether it was real or not. That led to the construction of this house of cards that, as we all know, went crashing down. I lost my job the same day as thousands of other people. We all were put on the streets that day after the bankruptcy. I went as everyone else went and found their next corporate gig. I decided to do something a little different. I wrote a book about Enron, which they turned into a movie.
Did you expect it to be picked up for a movie? How did that come about?
It was back when that Enron story became bigger and bigger. At first it was a business story, then it was a political story, then it was a global story. It was front page of the New York Times. As the journalists and reporters were circling, I managed to connect with a New York Times reporter. He and I were talking and I was telling him stories. As I got to know him, he started to throw out the ideas to me like, “You’ve got enough interesting material here. You can write a book about this.” I asked, “How do I do that?” He said, “You need an agent.” I literally googled literary agencies and reached out to a couple. The next thing I know I had a book deal and a movie deal and things took on a life of its own at that point.
You had enough knowledge from just nine months there to put the pieces together?
In my book, in comparison to the other handful of Enron books that were written, all the other books were written by journalists, by outsiders, reporters who did their interviews, did their research and tried to dissect the goings on of the executive suite. My book was not like that. My book was about the culture. It was about my view from the cubicle, how things unfolded from the trading floor, what it was like being there. It was chronological recap of what it was like inside the building as things were happening.
Was that around 2001 when Enron was going down?
December 3rd, 2001, that’s when the bankruptcy was finally declared.
In 2000 at Mustang, we had hit the motherload of all projects for huge deep-water prospects. We were hiring like crazy. In your demise, we got a lot of super Enron people that came into Mustang and once we got a few in, they called their friends. We got quite a contingent and they’re great people. That’s why I always thought that the culture must have been good down in the trenches, but somehow the management team lost their moral compass in what they were trying to do and were jumping to Wall Street instead of taking care of the business.
It was all about showing those Wall Street analysts that extra penny. One penny up or down made a huge difference in what everyone’s stock was worth. It was pretty incredible for that to be driving everything throughout the organization.When you’re doing something that is so important, people are drawn to your mission. Click To Tweet
Those trading floors were solid people side by side with computers as far as you could see.
I tell people I shared a desk with 500 people.
One of the people that came to us is Debbie Crowes and she told us that on the layoff day, they came in and had fifteen people go over to one side of the building and then they stood up on a desk and said, “All of the rest of you, pack your boxes and get out of here.” That was not very nice. One of the things in Houston at that time that I remember, Mustang had a great culture and Compaq computers. I don’t know if you remember them. They had a super culture as they were taking on IBM to open up the computing architecture. In another company in Houston, Southwest Airlines, which we called the company plane for getting us around to Dallas and over to New Orleans, they had a great culture that people could see and feel.
One of the things for me in developing that culture in the ‘80s and ‘90s was develop what I call no faith leadership. Everybody seemed to be subject to what the oil price was doing, whether their companies were going up or down. What we were trying to do is to develop a culture and a sales and execution methodology to where when the industry would go down, we would go flat and keep our teams together to when the industry would come back up, we were ready to take total advantage of it. Have you been able to do anything like that in the two companies that you’ve been working with what you created?
There’s opportunity in everything. For me, I was an Enron casualty. With the book and the movie, that led me to two years or so of being on the book and movie tour. After that, for me it was a personal question of, “What do I do next? Do I go back to big company, go back to corporate world?” I’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons at Enron. I’ve learned big company doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a safe place. I had a different view of risk at that point. For me, the most important lesson was if I’m going to do business, I’m going to be involved within those. If I’m going to create my own businesses, I want those businesses to be positive and have a positive impact. That’s what I set out to do. I think to your question, another basic criteria for me in starting these companies is what is this business going to be doing. Is it in something that’s important regardless of the state of the economy? With Xenex, when we developed the robots that killed germs in hospitals, those germs don’t care what the economy is like. The price of any commodity isn’t going to affect people getting sick. That’s still a problem that needs to be solved and a problem that’s ongoing. I’m trying to start businesses that are immune to those sorts of things. That’s been part of my goal.
Did you do those in Austin?
You named off two of my big successes in startups, but I had some failures. Learning early on, I had a couple in Houston. I did some software for nonprofits to help nonprofits raise money. I did some deals in clean tech and different things like that. By the time I started Xenex, I was in Austin. That business is still going. As you mentioned, there are thousands of robots in hospitals around the world preventing hundreds of thousands of infections and saving thousands of lives every year. That’s a great outcome for a company I started in my living room.
Did you get investor capital to do that or did you do that with the proceeds from your book and the movie?
It’s a little bit of both. The proceeds from the book and the movie allowed me to do these high-risk things, paying the bills as we were going along. Also, my wife’s working and she was at a BMC software. She has a steady paycheck and health insurance while I was doing crazy things like write books and started companies. There was a good balance there. The book in the movie led me to be in a position where I could take some more risks and start these companies. That was 2009 that I started and I had investors early on who believed in the mission there, the idea behind starting a company that could potentially save lives and have an impact.
What I like is you’ve taken what you learned from Enron and the companies that you’ve been building are a lot about giving back and being a positive influence in the world for the people that they touch.
As I’ve been involved in these different companies, I’ll refer to them as my anti-Enron. Don’t get me wrong, these are for-profit businesses, we’re trying to make money and generate a profit and a return for our investors. We want our employees to grow and develop and make money as well and succeed in their careers. These are businesses but what we do, what we represent and the reason we exist, it’s all positive. It’s in the case of Xenex, it’s preventing hospital infections and saving lives. In the case of AlertMedia, my software company, the emergency communication we do changes outcomes. We have 1,200 companies around the world in 90 countries using our software to communicate around emergencies, things like shooters and hurricanes and all sorts of disasters you see on the news. We are changing the outcomes there. We’re keeping people safe and out of harm’s way and keeping people informed and connected around those events
Are all of your people co-located and then they just travel as required?
At AlertMedia, yes, it’s interesting. We’re probably unlike a lot of modern tech startups these days. We’re a little bit old school. I’ve got everybody in one office, in one big open space. We don’t have any work remote, work from home. We don’t have a distributed workforce that’s all around the country or in different countries. Everyone’s here. We all work together.
You have this Millennial and Gen X workforce. What are some of the things that you’re doing to keep them welded into your team and reduce the turnover? That’s pretty common in places like in tech firms.The challenge of a leader is how to continue to stay in everyone's ear and keep everyone on the same page. Click To Tweet
The younger people at my company, AlertMedia, they like the balance that we offer. They like to have fun but work hard. It’s a perfect mix that we have going. We have great food and snacks. It’s really important. A lot of team building events, a lot of quarterly, annual different events. One of the traditions that I created the day we started. When I started AlertMedia in 2013, I met one guy for lunch on a Tuesday. He and I met to talk about this idea I had that was literally day one of AlertMedia when I was starting it. We decided this is a good idea, “Let’s meet again next Tuesday for lunch.” The next Tuesday for lunch and then the next Tuesday and here we are six years later. The entire company still have lunch together every Tuesday.
It lasted about two years at Mustang and my partner’s wife was bringing in lasagna one morning and had to stop fast and it went all over the inside of the van. That was the end of the lunches. By then, we were pretty well-welded as a team. That’s cool that you’re still doing it.
We’re at about 125 people. We all get in the big main area at the office and eat lunch together. What we do is we use that time either with a guest speaker. We’ll talk about what our customers are doing. We’ll talk about new things happening with the products. We’ll celebrate sales wins. We’ll give company updates and I’ll talk about my board meeting. It’s very valuable time and that’s one of those traditions that everybody here loves. It’s all part of the open collaborative transparency vibe that we have going here.
That’s step number one in Culture Code Champions is to open up that communication. They’re seeing the leadership interact. They’re seeing everybody interact top to bottom and side to side across the company. That gives you a real team spirit. If they see something that’s going sideways, they’re going to feel comfortable that they can speak up because it’s like a big team.
They know everything that’s going well, going sideways. Everyone’s in the loop on everything, which has been a goal of mine from day one to keep that. Everyone feels ownership of everything. We describe it as a family atmosphere, a lot of trust, a lot of communication. One thing that’s interesting because you mentioned the Millennial and Gen X workforce, Austin, where we’re headquartered is very competitive for talent. When I’m recruiting against all hundreds of other tech startups doing crazy interesting things, drones and AI or whatever, how do I win that talent? It turns out we’re winning because of our mission, because of what we do. We can have an impact, save lives and keep people out of harm’s way. Because we’re doing something that’s so important, that attracts those people. People are drawn to our mission. They’ll even take less money. They’ll take less stock and they’ll commute farther. They will do all that because they believe in what we do.
One of the things I always say is you have to communicate that vision and mission relentlessly. It sounds like you start communicating it during the hiring process to help differentiate your company.
Looking at your Culture Code, the one that jumps out above all of them is recruiting top talent. That is the name of the game. Probably the lesson learned from the all the previous startups I had up to this one, ideas are easy. Raising funding is pretty easy. Developing a product, even selling it, all of those things are easy compared to finding great people and convincing them to join your team, especially in the startup game.
You have to jealously guard them once you’ve got them. It’s tough because you have to be open. You have to be strong enough to where you know that you’ve hooked them so tight that when headhunters or whoever are calling in there that before they jumped, they’re going to come talk to you and say, “This other thing seems to interest me,” where you get a shot to talk to them about it.
We do our best to have development and career planning and those kinds of discussions with people. They’re drawn to the idea that, “If I’m joining AlertMedia with twenty people, I’m going to be in a good spot when there are 100 people and to know that people joining or I’m in the first 100. I’m going to be in a really good position in this company when there are 1,000 people.” Everyone’s bought into that concept. I introduced a new benefit, which is a six-year sabbatical. A lot of companies do that. We rolled out when you reach your six-year anniversary, which I had a few of my firsts, employee number three and employee number four reached their six-year anniversary. We announced this benefit along with their anniversaries and we’re giving them six weeks paid time off. I’ve got people excited and maybe they’re only in year three or year four, but they’re looking forward and already thinking about the trip they’re going to take or the mission they’re going to go on or what world experience they’re going to have and how they’re going to use their six weeks of sabbatical they’re going to get. We’re doing everything we can to keep people engaged and keep people excited about working here.
That’s pretty cool, especially having a younger workforce. They’re doing that sabbatical when they’re young enough to go do anything that they would like to do somewhere in the world.
One of our people that hit that anniversary, she has two young kids and she’s excited to do something fun with her family. It’s a great benefit.
We started Mustang in July of 1987 and a guy, Devaka Patek, was our first employee. He sent me an email saying he had his 32nd anniversary. He’s still here and he still loves it. One of the things we’ve found that happened because technology was moving fast, at times some of our people that had been with us five to ten years had fallen a little bit behind what was happening outside of our company. When we were hiring new people in, we were seeing that we were getting better technical capability than some of our old hands that we had. What we did is we said, “We’ll pay for classes. Do you need to improve your skills and get up to speed? Look at this talent that we’re bringing in.”
For about a year and a half, we tried that. We had to end up letting some people go and say, “You need to go get these skills.” What was cool was that 90% of them, two years later, came back and they had gotten the skills. I think it also sent a message to the rest of the company that, “When you see these people coming in and you see the talent and the skills they’re bringing, learn from them and get up to speed. Do lunch and learns, go to technical school. If you’re not growing, the industry’s going to pass you by and you can’t feel insulated because you were number twenty and the company now has 100 people.” It’s a tough one when you get to the situation.
We have a little bit of that happening with our engineering team, our software development team. They all teach each other. It’s a great environment over there in that group. They’re all having to keep up together as technology advances. That’s one of our advantages we have in the market right now is we have the newest technology and we’re more mobile and user friendly and intuitive on smartphones and that thing. We’re in a race and everybody on that team is in that race together.One of the key mistakes you see leaders in startups make is they forget about the business part of their business. Click To Tweet
That’s another reason for people to want to join your company. One of the terms that we used all the time was to make heroes of each other, of your clients and of your suppliers. If those engineers are working to make heroes of each other to build the team up, they’ll be unbeatable long-term. What do you think is one of the biggest challenges that’s facing leaders in the digital world, which you’re big time into and building that winning culture?
Communication is the biggest challenge for me. Keeping everyone on the same page. I’m in the world of the startup. It’s easy when there are five of us in a room together. It’s not as easy, but still easy when there are 25 of us in a room together. Now I’ve got 125 people and we’re around the corner from each other. We’re not sitting within earshot. It’s an interesting thing to solve for. We use a software called Slack, which you may be familiar with. It’s an internal chat network with different channels and different topics basically that the team is communicating around. We’ll have a sales Slack channel, and the sales team communicates on it. We have product engineering, different channels like that.
I created a CEO channel and my channel is used exclusively. It messages to the whole team from me. I send out a message on that channel pretty much daily, at least three or four times a week. It’s always something big. It’s a big announcement, it’s recognition, a big decision that’s been made that they all need to be made aware of. It’s a way of replacing what used to happen, which is when there were five of us in the room, I could say it and everybody heard it and we were all on the same page. We got to a point where we’re big enough to where I wasn’t able to spend time with everyone. That’s the challenge for your question for me as a leader, how I continue to stay in everyone’s ear and keep everyone on the same page.
I like one of the things you said there was a recognition. One of the phrases I like to use to celebrate what you want to see more of, it sounds like you’re using that CEO channel to do that type of thing also, “Somebody did this. It was good.” They connected the dots in real time. We want to see more of that. You can put that word out.
If we do nothing else here at AlertMedia, we celebrate. We celebrate all kinds of milestones with the product, how the product is being used. We hit a milestone with our user count. We’re going to have a happy hour to celebrate that specifically. Friday afternoons, we gather up the whole team, all the sales reps that closed deals that week, talk about how they closed the deal and everybody applauds. Sometimes they get to draw gift cards out of a hat, that kind of thing. We celebrate it all. There’s a whole shelf full of champagne bottles behind my desk.
It’s cool that you celebrate for the salespeople because a lot of time they can be a little bit disconnected from the ops. I was always trying to develop what I call a sales bone in the operations person’s body so that they would understand what they could do to actually help that salesperson.
We’re seeing the organization the way we’re all driven around growth. We do this great thing. We have this great product. It’s a great platform for communicating around emergencies for us to accomplish our main goal, our mission. It would be to get that software in the hands of every company in the world that can use it. There are hundreds of thousands of companies around the world that could use our software. It’s a race for us to get that software in the hands of all those companies and get them using it and help them keep their people safe and informed. Everyone’s bought into that and focused on that and united around that. Everyone is selling. Even if you’re in product, you know that the feature you’re working on for the product is going to help sell the product.
If you’re in customer success and you’re working with current customers, your job is to get them onboarded and trained and using it and check in with them and see if they need anything. My customer success team was calling every customer we had along the Florida, Georgia and Carolina coast, which are hundreds of customers, making sure they had everything they need and in place, and they had all the all the help they needed to communicate around the hurricane. If you’re on our marketing team, same thing. Everyone’s working towards that common goal. That works for us and that keeps everybody thinking about who else can we get our software in the hands of.
You probably read a number of business books and other things. Is there any magazine or book that you would recommend to people that has helped you in what you’re doing with your culture and your business solutions?
I do a lot of reading and bite-size reading in my seat or in chunks here and there, probably like most people these days. Also when I do read a book, I read a lot of fiction. A business book that comes to mind is a book called The CEO Next Door. It has a few authors. One of the authors, I know her name is Kim Powell. She’s the CEO coach and what she and the other authors did with that book is they took a data analysis of 17,000 CEOs’ characteristics. They’re measuring the characteristics of the different CEOs, thousands of them and drawing conclusions about what do they have in common. What are the common behaviors and characteristics of these great leaders? It’s a fascinating book. I’ve spent time with Kim as a CEO coach, had gotten her advice and read this book and that’s an impact and certainly confirmed a lot of the things that I do. One thing that jumps out that I recall from that book is one of the key behaviors is decisiveness.
The way I think of decision making in my role is there are two types of decisions. There’s the one-way door and the two-way door. The one way door, you’ve got one shot at that. You go through it, you can’t come back. That decision, you’re going to want to take your time and be careful and be thoughtful and really think it through before you go through that door. The decisions, they are permanent and the two-way that you can go through and then go, “No, turn around. Come back.” Those types of decisions, just make in the snap of a finger and make them quick. I view the world that way as I make my 200 or 300 decisions every day.
There are going to be more and more of them. One of the things that you do is you’re an advisor, you invest in startups. What’s one of the key mistakes that you see leaders in startups making more frequently than others that leads to their demise or leads to you needing to help them?
The easy answer there is they forget about the business part of their business. There’s a lot of venture capital out there, a lot of investment happening in cool ideas, cool products, cool technology. Self-driving drones that use AI to whatever. The most common mistake is people are focused on their invention and their idea and their product and they’re not thinking through the mechanics of selling it and making money. That’s fine. That can sometimes lead to a good outcome. More often than not, those startups are a money pit and you’re putting dollars towards the idea, towards the invention. Somebody will ultimately benefit and own that invention, but you’ve got to start where we started or at least where we started with AlertMedia.
Before that was there, it was Xenex. The focus was on a little bit of market validation, a little bit of, “Does this thing work? We’ve got a minimum viable product here. Now let’s draw a line in the sand and go out and try and sell it.” The first Xenex machine I sold to MD Anderson in Houston and that was the proof that I have a business. Not the robot works or, “We’ve got a robot.” The proof was that I was able to sell it. it’s the same with AlertMedia. The first version of our software was okay. It wasn’t everything that we had dreamed of or everything it is now certainly. The early version of our software, we have to draw a line in the sand and say, “Can we sell this?” Once we landed in our first dozen or so customers, and that included DHL and Volkswagen, that was the proof we need we had a business. The proof was not the software works.
You can start adjusting from there. It’s interesting about MD Anderson. I had a stage four cancer back in 1980 and had 11% survival rate. I had to sign up for experimental drugs, but MD Anderson is a pretty good team and if they’ve evaluated your robot and picked it, then you definitely know you’ve got a product that will work.
They did good with you. That was 40 years ago.
They kept me around. Brian, this has been a blast. I knew your dad really well. We worked together, but it’s cool to catch up with you. You’re definitely a champion in my eyes because you helped make heroes within your company, but then also with the clients that you guys serve. I think what you’re doing, it’s all about making the world a better place. I think you learned a lot from your Enron experience. I’d like to enshrine you in what we call the Culture Code Champions Hall of Fame for contribution. What would you want to be known for and remembered for in that Hall of Fame?
The challenge of starting a company that has a positive impact. A lot of people are doubting in the early days, if that was even possible. A lot of people told me, “If you want to have a positive impact, go start a nonprofit or a charity.” I think a business can serve a great purpose and so that’s what I’d want to be remembered for starting companies with a positive impact.
Starting companies with a positive impact that also make money, it’s a real business. It’s not just a not-for-profit type business. Brian, you provided some super golden nuggets to help our readers put what I call Culture Code Champion’s Seven Steps to Scale and Succeed in their Business to Work. One of the things that I push with them all the time is that they have to assign a champion to each of those seven steps in order to make it into a habit for long-term success, which is what you’ve been able to do over the years in AlertMedia. It has taken care of a lot of companies around the world. I think your testimony is proof positive that these habits do work. This has been fantastic, Brian. Until our next episode, I’d like everybody to get out there and make heroes of everybody you come in contact with and remember to make your culture count. Thanks, Brian.
About Brian Cruver
Brian is an entrepreneur, an inventor, an author and is the CEO of AlertMedia, a company he founded in 2013. AlertMedia is now the world’s leading provider of emergency communication software used by over 1,200 enterprise companies in 90-plus countries to keep employees safe from threats to their health and safety. AlertMedia is ranked 285th in the Inc. 500 fastest-growing companies in America and is the second fastest-growing software company. Huge kudos to Brian on that. As if that is not enough, before AlertMedia, Brian cofounded Xenex, where he and his team developed a germ-killing robot used over 500 hospitals around the world, preventing infections and saving thousands of lives each year. He is also an investor and advisor to dozens of early-stage startups, which should be of a lot of interest to this group, through his investment firm called Marketdriver Ventures.
Brian’s focus on starting companies with a positive impact stems in part from his experience working at Enron in Houston, Texas where he was part of mass layoffs when the energy giant went bankrupt in 2001. He turned his Enron experience into a bestselling book called Anatomy of Greed, which was rolled into the movie, The Crooked E. Brian is a graduate of the University of Southern California and received his MBA from the University of Texas. Brian, welcome to the show. You have some very interesting experience to share on building great culture. As the old saying goes, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”