Founder Coffee episode 015
I’m Jeroen from Salesflare and this is Founder Coffee.
Every two weeks I have coffee with a different founder. We discuss life, passions, learnings, … in an intimate talk, getting to know the person behind the company.
For this fifteenth episode, I talked to Bart Lorang, Founder & CEO of FullContact, who are on a mission to revolutionize contact data.
Before FullContact, Bart had 3 other companies, respectively in RPG games, web design and enterprise software. He grew up in rural Montana and now runs FullContact from Boulder, Colorado, 30 minutes from the ski slopes.
We talk about how his wife’s address book inspired FullContact, how he aligns the 300 brains in his organization, and how he encourages a culture that is about the whole person.
Welcome to Founder Coffee.
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Jeroen: Hi Bart, it's great to have you on Founder Coffee.
Bart: Hey Jeroen. Great to be here.
Jeroen: Well, really lucky to have you. You're the founder of FullContact. For those who haven't heard of FullContact yet, what do you guys do?
Bart: FullContact is a cloud-based identity resolution platform that turns partial contacts into full contacts. Lots of software partners use us to enhance and enrich the data inside their application. Then we have a wide user base of end users that use FullContact to enrich their own contacts - those that they have on their phone or on their cloud-based contact accounts.
Jeroen: If I understand well, people use FullContact to centralize all the contact data they have. Right?
Jeroen: Like what's in their address book, their Facebook contacts, their Linkedin contacts, their Twitter contact, it all comes together in FullContact right?
Bart: That's right. All the people you know, all in one place and synced to everywhere so you have one address book for the rest of your life.
Jeroen: Got it. Then you guys also use that data, which I assume is all based on publicly available information?
Bart: Yeah. We stitch together publicly available information about people to help you enrich the data that's available on the web about those people.
Jeroen: Then you guys also sell that to companies that want to enrich data in other systems. Am I right?
Bart: Yeah, software companies license our APIs and incorporate that enrichment capability into their own apps as well.
Jeroen: How did you come up with that idea actually?
Bart: Well, it's actually a funny story. When I started the business I had just started dating my wife and I had just sold my last company. I was also in the process of transitioning from a Windows environment to a Mac and I was having a lot of problems transferring the contacts.
It was insanely hard, way harder than it needed to be. My wife, I got a peek one night at her Outlook Contacts. I'm not sure why I was looking at her Outlook contacts, to be honest. I just remember looking at them and being completely astonished.
They were the most pristine, immaculate contacts I'd ever seen in my life. They had the full photo, full names, birthdays, spouse names, anniversary dates, notes on the kids, complete contact details that were just perfect. But my contacts were a complete mess and every business I'd ever run, my contacts were a complete mess.
I said, "I want that for me and my 5,000 contacts." She only had 180 contacts. I want that for my business as well. I said, "You know there really should be some company that just really focused on contacts and makes the contact data great in any application." That's how it started.
Jeroen: That's awesome. You're this kind of guy that sees a problem and then figures how can I make this happen for everyone without too much work basically?
Bart: That's right. I was trying to solve my own problem. Basically, I'm lazy. I didn't want to go through mismatched contact details and I don't think any salesperson or any professional that meets a lot of people would like doing that either.
Jeroen: Yeah. How come your wife had such pristine contacts? Is she a salesperson?
Bart: No, she's not a salesperson. But she's actually in the five-star hospitality industry. So she worked with Four Seasons and Bellagio for about 20 years and she was the personal representative of a lot of celebrities. She's actually a very mindful, emotionally connected person. She uses that information to be very thoughtful with people and keeps track of details so that she can reference them in future conversations and interactions. It's actually key to hospitality in that service industry to track your relationships.
Jeroen: She's like a super salesperson or something.
Bart: Exactly. It's like the luxury hospitality service person that is a salesperson in disguise.
Jeroen: Now with FullContact you're bringing the possibility of the data of your wife to just everyone. All the lazy person like you and me as well?
Bart: That's right. We have a tagline of being awesome with people, and really that's what it's about. It's to have great information so you can be awesome with people.
Jeroen: Yeah, that makes total sense. You mentioned you started FullContact right after you sold your previous company? How many companies, maybe to start off, did you have?
Bart: This is my fourth business.
Jeroen: Fourth business? What were the other businesses about?
Bart: Well, when I was a young kid, I had a computer gaming business where I wrote RPG games and sold them on five and a quarter inch floppy discs. Then, later on, I had a web design and hardware consulting business when I was in high school with a bunch of friends. I sold that company to another company. Then ultimately started a business, my last company before this one, was in the enterprise software space. We managed big logistics mining, manufacturing, department of defense type of contracts. It was SaaS before SaaS was SaaS, in a pretty old-line industry. Sold that business in 2009.
Jeroen: Yep. You made a big switch actually from games to websites and hardware to really boring stuff.
Bart: Yeah, enterprise and then ...
Jeroen: Then to FullContact.
Bart: FullContact which is a mix of consumer and prosumer enterprise software. It's all of the above.
Jeroen: Yeah. It's becoming a complex organization at FullContact. I sometimes speak to your colleagues and there’s one who's responsible for this side of FullContact, the other one for another. It's like you guys do a lot of things from one company.
Bart: Yeah. It's always a challenge to simplify the partner experience, so I have to work on that.
Jeroen: You started creating companies from very early on. Why do you think that is? How did that get about?
Bart: You know, I grew up in rural Montana and it wasn't a particularly technology savvy part of the world. At that time, all my friends and relatives were hunting and fishing and I was writing computer games. I was probably sort of self-sufficient and by myself more than was healthy. So I guess as an entrepreneur when you learn that self-sufficiency, you think the obvious thing to do is to start a company and do it yourself and figure it out. When you do it once, you're like, "Wow."
I think I had a stint for about three months where I tried to go to work for another company at Office Max selling computers and I really didn't like it. I think once you get that entrepreneurship in you, it's hard to get out. I joke that I'm pretty much unemployable elsewhere.
Jeroen: You went from programming games to selling computers?
Bart: Yeah, that's right.
Jeroen: That sounds like a story that many entrepreneurs have in common. Basically, you feel like creating a lot of stuff and then you get into a job where your creativity is somehow impaired and then you just get out again and do that yourself.
Bart: The downside obviously is I think a lot of entrepreneurs conflate their company with their own sense of self-identity. Being an entrepreneur becomes do define you, which can be unhealthy if you don't watch that.
Jeroen: Do you think you're doing that?
Bart: Look, I think that we always dip into that. I probably wear a FullContact contact t-shirt far too often. I think at my last company, my identity was my company and that was really hard to part ways with. This one, having a few kids helps ground you for sure. But I certainly got into the mode a little bit too much, where Bart is the face of FullContact, which I have mixed emotions about.
Jeroen: Yep. You were saying you were already self-sufficient and doing other things than the other kids in school. Do you think you were the nerdy kid in school back then?
Bart: I was totally the nerdy kid in school. Everybody would go to recess and play sports and I would stay inside and write software and work on my computer games. I had a Texas Instruments calculator. I would program games on the Texas Instruments calculator in assembly or basic and distribute them to my classmates via hard wiring. I was definitely a nerdy kid.
Jeroen: But now you are, let's say, a successful entrepreneur? FullContact is doing well. What are actually your ambitions from here?
Bart: Yeah. FullContact, we always view ourselves as a Switzerland-like neutral approach to solve the end users problem. We still see we have a massive opportunity. We started the company with the idea that we could fix every contact record in the world and make every contact record amazing no matter what application or database it's in.
We're a long way from that goal so we still have a long way to go. We're having fun. While we're having fun we'll keep doing it. We're now almost 300 people globally and we still have a long way to go. So our ambition is to fix every contact record in the world.
Jeroen: Where do you see that end game? Are there any huge things coming up or is it going to be about cleaning data mostly?
Bart: I think it's identity resolution and insights around the identity. Ultimately allowing people to own and control their own identity record. That's the long-term mission we have so that you could say, "Hey, I'm Bart, or I'm Jeroen, and here's me. By the way, here's the thousand address books or CRMs I'm in across the planet and I want to control that record and understand who can communicate with me and who can't." That's the ultimate vision but it requires some thoughtfulness around the approach in the long view.
Jeroen: Yeah. It might be a good thing for the new GDPR that you can actually control where your data is in, what form and that you can adapt it.
Jeroen: Yeah. In terms of, if you're a customer of a lot of SaaS companies like we are, it's an enormous amount of work.
Bart: Not only a SaaS company but from a consumer, having to manage my relationship with every brand independently without this notion of a consent wallet, I don't have a single place I can manage this through. It's really frustrating.
Jeroen: I guess this is step number one. Step number one is that you actually have the control and then players like you can step in and say, "Okay, you want to have the control in a nice way, we're here." If people ask to update their data now in FullContact if other systems pull the data, then they pull that updated data, right?
Bart: Yes that's right. We've had that for seven years now. We've always said, "Hey look, the user should be able to control how they appear to the world." The right to be forgotten principle. FullContact finally aggregated to say, "Here's the public footprint of somebody if you performed a Google search and did it manually, so let's give people the control there to say here's me across the ecosystem”.
Jeroen: Do you think it could be interesting perhaps to have some kind of single sign-on solution with FullContact?
Bart: I think in time that might be an interesting way to go, sure.
Jeroen: Currently everything is linked to Facebook, Google or Microsoft. Everyone is making their single sign-on solutions, but they're always linked to a company where you have the feeling at least, you cannot fully control the data you're giving. It's also not central, because you have your Google profile, you have your Facebook profile, and then maybe you adapt it in one place but it doesn't adapt in the others.
Bart: I think identity is an interesting thing to come at from a bunch of different angles. I think ultimately, of course, a company that's neutral, that doesn't have necessarily vested interest about that and it is on the side of the user as opposed to their own economic flywheel.
Jeroen: Makes sense. Enough about contacts and all that. It is something that interests me very much, but let's go on to other topics. You guys are a heavily VC funded company.
Bart: That's right.
Jeroen: What is the reason for you to go down the VC track? I see that you use it a lot for acquisitions. Is that part of the reason?
Bart: Yeah. I think when you're building something really big and ambitious, that requires a lot of capital to get off the ground and you need a lot of runways. VC is the proper route. My last companies were bootstrap so there are pros and cons to both. I think it's all about how fast you want to move and how ambitious you want to be.
We've certainly used capital for the acquisitions we made. Eight smallish acquisitions now of different size teams, so that helps to be venture-backed in those modes because you can use your stock as a currency as well as a little bit of capital. You can also just have a good market engine that's effective.
When you're bootstrapped, it can be challenging. You never have enough resources. Look, when you're venture funded you never have enough resources either, but it's a trade-off between growth and profitability.
Jeroen: Yep. Why were you non-VC backed previously? Was that a conscious choice or just rolled into it?
Bart: I guess we just didn't know the VC market. It was the 90s so we probably should have in retrospect. We went public in 1998 without any revenue but those were the days I guess. It was just, we didn't know any other way.
Jeroen: Okay. What is it that you, Bart as a founder, do at FullContact today? You have a big team. What role do you still play in the company?
Bart: I break my job into three things. One is vision and strategy and making sure that's well understood. Two is building the team and making sure they understand their job and hire/recruit the right team. Three is making sure the company has enough resources to effectively operate, so that's capital or people.
Right now, we've got plenty of resources at the moment, so I'm not worried about that. The thing that I focus on intently as we scale is organization building, so “building the machine that builds the machine” is a phrase that I like to parrot. It's like building the product is easy, building the organization that builds the great product is hard.
The organization has these things called people, which you can't put system tests or integration tests around, or put them in for test-driven development. They engage differently. You add a different person in the mix and the thing can completely break. It's really challenging at a few hundred people to be thoughtful about that and get 300 brains working on the same thing in the same direction. That's what I tend to focus on.
Jeroen: Are you involved in all 300, or are you mostly busy with the management layers?
Bart: You basically have to be engaged with a couple of different layers of management. Then you have to get feedback from the staff at the actual level that's doing the work. You have to calibrate all that data and assess if you have the right people in the right seats at all times. Always be scrutinizing that.
Jeroen: What are some of the things you actively do to make that work? You have any habits you use there?
Bart: Yeah. I think we use a framework, constructed from a toolkit called EOS, which is the entrepreneurs operating system. It has a framework called the People Analyzer. The People Analyzer is essentially a two by two matrix of right person or wrong person, right seat or wrong seat. What you want is all the right people in the right seat. The right people are defined as people that share your core values and behave alongside your core values. That's first and foremost, and you have to set a threshold of like, "We've got six core values. Are you behaving with those core values in mind all the time or not?"
Then the second thing is the right seat, which is, "In accordance with the actual job accountabilities we've defined for you, do you get the job? Do you want the job? Do you have the capacity for the job?" Meaning the time, the experience, the emotional fortitude, the intellectual fortitude? Etc. Do you get it? Do you want it? Do you have the capacity to do it? All three must be yes for you to be in the right seat.
Sometimes people get the job, but they don't want the job but they have the capacity. Sometimes they don't get it. Sometimes they just don't have the time capacity. I'm always recalibrating that with everybody and assessing that is really important. We synchronize that with our understanding of the appropriateness of our staff for different positions in the company.
Jeroen: How do you go about getting this detailed feedback from everyone, not just your direct reports? How do you go about that?
Bart: A lot of it is manager assessments, peer assessments - people do a peer review on this right person, right seat dynamic and score people and then have a conversation with people. If they're not in the right seat, but they're the right person for the company, great. Let's find them the right seat in the job they really love and are great at. If they're the wrong person, but the right seat, which is usually defined as the “brilliant jerk”, it usually then occurs in two main areas in the company - engineering and sales.
You always have these folks that you're like, "Oh we can never lose them. They're amazing, we can't lose them," but you find that the team is usually being devastated by their presence, you've got to get rid of those people. Those are the hardest people to get rid of. Wrong person, wrong seat, that's pretty easy. You have to fire them.
Jeroen: You mentioned that your responsibilities are in three areas. It's vision and strategy, it's people hiring, all this, and it's finance. Basically resources.
Jeroen: You're not spending any time right now in resources right?
Bart: No, not a lot. I would also call “clarity” a resource, so to that extent, that's where I spend my time. That's pretty challenging to me with those many people who think differently.
Jeroen: How do you divide your time between vision and strategy and people? Is it 50/50?
Bart: It's probably 60-70% on people right now. Probably 25% on vision and the remainder is resources.
Jeroen: Got it.
Bart: That's right now. If it was fundraising, it would probably be 90% on resources because that's a full-time thing until you get it done.
Jeroen: Yeah. Are there any things you still do operationally or is it all at the higher level?
Bart: There are things I do operationally. Usually, that's a function when I don't have the right person in the right seat - if that's happening. I still handle really big relationships. I still handle corporate dev, in terms of evaluating companies that are potential acquisitions for us, and those are the main things that I do myself.
Jeroen: Got it. What do you think, as a founder of FullContact, you bring as skills to the business? What is it that you do well?
Bart: I guess, based upon my peer feedback, what people tell me is that I have a strange ability to connect both vision with actual market value and enterprise value. Not just some cool product, but some cool product people value. Then in terms of leading through emotion rather than logic, I'm good at leading through emotion and inspiring a shared vision. That's the feedback I receive.
Jeroen: That's cool. It basically means that you are able to connect things very well and lead the team effectively.
Bart: That's the ten-year target. Let's go get it, everybody. Everybody gets pretty fired up. Whether I'm good at orchestrating the short-term stuff is very questionable and I have other staff that really handles that piece. Where are we going to go quarterly, week to week, that sort of thing?
Jeroen: That's what you have management for I guess?
Jeroen: What is it actually that keeps you going on a day to day basis? What makes you really passionate and energetic in your job?
Bart: Honestly it's the people. I get great satisfaction from the people's lives that we're changing at the company. We have a culture that's all about the whole person, so I think a lot of the people that work here are on some self-exploration and trying to understand themselves a little better, so they can be more awesome people. That keeps me going.
One of our core values also is grit. There's something, me and my co-founders share this, where it's just hard for us to stop. My last company was 13 years. We're seven years into this, so it seems pretty short so far. It’s just that keeping your head down and keep going is the best way to survive in the B2B SaaS market. You just have to keep grinding. It's very rare that you get B2B companies that just go explosively. Maybe there's a Slack once every generation right, but rare.
Jeroen: Or Trello?
Bart: Yeah, or Trello. Dropbox even took 12 years to go public.
Jeroen: If you're talking about developing the whole self, is it because it's important to you?
Bart: Yeah it's important to me. Our name is FullContact, meaning the whole person. Personal and professional and that's really core to our ethos. It's all about people. I don't like to segment between personal and professional too much. Maybe that's because as an entrepreneur I didn't segment myself personally and professionally.
Jeroen: What are some of the ways you go about that? How do you make that work in a company? What are the things you do?
Bart: We do a lot of check-ins at the beginning of meetings. Every meeting I conduct, I do a quick check in with people - red, yellow, green of where they're at emotionally. It's non-judgmental. Just green, means they're present, lucid and calm. Red, they might be physically sick or distracted or just in this lizard brain state. Yellow is somewhere in between and we just actually check in where we're at and let everybody in the room know where we're coming from. That's pretty unusual in a workplace environment, but people find it to be helpful. It's not meant to be a therapy session. It's actually just to understand what's going on with you, set it aside, and get to work.
Jeroen: Yeah. Very transparent of what's going on with you and that way it's easier to get to work, to communicate, to work together?
Bart: That's right.
Jeroen: That's cool. Does it also reflect on other things? Like in the number of work hours or the office atmosphere or any rituals?
Bart: It's interesting. We have an interesting culture that's pretty gritty so we actually have this notion of work-life integration. I actually think balance is a bad word to use. I think work-life integration is better in this 24/7 global environment we live in. It's really hard to actually turn it off.
We're all big bags of chemicals that come to work every day and we all take our work home with us, so lets at least acknowledge that. We do try to force people to go off the grid for a while, off in a vacation mode or on a weekend and say, "Just unplug," to force people from not working. We're on our phones all the time, so it's much easier to tell people just to completely go off the grid, and that's part of the ritual we have at FullContact. It's something we call a paid-paid vacation.
Paid-paid vacation is sort of an international phenomenon. We launched it six years ago. We paid people $7,500 to take a vacation once a year in addition to their salary, but they have to go off the grid and disconnect from technology. They have to take a vacation and they cannot work to get the money. That's a pretty cool thing that we're pretty religious about.
Jeroen: They still manage to come back after these awesome vacations?
Bart: Yeah they do because they want their next one.
Jeroen: This is also how you keep them?
Bart: Exactly. What happens is the person's partner or spouse starts planning the next paid-paid vacation while they're on the current one. Okay, next year we're going to Costa Rica or the Maldives or wherever.
Jeroen: That's nice. How do you personally stay mentally and physically fit?
Bart: Well mentally, I meditate every day for about 10 or 15 minutes. That's really helpful. Physically fit, honestly, I'm not in good shape right now. I'm trying to use a personal trainer here. I'm actually starting this week with a remote personal trainer, which is a crazy experiment, to work with me on FaceTime wherever I'm at in the world. With traveling it's so hard, or at least it's hard for me. When I'm home, I do like to do a lot of hiking and skiing in Colorado.
Jeroen: Yeah, you guys are not so far from the mountains right? You can head off and ski?
Bart: That's right. 30 minutes from me in Boulder.
Jeroen: One of our developers keeps mentioning that. He's like, "You really should move somewhere close to the mountains. You guys have something with ski time that you can head off to when there's snow?
Bart: Yeah, we have a policy called the Powder Day Policy where if it's snowing just take the day off, go skiing, you can make it up anytime.
Jeroen: That's cool. What do you like to spend your time on mostly when you're not working? Things like skiing and hiking?
Bart: I try, although honestly with two kids under four years old it's mostly family. There's not a lot of time else. When I can golf, I golf, but there's not a lot there.
Jeroen: Are you trying to limit your workdays right now with the kids?
Bart: I'm trying, but I'm pretty much up at five in the morning and home at seven in the evening, so it's about a 14 hour day. The kids are eating dinner and going to bed, and by that time I'm exhausted and going to sleep. It's just a grind, those years are a grind. It's hard.
Jeroen: Yeah. I don't look forward to it myself personally.
Bart: It's tough.
Jeroen: Yeah, especially if you're combining it with being an entrepreneur. You have to work really hard, I wonder how that's going to be. How do you just keep it all in balance without burning yourself out?
Bart: I think one of the things I do regularly, the rhythm I set up with my wife is that once a quarter, the first week of every quarter I take a week vacation with my family. Then every six weeks, so the mid-quarter point, I take a two or three-day clarity break. That's where I can do whatever I want. I can golf by myself, I can go with friends somewhere. I just take two or three days for myself to gather my thoughts at the mid-quarter checkpoint. I kind of have a break every six weeks, which helps.
Jeroen: What are some of the things you do then? Is it just reading books or just sitting on the couch?
Bart: I've done staycations in Boulder where I read books and hike. I've gone and drank too much tequila in Mexico with friends. I've gone on a golf vacation. I just kind of do whatever I'm needing at that moment. I don't put a lot of planning into it.
Jeroen: Sounds good. Wrapping up slowly, what's the latest good book you've read and why did you choose to read it?
Bart: The latest good book I read was the Three Body Problem series. Have you heard of this one?
Bart: The Three Body Problem is a Chinese book, it was translated to English, it was the number one best seller in China for many years. It's a forward-looking science fiction book and the main premise, without giving too much away, the main premise is that aliens from Alpha-Centauri, which is the closest star to the earth, 4.7 light years away, are invading earth. We find out early, we find out 400 years in advance because they're traveling at 1/100th the speed of light. The whole premise is what happens to the world and society knowing that we have a super advanced alien species coming our way in 400 years? Do we have people that stay? Go? Try to escape? Is there panic? Oh, by the way, the aliens have figured out how to prevent any future technology progress on our part.
This plays out over thousands of years and it's epic science fiction. I love science fiction because I love to live and be in the future. I think a lot of science fiction is actually quite right if you actually read back, and some of it's quite wrong. I just enjoy that because I read too many business books, so I find getting to science fiction is a way to escape.
Jeroen: Yep. It opens up your mind more than these business books I guess.
Bart: Yeah. Not another business book by some management expert right?
Jeroen: It seems if you read one, you've read them all. Sometimes there's a nice one popping up.
Bart: Yep, that's right.
Jeroen: Is there anything you wish you would have known when you started out with FullContact that you would like to share with people?
Bart: I think I've really learned this lesson that it is truly all about people. A lot of technology companies are started by technology-oriented individuals and many technology-oriented individuals were attracted to technology because they weren't people.
You can tell a computer what to do and it doesn't snap at you or react. If it performs incorrectly, it's because you instructed it to perform incorrectly. Understanding how much of your job as a leader is about people and letting people know that in advance and then really investing both in understanding yourself and how other people interact, is super important. That's the one piece of advice I'd give to an earlier me.
Jeroen: That's sound advice. Thank you, Bart, for being on Founder Coffee. It was great to have you.
Bart: Yeah, thanks for having me. All right, cheers!
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