BigCommerce CEO Brent Bellm Talks Growth Management

When Brent Bellm, CEO of e-commerce platform BigCommerce, took over the top job at the company three years ago, the biggest challenge facing the organization was how it could gain market share against established e-commerce giants like Shopify, Magento and Salesforce Commerce Cloud. He decided to attack that challenge head-on, expanding BigCommerce’s focus from serving smaller independent storeowners to attracting more well-known mid-market retail brands.

This broadened focus not only required rethinking the product and platform, but also shifting the company’s strategy around messaging and partnerships, capital and investors, sales and marketing, customer service and corporate culture. The strategy paid off, with BigCommerce now complementing its traditional SMB customers with large recognizable brands including Skullcandy, Paul Mitchell and Bliss Cosmetics.

His past experience as president and COO of HomeAway, VP of global product at PayPal and as director of corporate strategy at eBay provided Bellm with a strong foundation on which to build BigCommerce’s growth. Chief Executive spoke with Bellm about managing growth, how his leadership style has evolved and what excites him about the future as BigCommerce CEO. Here are some excerpts from the conversation:

How he’s managed growth at BigCommerce

There are a lot of executives who believe in focus, focus, focus. Only try to do one or two things and do them really, really well. I’m not one of those. I’m somebody that believes that when you have a business like this, one that has so many big growth avenues—and when I say so many big ones, I’m talking mid-market thrust, which was an expansion off of SMB. I’m talking B2B e-commerce in addition to our traditional business-to-consumer. I’m talking international expansion. First it was Australia, now it’s Europe, China, India for us, so all of these different vectors of expansion. And that’s scary to some people, but the opportunity is so big and the case for how we can win each of these opportunities is so big that I am willing to go after a bunch simultaneously and imperfectly rather than give up on one or two of those growth avenues and focus on just one.

And I did the exact same thing at PayPal and at HomeAway. It’s 100% analogous because at each of those companies, we were simultaneously expanding into, in PayPal’s case, merchant services, e-commerce, and all the way e-commerceship, period. And we were expanding massively geographically. I was head of PayPal Europe for four years, ran all the HomeAway leading sites around the world. And we were going after larger customers for the first time. So I’ve done this already twice in my career for very, very successful public companies. And my bias is to pursue more rather than fewer growth opportunities simultaneously. They all have to be consistent with the strategy, but I’m willing to stretch an organization to the max and be imperfect at each one because I want to be aggressive and I don’t want to give up long-term opportunities. That’s point number one.

And then point number two is the faster you’re growing, the more that you require excellence at all levels of leadership. And startups oftentimes are just desperate to get warm bodies in, to fill roles and occupy seats. And when I came in, in 2015, it felt to me relative to the public companies that I had been a part of, that the bar of excellence for senior leaders was set really low, which is not to say that every senior leader was a low performer. I’m not saying that at all, but I’m saying the expectations around performance were a lot lower than they needed to be. Sometimes I’d say it was only a 3 or 4 out of 10. And so what you do is you come in, you can’t just make changes to everybody all at once. And some people have the potential to be 8, 9, or 10 performers.

They just have to know that that’s how high the bar is. And so you can’t just raise the bar immediately from three to eight and then suddenly see half of your team and two-thirds of your team go, including a bunch of good ones. You raise it gradually. The three goes to a five. And then you see which folks can’t jump over the 5 out of 10, right? And then the five goes to a seven. And then the seven goes to an eight or nine. And that’s really where we are today at the tail end, not the beginning of that process where I was counting recently. And of the vice presidents who were here when I joined, there are only two left, and the rest have been changed.

I think we have an extraordinary leadership team. You know, I would bet that our leaders, person per person, are as good or better than any other company in e-commerce, including those at the really big software companies. In fact, there’s no way I would consider for a second swapping out my team for anybody else’s. And so that bar of excellence has had to go really high. And it’s also because we just don’t have a choice. We’re in an industry that’s so, so competitive that if we set the bar anything below an eight or nine, we’re going to have our lunch eaten by 500 other companies, including some really big ones and good ones.

We have to be better than them. And so that pursuit of excellence is required for us in our industry. And it’s also the only way to pull off the aggressiveness we have in going after so many growth avenues simultaneously.

“my leadership style is one of trying to create crystal-clarity with folks around where we’re going, why we’re going there, what the priorities are.”

How his personal leadership style has evolved

I’m cognizant that my leadership style is pretty extreme on a few dimensions and a bit more complemented by other leaders at my company who have very different styles than me. One of the best things about this company is that our CFO, Robert Alvarez, is polar opposite of me on so many personality dimensions, and that diversity is really important. I dial very, very far on the dimensions of clarity, of purpose and thought. I’m all judgment, wanting decisions and goals and objectives and clarity. I don’t like ambiguity. I don’t like openness, unresolved problems, unresolved opportunities.

Every time there’s a problem, I’m very good at dropping my agenda and just focusing on that until it gets solved because I like resolutions. And so my leadership style is one of trying to create crystal-clarity with folks around where we’re going, why we’re going there, what the priorities are. And I think that’s helpful, especially in the midst of change because people are unnerved by ambiguity. You’ve got to eliminate as much ambiguity as possible and get people bought into where you’re going, why and the milestones of success because anybody that’s been here for the three years I’ve been here and better yet even four or five, would say we’ve changed radically during that time period. And a lot of people were like, “Man, I never thought we would pull it off,” but sure enough, we have.

So that’s my leadership style, but I’m emphasizing that if it were only my leadership style in this company, I think we would be a lot less than we are by having folks like Robert who’s so empathetic and emotional and relationship-oriented in his leadership style, so having the balance of the two is what creates a winning culture.

What excites him about the future as BigCommerce CEO

I firmly believe that within the next let’s call it 8 to 12 months we will have objectively fulfilled our mission. Our mission is to create the world’s best SaaS e-commerce platform for all stages of company growth. And right now, I think if there are two SaaS alternatives, that’s Shopify and Salesforce, not that many would say we actually have the best platform for SMBs or the best platform for large enterprise. A lot would say we do for the mid-market. I think within 8 to 12 months, we will have actually delivered our mission to be the best SaaS platform for all stages of company growth. And that means even better for an SMB than even Shopify and even better for a very large enterprise than Salesforce.

So, how we achieve that is the culmination of a lot of individual product initiatives that are in full flight, partially delivered already, still going to be delivered. We’re going to have a platform that has better functionality, better openness, and better performance than any other in the world. And the reason I’m so excited about that because we’re the late entrant. We’re the last entrant. We only launched in 2010. All these competitors I’ve named launched at least five years before us, and have been around for at least 10, 14 years. We’re coming from way behind.

So I love it. I mean, as a 47-year-old who’s been through a few of these games before, like, what keeps me excited is the big challenge. And this is hard. Like, there are a lot of companies I might have gone to that might have gone to that would have been easier than this because their competitive landscape is a lot more limited. This is as hard as it gets. I honestly believe that. Late entrant into this crowded field with such big competitors. And I think we’re going to pull off something that nobody would have predicted possible inside or outside the company five years ago, which is to actually have the world’s best e-commerce platform.

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Patrick Gorman :Patrick Gorman is managing editor of Chief Executive magazine and Corporate Board Member magazine. He is based in Stamford, CT.