It’s a business fairytale come to life—college roommates develop an idea that leads them to build a software company that grows from two employees to 100 in its first 10 years.
Cameron Weeks is CEO of Indianapolis-based Sharpen Technologies, an omni-channel, cloud-based contact center solution provider that has placed more than 65 million calls over the last six years and supports clients in more than 13 geographic regions, but started out in a dorm room.
Chief Executive talked with Weeks about managing growth, what he looks for in employees and his advice for CEOs looking to stay ahead of the technology curve.
Q: How have you managed the rapid growth of your team?
A: Something that can never be said enough: figure out what you’re good at and what you’re not good at early on and never do the things you’re not good at, period. And that’s something that we’ve embraced from literally day one. I didn’t get the most fond feedback on my decision for it, but I still, to this day, believe it was the right one. The second employee we ever hired in Sharpen was a girl named Emily Hoover—she’s now Emily Wolfington. Her job was VP of operations, and she runs HR today. We knew we were going to need lots of people and lots of very talented people to build this company, and I knew that I had no ability to recruit.
“figure out what you’re good at and what you’re not good at early on and never do the things you’re not good at, period.”
Obviously, I can tell some story and get people energized about what we do here, but as far as the actual operationalizing of hiring employees and developing them and retaining them, that just was not in my skill set. I’m much more of an engineer for those types of things. And so by bringing on someone very early in the organization, we just started laying those foundational layers of what we would need to have a very successful workforce that was able to grow very quickly.
I think that the biggest moral of the story there is truly know what you’re good at and never do the things you’re not good at. And it’s something we try to do here quite often. If it’s not in your skill set… We call it “The don’t fake it rule.” If you actually don’t know what you’re doing, no one is going to be mad at you, no one is going to say mean things to you, just acknowledge it so that we can put someone there that does and we can let you focus on what you’re really good at.
Q: What are some common, or maybe not-so-common traits that you look for in new additions to your leadership team?
A: Another thing that’s a bit different for us, I think, is that the market we’re taking on, for one, is giant. In the United States alone, it’s a $36 billion industry. And it’s an industry that’s incredibly old. So, I think one of the things that Sharpen has definitely struggled with over the years is just being able to bring in people that have enough historical industry knowledge about how this industry works. Now, from a technology standpoint, we try to put up some firewalls there as a barrier and that we’re not trying to make the same mistakes or build the same piece of technology that existed historically. We very much are excited about the unique version of technology that we build for this industry. But as far as the core problems of how you deploy such a sophisticated missing critical system into companies, that’s something that we’ve really found value in recruiting someone who has a lot of historical knowledge in this, as well as how do you just talk about this industry to the marketplace.
Both of those things are things that we found incredibly valuable—to bring people from inside the industry that have been executives and leaders of their space for a long time, and recruit them to Sharpen. And with Interactive Intelligence just recently selling to Genesys, that’s really opened an opportunity for us to really be able to bring in some incredibly strong talent that has just made Sharpen’s growth that much faster.
Q: What’s your advice to business leaders who are trying to stay on top of the greater technology landscape as it is and getting a sense of the new solutions that are out there?
A: I have an answer that you won’t expect. I think the most important thing is really making sure that your company has a really strong “why statement” of why your company exists to do something. Not “how” or “what” your company does, which are very easy, especially from an engineering standpoint to focus in on, but truly the “why” of why you exist.
The point I’m getting towards here is that if we have a why statement that we all agree on and really embrace as a company, and then we can recruit proper leaders into that company and we’re all uniting on this common why, the CEO or senior leadership doesn’t need to focus on what marketing software you buy because it’s truly not important. Whether you buy Zendesk or Desk or Service Cloud or Marketo or Pardot or HubSpot, all of those things fade away as your team is truly aligned on what they’re trying to accomplish and why they’re doing it. And then the right people in those positions can choose the software that they enjoy working with the best and that they believe helps them solve their portion of that why.
I would go as far as to make the bold statement that if you have 40 to 50 employees in the company and you’re the CEO, you shouldn’t know what software is being purchased. And if you feel like you have to, then you have the wrong people in several positions because at that level, the software doesn’t matter anymore. It’s the people that you put in place to execute on these initiatives and find tools that works best for them.