Bill Flynn has spent over 30 years filling various executive-level positions in several companies. This experience includes sitting on advisory boards of various companies for more than 9 years. He has also served as Vice President for 9 times, as well as head of Sales, General Manager, and CMO. Aside from his vast experience as a business adviser, he has also presided over more than 20 startups and many scale-ups.
This experience has driven Bill Flynn to pursue his main purpose, which is “to spend each working moment helping growth-oriented leaders focus on the few things that truly matter.” Or, as he likes to call it, “Simplified Servanthood.” Working with Bill, clients have more time to work on growing their businesses because they know building the future is more important than worrying about the little things in the present.
Part of Bill Flynn’s impeccable track record are “five successful outcomes, two IPOs, and seven acquisitions.” Bill Flynn has also led the successful turnaround of a company that was severely affected by the 2008 financial crisis.
Through his work, Bill Flynn has also become a highly in-demand speaker for organizations like the YPO, as well as well-known business conferences. He has also earned a Certificate with Distinction in the Foundations of NeuroLeadership, and he has become a Certified Predictive Index Partner.
Bill Flynn has also written a book titled “Further, Faster: The Vital Few Steps that Take the Guesswork out of Growth.”
Check out more interviews with industry experts here. You can also listen to Bill Flynn himself through this video.
Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Bill Flynn: When I was 22, I was working as a Shift Manager at Papa Gino’s, a regional Italian restaurant chain. I knew I did not want to do this for a living and asked my uncle, who was a local venture capitalist, for help. He introduced me to several companies. One of them was Alloy Computer Products. They hired me as an inside salesperson supporting regional and national distributors and resellers. I found that I enjoyed the work which mostly revolved around supporting the purchasing agents and sales teams.
From there, I had a few sales jobs before I ended up at a hot Boston Internet startup called Open Market in 1995 — one of the early darlings of the budding world wide web. I was one of the first salespeople hired and by then had honed my sales skills. I was consistently a top performer winning several awards and accolades. I continued my sales and leadership career working at 10 different startups over twenty-five years. I was on the executive team for eight of them and was involved in 2 IPOs and multiple acquisitions. In 2016, I transitioned to become a leadership coach, author, and speaker helping my clients, audience, and readers take the guesswork out of growth.
I recently published my first book Further, Faster — The Vital Few Steps that Take the Guesswork out of Growth.
Jerome Knyszewski: Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Bill Flynn: I have done ten startups over twenty-five years. I have an above average track record with 2 IPOs and 7 acquisitions over that time. Although there were plenty of ups and downs, I never once considered giving up.
The worst situation was when I was given a heads up from an outside source that the company I was at was going to replace me as they had started a confidential search. I was surprised since I had helped to grow the business 700% in a little more than a year. I delayed that decision by several months by having the two best months in the history of the company. However, I was replaced by the CEOs brother-in-law so I guess it was inevitable. Unfortunately, the company was forced to sell for pennies on the dollar about two years later.
I study and practice Stoicism where the basic tenet is that we do not always control what happens to us but we do have full control over our reaction to it. This philosophy has been useful.
Jerome Knyszewski: Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Bill Flynn: I am not sure I would consider this a mistake but it was an instructive and amusing story I learned from.
At my first internet startup, we went public long before we should have; transitioning quickly to a quarterly-numbers rhythm. In our first public quarter, we were going to miss analyst guidance by 50%! I was working with a large computer manufacturer as a prospect who had closed earlier in the month but we could not recognize the revenue until we passed a number of their internal tests. I was resigned to the fact that we would miss the quarter but my boss at the time and I brainstormed on how we could pull this out. We came up with a plan. Full disclosure; mostly, it was his plan.
We convinced them to test sooner than they wanted. On the last day of the quarter, my boss went to their facility and monitored things from their side while I worked with our team on our side. Luckily, this company was local. Over the entire day starting in the morning, we coordinated the testing, patches, and guidance we needed to provide them during the testing process. A little after 5 pm, much to our relief and jubilation, we received a signed letter saying that we passed their battery of tests and made our quarter. Phew!
I learned to not give up so easily which I have applied myriad ways in future ventures.
Jerome Knyszewski: Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
Bill Flynn: There are only three for me that the head of an organization must focus on to turn a good company into a great one:
- Building great teams (of teams) for performance is a team sport.
From the 1940s through the 70s, the Ohio State Buckeyes were a collegiate powerhouse. This dominant football team won six national championships and numerous conference championships — before running into a thirty-two-year drought.
In the 1960s, they started a tradition that may have contributed heavily to their downfall: awarding individual player performances after each game with stickers that were displayed on their helmets. For many decades, they gave players who performed well a sticker if they met certain benchmarks for performance, such as a quarterback throwing for a touchdown or a defensive player catching an interception. And in the 1980s and 90s, the team became less and less successful.
In 2000, Jim Tressel was hired as their new head coach. He noticed a pervasive sense of competitiveness and an emphasis on individual performance. Tressel recognized that for the team to be successful, people needed to be willing to make sacrifices for the good of the team. They needed to step back and compromise some of their own individual success for the team, as a whole, to win.
He came up with an ingenious change to the existing reward structure. After games, the individual Buckeye helmet sticker awards were replaced with team-based awards. He started giving Buckeye helmet stickers to the team unit when they met certain benchmarks. For example, when the offensive unit scored touchdowns or the defensive unit recorded an interception or recorded a sack, everybody on that unit would get a sticker.
Within two short years, Tressel completely turned the team around. They won the national championship in 2002 and again in 2014 under Urban Meyer, who continued the team-based award system. Every year since, with one exception, they have been consistently among the top ten teams in the country in one of the most competitive collegiate sports.
- How to run your business as a coherent system
As GM of a SAAS email hosting company many years ago, I was striving to create greater cohesion among my leaders and also the entire team of about sixty people.
The need for this creation, as in most change, was born out of necessity.
The day I took over as GM, we suffered a catastrophic infrastructure failure resulting in the loss of hundreds of customers within a week. It turns out that people get pretty angry when they cannot send or receive email for an extended period of time.
We were a technology company but our business was primarily a service. Since we were in a highly competitive space, one way to differentiate beyond technology was to provide tremendous and reliable service. To do this, I wanted to focus everyone on providing and recognizing exemplary service — to catch someone doing something right. Among the practices we put in place was a process where you could Spark another team member.
When anyone noticed another team member giving extraordinary service to a customer or helping another member out to support a customer in an extraordinary way, they could Spark that person. Anyone could do this: no management approval required.
When someone was Sparked, an email was sent out to the entire company describing why that person deserved mention. They also got $50 from the company — immediately and in cash. Further, at our all-hands, monthly meeting, those who were Sparked that month were acknowledged again. The person who Sparked them re-read the email that was sent describing the extraordinary service. We asked each person, if they felt comfortable, to come up to the front of the room to receive a blue ribbon they could hang on their wall or cube.
Much to my pleasant surprise, these ribbons were prominently displayed in the recipient’s space for all to see.
Lastly, the senior leadership team picked one person to win the monthly Spark Award, which was dinner for two on the company, and, at the end of the year, one person was chosen from the previous twelve monthly winners received a weekend away for two on the company.
This process, among other changes (including fixing the original technical problem) had a great impact on employee engagement, customer satisfaction scores, and overall revenue and profit. Our customer satisfaction scores went from 2.9 out of 5 (58 percent) when I took over as GM to 4.6 out of 5 (92 percent) in approximately a year.
We went from a catastrophic event to a highly functioning, cohesive, and productive organization nearly doubling revenue within two years. Even though revenue went up considerably, we only needed to hire a small number of new team members since productivity also went up considerably with essentially the same team.
- How and why cash rules
During the late 1980s and early ’90s, Dell was going out of business. They were growing so fast that they didn’t have the cash to bankroll the demand for their product. They couldn’t afford to pay their suppliers. When they sold computers, they lost cash. The company was essentially “growing broke.”
Michael Dell hired Tom Meredith to solve the problem. Meredith changed the business model. At the time, Dell maintained an inventory of computers that were shipped when a customer ordered one. Meredith suggested that they change the model to customize each order with the caveat that the customer pays for it up front, so Dell could pay their suppliers. The customer might have to wait for their computer, which was being custom-made, but Dell was getting their money and not having to dig into their own cash.
Customers were willing to wait because they were getting a made-to-order item built to their needs and preferences. Before going to this model, Dell had to pay their suppliers sixty-three days before they got any money from the customer. With this new system in place, they were getting paid thirty days before they had to pay their suppliers. They went from being a public company to buying back their business and going private, and then they bought EMC. They never could have had the money to do any of those things with their old model.
Other businesses have solved the cash problem by charging membership fees. Think Costco and Amazon, with its Prime membership service. This gives a company a huge influx of cash.
Jerome Knyszewski: Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Bill Flynn: I apply these principles in regular or turbulent times.
- Performance is a team sport — Are you confident that you are surrounded by the right people on your leadership team to achieve your vision? That is, do you have the right people in the right seats doing the right things right? If not, act immediately to train them up, move them over, or move them out.
Your people are aware when these things aren’t right and they are waiting for you to act. The business is suffering as a result — if it isn’t now, it will be soon. Running a company is hard enough with changes in technology, markets, and customers’ needs.
You can’t control a lot of what happens around you, but you have a lot of control over who you hire and the environment you create. Instead of putting obstacles in your way, set yourself up to succeed with every action, every behavior, every hire, and every team.
This is a lot to ask, I know. There’s already so much to do, but without making thoughtful, intentional decisions, your business will create its own environment — and it may not be the one you want.
When you have a strong team, however, they will take you all the way to what you have defined as success. Creating a team-building environment is only the first step to going further, faster. Once you have a rock-solid team in place, the next step is to create a culture where everyone feels safe to speak up.
- Run your business as a coherent system — If you want to scale, you need systems and processes that are repeatable for the core functions of your business. You build those by creating a differentiating strategy and near flawless execution. The interplay between these two key areas is what allows you to grow in a healthy and thriving way. A crisis forces you to shrink your time horizon but the methods are the same.
- Cash is the primary financial growth metric — Growth sucks cash. Build your business to support your cash needs first. Every other business metric is set and achieved in service of your cash plan.
Although we’re wired for short-term survival, we can make conscious decisions to go against our wiring and do things differently.
If you’re just looking to flip your company, a short-term strategy might make sense. But if you want your business to endure, you have to adopt a long-term mentality. Revenue is fine for bragging at parties and talking to the press. Revenue gives the impression that you’re doing great. But cash is much, much more important — it’s the jet fuel of your business. Revenue might move you toward your destination, but without cash, you’ll run out of fuel, and maybe crash, before you get there.
Jerome Knyszewski: In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
According to ADP Institute Research, in a survey of almost 20,000 people across nineteen countries, 83 percent of respondents stated that they are on at least one team, 64 percent of those people say they are on more than one team, and 75 percent of the respondents said the team they are on is not reflected in the org chart. — Marcus Buckingham (paraphrased)
Great teams require people who believe what you believe — not just the most skilled people. You can train them for skill.
Often, we want to get the job done fast, so it’s easy and convenient to hire people who can hit the ground running, with little to no training. If we then see that the person is a bad fit for the team, we ignore the problem, focusing on their immediate impact and figuring that they’ll fit in eventually. We almost always regret those decisions because the odds of a person changing are slim. You’ll go further, faster and be able to sustain that momentum by looking for people who are excited by your vision and eager to be a part of it.
Teams thrive when the people in them share similar values and believe in a common purpose. Beyond that, they need some skills, but they don’t need to be experts at the job — they can learn. I would rather hire the person with the minimum set of skills who’s a great fit culturally over anyone who has all the skills and can start right away if there is a risk they are not a good fit for the company and team culture. The more people you have working for you who share your values, purpose, and your vision for the company, the further and faster you will reach your goals. Instead of relying on a handful of people — your trusted circle — shoot for alignment with at least 50 percent of your team (but strive to approach 100%), with the goal of recruiting, vetting, and training a higher percentage of employees who also see your vision and are committed to helping make it a reality.
The most underappreciated, useful thing a leader can do is to learn (and teach others) how to design, build, and grow great teams and team leaders. Full stop.
Jerome Knyszewski: As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
Bill Flynn: I do not think that companies in general have any idea what causes customers to buy their products and are often guessing at the conversion process. Paradoxically, most think they do. I have learned this from doing hundreds of customer interviews and researching the topic for years. The reason is that we, as consumers, for the most part, do not really know why we buy either. The buying process is primarily an emotional process. In fMRi scans, most of our emotional synapses fire at the point of decision making — often before we are consciously aware of that decision. Go figure.
The best approach I have ever seen on this topic is called Jobs to be Done. It originated in the 80s and 90s and was made famous in certain circles by Clayton Christensen. The key is to discover the struggling moment people have that kicks off the buying process.
- Casper started selling mattresses that outpaced all of its competitors not because they studied mattresses, instead, they studied sleep and the habits and anxieties that go along with buying a mattress. They more fully solved the problem and outgrew their complacent competitors at a phenomenal rate.
- Snickers sells billions of dollars in candy bars when they stopped competing with Milky Way and other indulgences and realized that people bought Snickers to stave off the fatigue that comes with hunger.
- A McDonald’s franchise owner sold more milkshakes when he realized that his morning customers wanted something to fill them up safely before lunch during a long, boring commute to work. The afternoon sales were mostly Dad wanting to score points with the kids after school and sports. Sales went up when the morning commuters were provided a rapid delivery system, the afternoon sales went up when the packaging and size of the offering befitted a small person’s unique needs as well as to assuage dad’s guilt with a smaller-sized offering. Same product, different needs, different behavior.
There is an old saying often mistakenly attributed to Henry Ford, “If I asked my customers what they wanted, I would have made faster horses.” It is not the job of the customer to tell us what to make. Further, their observable behavior is often a corollary and does not always give insight to the root cause that drove them to the purchase.
If we study behavior only, we will only get incremental change. We have to study progress and what causes people to buy, we truly understand how to help them make their lives better.
Most products fail. I have seen stats of up to 95% of new products never make it to market. Maybe the way we do it most often needs to change.
To dominate a market, here is what I think you must do:
- Solve a problem that uniquely matters to you and your target customer.
- You must fall in love with the problem, not your idea, so the joy of the process and promise of the achievement sustains you through the lows and inevitable difficulties.
- Solve it fully by not only providing a push toward your product but a pull away from the gravity of the status quo and the fear and anxiety of the new.
- The pull is a struggling moment they have or did not realize they had until you came along. Think about the iPhone in 2007. No one had combined a phone, an internet browser, and an MP3 player in one device. All of a sudden, everyone had to have one.
- The key is to focus on the progress your customer is trying to make, not what you do. Nobody cares what you do. They care about “what you do” does for them.
For me, I help my clients and readers take the guesswork out of growth. It is not about me being a coach or a teacher or any other moniker but the struggle of keeping a company and its members healthy and thriving without spending every waking moment doing so.
Jerome Knyszewski: Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Bill Flynn: Please see my answer above. If you can have the perception in your core customers’ minds that you know what they are thinking before they do and then execute flawlessly on that knowledge, your brand reputation will be trusted and beloved indefinitely.
Jerome Knyszewski: Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I believe that courage is the only attribute that ALL leaders have in common.
Courage combined with a powerful and clear vision are critical to an enduring and valuable company.
Courage to defend and promote that unique vision.
Courage to be vulnerable and humble.
Courage to create an autonomous environment.
Courage to trust that autonomy.
Courage to correct mistakes as learning to invest in future growth.
Courage to be patient.
Courage to stop doing what gives you comfort and confidence to focus on predicting the future of the business.
Courage to go out on a limb to predict the future by creating it.
Courage to trust your team to help you see and craft that future.
You can be humble (Mulally) or not (Gates). You can be charismatic (Kelleher) or not (Buffett). You can have empathy (Ardern) or not (Bezos). You can have integrity (Mulcahy) or not (Jobs). You can be honest (Aurelius) or not (Johnson). You can be loving (Chapman) or not (Musk).
The one thing all of these different people has in common is COURAGE in one form or another. We can argue how great, or not, each of these leaders is/was but it is hard to deny each has/had courage.
Jerome Knyszewski: How can our readers further follow you online?
Bill Flynn: You can follow me on the following:
Download my book for free or buy it online. Much of what I wrote here is from my book.
Jerome Knyszewski: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!
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