Motus CEO’s Advice To Startup Founders: “It’s Not About You”
How A Persistent Focus On Culture Has Led Motus To A Successful Exit And $100 Million In Revenue
Interview With Craig Powell, President and CEO of Motus
Motus, the leader in mileage reimbursement and driver management technologies, is what every startup dreams of becoming. Recently through a successful M&A, with a team of over 250 people, the company’s revenues approached $100 million last year, and for the third consecutive year in a row, it was named one of Boston Business Journal’s Best Places to Work. The People Book For Founders has spoken with Craig Powell, President and CEO of Motus, for a deep-dive into how its focus on culture—and its diverse team of marathon runners, home brewers, tri-linguists, boxing champions, skydivers, food truck fanatics, and Excel gurus—has propelled the Boston-based company to a successful exit and phenomenal growth.
The People Book: In your recent article on Entreprenuer.com, you provide a four-stage formula for growing a company from $1 to $1 billion. Now that Motus is in stage 3 of its growth, with revenues near $100 million last year after a period of rapid growth, what are the key organizational and people-related challenges that keep you up at night?
Craig Powell: The stage we are in now is really the test of whether or not the cultural tenets that we have put into place in our previous growth stages are going to be effective. What it really comes down to is whether the decisions at VP, director and manager level, and the effectuation of those decisions, are in line with the values and the tenets of our culture. The challenge is that, at this stage, you are now decentralized in decision-making, so decisions are being made two or three rungs away from the central nervous system of the business. If we got it right in phases 1 and 2 of our growth, then those foundations should take us through phase 3. If we didn’t get it right, then we are going to have to slow growth down and go back to the drawing board to figure out how to drive those cultural tenets. The good news is that up to this point, the business would indicate that things are going well, and that the managers and directors are making and effectuating those decisions at a velocity that is in line with growth and consistent with the values of the business.
Could you give us some insight into how you laid those foundations, and how this rapid growth has changed your role as President and CEO?
A fundamental cornerstone for us is our performance management system, which creates direct transparency on a 90-day frequency, a one-year outlook, and a three-year perspective of each team member’s contribution to the business. We look at how those contributions impact their immediate peers, the group and the department that they work in, and the collective departments, which ultimately drives the business’s 90-day success or lack thereof. That performance management system and the transparency around it allows us to ensure that every team member understands why what they are doing matters, and what the implications are of them achieving their objectives or not achieving their objectives, relative to the subsequent downstream implications. That system and the cultural tenets around it are the fundamental cornerstone that allows us to drive alignment and visibility into where the business is headed.
What that means for me is that my role increasingly becomes less important in terms of the effectuation of the day-to-day. My goal as the leader of the organization is to try to drive effective decision-making to the lowest levels that we can inside the hierarchy of the organization so that we are removing bottlenecks and making decisions at a high velocity while ensuring that those decisions are inside the tenets of the business and add up to profitable decision-making.
“My goal as the leader of the organization is to try to drive effective decision-making to the lowest levels that we can inside the hierarchy of the organization so that we are removing bottlenecks and making decisions at a high velocity.”
Could you tell us a little about your performance management system? Is it something you had from the start, or something you developed at a later stage of your growth?
It is a system that we built at our last business, so we brought it with us from day one. Each individual team member has their own 90-day plan, which informs their annual objectives, and then we do a three-year outlook. It breaks down into individual aspirational statements, covering the aspirations of the function you are in, and an individual SWOT analysis – so your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats on an individual basis. We are big believers in the rule of three; we only allow folks to focus on three areas of expertise, so the plan lays out your three areas of expertise, and then in those three areas, the objectives you need to achieve, and the KPIs for measuring success.
You also mentioned the role of culture, and how culture is critically important in growing a business. How did you go about developing the culture at Motus?
That, too, starts with the performance management system, which ensures that our values are embedded into the way we organize ourselves. The vast majority of folks misunderstand what culture is; they think it is a dress code or a foosball table. That is just the outer rung of culture. The essence of a culture is the core values that govern the way the community works and makes its decisions. If those are not embedded in the way you screen folks, the way you train folks, the way you motivate folks, the way you incentivize people, the way you hold them accountable – if those tenets are not embedded in everything you do, then you don’t have a culture based on values, which means you really don’t have a culture, or at least you don’t have a value-centered culture. For us, culture permeates everything we do: every decision we make, every evaluation we make is looked at through the lens of whether it emulates the values we care about. Our values are very simple: being brave, curious and exceptional. Regardless of what the event or activity or objective is, it is always benchmarked back to those three core values.
“The vast majority of folks misunderstand what culture is. If [your values] are not embedded in the way you screen folks, the way you train folks, the way you motivate folks, the way you incentivize people, the way you hold them accountable, […] then you don’t have a culture based on values, which means you really don’t have a culture.”
In your view, why is culture so important? What is its impact on the business?
Winning cultures win; losing cultures lose. You can use whatever sports analogy you want. The New England Patriots win with what every other team would consider mediocre talent. Tom Brady, I mean they laughed at him at his draft day! They didn’t pick the talent that came in and became the golden goose, they developed it. Now he is the G-O-A-T, but that isn’t where he started. And if he was in a different environment, he wouldn’t be the G-O-A-T. He is the G-O-A-T because he is in a culture that he’s bought into – that everybody in that organization has bought into – around what they call The Patriot Way, which is a simple set of values on the way they run the organization. That is the Patriots, but you could run through any consistent entity of success, and there will be a commonality of a winning culture.
Does that mean that, when it comes to your priorities as a leader, culture is at the very top of the list?
It is the most important thing to get right. The goal of any founder is to get yourself out of as many things as you can and get as many people in the organization as possible to think about and obsess over the decision-making and the outcomes in the same fashion that you would yourself. The goal is to try to create as many owner-thinkers as you possibly can relative to the environment, which is the definition of culture. You want to have a self-policing environment where you are increasingly less important. That is the biggest thing that a lot of founders struggle with, perhaps because of the sexification of the word “entrepreneur.” But it’s not about you. It’s about your team, it’s about your customers, it’s about the value of what you’re delivering. Ideally, you have created an environment where you could go away, and it wouldn’t matter.
“It’s not about you. It’s about your team, it’s about your customers, it’s about the value of what you’re delivering. Ideally, you have created an environment where you could go away, and it wouldn’t matter.”
Was it challenging for you personally as an entrepreneur to go through this realization?
I think it is always challenging for folks to realize that the objective is to make yourself less important. That is always a personal journey. This isn’t my first gig, so I have gone through that journey before to develop that self-awareness and understanding that it’s not about me, but the development of a team. For me, what I have also learnt is that is actually what I love doing. What I get excited about is how do you effectuate or be a part of the contribution of developing a winning team. That is what I have poured myself into, what I think about, what I get excited about, what motivates me on a day-in-and-day-out basis. That journey is also really rewarding when you see people step up and rise to the challenge, when you recognize that it’s not about whether or not I could have done it or done it better or differently, but the fact that I didn’t have to do it. Someone else did, and they did it in their style and in their way, and that diversity of the approach that they took is the strength of the environment. Ultimately, those are the quiet moments of self-assurance and gratification that you get. Everyone has ego, but you’ve got to be willing to navigate your ego into an outcome that is still gratifying for you, but not at the cost of the organization scaling.
What do you think should happen to founders who are unable to make that transition? Do you agree with those who advocate replacing founders with professional CEOs to enable a company to scale?
Both founders and CEOs are kidding themselves to think that they somehow are all-knowing or have the span of control of any organization of scope. I’d rather be a part of an organization that focuses hard on who we screen for, the type of folks we attract, the overlay of the indoctrination of our cultural tenets, and assurances that inside that first 6-12 months of somebody being a part of that team we are confident that they are the kind of thinker and problem-solver that we are focused on. And then I’d rather say to that person, “use your best judgement, go solve the problem.”
How do you find and develop such independent problem-solvers?
It goes back to the things we talked about, our performance management system and the lens of mapping everything back to our values. One of the big things we screen for is “have you ever been part of a successful team?” We ask people to talk to us about their understanding and their study of what it means to be a part of a successful team – the keyword there being “team.” That immediately identifies someone who understands that they’ve got to be an individual contributor, but the team’s success is more important than their individual performance. The second is, “tell us about something you were the very best at.” People that have been the very best at something understand what the sacrifice and commitment means to be the best, and what the responsibility associated with achieving that objective looks like. And then the third thing we talk about is your failures, the times that you had failed and how you came back from those failures.
Ultimately, our business thrives at the interaction of the human element, by solving our users’ problems and their pain points on a day-in-and-day-out basis, listening to what those pain points are, and then coming back and being thoughtful problem-solvers to help effectuate solutions to those problems. We need to put ourselves in our customers’ shoes and figure out how we would want the problem solved if we were on that side of the table. That is all at the human element, where it comes back to questions like, did we screen the right people? Who are the right kinds of thinkers? And then, did we empower them to go be the very best versions of themselves?
“Our business thrives at the interaction of the human element […], where it comes back to questions like, did we screen the right people? Who are the right kinds of thinkers? And then, did we empower them to go be the very best versions of themselves?”
Motus places great emphasis on employee health and well-being. But startup life can often be arduous, with long work hours and frequent, emotionally exhausting setbacks and changes. How does Motus help employees find the right balance and stay healthy and productive?
For starters, we don’t measure things in hours. I don’t really care; if you can hit your 90-day plan in three weeks, then go knock yourself out. We have no office hours; we have unlimited vacation. And typically, in our 90-day planning process we are peeling folks back in terms of what they are telling us they are going to deliver. So the first thing is, we don’t measure things in hours; we measure things in outcomes. The second piece of that is that sometimes when you run into a block, the best way to break that up is not to stare at your computer for another couple of hours, but to go change the scenery and go for a run, or take a walk, or do something else to get some endorphins released. Then come back and get the very best version of you back at your desk. There is a lot of research and science behind the fact that healthy people are more productive. I love the new dialogue around abandoning the concept of work-life balance, which sort of implies that those two things are at odds with each other, and replacing it with a conversation on work-life harmony. That is what goes on here at Motus. When our folks are not here hanging out working together, they are out socializing together. They like each other; they respect each other not only as working professionals, but as individuals.
You have mentioned that this is not your first company, and seeing how much you have obviously read and thought about culture and creating a great work environment, I can’t help but wonder when and how this realization that people and culture are so important came about? Were there any, I don’t want to say mistakes, but perhaps learnings that you took from your past experience that helped you reach this conclusion?
Absolutely! It comes from a lot of previous mistakes, and it also comes from having been an athlete at a fairly high level and having participated on some of the very best teams at what we did – and also on one of the worst teams. It became apparent to me that the athletes weren’t that different, but the cultural dynamics were dramatically different. Those concepts have always stuck with me. If you create an environment where people have a shot at being the best versions of themselves, then I like your odds of winning. If you create an environment where people are trepidated or fearful or political in their dynamics, then I don’t like your odds of winning.
“If you create an environment where people have a shot at being the best versions of themselves, then I like your odds of winning. If you create an environment where people are trepidated or fearful or political in their dynamics, then I don’t like your odds of winning.”
That is a great line; I will make sure it makes its way into The People Book! Thank you very much for the interview, and for sharing your insights with the startup community. It is fantastic to see companies succeed by creating a great culture and work environment, and to be able to learn from how they did it.