For those of you who missed the live stream of my chat with John and Todd from the 2013 GeekWire Summit in Seattle, here’s a transcript of the talk:
Jonathan Sposato: So I have the honor of introducing Blake Irving. He is one of the coolest cats that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working for, years ago back at Microsoft. Most Microsoft presidents are pretty cool guys, but a lot of them are not quadruple threat guys like Blake Irving. Here is a guy that really understood product. Here is a guy that also understood people. He also understood culture and how to develop a really healthy culture and great organizational dynamics. He was also really, really great with business. In fact, after several products reviews with him we would work on stuff, he and my team. I would ask him “How are you so astute about product?” and he actually revealed a secret which was, he used to be a graphic designer. I thought that was so cool, that he was a guy that had all these different skills that he was bringing to the table. It’s no surprise that after Microsoft, he went to become the executive vice president and the director of product for Yahoo. Under his tenure, Yahoo went from about 550 million actives, to a whopping 750 million actives, and our mobile business really grew. So we added tremendous value there.
It’s no surprise at all that as the new CEO of GoDaddy, he’s brought a palpable and noticeable and an amazing amount of excitement, new excitement to the brand. If you check with a friend of yours who might be considering positions at GoDaddy, or people who’ve gone to now work at GoDaddy, whether it’s down in California or up here in Seattle, there’s a loyalty that is really delightful to see. We all love working for Blake, and it looks like the band back together again. He recently authored GoDaddy’s new Manifesto of Kick Ass, but to me Blake Irving has always kicked ass. Let’s welcome to the stage Blake Irving and also John and Todd.
John Cook: How do you follow that up?
Todd Bishop: You got it, Okay great. I just want to start by dispelling a rumor–is there any truth to the fact that you are in fact the original inspiration for the GoDaddy logo long before you even joined the company.
Blake Irving: No. It’s funny though. Bob Parsons is the founder. I spent about nine and a half hours with Bob before deciding that I was going to come into interim the company. Bob says to me, and he’s
kind of a revolved guy and he looks at me and he goes “You know holy crap, I never realized that you look exactly like our logo.”
John: So you were meant to be CEO.
Todd: It was like it was meant to be in a lot of ways.
Blake: It was funny. I goofed around with a badge when I got to the company. This is actually my picture in the company directory, the picture that’s on the badge. It’s a place that has been culturally quite different where the CEO is just the CEO. It’s pretty formal. All the IT guys scrambled to figure out who hacked my picture and they were frightened and they say “Have you seen you’re picture?” and I go “Yeah, why” and they go “Well it looks like the GoDaddy guy!” I go no, I did it.
Todd: You did it?
Blake: I did it. Yeah. It’s like not that big a deal. Okay. Well this is going to be different then.
Todd: Yeah. Exactly. That’s great. Alright so I should mention, we came so close to breaking some national news this morning. I don’t know if you remember John asked Bill Gurley, when twitter was going to file for it’s IPO. Just about an hour ago twitter tweeted that it has filed for its IPO.
John: Why didn’t Bill break the news about this is what I want to know. He should’ve broken the news right here on GeekWire.
Todd: As soon as it happened John ran out in the lobby, somehow Bill had disappeared.
John: I did. I tried to track him down. I didn’t see him out there.
Todd: Taylor has the scoop on GeekWire so you can check that on your computers, if you can get online. Bring that up because I don’t want to miss the opportunity to break another piece of news Blake. The Wall Street Journal recently listed you on it’s short list of external candidates to succeed Microsoft CEO, Steve Ballmer. Blake Irving do you have an announcement here for us today.
Blake: Yes I do.
Todd: I thought so.
Blake: Twitter just filed for IPO. No.
Todd: Is that something you would ever consider?
Blake: I got a good chuckle out of it. I literally defogged and I’ve showed my family and they were like, that’s pretty funny dad.
Todd: That’s great. What do you think Microsoft needs to do next? I’m going to jump into GoDaddy right away, but where should Microsoft go as long as we’re on that topic?
Blake: I had the microphone away from my mouth when I said it. I said oh my God. Who knows? I think it’s easy to malign Steve, there’s been a fair amount of that. He’s got a tough job, that’s a giant company. He’s had some decisions to make. Whether he splits the company up, whether he keeps it together. Does he let businesses run more autonomously? Does he become the hub in a spoken hub model? Does he become the group program manager of the company? He had a lot of different decisions to make, and he decided to do it one particular way. There’s lots of other ways that he could’ve done it. Who know if any of them could or could not work, or would change some of the trajectory that the company is on. The guy’s done an amazing job turning earnings, having affected stock price, which I think is more a factor of the hope coefficient than anything else. Anybody can second-guess it’s very easy to do it. To actually get a company of that size, and a trajectory that changes dramatically, the positive slope of the company is going to be pretty difficult. I’d hate to say that I had an answer for you that’s going to do it.
John: So if it’s not you then who? Who’s on the short list in your mind?
Blake: Well I heard you were on the short list.
John: Really, that’s a mistake.
Blake: I don’t know. There’s a bunch of guys named. Another thing that struck me was just acquired Nokia, Elap was on the list. They just acquired them. Potentially that is something that could be interesting as well. They’re a lot of really great guys out there. I’m telling you, that’s a tough, tough job. All the guys that I have a tremendous amount of respect for, whether it’s Kevin Johnson or Paul Maritz or Steve, they’re all guys that could do the job. It’s a tough gig.
John: So how about your job? Tell us about GoDaddy. Why did you want to go with the GoDaddy?
Blake: It’s interesting because I’ve been a customer at GoDaddy for a long time. Actually when I started at the company I had 39 domains under management. When I went and introduced myself to the company. I introduced myself about a month before I started. I said you need to know some things about me. I know you guys have all been up on my LinkedIn profile, because I had like 2,000 hits this morning. I don’t need to give you any of that crap. Let me just tell you I’m customer number, and I gave them my customer number, told what my lifetime spend was with GoDaddy. I said I have some observations about your company. Just from a guy on the street. Now I haven’t been in there working so I don’t know. You can agree or disagree with the marketing tactics they’ve used for the last 7 years or so, since the first Super Bowl ad in 2005; very good at marketing and actually wonderful at metrics. Very good at actually dialing in and knowing what their acquisition costs is etc. One of the best customer support organizations on the planet in technology with an MPS score of seventy.
For those of that support organizations and have a technology company if you’re positive you’re pretty happy to have a net promoter score of seventy is nuts. I’d interacted with the product a whole lot, and knew that this wasn’t a company that was a product company. Actually as you go through and you use
the website, you could actually see the company Silos with every transaction you did. From website building, or the front or side, or you go to the control panel or you try to do something else, there was lots there that could be improved. They had done absolutely remarkably at how quickly they move, for a company that’s not even based in the valley or based in Seattle, or a technological hub, had done a ton. So I thought well you know, I’m not a great marketing guy, and I’m certainly not a customer support guy, but I’m a product guy. This might be a really interesting mix for me. The other thing that was very
interesting was, the company’s culture is edgy, it’s fun they love to get shit done. They love to put their shoulders into things, and work hard and work in a mosh pit. That’s the kind of person I am. The cultural attributes that sit above the table that we all like to talk about, when we talk about our companies were a perfect fit for me.
Todd: So you have come in, and you’ve really set about to transform this company. I want to show you something on the screen that might be a little bit painful. Tell me about this homepage.
Blake: It’s beautiful! Well, there’s a lot going on there. Can’t I just comment on people photographs for a while? This is a company, if you think about a transaction-based company. They’re trying to create transactions. There’s a lot going on here. It definitely looks like a retail store. There’s so many things to
click on. How could you go wrong? Strangely enough we actually use this photograph a lot, this old picture of the website when we contrast where we are today. I suspect I’m hoping that might be where your next one is. It’s a lot simpler it’s flat. It’s a flat UI. You’re going to see this change evolve over the course of the next few years frankly. More importantly is what’s going on, on mobile. It’s just simpler more importantly than a homepage. This is a hell of a lot more simple, as just the path of checking out.
My comment used to be in the old days, back with that first homepage you showed, I felt like I was dodging offers on my way to try to check out. It was like boy if I could get out of the shopping cart with only the thing that I bought that’s a success. We smoothed that, made it really easy. Have been very
comfortable saying look we just want you to get what you want, get out and have an experience that gets you onto using the product that you bought, that you intended to buy. We’ve made some big significant changes in that regard. We’ve seen a customer growth that’s actually rounding 10 percent over what we thought we were going to do, because we did it. People go “God this is easy, I can just buy something.” The domains industry generally has followed a pattern of buy this thing, buy something else. People just want to have an identity.
Todd: You alluded to this earlier but GoDaddy built a huge amount of market share through tactics that were frankly offensive, to a large portion of the population. What do you say to the company’s critics about GoDaddy’s marketing strategy and the way that it built its business?
Blake: I think most people feel the way that you feel. I think as a guy that was using the product, and had watched the advertisement, it’s hard not to make the same observation. Bob Parsons who’s the founder of the company, when he decided, I’m going to go into the Super Bowl. Actually the guy had done very well with Parsons technology if you remember into it buying that it was basically a financial package. The Bob actually when the market was crashing in 2001, 2000 era, started actually buying bigger ads. His company because he started doing bigger ads, started taking off. So it had a pretty large amount of profitability and had the ability to go buy the biggest ad segment he possibly could. Which was of course?
Todd: The Super Bowl.
Blake: The Super Bowl. Exactly. So he say’s I’m going to do a Super Bowl ad. Let me think about this, because no one knows what a domain is. It’s not interesting. You can’t sit and chat somebody up about the domain business. It’s a commodity business no one knows what the hell you’re talking about.
Todd: Unless you’re at the GeekWire Summit.
Blake: Unless you’re at the GeekWire Summit. He says what do I know about the Super Bowl. Well most people that are watching there are guys and most of them are drunk by half time. What am I
going to do, and he came up with that first advertisement. It was so controversial. Strange enough the story is, you’re not going to believe this, this is absolute fact, that he bought two ad box for about a million bucks a piece back then. Now they’re at about six just between those eight years. He bought
one at half time a million bucks, and then he bought another one later in the show, for a little less money but they had an open spot so they sold it to him. He said “I’ll buy the second one.”. He ran the first ad and he actually had to get it approved by the network. The network approved it he ran it. They had so many negative calls on it. They said they wouldn’t run the second one. Right?
They said “Mr. Parsons we’re not running the second one, we know you bought it. We’re going to credit you full price on the first one, so we’ll just give that one away to you. You don’t have to pay for that.” Two Super Bowl ads for free. Within four weeks, he had gained 20 percent share in the domains industry. When you’re trying to get attention, and I’ll say Bob Parsons is a brilliant marketer, knows his audience, knows it well, gained twenty points and he was off to the races. Like lather, rinse and repeat. He kept doing that thing. Now it turns out, once you have 65 percent share in the US, you don’t have to get attention anymore, and 50 percent worldwide share. You don’t have to get anymore domains. In fact, when you’re saying look we’re not about domains anymore, we’re actually about enabling and
empowering small businesses around the world, and helping the little guy become successful. When nobody cares about the little guy, you actually have to change your game completely.
Todd: It’s not just a rebranding, well it is a rebranding, as in it’s not just the look. It is in fact a complete change in the business in a lot of ways. Women are in fact huge owners of small businesses.
Blake: 58 % of small business in the United States are owned by women. Correct.
Todd: Come January, February or wherever they’re pulling the Super Bowl
back to this year, what will the odds be like?
Blake: They’ll be more consistent with the ad campaign that we just ran. We actually have a new vision for the company, which is about empowering small businesses. It’s actually changing the global economy. Radically shifting the global economy, in favor of small business, by enabling people to easily start confidently run and successfully grow their own ventures. Whatever it happens to be. That’s it. So we’re going down the path of talking about them, talking about the little guy, figuring out how to help them. Letting them know that we have people that want to talk to them, that want to help them solve their problems. Our ads are going to be around that. They’re still going to be edgy; they’re still going to be funny. They’re going to be memorable as hell. They are not going to feature the things that we’ve had in the past that have polarized and offended. Anybody remember last Super Bowl ad? Bar Refaeli and Jesse Heiman doing a lip-lock for 30 seconds.
Todd: Yeah. How could you forget that?
Blake: Did anybody remember what GoDaddy did at the end of that ad? 1.7 billion impressions in the first two weeks.
Todd: What does that say about society, I mean come on.
Blake: It says that everybody here is going, “that stuff’s horrible,” and then “I’ve got to see that again.”
Todd: I love this. We’re having a running theme here today which is apparently you shouldn’t be paying for marketing at all. If you go back to Bob Parsons example with the first Super Bowl.
Blake: Well it’s crazy. Think of how powerful the marketing that he did was. I think that we’ll continue to make those investments. We had a pretty good-sized marketing budget, we used some of it on TV. We do a lot of SEO SEM. We’re certainly not as described earlier today, we’re not on the crack of SEO SEM. Our branded has 80% aided brand recognition in the US and 50% unaided. We’ve got the power, now it’s what do we do with it. We want to let people know what we do and who we do it for.
John: You’re in the midst of what we call in the startup world a pivot. You talk about this with startups going down the product path. Having to switch course very quickly. You’re kind of doing this. You’re not getting out of the old business, but you’re really starting to double down and move into a new business. I’m just curious how that transition is going. How you’re leading that. That involves sometimes a culture shift in the company too. How are you executing on that?
Blake: That’s a good question. For me when you enter a company or you enter a division, in a big company or you’re doing a little start up. You have to actually set a vision out there that is
different and is bigger than life. That vision of radically shifting the global economy towards small business, then having a strategy that’s actually a 32 page strategy document that you can share with the board and add a lot of detail behind it, then a very crisp vision that everybody in the company knows what it’s about. You can actually steer everybody in a very open way towards that thing. Then it’s hiring people that know what to do, in places where they didn’t have strength before. I’ve been doing a ton of hiring people up here, down in the Bay Area. Even opening office in places where we didn’t have presence before.
Blake: Kirkland and Sunnyvale, and frankly a lot of folks in the Bay Area. Seattle folks as well that we’ve been hiring. You basically have to shape that vision and put together clear metrics against what success looks like. Our COO who joined us from KKR a few months ago, he was interim CEO for the company, we did a session where we literally
had a spreadsheet up on the wall, and had every one of the strategy component owners. They could play with two things. They could play with average revenue per user ARPU, or they could play with the number of customers they were increasing. They would come up and say, we think we can do 50% more ARPU for user per year, and we can increase the number of customers by 5,000,000. There are ten different strategies. As each one comes up, they start doing
their stuff. By the time we’re done we have a giant revenue company. We’re about 1.4 billion in revenue today.
John: That’s 2013 revenue?
Blake: Roughly around 1.4 billion.
Todd: 11 million paying customers if I remember correctly, or higher now.
Blake: It’s about 12 million now.
John: So with that kind of revenue, and those kind of numbers, we just heard the news of twitter filing to go public, GoDaddy’s a private company. When will we see GoDaddy become a public company?
Blake: You never know. It’s something that certainly is a possibility for us. Our numbers, our outcome would be a very good outcome today, if we decided to go. We’re double-digit revenue growth, double-digit EBITDA growth, and double-digit customer growth. Not like barely double digit, deep into them. So there’s good metrics now.
John: So what’s holding you back?
Blake: What you want to do if you’ve got a new strategy, with the vision that you put in place, is you want to put points on the board for each one of those things, before you may yourself a public company. International’s a giant thing for us. Believe it or not, that 1.4 billion has been done in English pretty much. We have two languages. We have English and we have half Spanish. We’re actually going to take it around the globe. Do thirty languages and do sixty different markets, over the course of the
next eighteen months. We want to put points on the board for that. We want to put points on the board for being a better hosting company, for being a better website building company, for having an easier path to the checkout, for supporting that little tiny person who’s trying to figure out how to make their
way. I want to put points on the board for all that stuff, before we get in that position. Then even when we’re there. You just hope the market’s receptive for it.
The notion that you can actually file confidentially, then everybody says, you filed confidentially. There’s a big difference because you don’t have to make your S1 public. You don’t have to disclose a bunch of things. If you want to pull that back because market takes a tank, it’s a much more favorable thing for countries like ours that say maybe this time’s right, maybe it’s not. You could be a little more sure footed without giving too much away information about your company, to your competitors.
Todd: So if the pattern holds, expect GoDaddy’s IPO filing about 5:30 today.
Blake: No. It’s not going to be today.
Todd: You mentioned the Kirkland office. You are not the typical technology company coming into the Seattle market. We see tons of tech companies coming up here. It started with Google back in 2004. It’s continued with many others: Facebook, Twitter. Yours is a different breed of company. What’s the pitch that you make to engineers to join your beautiful offices at Kirkland’s Carillon Point.
Blake: It’s close to the same pitch I was just telling you. Great marketing company. Enough scale and enough footprint. Even around the world. Twenty percent of business is outside of the country in spite of us not doing it well. It’s a company on the product side that can do so much better than they’ve done. Still they’re doing a billion. It’s a private company for starters. Which is a 1.4 billion dollar revenue company. With over 200 million in EBITDA, that’s kind of a pretty interesting company
to join, in that kind of environment. There’s so little that we have done, that I’d say is technologically, the kind of thing that you do in the Bay Area or Seattle, because it was just done differently. That gives us a ton of lift, if you hire great engineers. So the engineering pitch is “If you want to change
the world for small business, you want to have a company that’s been masterful in both marketing and customer care, and build one of the better product organizations in the world which I think we can have, come to GoDaddy and take a company public, in a way that’s going to be fundamentally different and you can change the world.”
Todd: We focus a lot on the Pacific Northwest technology economy. You’re in a unique positive because you worked at Microsoft, although you did from California at the time. You’re now in Scottsdale. You worked in between in Sunnyvale for Yahoo, which I’m going to get to in a second. You’ve now sort of revisited the Seattle market to open this new office in Kirkland. What’s your opinion of how the Seattle tech market has evolved, for better or worse, in the time that you’ve been away?
Blake: I guess it’s been six years or so, since I was literally here pretty much every day. Over those six years of not being here, and spending most of my time in California, the difference between the Bay and the Valley and the Seattle area generally are pretty marketed to me. I actually almost call it this tends to be a more opaque market. You have Microsoft and you have Amazon both who do a magnificent job of making sure there’s a pretty solid wall around the talent base in both of those companies. Trying to actually poke through and trying to understand who’s there and where the talent exists, is pretty difficult. It’s all a personal connection, and it doesn’t actually migrate out. Amazon and Microsoft being the two largest. There’s quite a few smaller companies in start-ups, but not nearly the volume that you have down the Bay. The way I characterize the Bay is a more translucent market place, where people have their own personal brand.
The personal brand travels with them from small company to small company, to maybe a large company for a little while and then back out to a small company. That network stretches all the way from San
Francisco down to San Jose. Through Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, Menlo, with all the different neighborhoods that all house pretty magnificent tech companies .The amount of translucency between these companies is just different than it is up here. I’d say also that the venture community down there, the guys don’t want to fly very far. If they’re going to invest in companies, they tend to want to have them in their own backyard.
John: We heard that from Bill Gurley this morning.
Blake: It’s true. Bill took and stuck more flyers up in this area. It’s impossible I was on a board of a company that was in Madison, Wisconsin. They said well what’s the first piece of advice you’d give us. It’s “get the hell out of Madison, Wisconsin.”
Todd: Well what about you, you’re in Scottsdale, Arizona running GoDaddy.
Blake: Right. What are the first couple of things that I did? We’ve established a place in the valley. We’ve got 40,000 square feet in Mountain View. We got 12,000 right now. We just opened another 40,000. Under the Microsoft building it’s flanked by Google etc. because, that translucency, that transparency is
good for us too. Now we opened a place up here. Frankly when you need to acquire great engineering talent, the talent up here is fantastic. It’s just hard to find it. In penetrable fortresses like Microsoft or Amazon, I didn’t know a lot of those guys. Putting a place here just makes it much easier for us to attract
Todd: What would it take to get you to move the headquarters? Get the hell out of Scottsdale, move it up to Seattle?
Blake: It would take about 160 less days of rain.
Todd: Spoken like a Californian.
Blake: I lived up here ten years. I moved when I was still at Microsoft and did the reverse commuting because I was doing a bunch of stuff in the Bay Area office with Hotmail and Ultimate TV and Web TV and those things. It was just I reversed my commute, and frankly my better melatonin, better attitude…
Todd: Better Vitamin D.
Blake: Better Vitamin D. That fundamental difference between amounts of sun actually made a difference for me, and a lot for the health of my kids. It mattered a ton.
Todd: I don’t know, John, If you’ve got any questions on the Twitter feed.
John: I haven’t been monitoring that closely Todd.
Todd: Yeah. I know. I gave up on my Surface about an hour ago.
Blake: You’re the only guy that’s ever given up on a surface. Ha.
Todd: The other company that we just alluded to, I think that was a hiss out there. That’s how you know you’re in Seattle.
Blake: I do.
Todd: The other company of course you spent quite a bit of time at, as a senior executive, was Yahoo. What do you think about what Marissa Mayer is doing at the company?
Blake: Well I think there’s some greatness there and not so greatness. I do believe that the company desperately needed a product person who understood the Internet very well to succeed. There was a pivot that the company had an opportunity to make. It said I’m going to be a media company, or I’m going to be a technology company. The thing that I think Yahoo ought to be is a platform company. If the wan to be as large as a Facebook, if they want to be as large as a Google, which I don’t know if that’s
possible, but I think, being a platform company for media generally is the potential path. If Marissa goes down that path, and can get the talent back in the company, they need to pull that off. I think there are lots of possibilities.
I think hope went up. I’m not sure if that hope went up because everybody’s got an iPhone now and food is free or there’s renewed focus on product and people are actually producing great things. I know
lots of people in the company feel a heck of a lot better about it, and feel like it’s moving in the right direction. I hope Marissa can turn it around. It’s a great brand. I know a lot of people that know the founders well. I wish that they can pull it off and become a giant company again.
Todd: Looking ahead just to wrap thing up. If you look out say 2015, 2016, if you were starting a startup now, and you wanted to hit the tech trend, that was going to be most important two, three years out, even if it’s applying to your own personal interest. Is there an area of technology that gets you most excited, where you see the most opportunity maybe as some inspiration for some of the entrepreneurs out in the audience?
Blake: Yeah. I guess. I love consumer technology generally. When you look at tiny businesses, our customers are usually 1 to 5 people, they’re really consumers that are trying to figure out how to turn into a real business. In those two market places there’s two very obvious things. Multi device where the cloud’s the king, and they’re syncing across all these different things. So mobile and multi device. I don’t think pure mobile mobility is the answer. Mobile phones, it all here, because everybody’s coming online in the next century is going to be using this primarily more.
Cars are mobile. Tablet’s are mobile. PC and tablets, there’s going to be quite an interesting conundrum over the next five years. About what’s what. There’s going to be a massive merging of those two things. If I think about big data. We look at big data right now as just this big crunching problem. Big data is just about databases and what are you going to do with it. That is really the key, and big data is, it’s videos, it’s graphics, it’s information about customers, it’s pulmonary on how your sight works, how people move, where hey are what they’re doing. All of those kinds of these will start to form the next set of apps. I can’t say what’s a great app in 2015, or five years from now. Anybody seen The Intern?
Todd: Sure. The Google Movie.
Blake: I forget who made the statement about solving problems. With a multi device mobile platform, is what we’re all in this room doing right now. Pretty much everyone in here is looking at a mobile device one kind or another.
Todd: Not while you’re talking. At other times.
Blake: You’ve got giant data up there, anything that solves problems across those things using big data could be almost like a savant about what you’re going to do next. Or what you ought to do next could be something that’s crazy cool. In The Intern, the guy talked about, I just want to know if I’m too drunk to drive a car, which is very much like the Uber problem to solve. Which is like I come out from San Francisco, I’m at a party, I don’t want to drive. How do I get to a car easily where I can find them,
and they can find me. Don’t have to negotiate with my credit card and that stuff because I might lose it.
Those real world problems are the things that ought to happen on top of the palette of mobile devices mobility and big data. They’re not and should not be abstract concepts to people, because they’re just tools in a giant palette that you can solve real problems with.
John: Blake one of the challenges that you have coming into the organization here, is your having to do it in a new culture here. A rebuilding of GoDaddy there was some problems with PRSU’s in the past. Where they did the former CEO, where they did some hunting issues as well. Can you say today that you’ve put GoDaddy on a different path that is moving beyond the past of GoDaddy? There are many that have a bad taste in their mouth to the company.
Blake: We’re on a deep transformation of the company. Who we serve, how we serve them, how we position ourselves, how our employees feel about themselves, about serving those little guys is really different. I encourage you if you can go Google “Manifesto of Kick Ass.” There’s a very compelling video up there of our employees. Basically reading the thing that we call the “Manifesto of Kick Ass.” Our mission in the company is we help small business kick ass. That’s what we try to do. That maintains our edginess. That actually allows us to describe what we do. When you see that video I’m guaranteeing you, you’ll have an emotional response about the seriousness and the passion that people feel for helping these little people that nobody takes care of. It’s a quest, it’s not a company, and it’s a quest we’re on. Everybody’s leaning into this thing like man I am so in. That is something I find amazing. I haven’t found in a whole bunch of other companies.
Todd: That’s great. Everybody please thank you to Blake Irving, The CEO of GoDaddy
Like many commencement speakers before me, I toiled over what pithy message to deliver that might resonate with students in this next phase of their life. As a graduation commencement speaker you’re supposed to impart some wisdom that will cause the “collective you” to reflect on your own personal road ahead. I couldn’t think of anything. Nope – nothing – a completely empty vessel. But you know how sometimes when you’re on that edge of sleep and awake, and you have this moment of clarity that causes you to bolt upright and write down your thoughts? That didn’t happen either.
But as I churned on it, I had this gnawing thought that kept creeping through my head about the contrast in value between “what” – you – are and “who” – you – are and just how wrong it all is – and how much that contrast in value can or has affected your life. And I thought maybe that could form an interesting conversation. Now, I don’t know how it plays as a monologue but since this is a commencement speech – that’s what it’s going to be. A monologue. So here goes.
It seems to me we celebrate all these things that are about “what we are” but we rarely if ever celebrate “who we are” when in fact “who” is vastly more important. Think about this for just a minute. We celebrate graduations from College, High School, Junior High School, Elementary School, and I even know parents who are going to kindergarten and preschool graduation ceremonies – giddy about the transition to the next “what” their children are to become.
We celebrate birthdays, weddings, promotions, victories, retirements, and inaugurations. We celebrate the passing of a phase or an accomplishment that places you in a new category of “what you are” but we don’t celebrate “who”. And you know – the only place that I’ve seen “who” celebrated and I mean really celebrated, where human qualities like courage, empathy, perseverance, caring, or sense of humor, are at a funeral or retirement party, both of which are a little too late to really matter.
So once again, we’re here to celebrate an achievement that places you in a whole new demographic. The next time you’re filling out an application for a job, a credit card, a home loan, car loan, or the census for that matter, you can check a box that says “post graduate degree” or MBA. Now, I don’t mean in any way to trivialize the accomplishment of graduating from this fine MBA program. In fact, graduating from Pepperdine’s Graziadio School of Business with a Masters Degree is a mammoth accomplishment and I certainly congratulate you. I know you busted your hump to get
here and intimately know the sacrifices you’ve made. Made ‘em myself.
But, I don’t want the following to be lost on any of you. This new category of “what you are”, the holder of a Masters degree in Business, has vastly less importance and bearing on your future than who you are as a person. Who you are is what drove you to reach this event; This outcome. Who you are is how you’re going to accomplish the rest of your life. It’s the thing that really matters. It’s the thing that will drive you to your next life event – your next “what”.
Now, when you’re in a society that values the “what’s” in life more than who, decisions at a macro level are pretty easy to make. College student: That was a pretty easy one. The value that you and society place as a whole on being a college student was in harmony. College Graduate, this one is easy too – the value to you and society is harmonious. Even your MBA was a relatively easy decision based on that criteria. The
“what” in achieving an MBA didn’t stand in sharp contrast with society’s opinion of value. From here, from this day forward, it gets a lot harder. It should get a lot harder. From here it gets personal. It starts to become more about who you are and not what you are.
Why am I harping on this? I’ll tell you. I worry that many of you will get caught up in a vortex of “what” decisions and only pause to think about who you are after you’ve made so many that it has taken you down a path you can’t recover from. Unfortunately that happens more often than not. If you go through life focused on what you want to be, versus who you want to be, at the end of the road, when your light goes out, you might find yourself to be one very unhappy camper. And happiness matters. It’s underrated.
So where are you now? Have you made a cascading set of “what” based decisions that got you to this point in life? Or have you had that courageous conversation with yourself about who you are and what you ought to be doing because of it? You’re in a kind of scary place right now. It’s another cross road of sorts. There is no roadmap to your next “what.” The degrees of freedom are vast and you are going to have to make some decisions without the benefit of harmonious societal affirmation for the path you will choose. To be truly happy, the decisions you make from here on out had better be built around who you are and not what you think is valued. And you know, as a society we haven’t prepared you to think like this.
It’s not a hard concept to get your head around, but let me give you an example of what I mean.
Like you, I made a “what” based decision out of high school to go to college. I decided to study business. Another “what” based decision. After one semester in business school where I was failing some classes and hating the ones I wasn’t failing, I made a “who” based decision that was an extremely tough decision for me and I became a fine art major. I loved art and design and had always been pretty good at it – but come on, art? My father and grandfather, both attorneys, were not happy with me and couldn’t believe I would do this. This was about me uniquely and dispelled their concept of what I was even in college for – in fact, my father didn’t know “what” I was anymore. You’re going to college to become an artist? You’re throwing your life away, that kind of thing. It was a very uncomfortable time for me. But that decision was oh so right.
From that single decision, and some lucky twists and turns, I ended up at Xerox designing and digitizing some of the first typefaces for laser printers and work stations while still obtaining my fine art degree. I was passionate about it. Truly passionate. My father and grandfather couldn’t believe that I was working somewhere other than a restaurant, convenience store or a renaissance fair – where an artist most likely would be working. A cascading set of (what in retrospect seem like pretty logical “who” based) decisions led me to design systems that created typographic software, to build a business that made money in the creation of typographic software and eventually lead me to Pepperdine where I got my MBA. This time around, in business school, I found a passion in business. Was it my professors, was it the comradery of like minded passionate cohorts, I don’t know, but I found more of myself here, and found out how to not compromise my “who” in the quest for my MBA. That discovery drove me into a career in software development where I was very fortunate to change the lives of millions of people around the world just by creating products I loved. I’m as passionate about that today as I was about art as a young boy.
You know it’s crazy. In January I was appointed the CEO of a company called GoDaddy. We’re a privately held company that generates 1.4 billion in revenue, serves 11 million customers, and fuels the passions and ideas of people around the world where they transform their ideas into reality on the internet. What an incredible charge. I’m in heaven. For you MBAs out there I’d also point out we have double digit, revenue, customer and EBITDA growth – and we’re hiring. Did I say we’re still privately held? Now, as wacky and ridiculous as it sounds, and what my father now understands, is that if I wouldn’t have had the courage to make a “who” based decision to be an art major in college, I wouldn’t be the CEO of Go Daddy.
All of this – because I was lucky enough to make a “who” based decision very early. All because I had a very scary conversation with myself about who I am and what I wanted to do with my life because of it. Now, I could have made that decision later on – but I might have had so much investment in “what”based decisions that I wouldn’t have been able to divest. I’m not telling you that I completely cast aside “what” based decisions – what I’m saying is that answering the “who I am” question actually drove my “what” and that is what I hope you can all take away from this monologue.
There are obvious times in life where you have the ability to pause, and take an introspective look at who you are and what path you might take because of it. You are there right now and I suggest you take advantage of it. That robe and mortar board you are wearing are signals that you are at a crossroads. Not every crossroad comes with a robe and mortar board, so you’re going to have to look a little harder for your next one.
Through my career I’ve had one-on-one conversations with folks about their careers on a weekly basis. Most of these folks have a “what based” end point in mind when we’re talking… and it’s usually a big job they’ve conjured in their head.
These folks ask me what the key is to building their career is, what’s the next thing they ought to be doing. And I frustrate them by answering with questions: What are you passionate about? What sends you springing out of bed in the morning to get to work? What is it that brings out the absolute best in you? What is it that inspires you? What do you want to do for the world? What do you want to be remembered for? What do you want your legacy to be? Think about these questions – the answer to these questions are all about who you are and may help you discover what you want to be and what your next step should look like.
So today, you’re here to celebrate one of the great “whats” of our society. You are a Masters Degree Candidate and that is a giant deal, and one worthy of celebration. I congratulate you on this enormous accomplishment.
But please, do me this one favor before you or your families leave town, before you start your career, before you start driving on to your next “what”, before your retirement, and please, before your next funeral.
Please. Please celebrate who you are and weigh it with greater importance than what you are. Celebrate your courage, celebrate your perseverance, your empathy, your intelligence, your caring, celebrate your passion, celebrate your sense of humor through all of that and celebrate your unrelenting drive that has made this day possible.
I celebrate each and every one of you. Congratulations Class of 2013 – and best of luck. Thank you.
Video: Pepperdine Graziadio School of Business; Photo: Les portraits de Linou