003: Kelly Robinson – How to Maintain Happy Employees and Build the Right Company Culture whilst Scaling for Exit

Kelly has a spent the last 25 years in the recruitment and recruitment-technology space during which time, he has grown, integrated, bought, and sold businesses in both the UK and US. He founded Broadbean Inc. which he sold to DMGT in 2008; launched in the US 2009 and lead the strategic acquisition by CareerBuilder in 2014. He is the current CEO of RedDot Media and Co- Founder of Content App.

If you are looking for advice regarding when to sell your business, when to hire the right management, and how to define company culture, this is the episode for you. Kelly is an extremely intelligent entrepreneur with years of experience in being a business owner. A great listen.

Short transcript

David Alonso: I have spoken to previous employees of yours who were very complementary and enjoyed working for you.  What do you think makes a great CEO?

Kelly Robinson: I think there are 3 things that you should focus on as a CEO. The first thing is that you are in charge of creating growth. With creating growth comes opportunities and with that comes people development. The second thing is that you need to be focused on clearing roadblocks. When you’re running your business, your job is to see where the difficulties are and fix them for the people around you. The third thing, you are the champion for the vision of the company culture. You are the person that makes sure that it aligns with the values of the organization.

David Alonso: How would you define company culture and how important is the CEO in creating that culture?

Kelly Robinson: I think culture is something that develops. You start off and say, “we want this to be a great place for people to work.” As a CEO, you have probably done all of these jobs before. You’ve done Sales, you’ve done marketing. You need to remember what it was like to do these jobs and listen to the people doing them and help them clear their roadblocks.

People buy into the vision of the organization. You spend more time in the workplace than you do at home. You spend so much time with the people you work with, your organization will start to feel like a family. Culture develops from the amount of time you spend together.

I don’t think you should hire for the culture because if you do that you wont have diversity. You want different opinions, different backgrounds, different ideas. That’s how your company will grow.

David Alonso: How successful can a CEO be on their own without putting management into place?

Kelly Robinson: As I mentioned before, the role of a CEO is to create growth. When you are trying to create growth, the first thing you are going to put in is Sales. With Sales comes revenue and with revenue comes the opportunity to hire people. You want to put in the right kind of people as soon as you can but there is a balance.

David Alonso: How do you view giving equity to senior management when scaling a business to exit?

Kelly Robinson: Equity is a great thing. I would be interested in seeing the statistics on people who had a small amount of equity in small startup businesses to see if it went anywhere. Only a small proportion of businesses actually get sold. You need to look at your company and see ‘what is the likelihood of you exiting.’ Then you should think what would benefit the people working there more? Should you give them some form of incentive base pay? Sometimes benefits and bonuses are more interesting to people.

David Alonso: Free content marketing plays a big part in raising awareness nowadays. Do you think that content works to win new business? Does emailing and cold calling still work?

Kelly Robinson: I think content plays a vital part in building a sales process. Cold calling is dead. When is the last time you answered a call from someone you didn’t know? For some people it still works. I think email marketing still works. I mean I click on some emails but I also have plenty of software that filters it out. You are never going to get the open rates that you saw 10 years ago. It still works if you hit the right people.

For me, the idea of content is social selling. Most people post on social media very enthusiastically for 2 weeks and then stop because there is no instant gratification. Or all they do is flood the market with sales messages. This is just noise and people just tune them out. For me, social selling is a mix. Offer interesting content, nothing is going to be that you create your self. You need to be regular with it. You need to be posting something everyday or at least a couple times a week. Once you start to produce regular content, this will start to give you a voice or a brand.

David Alonso: When should the founder take that first step back from selling and work on the business?

Kelly Robinson: I think as soon as possible. If you are going to create growth you are going to need to be working on the business. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to sell because even when you stop selling you are still going to be working on client relationships. I had no ego about being the best sales guy or best marketeer I simply wanted to grow the team. You can’t take on bigger projects without more people.

David Alonso: Very few people get the opportunity to sell and exit, can you give us a sense of what an exit really looks like and what you need to be prepared for?

Kelly Robinson: We were never ready to sell. The deal ended up working out well and that’s what funded us to get to the US. We literally couldn’t agree on a price. We said no within 3 minutes of the first offer.

From my point of view, it is massively time consuming. We decided that my business partner would not get involved because it is endless requests for data and information. My advice is to have a partner or have someone handle that because you don’t want to neglect your business in case the sale doesn’t go through.