Michael Witham on Startups
By: Michael Witham
When I went back to college after a few year hiatus I had no idea what to study. I knew the world operated on business principles, but wasn’t sure which aspect of business to study. After my general business classes at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University I figured out I wanted to do all of it. The most difficult problem to solve wasn’t finance, marketing, or accounting...it was starting, keeping and growing a business.
Then I started reading about companies selling for $1 billion in 18 months. I didn’t need finance concepts to understand it was a good ROI.
So I dug into startups.
Where to start? Not in college courses. I began reading the Harvard Business Review and blogs, books on venture capital, listening to startup podcasts and doing informational interviews with seasoned founders and CEO’s. My first taste of the startup life came from Tyler Crowley. His advice was to jump in, fail quickly, get back up, and don’t make the same mistake twice.
So my last semester at ASU focused around which startup to jump into. I went with a co-working space that focused on art, music, and coffee. It operated for a year and was a crash course on how NOT to run a business. I made all the rookie mistakes: bad partners, lack of capital, delusional ideas, no practical experience to draw from, trying to run a business off of theory I learned in college. It failed miserably. But what I learned in that failure was invaluable.
I took the leap of faith. I signed a lease on commercial real estate, managed and operated, dealt with conflict, learned inventory management...marketing...accounting...customer service...working for free...losing money...working with creatives...POS systems...tax advantages...how to balance life and work.
The biggest lesson I learned: Business is hard. Startups are harder.
Startups are the most difficult puzzle to solve. Thousands of variables are at play. Controlling them all is impossible. Trying to hold any of the variables constant is like holding an open flame in the palm of your hand. One is attempting to combine the study of psychology, sociology, economics, human behavior (irrational) in the hopes of turning a profit. Systems Theory is your only hope.
The consumer web startups we read about all the time, or Hollywood makes movies out of, are outliers. Most of the time they are lucky success. Google, Facebook, Instagram were not new ideas. Several companies came before them who solved the same essential problem. Why are these the ones that made it? If one knew the answer, they’d be the richest person in the world!
Startups are not a recipe.
Startups are dynamic, fluid, agile, in a state of constant change. What a company is today, is not what it’s going to be tomorrow. If it is the same, it’s going to fail. Startups are a series of small experiments. Product, pricing, promotion, are all rubic’s cubes trying to find the right pivot. Once the colors align, it’s time to arrange the next set of colors. Who’s controlling the pivoting? People.
Startups are not products, they are people. Teams of people make the product, decide on the pricing, create marketing strategy, operate the business. The most successful startups are not driven by products, they are driven by people making products.
How did Apple trudge to the top of hardware? They had creative people following a brilliant leader. Steve Jobs found the right people and put them in the right position to succeed. He didn’t hire B+ or A- people...he hired A+ people who shared his vision and passion. He refused to make compromises and challenged the status quo. He zigged when other’s zagged. The outcome was a new digital age: iPods, iPhones, iTunes, iPads, Mac Airs. They forced other companies to rapidly innovate or face extinction. The real winner of the battle? Consumers.
Consumers won. Our pain points got solved. We threw away our CD’s, connected to the Internet on mobile devices, became more efficient, got empowered. Our quality of life improved.
Any idea that solves tangible problems has a chance to succeed. If it saves time, money and feels good, there is a market for it. Put if the wrong people are working it, it’s going to fail. Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, but it will fail.
Startups are people.
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.