As part of my series about prominent entrepreneurs and executives that overcame adversity to achieve great success, I had the pleasure of interviewing…
Tom Smith, the sole founder and CEO of GlobalWebIndex. Having spent several years working agency-side, Tom recognized a growing demand for global data to better understand the complex online market. Coupling the world’s largest ongoing study on the digital consumer with powerful analytics, GlobalWebIndex is now the leading provider of digital consumer insights to the global marketing industry.
Jason Crowley: Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
Tom Smith: In university I studied the geography of people, such as migration, gender studies and geographical politics — I loved the global aspect and understanding what makes people tick in different parts of the world. After I graduated, I began an internship at McCann Erickson, a large agency that plans and buys ad space. I had no idea this business even existed, but I quickly settled in with a full time role on the research team.
My time with clients was spent coaching them on where to spend their ad dollars based on where their audiences were most engaged. At the time, there were industry standard market research reports that guided these decisions, but the problem was that the data was collected entirely in the offline world, in hyper-regional subsects and over long periods of time. It wasn’t long until social media exploded and mobile boomed, and suddenly the world was connected and global while our data and our customers were far behind. I recognized a huge opportunity to build a technology that captured the behaviors of digital consumers in near real-time. At that, GlobalWebIndex was born to help brands and agencies understand their evolving consumers and know what to do with all these new channels.
Crowley: Can you share your story of when you were on the brink of failure? First, take us back to what it was like during the darkest days.
Smith: In the early days, especially the first three years, every day was live or die. Your reality is that total failure is only ever 2–3 bad months away, especially when you are bootstrapped without investment like I was! One really tough period I recall was pre-launch, when I was all on my own running around trying to get the first client on board, which took nearly a year. This pre-revenue stage was a mental challenge of persistence and a real test of my vision. Another rough time was about two years in, just when I started to believe this thing could really scale, when we suddenly went two months without sales. This was actually tougher than the pre-revenue days because at this point I had staff, overheads and clients to account for. Rather than pausing in panic, which I realize now might have been catastrophic, we pushed on and sales returned — the rest is history!
Crowley: What was your mindset during such a challenging time? Where did you get the drive to keep going when things were so hard?
Smith: I am an ultra-positive person and always had the belief in my idea, which is what really drove me to keep going. I never had a mentor or outside directors, so I have always been confident in my opinion to make the right call and to lean on my executive team. I like to make quick decisions and in the past worked strongly on gut instinct, which as we’ve grown has evolved into also trusting the instinct of others on the team.
Crowley: Tell us how you were able to overcome such adversity and achieve massive success? What did the next chapter look like?
Smith: Creating and scaling a business is a challenge every day, and I’ve found it is important to deliver an inspiring vision and strategy for your team so they can be confident in your future rather than terrified by your uncertainty. The next chapter of the business was sparked by this transparency as we also expanded and refined our team.
I recognized at this stage that I had made the mistake of being too slow to take action on hires who were not working out. It’s inevitable in business that some people you hire are not the right fit, but I delayed a lot of these tough decisions in the earlier days because as a such a small and young business things felt more personal. I came to trust that when you know, you know and the longer you push the decision off, the harder it becomes for you and for the business. Learning to trust my judgement and not get caught up in personal decisions helped GlobalWebIndex build the talent pool it needed to scale its systems and processes — which helped our clients and sales as well as helping me focus my time as the CEO on bringing my vision to life.
Crowley: Based on your experience, can you share a 3 actionable pieces of advice about how to develop the mindset needed to persevere through adversity? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Build a credible plan and vision of where you want to take the business in the next 1, 2 and 5 years. This vision is really important to push everyone up the hill to the next milestone and keep the day to day struggles in context.
- Look at successful companies and read and understand their stories. All companies find it tough in the early days and it’s good to understand and remember this.
- Set realistic goals. I think a lot of disappointment comes when you set incredibly challenging goals, like more than doubling growth in a year, or shipping a huge new product in less than six months. The reality is building a business is a really long term effort and it’s ok to slow down a bit.
Crowley: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Smith: This sounds a bit cheesy, but I’d have to say my wife. She gave me the confidence to quit my job and launch the business and worked for a salary while I was getting the company off the ground.
Crowley: Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Smith: One of our initiatives at the moment is to educate people not just how to use our platform but also how to use data itself to drive real business impact. We are building a much larger customer success team to onboard all our users, who span 170+ countries, and have an internal team building a new interface of the platform to offer pre-built use cases. This will allow our customers to use templates for certain business results (such as building a target market), that they tailor with their business specifics (like location or purchase habits of their target audience). What they are left with is a story presentation with the custom data already populated — taking the analysis work out of the equation and leaving them only to read and interpret the data so they can act on it faster.
Crowley: You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂
Smith: I would like everyone in the world to complete our research! This would provide an incredibly valuable data set to all organizations. Inaccurate data and misrepresentation is one of the greatest issues of our time. Bad data is driving really bad decisions, but quality data is driving great ones.
Crowley: Any parting words of wisdom that you would like to share?
Smith: It has been a real lesson for me how having a great go to market strategy and sales process can be a core differentiator to success. Often the best products get beaten by inferior products with a top notch, differentiating sales and marketing strategy.
Crowley: How can our readers follow you on social media?
Smith: I am on LinkedIn and you can also follow @GlobalWebIndex on Twitter and Facebook.
Crowley: Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.