Ep #15 | Humans First

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mike+landman

Mike Landman is the founder and CEO of Ripple IT. Ripple helps companies make the most of their technology with consulting, implementation and ongoing support. Mike founded the company in Atlanta in 1997 and today they serve clients across the country with offices in Atlanta and New York City. Mike lives downtown with his partner, Krystin, 2 dogs and a cat.

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Shantel: Hey everyone. We have Mike with Ripple IT with us today. Mike, welcome to the show.

Mike: Thank you.

Shantel: Yeah. We're excited to learn more about your journey. Can you kick us all off with telling us a little bit about Ripple and how you started the company.

| THE IT FACTOR |

Mike: Sure. Well Ripple is a ... is an IT management company. So basically, other companies come to us to take care of their IT, so everything from consulting and implementation and then all the support. Typically, our clients pay us on a subscription model, so we just charger per employee per month, and then we manage all of their stuff.

Shantel: Okay.

Mike: I started the company in 1997, which was just me, so I don't know if I was really starting the company, but I was freelancing and doing Mac support basically for ad agencies, cause those are the only two things I knew, and over a few years that grew into kind of a traditional style of IT company, meaning people would pay us for our time, and then in 2004 I decided I didn't want to do that anymore. I really hated charging for time and thinking about time, and I didn't feel like that was the right value metric, so we changed that up and that's when we became a subscription service and that's pretty much what we look like today.

Shantel: Nice. And did you start at another tech agency or firm or just always have a passion in solving problems in technology specifically?

Mike: I kind of came into technology all backwards, so I was an aspiring copywriter, and what I wanted to do was work in an ad agency, cause if you kind of go back to the 90s, ad agencies were where all cool things happened basically. There weren't really software startups and stuff, so cool people joking around, coming up with cool ideas, that was ad agencies. And while I was doing that, I had got ... I had a sort of a colleague of mine asked me to help her ad agency figure out some computer stuff, and I was like, "Uh, okay." And I did. And they paid me for it. And so I came down to Atlanta to do kind of a copywriter's grad school thing here at a place called Portfolio Center, and I thought I would just do that freelance instead of bartending. But then I didn't get any financial aid, so I ended up sort of launching my company that way, so I didn't really have like a big technology background. I had a actually virtually no technology background, but I had been in a handful of companies, and I saw the way IT people acted or treated other people, and I just thought, "This is totally crazy." So back then, I mean, it was obnoxiously stereotyped, but IT people were pretty unfriendly and pretty unhelpful, so I was like, "Hmm. I think I can be friendly and helpful and probably figure the rest out," and that's what happened.

Shantel: Neat. So it certainly stemmed from an opportunity or kind of a one time,"Oh, here's a need," and it grew from there.

Mike: Yeah. I ... Having spent a lot of time with entrepreneurs, I find that a lot of entrepreneurs actually started that way, so there's kind of a methology around light bulbs and business plans and getting funding and all of that which is certainly part of it, but lots of entrepreneurs I know started in some other way, either through some kind of passion or they ended up kind of falling backwards into something and deciding they would try their hand at it, or they were an expert at something and it grew into, into something more, and I would definitely fall into that camp.

Shantel: Certainly. And I've talked to quite a few people and I think the, you know, a lot of people say,"Okay, lead with passion." And I certainly feel passionate about what I do every day and the people we're helping, but I didn't start the business necessarily because you know I love Facebook, you know? Or I love what it does, right? But I think that it's interesting and I think it's great that you mention that, is that there was an opportunity and that's the bucket you fell into, and I'm interested to hear how you found now the passion through that. Were you able to add you know some copywriting and some creativity to your day to day so that you still felt fulfilled?

| HUMANS FIRST |

Mike: So my passion as it turned out was not around technology or advertising. It was really around being around cool people, and I had kind of a just a passion for people and ideas, and so for me, our company's mantra is, "Humans first," and that is, you know, that sounds cool now but it was, it was in the DNA right from when I started. So I essentially took umbrage at how this department was acting, and it just kind of, it got under my skin and kind of irritated me, and so there was always a passion there for that. For helping people solve problems, but you know my passion wasn't around fixing computers or anything like that, but I think that that passion was there, and I see that in a lot of entrepreneurs like their passion is in there, it just isn't the thing that they sell necessarily, if you know what I mean. It's maybe how they sell it. Like Ben Chestnut of MailChimp did a great speech at Creative Mornings, I don't know maybe three or four years ago where he basically said, "Don't do what you love. You know, find a way to love what you do." And he kind of talked about how he was ... If he had done what he loved, he would have tried to be an animator, and he would have not been very good at it, and he ended up kind of falling into into you know, doing MailChimp, doing email and then created a company that was awesome around that thing, which probably very few people thought was like the coolest thing in the world, but he decided to make a cool company around that, and so that's ... that's kind of closer I think to my journey.

Shantel: I love that. You mentioned humans first. As I imagine a lot of intent and you know you probably have a great process around hiring and recruiting for your culture. Can you talk a little bit about your culture and how you make sure, you know, the people are first and they're cool people?

Mike: Yeah, so it's funny. Our hiring profess has evolved over 20 years basically to fill in every gap in my personality possible. So like what I'm ... you know what I have some intuit for is finding people or meeting or recognizing in people that they're service focused. And so you'd think, "Cool. Put a bunch of people in a room. Grab the service focused ones, maybe you have a good eye for that, and there you go." But it turns out as you know there are lots of other things that I don't have great intuition for. So we built a whole hiring process to sort of ... every so often something would go, "Hmm. That didn't work." And we would add something. So one year, like in the year 2000 I hired three people, and in that same year I had fired all three of those people. And I was like, "Man. What am I doing wrong?" And the one thing I could sort of put together in that was, "Hmm. I was the only person in the room, you know, doing that." So I added it so that there would be some other perspective in the room, and that made a huge, you know, difference. And then sort of slowly things like that would happen and so now we have a pretty defined process where we ... Everybody goes through two kinds of like pre work testing before we'll even talk to them, then they do a, a one way video interview with us, then we put them through full top grading process, reference, background, you know, all that stuff. And sort of the goal of that is like, when it comes time to use let's say in my case or anybody in my company's case, when it's time to use your intuition, the pool has been narrowed down so that you almost couldn't make a mistake, right? Like all three of those people would be perfectly fine. And then when you pick out the one of those three that has like amazing service skills or seems very Ripple-y, all you're being called upon to do is use your one strength to find that, and we've kind of let like more of a scientific process filter everybody else out so we don't get into a situation where we fall in love with somebody who has like this great temperament, but maybe doesn't have the skills or maybe you know has a suspect background or that kind of thing.

Shantel: Okay. And I think I heard scattered in there, did you ... do you have a verb now for your company. Ripple-y?

Mike: Yeah.

Shantel: Okay.

Mike: Well we are Ripplers, and people who would be good Ripplers are Ripple-y.

Shantel: Gotcha. Okay. And you mentioned one other thing that caught my ear is the one way interview. So you have on what is essentially Skype, so you can see them and they can't see you?

Mike: Yeah.

Shantel: Okay.

| FINDING THE PERFECT 'RIPPLER' |

Mike: It's ... I don't think I'm breaking any laws. The company we use is called Spark Hire, and so basically what you do is you lay out like ten questions, whatever you want them to be. They're in writing. And then the recipient of that, you know, it tells them, "Hey. You're going to be doing a video interview. You can stop it or pause it or redo one," or whatever it gives them kind of a lay of the land. But then they ... they turn on their computer or whatever and they answer those questions in video form, and what's cool about it ... I mean there's a lot of things that are cool about it. One is it means that you don't have to try to coordinate you know like the pre screened phone call, which means I'm at work, oh no, no you're not at work. Maybe I'm at dinner, or you know like that is a whole nightmare just to schedule it. And then you know there's no one else can be on that, so whoever's on that call kind of comes in the next day and goes, "Yeah, I thought, you know, Sally was kind of like this, but no one else has been able to experience that," so with Spark Hire, we can send that link around to the hiring team, and everyone can you now see what that person's like, get some intuition on their body language and that kind of thing, and that way everybody has the same data to go from so that no one person's biases you know can get in the way of that ... of that step.

Shantel: I love that. That's something ... We do a 15 minute phone call with the team and have a, you know, ten to 15 questions that we walk through, but I love the piece about then you can see their eye contact and you can see how they compose themselves, and that's great.

Mike: Yeah.

Shantel: We're gonna have to take that one away.

Mike: It's funny, we have ... we were like, "Okay, people are doing this in their homes, so we can't be too judge-y," you know? But sometimes, pretty weird things will happen, like huge mounds of laundry, or cat walks by. We had one guy who came and worked at Ripple for a long time. Every frame, we would look at each one so it's essentially ten one minute videos that you're watching.

Shantel: Okay.

Mike: And I was like, "Huh." By about the fifth one, I had noticed something was askew, and he had stopped after each one and put ... he had a picture right behind him, and he put a different picture on that hook for all ten times, and like, we were like, "That guy."

Shantel: Yep.

Mike: You know, it was just perfectly subversive but not offensive. It was just ... It was great, so.

Shantel: He sounds Ripple-y, for sure.

Mike: He was very Ripple-y.

Shantel: So 1997 you kind of started and started to formulate. How has your day to day changed now? What does a typical day look like for you?

| A DAY IN THE LIFE |

Mike: Well I mean then a typical day was I was doing all the work. So you know, I would just ... I mean it was just me. So someone would call and say, "My computer is broken," and I'd drive out there and help them. I mean there were no tools to do that even but I had no other manpower, so I did all that and all the billing and all that. You know today, it's funny. One of the pre questions you'd send over was like, "What would you take off your plate?" And I've kind of gotten my company to a place where pretty much everything on my plate should be on my plate. So I think one of the weird things about being a CEO I guess is you're actually not that important that often. So it's kind of like a, a waiting game, you know? Like there are five or ten times a month when me doing my job has a lot of leverage and is important, and then there's 25 hours a week where I'm doing stuff, but it isn't particularly important. It's almost a form of waiting around for an inflection point or an idea or a decision about resources. And that's actually for me really kind of where I'm best. I'm not a super detail oriented person for the doing of details, like I want our customer experience to be a certain way and I care greatly about those details, but sort of detailed style work mapping out processes and you know, that kind of stuff isn't, isn't really my thing. So now I mostly spend time talking with people, listening to ideas, talking to other business owners, trying to make sure that our value system and our culture kind of permeates everything we do and sort of keeping my eyes open and ears open for things that you know, where our values are in conflict or you know, that kind of thing.

Shantel: Well that's great, and that's certainly the goal I think for all the listeners or some of them, or at least me is to get to that point and really be working on the business instead of in some of the weeds and day to day. So do you have a sales team as well?

Mike: I do.

Shantel: Okay.

Mike: They are ... Yeah, and that's actually relatively new. So we went for years without a sales team where I was the sales team, but that just meant that I would respond to inbounds. Like I was never great at like ... Well when I started the company, I was since I was super like hungry, and I mean like without food. But as soon as I didn't have to do that, like that was never something I enjoyed doing, so that would always get pushed off. But about a year and a half ago, we acquired a company and with them came some great folks that were far better in sales and whatnot than we had been. And so now, that, that team has really started to gel, and so yeah, it's great.

Shantel: That's nice. Can we talk a little bit about that acquisition and was that a new experience for you, or was that ... Had you had that experience before?

Mike: I ... That was my second.

Shantel: Okay.

Mike: We've done three in the last four years, and interestingly, the very first one, I just signed a letter of intent to sell out.

Shantel: Oh.

Mike: So much like, I don't know, Proctor and Gamble buys the wrong division or something. We will now be going thought the first time we'll have ever sold a piece of the business. But it was awesome, so there's no down to it. It was a friendly sale and I learned ... Well the biggest lesson I learned is this is actually a thing that can be done. Like I had never contemplated it. It had never seemed like a thing that we had resources for. It had almost ... I had gone a long time feeling like acquiring is like a form of cheating, you know. If you can't do it organically, you know. And I learned so much from that process that when the second opportunity, the one that we had started this talk with, came along, I was ... understood the process. I was comfortable with what we were trying to accomplish. I had met the people that we were buying the company from were awesome. I wanted to work with them. So that first one actually really was like basically a form of tuition, and then second was great, and then we bought another company just this past April, another manu service provider in New York City.

Shantel: Okay. Well and so you mentioned you learned in this experience that it's possible. Are there any other big takeaways that you would give for someone going through a similar experience or getting to that, to that point?

Mike: Yeah. I think on the buying side, the thing I learned that we didn't do the first time was to really do due diligence around the people involved, and that was really from a sense of you're not supposed to tell anyone, you know? So the gentleman I bought the company from was understandably like, "Well I don't want to tell my team that I'm selling the company," and I was like, "Yeah, no, cool." So we basically got all the way to the end and I had never met anyone. And about two days before it closed, I met ... I mean there were only two employees in the company other than him, but I had met them, and it was probably not a super great fit, at least with one of them. But we were so close, and I had already figured out how this was all gonna work, that we went through it, but it was pretty tumultuous. I mean the culture fit was difficult on at least for half the company. And so when we did it the second time and the third time, one of the sort of lessons I'd learned was yup, it's a risk to tell your team this, but we can't do it otherwise, and the integration would be so difficult. So on the second one, once we signed letter of intent and you know had a few things in place but well before we closed, we began integrating. Not systems, you know, not bookkeeping and stuff like that, but people. So we would send each other teams, you know, half the team would come to our office, and half our team would go to their office and just begin working together and getting to know each other and realizing like, "Oh these are people, and we're also people, and it's not like us and them," and all that. So that was, you know, that was a huge learn for me, and I don't know how many companies would or would not be willing to do that, but for us that was ... I would count that as critical if I ... if we ever did another one.

Shantel: Well and I really appreciated that you mentioned that, cause I think in this process, just from what I've heard and some experiences some people have shared is ... I mean it's scary and I imagine it's even scarier for the team, right? So the way that you did it that second time eliminated that fear for them, you know. They were a part ... They probably felt a part of the process. They were encouraged to share about the culture and they felt proud to be a part of something. I like that, cause I think it eliminates and creates such transparency around something that doesn't necessarily have to be at all about danger or scary for employees.

| THE BRADY BUNCH METHOD |

Mike: Yeah. I mean it's still ... I don't want to leave you with the utopian like, "Hey, that's all it takes." I think it's still scary. Everyone is scared. Everyone's nervous. No one knows what's coming. I think the company, the people who work for the company being acquired are in particularly like, "Hey, what's going on here? This isn't really what I signed up for." So it's a matter of making it as comfortable as is possible, but I mean there's still lots there. I mean, for us we kind of map it out like what was ... must have been like for the Brady Bunch. And so we kind of use that as a meme the whole time, you know, you're sort of walloping two people together or two groups of people together only two of them made this decision and you're like, "Okay, you're family now." You know, so that takes time. And so you know we try to be really conscious about realizing like we can all say it, and we can change the vocabulary to be "us" and not "us and them," and lots of important things that you do in there, but there's still months and months of like getting accustomed to how the new house works and just all the rules and just all the stuff. So it's, it's still difficult. I can't imagine what it would be like to do one of any size where no one knew about it and maybe no one was keen on it. I think that would be super, super difficult.

Shantel: Fair enough. So the whole premise of this show is about the psychology and the thought behind entrepreneurs being inspired by other people or having a great peer network that help them imagine more and think bigger picture. Did you grow up in an entrepreneurial environment when you were younger, or did you find groups later on in the process that you've clung to and been supported by?

Mike: Yeah, so neither of my parents were entrepreneurs, but for some reason I'd kind of ... I mean, this is only in retrospect, kind of was like as a kid. Like I would always find ways to launch something. I would like take my old relatives' junk and like sell it at this flea market at our cabin, and I started a lawn care company when I was 16 and almost cut my finger off.

Shantel: Oh my gosh.

Mike: And the truck blew up, and all that kind of stuff. So somehow that was just in there, and I think it's kind of more around I'm just sort of a little unconventionally wired. Like I don't concentrate well, and you know now, I'm quite sure I would be diagnosed with ADD or whatever, but then that wasn't really so common, so. So you know it was really more almost a sense of fidgetiness and a little bit of an inability to just stay inside the guardrails with normal stuff. So I'd do that and then, then I'd have ... totally normal. I went to college and all that, and then when I got out of college like I was telling you, I'd ... was an aspiring copywriter, and kind of fell into being an entrepreneur, so you know I've never had a regular job as an adult, like a go to work for someone else kind of job. So it's sort of hard to say what that would have been like.

Shantel: Right. Well ... and then I mean you have great entrepreneurial friends now, and it seems like you formed a network at least from some of the people that we share in common, some really good people to back you up.

Mike: Yeah, that started ... You know I joined EO, Entrepreneurs Organization, about 12, 11 or 12 years ago, and it was just like an amazing home. I mean it was just lots of people that had like a similar architecture in their life and you know I sort of imagine other professional groups already kind of have peers, you know? If you're a doctor, you went to med school, you know, and so you have a peer group that was already built in. Entrepreneurs are you know, kind of often don't know others. I didn't really know any other ... A few, but you know, not lots of people in my network were business owners. Lots of people in my network were my friends were, you know, VP of marketing here or had a normal job, and so some of the things that you end up wanting to talk about don't make any sense, and so one of the cool things about EO and plenty of other entrepreneur peer groups is that right away, you already have all this same framework and a lot of the same knowledge in your life so you can get immediately from, "Hey how you doing?" kind of conversations to just like look like big important deep conversations, which you might never get to with anybody else cause they're never gonna have that shared experience, just like if you were trying to talk to a doctor about a surgical knot, like she could explain it to you over and over again and you'd still never be able to communicate to her as an equal. So that was super cool, and then of course they all became, or lots of, lots of them became really good friends as well.

Shantel: I talked to another podcast guest that shared an experience just about being surrounded by other entrepreneurs in different stages or high growth phases, and it was interesting cause they made a connection that no matter if you're small or big or at this threshold the problems are the same, it's just the scale that's a little different, so everyone still feels maybe a little fear or they get excited when they close that deal, and it ... The deal size just may change or the firing may change, or but it's still the same feeling, which I thought was really interesting perspective to say. You know it doesn't ... As you continue to grow, these problems are still there, you just had now more experience and more data or more ... You've handled it before, which I thought was pretty interesting.

| SAME PROBLEMS, DIFFERENT SCALE |

Mike: Yeah. I would agree with that perspective. It always feels the same, you know like anything else. Your first time jumping out of an airplane is probably super scary, but your fourth time if you do it from way higher up is probably equally as scary, and so I think the ... my experiences been it's basically the same feelings all the time. It's just the problems change, or the opportunities change, and you ... you kind of think, though, the interesting thing you learn when you're around entrepreneurs more and more is like, "Oh," like we're all super wired to think, "I'm gonna solve this problem," and then the sort of thing that goes on in your brain is, "And once that problem's solved, it's smooth sailing," you know? And so you talk to people who are way more successful and they're like having exactly the same sorts of things, and it kind of puts things in a nice context like, "Oh yeah, like I'm never gonna solve this." You know? It's really more something to be managed or a journey to kind of go on, but it won't ever get fixed, and it would probably be boring if it did.

Shantel: Mm-hmm. Well Mike I've got a few questions here to wrap it up, and the first being is there a book or podcast or some piece of information that you read or listened to lately that's completely shifted the thought or stuck with you?

Mike: Well it's funny, we ... I've read this book at least twice before, but for something, a retreat we're doing, I ... I'm now rereading "Good to Great," which is very cliched book to say that you're reading, but even in its third read, I'm like, "Oh yeah, that." Like totally need to be doing, you know, that stuff. And I think that one's always like a good topper. One I read probably read four months ago is from the sub captain whose name escapes me, but it's called "Turn the Ship Around," and other than it's sort of like ... it's got kind of a military sort of business book cliché thing going, but outside of that it's super interesting cause this guy, basically when you're a sub captain, you get trained for like a full year to know everything about the various sub you're going to be on, and so they are the expert. Every problem goes up to the sub captain, and right before he got his commission, something happened, and he ended up getting a completely different sub, which apparently they're very, very different, and so he was like, "I don't know anything." Like people would come to him with problems, and he'd ... he just didn't know. And so he had to end up ... what he sort of ended up realizing later was that everything the way the Navy had been or ships anyway had been done is all the information flows up to authority, and what he ended up creating and now the Navy has sort of adopted since then is they now push the authority down to the information. And it's just ... it's an interesting story to like watch as this ... When he takes it over, it's like the worst sub in the fleet or whatever, and when he's done, it's what the book useful, it's the best sub of the fleet, and so like there's lots of really interesting lessons to come through there about humility and pushing authority down and giving people as much autonomy as possible and watching them rise to the occasion rather than going sort of, "Well, I just wait for my orders." So that one was ... That was pretty enlightening to.

Shantel: Okay. Well I'll add that to the show notes and definitely have to check it out. At ... In the tech space, what is your favorite tool, software, technique you use to stay organized and optimize your day to day?

Mike: I probably only use one tool that really helps, and that's my calendar, so that's not gonna be super sexy to put out there. But if it helps, I switch like my calendar program every three months cause I can never find a perfect one. I'm currently on FantastiCal, which is a Mac only product. Mac and iOS. Which I like a lot. But yeah, I don't ... I screwed around with so many tools and so much software that it's like a huge massive daily part of my life, but none of it really seems to help me get anything more done. I think partly cause I don't have a task oriented job, so there aren't things to really put in buckets for me other than when am I supposed to be somewhere? When am I supposed to talk to somebody? You know, that kind of thing, which is probably why I just return to my calendar as being my all in tool.

Shantel: Okay. Can I ask you a little bit about the FantastiCal, like what is different than maybe Gmail? Like a G calendar?

Mike: Yeah, so it works with that. It works with Google calendar and it works with like 365 or Exchange. All it is is like a super pretty interface. It's just if you're a Mac user, it's very Mac-like. And it has good natural language processing, so it's basically like if Google Calendar made like a really great Mac and iOS client, it would ... it would essentially be FantastiCal.

Shantel: Okay. Well great. And Mike, how can people learn more about Ripple and or get in touch with you if they want to speak more?

Mike: Yeah. Well Rippleit.com is home base for us and there's a blog on there with some pretty cool stuff. They can always email me directly. I'm Mike@rippleit.com.

Shantel: Okay.

Mike: Those are probably the two best ways.

Shantel: Great. Well Mike thanks so much for being on the Imagine More podcast. We really appreciate your time.

Mike: Thank you. It was awesome.

20 episodes available. A new episode about every 5 days averaging 31 mins duration .