From tragedy to triumph - how SurveyMonkey won the polls
With 17m users, the US firm is the world's powerhouse of online customer polling. Adrian Weckler met CEO Zander Lurie, whose close friend - and former SurveyMonkey CEO - died in tragic circumstances.
Adrian Weckler [AW]: Many in the tech industry remember when Dave Goldberg [former SurveyMonkey CEO and partner of Sheryl Sandberg] tragically and suddenly died. He was a close friend of yours. Soon after he passed away, you became CEO of the company, eventually leading Survey Monkey through a public flotation. Was all of that a strange time?
Zander Lurie [ZL]: As you mentioned, Dave Goldberg was a dear friend of mine, a person I'd known for 10 years. We were on vacation in Mexico in May of 2015. And suddenly, tragically, Dave died of a heart attack at the age of 47. The hair goes up on the back of my neck just thinking about that time and thinking about Dave. My dad passed away when I was 23. But Dave's passing was probably the most significant life crisis that I'd had. Just suffering loss like that with somebody who was so young and still in the prime of his career with two young children.
AW: How did you gather yourself to become CEO?
ZL: The board asked me to step in as a kind of an interim chairman for the summer. I helped counsel the team and approved some budgets. And then I led the search for a new CEO. We were successful in recruiting a really world-class executive [Bill Veghte], but it just didn't work out with him and the team. He stayed just a few months. So then the board asked me to take the role on full-time in January of 2016, which I accepted.
I was a first-time CEO, I was taking over a company that had really been whipsawed around in 2015 with Dave's passing. And people, after mourning, were starting to ask questions about their own career and the direction of the company. So I was definitely taking on a role where I felt challenged.
But I think I was fortunate to have the counsel of Sheryl and other board members who were super supportive and good mentors of mine. I was fortunate to inherit a senior management team that had benefited from Dave's teaching and mentorship and the culture that he instilled at the company. And I had my own ideas on what we needed to do to get back on offense. So I spent some time doing a short listening tour. But then I very quickly needed to make some strategic moves and make some decisions to let people know that I had my hands on the wheel and that we were going to be fine.
I'm sure I didn't do everything right. But I'm thrilled with the execution that we've had to get us to where we are today.
AW: How did you find Silicon Valley as a community at that time? It seemed to me at the time that it did pull together around Dave's passing, something that I'm not sure is always associated with the tough environment there.
ZL: I was fortunate, in part because of my relationship with Dave and Cheryl and others. We do have an unbelievably supportive community of leaders who look to each other for ideas and ways to support each other. When Dave passed away, I asked two dozen of his friends and my friends to step up and be mentors and to connect them with people at SurveyMonkey.
When I started as CEO, one of the first things I did was to launch a speaker series called The Goldie speaker series, which was named after Dave. He really celebrated people and ideas. So every month we bring in a leader, a CEO, philanthropist, entertainer, author or politician, to come to our company and just have a fireside chat where I ask him or her questions.
So I do feel that I get a lot of support and that the company gets support. We do try and help each other, to share best practices and good ideas. But I would also say that, with wealth and power and influence, we have to bear more responsibility in terms of good policy and philanthropy. We've got a lot of problems to work through.
AW: You often comment on political or current news issues through Twitter and other means. Do you feel that this is now a part of the job description for the modern Silicon Valley tech CEO? Do you feel that you're supposed to take certain sides on issues to match what staff may feel about them?
ZL: Where our [US] government or our president is taking a position that we find counter to our values, when I feel the need to speak out I will. On the immigration stance that the President has taken, for example, and which we find objectionable. Or how children have been treated at the [Mexican] border. So there are a number of issues where we find it's affecting our employees. I have a social media voice and I'm a human being.
If some of our team finds that objectionable, they can speak out, and we're open. We celebrate curiosity. And everybody's voice is as valuable as mine internally. But companies do have a big responsibility. We have a lot of power because we can get stuff done. And I think the government in the United States has largely been proven pretty ineffective at moving the ball forward in ways that we can. The world is looking for the Valley to have more leadership because tech has such a disproportionate share of not just market cap, but importance in the world because of the reach and scale of their audience. So the Valley has a bigger spot on the stage and needs to take responsibility.
AW: Do you think that workers or engineers make a decision on who to work for based on what they hear or see the company leadership saying on some of those issues?
ZL: For sure. If you're a talented 24-yea-old data scientist, product marketer, engineer or salesperson, you have a wealth of choices. And while Airbnb and Pinterest and Slack may not have competitive products to SurveyMonkey, we're competing with them and Splunk and Xoom and Uber every day for recruiting these folks. And I think that while people are looking for a big challenge to work on, or a path for growth in their career or financial rewards, they're also looking to answer the questions 'do my values align with the executive team and does the mission resonate with me and would I be proud to tell my grandmother that I work at this company'?
So to the extent that my leadership inspires people to recruit their friends who are also excellent and smarter and more creative, I believe that our mission, our culture and our values are fundamental to making that happen. So yeah, I do feel the need to speak out on issues I care about. You know, I'm not necessarily an activist, but I am a human being. And I'm not shy.
AW: Do you think that the this whole Brexit process at the moment is going to have any impact operationally for Survey Monkey or in any other way? Given that you have an office in Dublin with about 60 workers and you've just integrated a Dutch company, Usabilla, with around 180 people? Do you think it will disruptive?
ZL: We don't. We have a small office in London and we have a nice UK customer base. We're evaluating the situation as it relates to our expansion and how we serve our customers. [Brexit] is a mess. I mean, it dominates the news cycles as it has for three years now. So I think it's something you need to be cognisant of. But we don't have a big operation there. We're thrilled to be doing more business in Dublin and Amsterdam, partly because it's just difficult to navigate the UK market at the moment.
AW: SurveyMonkey has made some acquisitions and is expanding quickly. Do you think that we're entering an era where, as some argue, big tech players are now becoming harder to disrupt than before? Where big players like Google, Facebook and Amazon are now just so big and acquisitive that the market is getting closer to something much less disrupted by smaller rivals?
ZL: I think that argument holds some water. But I'd also argue the flip side, which is that it's never been easier to launch a disruptive business.
If you have a talented business person and team, raising capital is relatively easy today. If you have good ideas, and those ideas can be seen by good investors, whether they be angel investors, venture capitalists, it's easier than ever. There's also now such powerful off-the-shelf software, whether you're using AWS or buying AdWords for customer acquisition, or you're using Facebook to build your brand. There are ways to get on the map to get seen by bigger audiences, by prospective customers that have never been available before.
I'd also say that you've often seen the world's biggest companies try to compete with startups and not do well. Dropbox was written off 100 times. Dropbox is now a $10bn business. NextDoor was supposed to never present a threat to Facebook. But look how many neighbourhoods are using it. And as for Snap, while maybe Facebook or Instagram presented some competitive threats, Snap is still a multibillion-dollar company that employs thousands of people. So if you have a good business with good unit economics, you can thrive and you can raise capital.