“Being a ‘natural CEO’ is a funny, intangible asset, but you can’t overstate how important that is. Having a CEO where everybody wants the CEO to win is so important. There are so many companies that are started or run by people who are not very likable people, and you don’t really want them to win.” — John Lilly
“He [John] really cares about ClearSlide and that heart and passion shows through in his relationship with us. Some VCs will smile when they talk to you, but it’s not genuine. You can tell John really cares about us and this comes through in a lot of ways — including when he has to deliver tough messages.” — Al Lieb
Welcome to the first in our Behind The Investment (BTI) series — a series of candid interviews with founders and partners.
In our first BTI, we interview Greylock Partner, John Lilly and ClearSlide co-founder and CEO, Al Lieb, across a range of topics to get a better sense of how they met, decided to work together and how their relationship has developed. One theme that they kept coming back to over and over during their session was that of team: recruiting, growing, and building the right culture for success.
Read on below for some excerpts from the conversation.
What were your first impressions of each other?
John: We first met in a pitch meeting. Al and Jim (ClearSlide co-founder and COO) were pitching using the ClearSlide product itself. One of the things that impresses you about the ClearSlide product is that it works on every device you throw at it, even back then in 2011. During their pitch I started experimenting for myself — on my laptop, phone and tablet — and I remember being very impressed how they reacted to this. Often the presenter gets a little agitated or they wait for you to get it out of your system. With Al and Jim, they just kept presenting. You could tell that they knew and understood what I was doing and they didn’t mind at all. I remember thinking it was so unusual, mostly because people are worried and they want to make sure the product and the experience works. But Al and Jim knew it was going to work, and so they just kept going and presenting. For me, it was a really strong show of faith in their product.
Beyond the in-person pitch, we had lots of connections in common, too — there were just so many people in our network from whom the signal came back so strongly that these were super good people and super smart technologists.
Al: John is different from other people in the venture community. Most people in the venture community come from an investment banking profile and John was very different. John’s a product and tech guy. For me, I also come from a product and technology background and we connected on that level because we’re both cut from that same cloth.
It’s funny looking back on all this. I remember initially John’s experience as a product and tech guy was a very important element for me and it’s interesting to note that our relationship has evolved past that. John’s focus with ClearSlide has been much more around people and team-building and pushing us to make sure we get the best people. He helps us think about how we do it, how we approach it and how to build the team out. Talking about it now, I didn’t initially realize that was his focus in the early days, but that has been a lot of where John’s helped me as a CEO and helped ClearSlide as a company.
John, is that focus on team and people typical in the way you work?
John: Yes, and it’s something I actually first learned at school and have focused on ever since. For me, the idea of focusing on people first always came from an absolute need. For example, I was never going to be the best coder in the world. So I thought to myself, I’ve got to figure out how to hire the best coders in the world. That idea was reinforced again and again. So, that’s what I mean about putting people first: to me, it’s just an absolute necessity. If I could figure out how to hire amazing people, than that meant the club or group or company was going to be much better off than me trying to figure out how to be amazing in all these areas. Hiring great people means that I could focus on how to build a really strong organization. That approach served me incredibly well as a kid out of school, and it’s been my center of gravity ever since. Get great people in and help them succeed.
Has there been anything about working together that’s surprised one another?
Al: Initially, I was probably most surprised at how blunt John is.
[John starts to chuckle]
Al: Yeah, he’s very direct and the first few times, Jim and I were like, “Whoa”. But then you really come to appreciate it.
Actually, I take that back. He’s not blunt, he’s passionate.
John has experience running a very big company and his experience and insight is imperative when we start floating in the wrong direction. He really cares about ClearSlide and that heart and passion shows through in his relationship with us. Some VCs will smile when they talk to you, but it’s not genuine. You can tell John really cares about us and this comes through in a lot of ways — including when he has to deliver tough messages. You realize that those tough messages are because he wants the best for you as a leader and the best for your company so he’s not afraid to sugar coat it.
Al and John, what are some things you’ve thought about as you’ve scaled companies?
Al: I had some definite takeaways from Evite. We were really young when we started that company and while we did many things well, we weren’t as deliberate and specific about the culture we wanted to build. That’s a learning that I’ve taken with me to ClearSlide and culture has been a really clear focus for us.
I’d say from both experiences, the bigger and faster you grow, the more you need to make sure you stay in touch — especially as an executive leader.
John: Agreed. We experienced the same type of growth at Mozilla and I had a bunch of things that I did, both large and small, to build and strengthen our culture. It goes back to what I was talking about before about having a laser focus on putting people first. At Mozilla, I installed a standing desk pretty much in the middle of a hallway. Not only did it force me to look up at people who walked by which in turn led to eye contact or a quick hello, but it also helped people to be a little more comfortable coming to me with issues or ideas.
As you get higher up in an organization, especially one that is growing rapidly, it can be very easy to lose touch with people. My advice would be to do whatever you can to not lose that connection.
Al: That’s right. It’s funny how no one wants to tell the CEO anything [laughs]
For that very reason, one thing we started at ClearSlide was ‘Open Office Hours’ with the executive team and me. We create blocks of time with each member of the executive team and anyone can sign up to come chat with us. You don’t have to have a reason. It could be to talk about a problem or a new snack request for the kitchen or even just chat about the last Giants game. We do try to create actionable next steps after every meeting so if there is an idea we’re addressing it and if there’s an issue we’re hopefully resolving it.
John: Actually, it’s this intuitive, exceptional focus on people and culture that has consistently impressed me about Al. Both Al and Jim have this amazing ability to show employees and even potential candidates what they’re building but most importantly, what needs to happen to get to the next step. They are very clear leaders that have this innate ability to rally their team around them.
Looking back, Al and I had a lot of conversations that first week before we got the term sheet about whether he wanted to be the CTO (like he was at Evite) or the CEO. Al has always wanted to be a great CEO of a big, meaningful company — I’m deeply supportive of that, but there’s a lot to learn in that transition. Ever since our first meeting, I’ve felt that Al is an incredibly talented and natural CEO and what I mean by that is he has the ability to lead, but also let go by hiring amazing people.
Being a “natural CEO” is a funny, intangible asset, but you can’t overstate how important that is. Having a CEO where everybody wants the CEO to win is so important. There are so many companies that are started or run by people who are not very likable people, and you don’t really want them to win. My partner at Greylock, Reid Hoffman, is a good example of a natural leader that people gravitate towards. As is Aneel Bhusri, another of my partners and the co-CEO of Workday. I feel that way with Al, too. Because people want him to win, more people want to help.