Q&A with SendGrid's Founder and CEO


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In early 2011, SendGrid’s founder Isaac Saldana stepped aside as CEO to make way for Jim Franklin to assume the role. Since then, the two leaders have found success by working together to combine technical and business expertise. They have managed to reduce conflict, promote common values, and worked to bring out the best in their employees. Recently, they sat down to answer questions about teamwork, entrepreneurship, and leadership.

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Q&A with SendGrid's Founder and CEO

  1. 1. Best of Both Worlds:Q&A with SendGrid’s Founder and CEO
  2. 2. In early 2011, SendGrid’s founder Isaac Saldanastepped aside as CEO to make way for Jim Franklin toassume the role. Since then, the two leaders havefound success by working together to combinetechnical and business expertise. They have managedto reduce conflict, promote common values, andworked to bring out the best in their employees.Recently, they sat down to answer questions aboutteamwork, entrepreneurship, and leadership.To hear the complete conversation, access thewebcast recording here.
  3. 3. Q: What made you realize you needed to bring on a CEO? Did youcome tot hat realization on your own or did you have input fromother trusted mentors? A: Initially I was the developer and the CEO and when the companygot over ten people it was obvious that I needed to focus on one singlething. In my case, I really wanted to focus on coding, and I relied on mymentors to help me with this decision. Luckily, a lot of mentors that Ihad were also a part of SendGrid’s board, so they helped with thedecision. It’s one of the best decisions as CEO that I ever made to bringon another CEO.
  4. 4. Q: Jim, how much of a role did your impressions of Isaac make indeciding to accept the CEO role? A: It’s hugely important when coming in as an outside CEO.Founder relations is a key part of it, so is having good cultural fit. I’vehad some experiences where there wasn’t a good cultural fit and thatleads to a lot of unproductive conflict and I didn’t want to get into thatsituation again so I was very interested in Isaac being the primaryfounder, and everything that he was all about. I think a general rule inlife is that everybody loves Isaac and I certainly fell under his spell andrealized that I wanted to be a part of what he had created. I flew out toCalifornia to meet his co-founders, Tim and José, and they wereequally awesome so that was great. But then also meeting the boardmembers and seeing what they were like, and really between theboard, the investors, and the founders making sure there was culturalconsistency. Everyone in that group is what we call founder deferential:we want to defer to the founders on all the big questions, and if thefounders don’t buy into a certain strategic direction then we’re not goingto go there.
  5. 5. Q: Isaac, was it difficult to turn over reigns of the company? A: Actually it wasn’t difficult at all. And I use an analogy: when youhave a kid growing up, by the time they turn five and they have to go toschool and you have two options. You have the option to teach themyourself and home school them, or you send them to school if you don’tfeel confident you’re going to be able to teach them the best. In mycase it was similar, where I knew bringing on a new CEO was one thebest decisions I’d made. Initially I was worried like you worry the firsttime you send your kid to school but at them end of the day you knowthat’s one of the best decisions.
  6. 6. Q: Jim, how did you get up to speed on talking about emailinfrastructure and the industry in general after coming from adifferent background? A: Well that was one of the trickier parts that not only did I not comefrom an email background, but also cloud computing in general or theSaaS business model. The first thing to do was really to focus onemployees, and they were very helpful in educating me and helping meto get up to speed. Also, obviously reading all of the material that wepublish, and now we certainly publish a lot more. Also, actually usingour products was helpful. I’m not technical so I can’t code APIs but without newsletter product that it something I can go through and use to geta sense of what it’s like. Traveling has been helpful too, I like gettingout a lot to customers and partners and it was powerful to hearcustomer stories, saying how “SendGrid saved my business” becauseemail wouldn’t flow for a key partner or a big launce date. Those are agood variety of ways to get up to speed on SaaS and emailinfrastructure.
  7. 7. Q: Isaac, when you came up with the idea for SendGrid, were youthinking mostly of solving a technical problem you hadencountered, or were you driven by market potential? A: Unfortunately, I didnt’have an idea of how big the market was forthis. I started solving my own problems, and I really encourageeveryone to solve their own problems initially because if you’re thinkingabout creating a startup, the worst case scenario is if that startupdoesn’t work, you can still use that product or service that will solveyour problem. In my case it was one of those things where I startedsolving the problems that I had and it eventually ended up turning intothe company that SendGrid is today.
  8. 8. Q: Jim, how difficult was it to build a team to support the businessside of a company that was so technically focused? A: I think that if there’s one thing I do well, it’s teambuilding. And inthis company I had the luxury of having a great start to the team notonly on the technical side with the founders but also on the businessside. Denise Hulce who runs sales was already here, Chad Varra whohas been at Rally and ad taken a SaaS company from 10 employees to200 was incredibly helpful in learning SaaS models in general as wellas having a good grounding at SendGrid, and then Robert Phillips headof marketing was doing very well- so those key players were already inplace. To add to that I recognized Joe Scharf and promoted him to themanagement team- he runs our worldwide support organization. AsIsaac and I worked together we realized that his passion was codingand innovation, so we added Thomas Peng to run engineering andJohn Prall to run production ops.
  9. 9. Q: Isaac, what was the process you took to find the right CEO?Did you interview for the role? A: I actually met all the candidates and it was a long process. It’sdifficult to bring a CEO to your company. It was about a six-monthprocess, and I met all the candidates. We already had an existing set ofvalues and we wanted someone to match those values and Jimsummarized them pretty well with the four H’s: humble, honest, happy,and hungry. Once I found a few candidates, the board was reallyhelpful to help me pick the right candidate. We fell in love with Jimquickly.
  10. 10. Q: Jim, I’ve heard you say before that being CEO is a lonely job,why is that? A: The short answer is that you’re a team of one. If you have anyother roles in the company then you are a part of a broader team likethe marketing team, the sales team, the engineering team, or one of theagile teams. I like to think of it if you can imagine being like a shark’stooth, a pointy triangle. And there are two teeth, two triangles coming tomeet at the point. The point above the CEO starts with the board- thebroader shareholder community, and they sort of come down on top ofyour head. And then below you, that other point that’s coming up at youwould be the management team, so the managers, the employees andthe customers. They all kind of funnel up in your direction, and you’re inthat lonely place in the middle of the two points. That’s why it’simportant for CEOs to spend time with other CEOs because it’s hard torelate to some things if you’re a part of the management team, theboard, or any other part of the organization.
  11. 11. Q: Isaac, now that you’re free from running the company, what doyou focus on within SendGrid? A: I moved to California so I currently live in Orange County. I focuson strategy so I’m still a part of the board. I get to work on things thatI’m really passionate about. This is really exciting, and I get to get myhands dirty and try different things to see what is going to work best forour customers and that is where my passion lies and I get to work onthat on a daily basis.
  12. 12. Q: Jim, we know that your brought the idea of the 4H’s toSendGrid, why are these so important to you? A: So quickly what they are: honest, hungry, humble, and happy.Why they are important is that cultural consistency is really key toorganizational effectiveness. That sounds like a lot of fancy words butreally I think that it comes from my being fired many times and in thesummer of 2003 I was thinking, “wow I’m a responsible adult now, I’mmarried with kid and I should probably stop getting fired fromprofessional jobs: and so I though about where ever I had a conflict inan organization was where two values collide, and if you look at conflictin your life then you can deduce what your values are versus what thevalues you were bumping into. I don’t think I brought the 4H’s toSendGrid, they were already here and Isaac said it well that I just put alabel on what already existed; it was their framework for hiring andmaking other decisions.
  13. 13. Isaac Saldana@isaldanaJim Franklin@jimfranklin