Bill Spruill: Mistakes That Didn’t Kill My Company

Mistakes often carry a sense of catastrophe when experienced in the heat of the moment, but they need not be permanent setbacks. In this talk, Bill recounts some of the significant mistakes he encountered while co-founding and developing his company, Global Data Consortium, over a span of ten years.

Bill will shed light on the assumptions he made while making critical decisions and how he navigated the company’s course when it became evident that adjustments were necessary.

Despite these mistakes, the story has a happy ending; In 2022, Bill successfully sold the company to the London Stock Exchange Group for $300m. Shortly thereafter, he started on a new and audacious pursuit: fostering the growth of the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Raleigh, North Carolina, with the goal of transforming it into the most supportive environment for tech entrepreneurs.

Video

Learn how great SaaS & software companies are run

We produce exceptional conferences & content that will help you build better products & companies.

Join our friendly list for event updates, ideas & inspiration.

Unsubscribe any time. We will never sell your email address. It is yours.

Slides

Transcript

Bill Spruill
Thank you for that. You know, it’s funny, glad to be here from Raleigh was just with some of you in Boston and between Boston and Raleigh, I actually went to a neurologist. Because along the way, I’ve had these weird fainting spells over the last, say 12 years, kind of about the same period, I was growing my business; finally took the time out to sort of say, Okay, let’s get this dealt with. I’m retired now, let’s go find out about this. Go to see the neurologists and you know, we go through all the exercises and everything. And he’s like, you’ve got this sort of condition called vasovagal. VSS, some of you have maybe heard of this. And the thing about it is, you will occasionally just faint. And it comes with stress, it comes with like a weird combination of things. And we sort of determined when I travel a lot, and then have to do things like speeches or big presentations. Every now and again, I’ll go out.

And he says, the easiest thing to do, though, to treat this is to stop fighting it, acknowledge it, tell the people around you. And then you know, take a one minute break, get your blood flow going again to your brain, and you’ll be all good. So I tell this story, because some of my breakfast mates some of your colleagues had a go at me actually at breakfast rate talking about Raleigh, and we’ll talk a little more about Raleigh here in a few bits. But we had a good go at breakfast, stress level went up, I felt it coming on. And the thing I said to all of them, and they were very, very cordial and appreciative. And they handled it very well, unlike my team. A few weeks ago when this happened. And they had me laid out on the floor and EMTs coming like this. They handled everything normally I went through that. And boom, I came back. So thank you guys for that. And that’s why you see a chair here. But more importantly, it sort of helps me lead into this particular session today about, you know, the mistakes that didn’t kill my company.

A lot of times as founders, we don’t talk about the things. We love to talk about the good things, but we don’t share where we’re weak. We don’t talk about the bad things. We don’t talk about the mistakes we’ve made along the journey. So that actually made me feel really good about saying, Hey, I could talk about what just happened openly in the audience. And at the same time, I could be lazy now and say, Guess what, I’m going to have a seat. So that just in case, I’m not fully back yet we’ve got things taken care of. So that’s why you’ll see me do that. Hopefully, I’ll keep this thing still energised and whatnot from there.

All right, so the mistakes that didn’t kill my company. So who am I? For those of you who were in Boston, we told the long form of the GDC story, I think that’s out there available on a video. So I won’t go too deep into that aspect of things today, I’ll very strongly say BoS contents really good content, go and have a listen.

You know, so we’ll talk briefly though about GDC. And what happened, then we’ll dive right into the mistakes. I’ve got a series of stories that I’ll share around some of the mistakes. I made our cup my co founder made as we were growing the business. And we learned from those mistakes and lucky for us, those mistakes did not kill our business. And then finally, I’ll close with just some key learnings some things, I actually technically just open with the key learning and that is be willing to share. I think that again, if I can’t emphasise it enough, I think as operators, we should spend more time talking to each other, talking to our friends, colleagues, families, all of our support networks around our learnings so that others can learn from that faster, sooner better. So we’ll go through that today. And we’ll be all good by the way. Team in the booth: this counter still says I have another 60 minutes so just saying we may go over a bit Today.

All right, the GDC story. It’s a great story. It’s an instant instant when, you know, we started my co founder and I started the business, we grew and then boom, we sold it for $300 million overnight. Not quite, actually this was a 12 year journey for my co founder and myself. We grew the business. The first about five years, four or five years, we spent a lot of time doing consulting work for companies, sort of struggling in the desert trying to figure out where product market fit was. And then after about that year five, we actually figured it out, pivoted into something called the identity verification space. We sold that at the enterprise level to organisations like PayPal, Amazon, Stripe, and grew, the business started to scale. And we never raised external capital, we were self funded throughout that process, until 2020, which, yes, there was a pandemic. But we also, in 2020, started to scale the business a bit more, we raised some capital from a group called refinitiv at the time. Accelerated growth, which meant accelerated hiring, accelerated a lot of things. And then actually, in 2022, we were then acquired by the London Stock Exchange group, probably a little organisation some of you might be familiar with. And we were acquired for $300 million.

So we went from Bootstrap to raising a $5 million series A then being fully acquired by LSEG, that $300 million, great outcome for ourselves. But more importantly, for our team, and for our investors. From that outcome, we minted roughly 27 new millionaires. And we actually created a pretty nice position for our organisation within the LSEG organisation. So great outcome, beautiful deal. And that’s the overview. And you can hear a bit more about that origin story aspect of things. If you go and have a listen to the other presentation.

So let’s get into the real subject today, mistakes. So I look at mistakes and I make a tonne of them. I think, you know, if I go back to that slide, let’s just yeah, let’s look at the little sub header there. I make a tonne of mistakes along the way. It is to human condition, I think to make mistakes. I read a lot and one of the when I was framing up this particular presentation how to actually try to share this story with you all. I thought about how Jeff Bezos tends to look at decisions and then you think about that in terms of mistakes, and you make decisions in terms of one way doors, and then two way doors. And one way door decisions, of course, are the ones that you you burn the ships and you’re off; there, there is no turning back on those decisions.

Whereas two way doors are of course decisions you can make. They can be experiments, I think is at April, I forget who loves to speak about experiments on the BoS circuit, but you can launch experiments, you can make decisions that can be done with thought and with measure and without much pain. Most of the mistakes we made at GDC were of the two way door variety versus a one way door variety, which again, for us better to be lucky than good sometimes. Those were the ones that actually allowed us to continue on with the business without ending up shutting our doors. But I thought this was a great way to frame up this discussion and this thought process. If you’ve never read Jeff Bezos’s Flywheel, I would strongly encourage you go take that out have a read because it really describes us really well.

So mistake number one, firing too slowly. And I do these things in terms of telling stories. So I’ll share a couple of the stories along the way of firing too slowly. So as we started to really scale the business after raising this miraculous money called venture capital, we started hiring people at a much faster clip. And we brought in a series of people that we thought were really qualified, really well aligned with the business and they came highly, highly recommend and very quickly along the way with a set of those people, my gut that said, Actually, guess what? These are not the right people for us.

I wasn’t seeing the output, I wanted to see I wasn’t seeing the cultural alignment that I wanted to see. These were not the right people. So what did we do? We took forever to address that my co founder, and I went through a series of situations where, you know, in one case, it took over a year to finally let the individual go. And then another story which I actually shared, actually, at breakfast, that was probably the story that stressed me out caused me to faint mind you. But that story at breakfast was we had a longer term employee who was a great fit for us in the very beginning. He came in after about three years in the business, I knew him well, from a past employment situation, we had a great relationship. But somewhere along the way, things began to change with him.

He came, He kept coming back and asking for more money. He wanted more equity in the business, he positioned himself as a founder in the business. And my co founder and I were really confused about this, because when we last checked that note at the bank had both our signatures on it and our houses, but not his. So we were really kind of confused how he could see himself as a co founder. But, you know, we kept trying to figure out what was going on? Were we somehow underpaying him, were we abusing him, had we done anything? We just couldn’t understand. And we had reached the point multiple times over a multi year period, in the case of this employee of saying, we need to get him out of here. Because this isn’t working for us. We were spending a lot of time instead of working on the business, trying to figure out what was going on with him. And had we actually just gone ahead and pulled the trigger, we would have probably all been a bit better off. But instead we dragged that process out over a number of years. So he actually, you know, strangely enough, just before we sold the business, December 2020, he resigns. And then everything else sort of comes out, we find out that over the last few years he had been building a –

I leave it to mark to sort of find a way this is pitch prep. By the way, it’s kind of like when you’re doing a pitch and then people start randomly doing things to see if they can actually disturb you. –

So we found out that this employee had actually been building a property real estate, I’ll call it empire because he owned about 15 different properties around the city. And the reason he needed more money was because he was buying houses and fixing them up and then renting them now. So functionally within our business, that would have been a problem except, well, for two reasons.

One, he couldn’t just be honest, and come out with that along the way.

But then number two, the question is, was he actually working on our business that whole time? Or was he working on this other venture, where we actually getting maximum value out of him over that multi year period that we kept him into business, or where we actually, you know, deluding ourselves. And then, you know, again, with the whole was he abused around his equity compensation, and so forth. So this particular individual, we allowed for him even after he resigned, we allow for him to actually retain his equity. We didn’t play any games, we didn’t get cute with it or anything. And as a result of that, he walked away from the sale with $9 million in his pocket. I don’t know if that’s considered abuse, but if it is, abuse me, baby abuse me. I’m all good with that.

So you know, there were some good learnings there. But we you got to learn to be honest with yourself and when things aren’t working out, cut the ties, do it in an appropriate way. But cut the ties and move on with it. Whether that’s very quickly with an employee or with an employee that’s been you with you, whether that’s what the new employee or with an employee or team member who’s been with you for a long period of time, when things aren’t going well anymore. Let it go.

So culture wars This is a classic, you know, there are a number of books, number of TED talks, everyone talks culture, culture, culture. And I didn’t realise we were going to encounter the culture wars until we actually found ourselves in the middle of the culture war within our organisation, so we ran a very small, lean organisation. We were very frugal, we were bootstrapped. And so basically, our mantra internally was no forced fun. We didn’t do the Friday afternoon picnics and beer, we did do, you know, nice treats and whatnot in the office, our office space would make you cry sometimes when the heating and air conditioning weren’t working. But we preserved our capital so that we could pay our people and value the equity, we didn’t want to use or over raise money in order to use it incorrectly or in a different way within the business.

So in the case of the ping pong table story, I had hired a VP of engineering along the way, from a company that had been heavily venture backed and had come, you know, lots of bells and whistles and whatnot. But he had wanted to leave that business. higher demand, he was a great employee team member, you know, did really well with our business. But he very much wanted to adjust our culture around how we we saw forced fun. And I was on a trip to Europe, one of my 10 day, trips out to visit partners and customers. And I was on my way back home, I was at JFK in a Sky Club Lounge. And I ended up talking with two of the other team members, one of whom was my coworker. And I found out that what had happened while I left was the engineering team, and product teams had gotten together, pooled their money, and bought a ping pong table, and then proceeded to remove our office conference room table and replace it with said ping pong table. And the conference room table went to a team member’s home to their basement to serve as their dining room table.

And somehow all of that was okay to do without talking to Bill. That’s me, by the way. I talked to my co founder who was there and in theory had some knowledge of this. And I say in theory, because there’s always every time I’ve asked questions about it, there’s a lot of stuttering and sort of whatnot there. And ultimately, part of what we found out was that the team played mommy, daddy, if you if you all know that sort of game, you know, they they sort of told him about it. And he said, I don’t think that’s a good idea. But he wanted/allowed for me to be the bad guy on that he didn’t want to be the bad guy there. He wanted them to like them. So he didn’t say no. Long story short, when I heard about this, I said, Well, we’ve got a problem. I think what we’re going to have to do is be prepared on Monday, and this was a Thursday I said if the table still there on Monday, we’re going to actually have to figure out a way to completely rebuild our engineering team, because I’m going to let them all go. Yes, harsh. But it was harsh for a reason I was delivering a message. Now what then happened?

That word trickled back like I knew it would the sparrows flew and immediately what happened was, everybody reversed everything. So somehow that conference table was dismantled in the middle of the night brought back to the office, the ping pong table was then removed and taken to that team members basement were it properly belong. And when I walked back in the door on Monday, it was as if nothing had ever changed. Now, the rest of the team understood that however, my VP of Engineering and I had to have a conversation because for all intents and purposes, I let him know, I felt that he had launched a coup d’etat while I was away, and we had to get ourselves realigned. The bigger thing that came out of that was my co founder and I realised we really needed to codify what our company culture was, and make sure every net new employee that came in the door and our existing team members really understood the way we saw operating our business, really understood that we valued the value of the work where you come to work, and we value play after you leave work. And we very strongly encourage people if you want it to go and play, please go forth and play you can leave in the middle of the day, go around the corner. We’re gonna have a couple of drinks, you do what you need to do. But when you’re at work, this is the workplace, we work here. And that’s how we were operating.

So, you know, if you’re going to be an outlier around the culture, better that you go and find a company that fits that culture, as opposed to try to make the company make a change. And the reason we said that, after a lot of wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth, again, probably a couple of these fainting spells that I don’t even realise I had, I, we realised that we didn’t need to make that change, we need to make sure we brought in people that that align with the way we saw it, because at the end of the day, our company, we needed to be happy about work every day, and we would not have been happy had we changed that culture of the business, those aspects of the business. And we could come back around to all of this near the end, from a questions and debate as to whether these this was the right way or wrong way. But it was the way at that time.

So sales commission snafus. If you’re running a business, I haven’t run into this yet, you will.

And we all know about sales commission. So we were actually really, really successful. We at our team, we had a very small sales team. We didn’t do a lot of outbound marketing, people were knocking on the door saying we’d like your kit. And our team was starting to really pick up traction. And sometimes the problem with traction and comp plans is if you don’t actually adjust them on a regular basis based on how things are going. They can get out of whack. And normally, you would say is it a problem to have uncapped commissions or to continuously, you know, have to pay people more and more and more. Being a reformed business development guy, I will tell you absolutely not I, I love making more and more and more money, if I’m being successful at my job. That said, where it becomes a problem is when basically the employees stopped going after new business, where they realised they can simply live off the growth of the existing customer base, which is what happened inside of our organisation on the sales team side, and not actually be hungry enough to go after net new business and keep that sales motion going.

So what had happened was we we ran into that problem, we tried to course correct a few times we tried to adjust OTE we made some, some management adjustments. And ultimately, none of every one of those little things didn’t really work. And ultimately, our top two producers ended up leaving the business, each for kind of different reasons. But really, at the end of the day, it was because we hadn’t really set what I would call a good foundation with them around how their comp would change over the long term, if they were successful. We had set it around what would happen if they were not successful, but we hadn’t really talked about what happens, you know, if you’re really highly successful, and they were very highly successful, but didn’t know how to go to the next step. And we didn’t address that appropriately. I’ll say I didn’t address that appropriately with them ahead of time. And that mistake cost me two really good people. Now, each of those people are still very much in my orbit. Each of them, you know, I’ve gotten them jobs elsewhere, we’re still actually really great friends, because we handled the departure gracefully and appropriately. But had they actually stayed at the business. I think we might have even been able to sell it for a fair bit more than what we did. But it was definitely, you know, a mistake that cost us time, energy, and arguably some money along the way.

So again, there’s some great learnings there. Don’t be afraid to adjust a compensation plan. Think far out on the curve of success and what do you do many times again and again in sales, we think about what we do in terms of missing goals, not hitting goals. We don’t think in terms of how do we adjust for when they actually exceed and go well beyond. How do you deal with that?

My favourite story and again, some of you have heard bits and bytes of this if you listen to my presentation in Boston picking the wrong investor. So along the way, we were definitely out there trying to raise money the backstory again on Another piece of the GDC backstory was, we had an incredibly difficult time raising capital. Arguably, I’m not a good pitcher, as you can see, you know, I come into a room, I sit down immediately and slouch over, I’m probably just not the best possible pitch artist, I don’t tell good stories, all of those things. But we eventually found a strategic investor who really wanted to invest money. And I can talk about this now, well outside of confidentiality. So it was an organisation that you all might be aware of called Experian. And they were going to invest in GDC in our series A round. And we started doing the dance with them and going through the process. And my gut again, flashed along the way, saying, you don’t actually want to do this deal. And at least twice, maybe three times I actually try to say we aren’t going to do this deal. Now, my CFO, great guy love him. He was absolutely against me walking away on this. He was like, no, no, no, we’ve got to do this, they’re ready to give us the money. The terms are good. They’re not great, but they’re good. We got to forge ahead. And so we kept forging ahead, I remember times in our office literally sitting there talking about this, and the sun would be up, it would be bright in the afternoon sun in my office bright, you know, beautiful and everything. And we will be talking until the point where we’re sitting there in the darkness about do we really wanted to go and do this deal with Experian.

And along the way Experian, actually, just when we were about to sign final docs, we were on the final iteration of definitive docs for this thing, with this round of capital, and their CFO actually came back and retraded on us. He came back change the terms or at least attempted to change the terms. And that gave me the impetus to say bugger off. And we walked away from Experian, we came very close to picking the wrong investor, because had we gotten in with them, I don’t think I would be sitting here today at least not telling these stories, I’d probably be telling some dramatically different stories. At this point, it’d be looking for my next gig. But as a result of that happening refinitiv stepped in. They were waiting in the wings. And they basically said we’ll do the deal on the terms, you know, as outlined and we’ll close it 30 days. And they did no Retrade allowed.

So investor number two turned out to be the best investor because that actually also turned out to be the buyer. Investor. Number one, well, I’m probably not their favourite person now anyway, and I wasn’t before. So no worries about when they hear this little spiel at some point along the way. But it really, you know, I guess I’ll back up and say, you know, I tend to choose people by a very simple metric of when you go to dinner with them? Would you actually want to take a nine hour trip with them and sit across the table with them over a week? And if the answer is no to that, then you should probably walk away. I did this. With Experian, for instance, we had a couple of dinners with some of their very senior people. Nice meals of great restaurants. Yeah, I’ll stop there. My mom taught me well. Yeah, can’t say something nice. Then stop.

So the lessons learned along the way. And one of my best phrases is “the burnt hand teachers best”, you only learn through doing and again, I’ll go all the way back to the beginning. If you make these mistakes, the best thing you could do is at least try to inform others so that they don’t burn their hands and they end up with calluses and all sorts of things. So I think hopefully this part will be the most beneficial as apart from the humorous stories along the way.

Number one is be be decisive. Don’t hedge don’t second guess I think when we were talking about this over at breakfast, you start getting into these self doubt exercises. Well, maybe it’s me, maybe my my skill set isn’t good. Maybe I don’t pitch well or maybe I’m not communicating right with this employee. Me me me it’s always something. But at the end of the day, you’re you know, the answer is make a decision. You know what the decision is and you know what it needs to be. Make the decision and optimise it. And that’s what I tend to tell founders when I’m engaging in mentoring. It’s, there’s not necessarily a bad decision to be made, it’s all in how you optimise that decision and execute once you make that decision, so be decisive.

Alongside that though, trust your gut, if your gut is telling you something, listen to it. Every time my gut tells me to turn right, and I turn left, I regret it. Every time when I’m driving I don’t use my GPS, I don’t you know, I basically, ah, you know, story away, it’s, it’s right over here, it’s just down, down to block here on the right, and then I end up in a parking lot at the back of the Student Centre somewhere. And that’s because I didn’t listen to my gut.

Remember that fear is the mind killer for those who might know doom, okay, I don’t know if we have any sci fi folks here. But fear is the mind killer in business. If you allow fear to control your decision making process, you will never make a decision, you will be constantly paralysed in your long term decision making. get over the fear. Fear is natural and understandable. But you have to push through the fear and get to the other side. And again, I’ll go back to the fainting spell this morning. The fear of passing out in front of a bunch of people that I’m supposed to be speaking in front of was definitely on my mind. But the better part of valour was to say, I might actually need to take a moment here, guys, support me here. And I pushed on came out the other side. And thus far to date, I’m still sitting up right here. So fear is the mind killer. push on through.

And then the most absolute important thing I’d like to say on this is err on the side of doing the right thing. Let’s go back over those employee mistakes. So we had the long term employee who felt like he was abused, we could have jiggered his equity, we could have easily basically cut what he made off of his equity in half. Instead, what we did was we allowed for him to exercise his options, he was able to take those home. And as a result, he ended up with $9 million in his pocket.

The sales team members, both of them didn’t have the ability to actually exercise on their options. So we actually did was we brought in a new investor, and did a very private secondary for them, we actually brought in an investor who was very keen to invest in our series A who we ran into a little bit too late. He, that investor couldn’t get in at that time, but they were willing to come in and buy employees common. So we actually set up a situation where he was able to buy those employees common, and he ends up on our cap table at a discount, which for him was really good. Those employees were able to take some of that take their take money off the table, and actually keep their option well exercise their options and actually walk away with some earnings for the work that they did in the business. And we did that all along the way. We had team members who would leave and move, we had a team member who was on an h1B visa to the US. That visa lapse, she had to go back to grad school in order to stay in the US. She couldn’t afford to actually, again, exercise her options. We actually again set her up with this particular investor, the money she got from that not only paid for her grad school, but it actually helped to pay for her sister’s undergrad on that front. And she recently got married in India and I got a chance to go over for the wedding. And the the time spent with the parents around that was magical to say the least. So the thing you learned along the way here is no matter what err on doing the right thing, you will come out well ahead in the long run.

So that’s the presentation. I’ll bring up one other subject before we jump into q&a here what little q&a there may be so I think it’s been put upon me to announce this and I think again my breakfast mates had some some awareness on this but big fan of BoS – I think maybe this is my fifth so I’m still a relatively young link to some of you all when it comes to BoS – this my first UK one. Now my last but my first but working with Mark in the BoS team. This past year as we came back together in person. We came together and started talking about partnering and how do we do something together and what we come up with the idea of the next BoS us being in Raleigh, North Carolina.

So we are going to make the move, we can do that. Thank you. Thank you. For those who don’t know, the Raleigh community, it’s a beautiful place I am from there. It’s much like this area of the country, very green, very lush. There’s a huge technology community based in the RTP region. A number of British companies have on the pharmaceutical side has got their secondary US operations there. Next to the valley, next to Austin, we are very, very, you know, a top notch up and coming community. And I’ve always felt it important that we connect founders from my local community, to outside the local community. And I think BoS is a very global community. And so I am thrilled to be a part of bringing the BoS community to Raleigh and sharing both.

I think the other big thing about the BoS community that the Raleigh community can hopefully get something from is the fact that there’s been a lot of index towards, you know, one type of funding model, one type of how do you grow a business, we all know this, if your boss is, you know, this. What we don’t see is enough founders and entrepreneurs getting exposures to the other types of models, to other founders who have grown their businesses in a way that have been very lucrative, but not advertised all over TechCrunch, or whatever the case may be. The BoS community, for me has been the one place where I’ve been able to find that type of environment and ecosystem. So sharing that ecosystem with my ecosystem is a very big thing. And to go back, and now honestly answer the question that was posed to me at breakfast. Yes, 100% it was a conspiracy. For those who asked, So I’m thrilled about it. I’m hoping those of you who come across to the US will be thrilled about it. We have a great nonstop from Heathrow, easy button to get there. And it’s BoS y’all come for some good southern cooking and some southern charm, and we look forward to seeing you all in October. So that’s it for me.

Mark Littlewood
Yeah, it’s very exciting. I have to say. When I go to Boston the fastest. I’ve been through the airports two and a half hours, I was out in 20 minutes when we got to Raleigh. It’s a different world. It’s amazing. And we’re super excited have to say, we’ve got three people that have been coming to BoS from Raleigh over the years regularly. James Avery from Kevel, who I’m sure some people will know. Bill, and Carl Ryden. And between them, they’ve been to over 30 Business Software conferences. Bill sold his company for 300. Carl sold his company for 500. Yeah, not competition.

Bill Spruill
Carl that story, I get a very interesting story, because Carl and I actually grew up in the same county in North Carolina less than 15 miles from each other. And both of us went on in both and very sort of similar socio economic situations. And we both went on to, you know, start and sell software companies at pretty, you know, sizable sizable numbers. So, he and I have a runny confrontation around the fact that I thought I was going to be the big man in my home county and he’d beat me by two hundred million dollars. So have to figure out so I played better, better tennis and pickleball than he does. So there we go!

Mark Littlewood
And you’d never met or you hadn’t met until relatively recently. There is a photo summer of you sitting on the same row of the conference about 10 years ago, and I’d never introduced you because I assumed you were like best buds. My bad. My bad. We’re super excited.

You can hear endless things about rally and how dang cool it is. But there was quite a lot of content there beforehand, and I don’t know whether everyone was so quiet because they were on tenterhooks if they thought you were gonna they want to stress me out and cause me Yes, keel over right out. Yes. So I thought you were you didn’t have enough stress. I came at shuffled a table out!

Audience Member
so I failed to kill you off for breakfast. I’m glad I did not But I’m gonna have another crack now and see if I can get it. Second time. So apologies if English sarcasm does make you stress though it’s not intended. With the English, it’s a sign of affection rather than anything else. If we’re super polite to you, that’s when you really want to start worrying.

So with regards to your presentation, you talked about play, and this mistake and effort to make work fun by bringing in ping pong tables. I personally feel that what they’re trying to do is a mistaken view of trying to make work more fun and engaging rather than creating play. So I’m curious to know whether you agree with that and how you think you do that properly. And related question, you also said that it was important to codify your culture so that people can understand it, it’s actually written down. I’m very curious to know how you do that. So that it’s easy for newbies to come in and get who you are and what you do. So again, I’m glad I didn’t kill you off. Thank you for that.

Bill Spruill
So number one, the team, you’re 100%, correct. It was around creating a lighter atmosphere in the office for them. And it wasn’t a malicious exercise around, we want to do less work. However, two things:

One, my VP of Engineering and I had already had that dialogue before in the past around what was acceptable and what wasn’t. So this exercise was a very deliberate way to try to sidestep what had already been established on that front, as it relates to a ping pong table is seems very innocent, unless the people around the table because of the way our office environment was set up. The people who worked in that same area would have then been distracted, potentially, when they were trying to do their work by the, the constant back and forth on that front. And who thinks about that? And then you have to think about, well, what rules are they? How long are you allowed to play? Is it a one hour five hour? Are you allowed to launch tournaments and bring in mates? What does that really look like in the end, and that’s just something that we weren’t really that interested in doing. As far as how we ran our shop, it doesn’t mean every shop has to run that way, we each have our own views on culture. And that was just something we weren’t looking to create within our organisation. Again, we were very simplistic. And frankly, I could tell you, anyone who knows Bill, knows this, this is how Bill operates.

For me, come to work, we had a very flexible work environment. So if you needed to drop the kids, if you needed to take a doctor’s appointment, if you needed a mental health day, we didn’t track that we had an unlimited PTO policy, you could take off, do whatever you want to you want to go to the beach, go to the beach, do what you needed to do, as long as the work got done. That was our policy on that front. But that said the office was the office. And if you needed to do something wanted to go and have a bit of play. Our view was you needed to do that elsewhere and keep the office the office so that people who were there to work could get their work done in an efficient manner. So that kind of answers that bit of the question.

How we codified it, we created a culture deck, and I’ll be happy, I’ll actually maybe share it with Mark and he can put it up in the repository. It’s actually a really, really good deck. And we we talked about the history of the business, because the history of the business and how Charles and I worked together, how we started working together in an office that was you know, the size of that stand right there. And how we were very frugal with our past two prior companies and how we operate it was really important. So we would always level set the history for people to understand. And then we we actually came up with a set of what we’ll call rules around how we operate it. And again, no forced fun was definitely one of those rules, is most of the organisation actually embrace that because they appreciated it. We had people who commuted to the office from 45 minutes an hour away, and they didn’t feel want to feel obligated to have to stay after work and do social functions every time because they wanted to get home to their families, for instance. And then we had other team members who were very young, and their version of play very different than some of the older set of timeless, timeless Time Lords. Thank you timely thank you for that. And so it was important for everyone to understand that we didn’t have to all go out on scavenger hunts or, you know, go and play beer pong or pickleball or whatever the case may be. You do what you feel comfortable most with doing it And that worked out really well. But it only worked out well, because we codified it. And we kept reinforcing it. And we explained it.

The only reason this particular the ping pong table story really became an issue was, again, the product and engineering team had been led down a path to say, Hey, if you pay for it yourselves, then we’re not using company money for this. And, and, and and. But the biggest mistake made there was my VP of engineering didn’t just have the cohones to just come over, have a phone, have a call with me and say, we want to do this. Would you be willing to allow for us to do this? And the reason he didn’t have that conversation? Because he knew the answer already was no. So there we go. I think I answered the question.

Audience Member
Okay. I think my question feels really simplistic after that great question before but thanks for the talk. Bill, at the end, you said, err on the side of doing the right thing. And those of us it’s kind of a subtle nuance needed? Err on the side of it? Why didn’t you just say, just do the right thing?

Bill Spruill
That’s actually a very great question on that front. So it’s easy and legal to do sometimes the wrong thing, what is ultimately the wrong thing. So the wrong thing can’t be the right thing. And the wrong thing, all in the same vein, with equity, especially, the rules are written in such a way that you can do things like take equity back from people if you’re depending on how your agreements are written. And in fact, most organisations will do that, you will set very short windows when an employee leaves on exercise of options. And if they can exercise in that short window, because it requires capital to do so. Then guess what, they don’t get to keep their options. And people, you can play games with people all day. But if you just do the right thing, or at least err on the side of doing the right thing, then again, I’m human, I will definitely err on the side of doing the wrong things every now and again. Yeah, if you do the right things that comes back to you. And I think the fact that we did the right thing, and karma paid us out. Yeah, I made us, you know, pretty sizable amount of money on the transaction. I think that was because we consistently chose to do the right thing within the business all the, you know, it took a little bit of mental, I wouldn’t say it took that much mental, and we didn’t think too hard about it. But that’s why I use the term err, versus just do the right thing. Arguably, all of us should always just do the right thing, but we’re human, and a human condition has yet to produce that.

Audience Member
Coming back to the fun at work side of things, completely get your, your position, and it makes no sense. And I’ve been in situations where that forced fun thing is, you know, been a pain in the ass frankly. But but you must have done a few things as an organisation, Team wise, Merry Christmas dinners. What did what what sort of thing did you consider to be good to do for the business?

Bill Spruill
Sure. So again, the really, everyday good things we did was say, you’re all adults, make your schedules come to work when you need to come to work. We were doing hybrid work before, before the pandemic, we were doing it before it was cool. And that was actually an everyday thing for us. And our teams chose to come to work most days because they enjoy coming into the office and interacting and doing it but they knew they didn’t have to. And that was probably the number one thing I think that most people really, you know, enjoy it and appreciate it. The other thing we would do was again, we did regular company, all hands meetings, where we would do barbecue picnics, we take three days and actually do that all together. And we would spend money to go off site and do that.

Just so you know. Yeah, yeah, between the ribs the pork the beef. Barbecue is a thing for us in North Carolina.

But we even during the pandemic what we did to make sure we kept some cohesion and brought the teams together and had some fun was we actually ended up checking into a hotel and doing a 10 day where you isolated to make sure isolated tested regularly. And then people were able to then get together. We have the youngers who got together out at the firepits quite a quite a bit. We did it in March so that it was you know, it was brisk outside but you could still sit outside if you wanted to but then there were those who were not comfortable who were able to go back to their rooms, and you know, sort of operate from there when not in session. And so I would say that was another thing we did to encourage, you know, fun and engagement inside the organisation. So by no means did we operate as a sweatshop.

We were not, you know, we weren’t cracking on or anything like that. But what we did very cleanly say was, we were we would go to lunch very regularly, very often together, people would just gather up in groups, and it’s like, let’s go to lunch. And we would head out. And, and again, it was natural, not contrived. It was natural, not forced. If you don’t want to go to lunch, don’t go to lunch, nobody, and no one looked at you, you know, strangely or sideways or anything like that on that front? So I would say those were the things we did we did, you know, we experimented with trying to do a little more, you know, do we go rock climbing together? Well, not everybody wants to rock climb? You know, I blew a knee out in Leeds years ago, rock climbing is probably not the correct answer for me at this point in life. You know, but there were team members who were rock climbers. And so they, they would go to the local wall climb and do that. And that was okay. So that’s, you know, I tell you, the biggest and best policy we have is to flex policy of do what you want, you’re an adult. And as long as everybody was getting the work done, it all worked out well. And frankly, our best growth and biggest growth was when we were very proactively operating in that model.

Audience Member
Interested in you talked about compensation. And yeah, it’s a sensitive topic. Yeah, my VPs. Not here. So I can talk about it. Quite quite often. It’s a sensitive topic, as I said, and they get it wrong. Quite a lot of people get it wrong. I’m curious how you dealt with the knock on effect of doing too much business from an existing store base. How did you kind of change that mix with the sales org to keep people motivated, but also productive and make as much money’s supposed to be good.

Bill Spruill
So the real key here and again, I actually ignored some of the lessons I had learned in the past around comp when I dealt with this particular issue that I described here. So past lessons, I’ve learned that I know work in the larger enterprises who do this all the time, so they know better, frankly, when you look, the best place to go sometimes is, you know, the, you know, the big the big E’s who actually do this all the time with lots of employees. comp is something that should change on a pretty actual regular basis, meaning your ote if you’re achieving and overachieving, then that number needs to move up. Or you need to bring in additional sales people to cover off that overhead means that the territory or the market you’re in is either too big, it needs to be resized, something’s happening. If you’re constantly overachieving, you’re on target earnings. So that’s not about adjusting base bases base. It’s all about adjusting that variable up and over. And so the best thing to do is to be willing to and openly communicate with your team around the fact that you will adjust that ote on a frequent basis. And I’ve seen plans that adjust quarterly. That’s a bit too frequently because people will get into the whole predictability of things. But the things you learn is salespeople will game the system. So the longer you let a sales plan stay in place. And hopefully this isn’t anathema to anyone in the room. But it’s just the reality of things. salespeople will game systems. So if you let it sit for too long, they’ll figure out all the loopholes. If you constantly change the rules, then it takes much harder for them to figure out the loopholes and they just do the work. And that’s the correct answer. No one shoot me out in the hallway for that. Anything else

Audience Member
You talked about the policy of adults hired they can come and do the work they choose when they’re choose when they don’t work. That presupposes that you’ve got staff that are smart enough and mature enough to do that. Right. And that is always struck me. The hardest thing is hiring good people. So you know, how did you do that? How did you What did you do that was different from your competitors are allowed you to hire good people.

Bill Spruill
I burned my hand a lot of times. So here’s what you learn. And along the way. I’ll talk in terms of two stories, two different staff members, one, I’ll name the other I want. staffer, Liam king. He started with us as an inter, wet behind the ears kid, his father was a local entrepreneur who I knew. And he had reached out and said, Hey, my son is transferring to the local uni. I want him to have an internship, I’d love for him to work with you, Bill, if you’d be willing. And I said, Sure, let’s have a coffee we’ll meet sat him down how to coffee. And yeah, I was like, I don’t know, if this kid, you know, we, we had some misalignment, we’ll say from a, you know, social, you know, social perspective. And I was like, I don’t know if we can do this. But I gave it a shot because I knew his dad. He embraced our culture at 100%, he fought he was 20 years old, we said, Look, we’re not going to pay for your parking, we’re not going to do any of these things. If you want, you know, when you come to the office, if you want free parking, it’s a mile away, you’ll need to park there and walk it. And I would see him and I was doing that I would do that. Because we were frugal, you know, I didn’t want a parking pass down. And I would literally see him pulling up from class, putting his backpack on and walking to the office that one mile. And he did that for years, he stayed with us grew up inside the business. He was kind of our Swiss Army knife, he would do business, he was an accounting major. So we thought he was gonna go into finance, he ends up on the sales team, he would do anything if it meant moving furniture, moving ping pong tables, whatever the case may be, he was always the go to guy on that front. To to the point that when I left the business, we actually had to have a very open debate with him. His parents and his wife, his fiancee at the time, around Desi come with me, or should he stay at LSEG and you know, get another boss, he needed to learn something new from somewhere, someone else and everyone to a tee agree that he had been fully ruined by me. And so he should just stick with so in that now he’s now he’s my chief of staff at my family office. So that’s almost an example of going someone else up in your culture and them adapting to it so much so that there were no changes he get a he was the right hand, if you will.

Mark Littlewood
He’s great. We met him when we came out. And he drove us around. And I mean, one thing that really attracted us to Raleigh was if the venue falls down, we can actually hold the conference in his car, which is, it’s like a typical American gigantic station wagon.

Bill Spruill
This is true. We did have other employees along the way. However, team members who would join and they were, again, not able to very quickly sell functions. So there was constantly the we don’t know how to do this. And I say that one of our culture points was, you know, don’t just come with the problem come with a solution. People who’ve just come with the problems and expect you just to give them all as a solutions are just not that interesting for us. That the team, the people who worked with us, we’re all about. They’ll identify problems, but they’ll identify the solutions. And if there’s multiple solutions, and we make a decision around which one, which one to make at that point. And I will tell you, you know, again, we had people who walked in and said, Hey, I need someone to set my desk up. And this site, mate, your desk is right here. Yeah. I need someone to help me set my laptop up. And these were IT people it’s like, well, you know, you’re probably not the right fit for us as your product because again, that was a self acknowledgement. And that’s what we went through a process of understanding who we were. And that’s probably the best learning from this particular question. You need to understand the type of person you are or the type of people your team is. Because once you understand that core, then it’s easy to layer on to that core.

If you don’t understand that, then you can end up with a hodgepodge along the way and a lot of confusion. And we very much understood, we were just I won’t say we weren’t nice people, but we were just very much you needed to be able to operate fairly independently, if you came in on our team, and we would reward you for that and take care of you. And that’s where the adult flexibility kicked in. But you needed to be able to operate very independently. After we put the culture deck together. We definitely were better because we we could very quickly get people to opt out when they we would hit on some of those bullet points. It’s around independence and self, you know, self motivation and that type of thing. It’s a, it’s a funny thing, when you tell a prospective team member the notion of, well, you may travel somewhere and need to check into a hotel and not have a company card, you may actually have to pay for it yourself. It will reimburse you. And there are people who basically said, No, the company absolutely has to pay for everything always upfront for me, from the moment I walked in the door, and that’s okay. But that was in our company. And so we got better at it as we went along the way. And where we did fall down on a hiring from one of the big lessons I learned was my co founder, and I used to interview everyone that came in. And as we started to really scale the business, we started delegating that function down to line managers to do that. And we stopped doing that. And that’s when we actually does start to see a bit more variation in the type of people we were hiring around the culture side of things. And if I had to redo I would go back and make sure I was in each and every one of those meetings. I spent the 90 minutes engaging with the new hire new team members so that they understood that the psychotic they were dealing with, and they were okay with coming to work with that particular individual.

At least a few chuckles on that one.

Mark Littlewood
Bill, thank you


Bill Spruill

Co-Founder & President Global Data Consortium

Bill was co-founder and CEO of Global Data Consortium (GDC) before its acquisition by London Stock Exchange Group in May 2022.

He started his career working with SAS Institute before working in a variety of companies focused on international address verification, matching and data quality that had a habit of being acquired successfully including AddressDoctor, Loqate, Identity Systems and Intelligent Search Technology.

Bill is an active angel investor. Past exits include Union Metrics (sold to Trendkite/Cision); Magnus Health (private equity acquisition) and Loqate (acquired by GB Group UK). As part of his volunteer work with the Council for Entrepreneurial Development (CED) Bill has mentored over 80 companies through early, mid-stage growth and exit challenges.

He attended Northrop University in Los Angeles, California and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Find out more about Bill

Check out our upcoming events

23-25 September 2024 USA (Raleigh, NC) | Europe 2025 (Coming soon!)

Subscribe for new talks, episodes, and events


Unsubscribe any time. We will never sell your email address. It is yours.