“ Having been on the other side of the table, you realize that the executives are out there constantly trying to beat the competition and get new customers. I’ve been there and it’s a grind. As a board member, the best thing I can do is listen to what they’ve done and then apply my experience through all the different jobs I’ve had.”
What led you to pursue a career in software?
My dad suggested I major in computer science in college. I thought that was a good idea, so I focused on software while attending school. After graduating, I went to IBM where I was a programmer for several years and then a system engineer with customers. All this gave me a great understanding of the underlying technology of software so when we do software implementation, it doesn’t overwhelm me. It’s a language I understand.
What roles have you held at software companies that have shaped your experience as a leader?
I had numerous roles while at IBM, but in the last four years I was there, I was in charge of IBM’s software sales and technical sales worldwide. We started with about 9,000 people and after various acquisitions of software companies, we had 18,000 people working on sales. This growth resulted in IBM’s software becoming the most profitable part of the company.
I left IBM to become CEO of a company called Avocent—they were an appliance company and we tried to go private but ended up being bought by Emerson Electric.
After Avocent, I did a variety of software jobs and board jobs. My first board role was at Emerson. It was very interesting—you learn so much trying to manage a board while they’re trying to manage you. Since then, I’ve been on several other boards for both private and public companies. And they’ve all been involved with software, which is right in my wheelhouse.
As someone who has experience in preparing companies for exits, do you have any advice for founders and CEOs who are contemplating an exit?
Companies often hit a wall or a plateau. No matter the size of the company, there’s often a wall they can’t break through or they can’t scale. They might need more money or not have the right skills in the management team. That’s why private equity gets involved, to help get over that plateau, and start growing. Before they can consider growing, they first need to have an understanding of how to be successful in their current market segment. These aren’t $10 billion companies—they are laser-focused companies, which is why they have to be successful in that particular market segment or sub-segment.
Second, as you prepare for an exit, it’s important to have a strong management team.
Third, having a compelling and competitive-leading technology is great. It’s tough to do an exit or get the money you truly want if it’s just a mediocre technology. You need to have a good install base, but then you also need leading technology in some areas.
And lastly, you need to have satisfied customers. One of the key things to do, when thinking about an exit, is to call customers and see what their satisfaction level is. Those are the main points to consider when preparing for an exit.
What influenced you to become a board member?
My first experience was at Avocent. Since I was the CEO of a public company, I was naturally a board member. So, while I was CEO, I was on 24/7. I was meeting different customers, flying around to meet various employees, working on customer problems. The board was there to assist as needed, whether it was when I had issues with the company or when I needed to make an investment for the company. They were there to help me and represent the shareholders of the company.
At Pondera, I’m on the board, but not as an operational executive, more as an advisor. Having been on the other side of the table, you realize that the executives are out there constantly trying to beat the competition and get new customers. I’ve been there and it’s a grind. As a board member, the best thing I can do is listen to what they’ve done and then apply my experience through all the different jobs I’ve had. I give them the best advice and let them know of any problems I might see in the future. The whole process is like a partnership. When a CEO is transparent and open to ideas, it makes it easier for the board to help that company progress.
Are there any elements that help a board be more successful?
Diversity of the board is key. And I’m not talking about demographics. I’m talking about diversity from a skill standpoint. For example, I needed to have a finance person on my board because of the audit committee and all the things that needed to be done.
With my experience on public boards, it was important to have a person skilled in finance, a person who is skilled in sales and marketing and someone who understood development or product management. If you look at the Pondera board, for example, we have a Harvard professor who knows this industry very well. I didn’t particularly understand the industry, but I know software. I know sales. I know a lot of other things, but the industry wasn’t one of them. There are qualities I bring to the table that differ from the other board members and vice versa.
What are some problems you’ve helped solve as a board member in a high-growth company?
One of my primary roles as CEO was to accelerate sales. I was hired because the company wanted to get more targeted marketing. They wanted to build the go-to-market plan and they wanted to grow revenue. That’s what I accomplished at IBM so it’s what I do. One of the first things I did at Pondera was to help them build a better business partner plan. When you want growth, and that’s what we want in almost every Serent portfolio company, you want revenue growth.
Leverage is important. Maybe we can’t hire enough salespeople, but the leverage I have with other companies that can help sell the product, or at least influence the product we’re trying to sell, the better off we’ll be. One of my jobs at IBM was as a global business partner. I was responsible for all of our business partners around the world and they contributed billions upon billions of dollars of revenue to IBM. And that was all about leverage.
When I got to Pondera, we naturally wanted to hire salespeople. But we also knew it would be beneficial to get some influencers or business partners. So, we helped the team generate a business partner plan where we gave a business partner commission for leads and other helpful practices. We looked at a competitor’s business partner plan and then we constructed our own. I was able to help with this based on my background without having to do a lot of research or hiring consultants.
My sales background has helped me work with the VP of sales. We spent time building a strategy for sales and focusing on what skills we need. We discussed the best way to organize everything, what regions do people need to be in and how do we pay these people. It was a lot of brainstorming. The VP of sales bounced ideas off me and I was able to help him think through these decisions. It wasn’t me constructing anything. I was just there assisting him along the way.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
When I was at IBM, someone said to me, “Mike, you can personally only do so much. You can move a mound of dirt. It’ll take you a while and it’s just you working on that dirt. But if you lead and manage your people—and empower your people—they’ll be able to move mountains.” That stuck with me, so I always think about it when I’m building a team. It’s not about me or the CEO. It’s really about building the team. I always thought that was great advice because it transcends departments and applies to anyone in management today.
“ It’s not about me or the CEO. It’s really about building the team.”
“We have seen success deploying this framework within our portfolio.”
Serent Capital invests in profitable, growing service companies. We typically invest in founder-led companies and often represent the first institutional capital in the company. We are highly selective, choosing to invest in only a handful of businesses each year. Our selectivity ensures that all our companies receive the attention and expertise that they need. Learn more about our portfolio companies.