Q&A: Rich Milgram, CEO, Beyond.com – “Persistence and Patience are Key” to Success

Posted by | February 29, 2012

This year, we launched a Q&A Series with our partner company CEOs to provide insight, lessons learned and  first-hand knowledge about what it takes to start and grow successful businesses.

This month, we interviewed Rich Milgram who has been CEO of Beyond.com for 13 years. During that time, he’s learned a lot about building a successful team and leveraging its strengths. Since Beyond.com is an online career network, Rich also has unique insight into the cycles of the economy and offers his take on the status of the current recovery.

 

Why did you choose to become an entrepreneur?

I don’t know if I chose it or if it chose me. My father, grandfather, and brother are all entrepreneurs, so I grew up with a passion for building companies. My first job in the real world after I graduated college was at GE Aerospace. I loved GE, and I learned a lot there, but I wasn’t able to be involved in a product’s creation from beginning to end. That’s when I realized I didn’t like working on something that I couldn’t touch, that I couldn’t physically or mentally be a big part of. There have also been times in my career when I disagreed with my managers and wanted my opinion to have more impact. So it was a combination of family and experience that led me to entrepreneurship.

 

To what would you attribute your success so far?

I think persistence and patience are key. I had to gain an understanding of my boundaries and limits and learn how to overcome them. I can certainly say that I’m not the same person I was 13 years ago, when I started Beyond.com, nor do I act or communicate in the same way I did back then. You grow over time, you learn over time, and if you’re smart, you adjust.

When I first started out, I didn’t know enough about myself or what I should be focusing on. I didn’t know enough about the people I needed to surround myself with. Beyond’s most recent expansion in the past several years has been because of Safeguard Scientifics and their ability to bring insight and talent to me and to complement my skills with the knowledge and skills of other talented people. For example, our COO, who has been with us for five years, has been my right hand man, and he was an introduction from Safeguard.

 

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned as an entrepreneur?

To be patient. And also to truly know yourself. Over 13 years of running this company, I’ve come to better understand myself and how I work with and motivate people, and that’s yielded more success. I’ve discovered my boundaries and surrounded myself with people who accentuate my skills and compensate for some of my shortcomings, and that has truly helped us grow.

I didn’t know enough about myself when I first started. I went to school for engineering and knew I wanted to be an engineer working in software and computers. But I forgot the little things, like psychology, marketing, and other business courses. I came out of school with a wealth of knowledge about the technology industry, but I had to go back to school for a business degree. So I wasn’t as well-rounded in college as I would have liked. But I guess that’s an entrepreneur, always looking back at the failures as opposed to successes. Some people say that’s what drives us.

 

What’s your biggest business challenge right now?

From a company perspective, it’s keeping focused, doing what we know we do well, and not getting distracted. We have lots of great people here, working hard and smart. But we need to assure that they’re all aligned with the company’s overall strategy and direction.

When all our projects are perfectly aligned, there’s an easy transition from marketing to tech to sales to customer service and so forth. We’re trying to streamline and do even better than we’ve been doing. If we can stay focused and on point, we’re going to ratchet up the business that much faster because we’re already established as an organization, and now we’re trying to move the wheel a little faster, with a little less friction.

 

What advice would you give other tech entrepreneurs?

First and foremost, you can’t do it all by yourself. You can certainly start it by yourself, but I don’t think anyone can be truly successful on their own. Entrepreneurs, depending upon their Myers-Briggs personality makeup, sometimes forget that they can’t go it alone. So I’d encourage other entrepreneurs to look around and align themselves with smart people who can help and challenge them. You’re not always going to find the perfect people, so you have to be patient and persistent.

Another key in the beginning of any entrepreneurial venture is digging deep, going deep into your product or service, as opposed to going wide. See how well you succeed at one product before you try and succeed at five products.

 

How do you operate at Beyond.com? How do you motivate your team? What’s the culture like?

As a company in the HR industry, we start with how we treat our people and how we run our business. We keep the lines of communication open. We want everything to be clear so all our employees are well aware of where the company stands. We have an open door policy and that’s tied to our goals. Our company, I’m proud to say, is extremely well run and it’s because our team understands our business goals and our strategy and how to make the operation work within that. We’re also very careful with hiring. We make sure that we only hire people that we know are going to adopt our culture.

Creating an effective, cohesive team is important to us, so every year we have two or three team building events. We have a holiday party. We have a picnic every summer. Last summer, we took the whole company — including people in Indianapolis and New York — to Valley Forge Military Academy for a day of boot camp. We did obstacle courses, ropes courses, paintball, and leadership training, all as a team. It’s things like that that I think people hold onto and appreciate.

 

In what industries are you seeing the most activity on Beyond.com in terms of where job seekers are looking for work or employers seeking talent?

Right now, healthcare, technology, and sales are the high fliers. Healthcare and technology were high fliers when the economy was horrible. They’re continual high fliers, but they’re much stronger now, along with every other industry.

This economic cycle is similar to what happened after 9/11 and in 2005 for a little bit. When the economy enters a recession, companies can have a knee-jerk reaction to clean house and get rid of staff, which is a very tough thing. It’s probably the easiest expense to reduce, but it’s not necessarily the most thoughtful or profitable way to run a company. I’m proud to say that we’ve never used staff as a cost-cutting measure.

When recovery begins, companies test the waters by hiring part-time staff. They hire consultants or hourly workers to see whether their products and services start kicking back up again, to see if they can sustain growth. So they hire into sales, usually on commission. When they start selling products and the company’s growing and the economy’s growing again, they start hiring management for all the salespeople. That’s when they start scaling their business again.

Right now we’re in the part of the cycle past the hourlies and part-time workers. Companies are starting to hire mid-level managers for all the staff or to figure out some of the problems caused by just hiring the lower levels. Companies are starting to look at their products and expand their product line or go deeper and build out their products.

 

What should startups look for in VCs beyond just the financing? What are the core services that are most important for startups? What do startups tend not to think about?

The deal is very important, but the people that you’re making the deal with are paramount. Sometimes that’s overlooked. I was very comfortable with the Safeguard staff, and I trusted them from the get-go, and that has panned out. Build that trusting relationship with your VCs, encourage them to understand your business, and look for people who, in some ways, can better communicate your business than you can.

If they’re able to articulate your business, if they’re able to position you in ways that you didn’t think about before, then that’s a clear sign that they’re going to add value in the future. And that was something that Safeguard was able to do when I was considering them as well as several others. They just had an inherent understanding of my business, a demeanor that fits well with me, and that has proven out. And that’s just as important as the money.

 

What is your go-to news source?

Usually I’m probably too focused on making sure Beyond is a success and not enough focused on the economy or business news or entertainment going on out in the world. So my first news source is always my wife. She keeps me abreast of anything I need to know about the world and about business. After she breaks the news to me, then I go and read more in detail. I also read Business Insider, which has some great insight and thoughts on our space and on Internet companies.

 

What’s your “must-have” app?

There are two that I check every day. The first is a little corny, but at the start of each day I check our Beyond.com app, just to see how users are experiencing us. Mobile traffic makes up 16 percent of our total traffic, so I go onto our app and do job searches and check to see how our members are experiencing us. Secondly, at the end of the day—because I usually don’t have time to keep in touch with friends—I hop on Facebook to see how interesting everyone else’s life is, since mine is mostly focused on my family and work.

 

For more information about Beyond.com, please visit the company’s website (www.beyond.com) and blog (www.employmentmetrix.com) or you can follow the company on Twitter @Beyond_com.

Click here to read more in our Q&A Series with Safeguard Scientifics’ partner company CEOs.

 

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