Lessons learned in a company turnaround

Five lessons learned from salvaging Aggregate Knowledge and spinning it into a success

Lessons learned from entrepreneur by David Jakubowski
January 8, 2013
Short URL: http://vator.tv/n/2cc5

Very few CEOs walk into a new company faced with the challenges inherent in a turnaround situation. Generally, there are various events that have led up to the current situation of the company, and someone is brought in to salvage what is already there, put a new spin on it, and turn it into a huge success. This sounds great. And easy. But, I can attest that it is not. 

I joined Aggregate Knowledge (AK) back in 2008, when the company was at a crossroads of how it needed to evolve. AK began as a recommendation engine (telling users what other people like them viewed or bought on the Internet), but this had quickly become a commodity with companies who either gave it away for free or developed the technology in-house. I was brought in based on my background in search and display platforms, because the investors knew we needed to evolve quickly or we would not make it. 

I had a lot of figuring out to do so I took the company dark for a little over a year before we re-entered the market in 2010. It was a tough journey getting to where we are today, but it was well worth it.  Today, we see a 100% year-over-year growth with our new business model of bringing audience and media data together on a single platform, enabling marketers to efficiently spend their media dollars. 

Having gone through this company turnaround, here are five lessons I learned that helped me maneuver the situation and come out – in the end – a better manager, leader and visionary. 

Lesson 1: Figure out what to do with current customers and revenue.

The first thing you have to tackle is what to do with the customers and the revenue the company currently has when moving from an old business (and model) to a new one. Ask yourself:

  • What is my new customer profile? What happens to my old customers and old revenue stream? 
  • How can I evolve my solution as I shift the business, or do I need to start over? 
  • I already have some revenues, what will happen if that goes away?

Your solution has to evolve toward your new customer profile, even if it means stopping current development and starting over. I recommend starting over. We have seen plenty of large technology companies limp along trying to piece together disparate solutions or do a significant amount of rebuilding or patchwork when they are already down a path. In my experience, this rarely works.

Lesson 2: Determine if you have the right team.

In a turnaround situation, you have little time to waste. In my case, I decided to stop all development on the old solution and focus 100 percent on the new solution, despite the fact that current customers and revenues might dry up. Given this, I had to ensure I had the best team on the biggest opportunity. Some tough decisions you have to consider include:

  • Does the current team fit with the new opportunity and strategy?
  • If not, what do I do with them?
  • If so, who is now in charge and how do I keep them 100 percent focused on the one thing that matters?

There may be people who just don’t fit the new opportunity. If that is the case, they need to go. Reward and incentivize the people who do fit the new opportunity and align your best people to execute. When you get to the execution phase of a turnaround, it is imperative that you have the right people on the team that you can trust to deliver.

Lesson 3: Focus on one thing only and learn to say “no.”

What I have found is that you have to focus 100 percent on one thing vs. focusing 80 percent on many things. Because of this, as a leader, you must have the patience to stick to it when people question your strategy. Counter to human nature, kill or ignore anything and everything except your biggest opportunity. Resist the trap or temptation of shifting course based on what others want you to do. 

There will be plenty of internal and external pressure to move off course, but you must have the conviction to weather the storm. Your long-term vision will win out every time as long as you focus on flawless execution and prove to everyone that you know what you are doing.

Lesson 4: Give yourself time to execute.

Speaking from experience, you cannot turn around a company overnight. In my case, we completely stopped development on our recommendation engine 1.0 and built 2.0 with a very narrow focus on media intelligence. We had to focus not only on what we did extremely well, but temper this with who was in the market, where the market was moving, and what we thought would be viable long-term as a business.

Putting the strategy together was the easy part, the hard part was executing against the strategy. We had to hire additional resources that were aligned with the strategic vision of the company, develop the engineering prowess to become an industry leader, and keep our internal and external stakeholders happy as we continued to shift from an old business model and past customer base to a new business model focused on gaining new customers. 

In AK’s case, it took us a year to reshape the company and re-emerge with a new vision that was laser focused. I have found that good things come to those who wait. You can’t rush execution and hope to be successful. You have to be methodical, focused and give yourself time to make the changes necessary.

Lesson 5: Enjoy the journey.

People often talk about growing pains and I will say we experienced that as a result of reshaping and refocusing the organization. I found that those who want to be there with you as part of the team, want to execute, and want to share the vision will be in it for the long haul. Without a strong team of loyal partners, it is very hard to meet your goals and objectives. 

The journey I have gone on with AK has been full of ups and downs, and it took patience for me to ignore the naysayers or those who questioned the strategy. I put my blinders on and drove the company the best way I knew…and I will say we have emerged at the other end much better for it. The company continues to develop great technology and bring value to advertisers and agencies. But most importantly, we have a new identity that everyone has rallied around and believes in. That makes it all worth it.

Jakubowski is the CEO of Aggregate Knowledge, the only media intelligence company that offers advertisers and agencies an exact science to pinpoint where to reach highest performing customers in a single platform. Connect with AK on Twitter @akIntelligence or on Facebook.

(Image source: debtcrushingdad)