‘Always treat your business like it’s in crisis mode because crisis will come’
Building a company is a difficult task. Whether starting their own or growing an established business, these leaders have made a name for themselves as some of the best of the best. So, what makes business leaders tick and what are they aiming to achieve when all is said and done? We spoke to Brian Taptich, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Amazon Web Services, about his journey in business.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career and how have you overcome them?
In 2013, I left a job running all of the international business and operations for a red-hot company to join a cloud storage start-up as the CEO, which was a major step forward in my two-decade-long career holding vice president positions in strategy, product and business development. I was excited. We were developing really interesting technology with the capability to store and access data in a really efficient way.
My optimism shifted considerably on my sixth day on the job when we uncovered that the company was insolvent, on a collision course with bills that would come due in two weeks. It turned out that the cloud storage platform we had developed was built entirely on AWS, and the revenue we were generating from our customers to store their data was far less than the fees we had been incurring at AWS. We had no way to pay.
This was entirely new news to the Board of the company, as these pretty pertinent details had been hidden from the company by the founder. We instantly shifted into ‘fight or flight’ mode, where we were literally asking the question, “Do we turn the lights off and tell everyone to go home, or do we try to pivot?” After much navel-gazing and many meetings with the leadership team and the Board, we ultimately picked the latter option.
The three-year road that followed, and ultimately led to a successful acquisition, is long-winded, but we began rerouting the company using two foundational steps. The first was to urgently evaluate our business model from a bird’s eye view to see if we could find a successful path forward.
We ultimately agreed on restructuring our entire go- to-market strategy from direct-to-consumer to an enterprise-oriented B2B model, as well as a 60% staff turnover that reflected our changing business. The second step was to go to AWS with a hat in hand, asking for forgiveness and pitching our new path forward. AWS was gracious and allowed us the flexibility to fix our business model.
Looking back, it was an incredibly clarifying exercise to be put in a corner with no clear path towards escape and come out on the other end successful. There were a lot of steps in between and a lot of core learnings, but there was one major takeaway: Always treat your business like it’s in crisis mode because crisis will come.
Is there anything you wish you knew before you first started out?
Several things, but that’s all part of the learning experience, especially in leadership roles. One of the things most surprising was exactly how lonely the CEO job can be.
After college, I went on two back-to-back solo journeys. The first was the year I spent travelling across the United States on a motorcycle. I stuck to the back roads [see Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least-Heat Moon] and visited most of the lower 48 states. For the first time, I experienced first-hand the vastness and diversity of our country.
The following year, I decided to move to Japan for a year, where I taught English in Kitakata, a countryside town of ten thousand people (very famous for its ramen!); two hours outside of the closest urban environment. I was one of three non-Japanese people in the village, including another teacher from the States, as well as a Mexican missionary. While there, I experienced isolation in the purest form, very much a minority, without any existing friendships or shared language as a common denominator. It’s a situation like this that makes you realize the importance of human connections.
What I never expected was that the loneliness I experienced on those trips mirrored the feelings that came with being CEO. I don’t think people realize how vast and omni-present that feeling is the higher you rise in an organization. You have fewer people to relate to, and many more people relying on you. Complaints only go up, so you inherently lose safe spaces to vent and people to whom you can relate. Once you’re at the CEO position, the only person “up” is the Board.
All that to say, I never thought driving through fields on a motorcycle or navigating a rural village in Japan would be the core experiences that prepared me for the progression of my career. Anyone who has been in this position, or similar ones, knows that the highs are incredibly high, but, conversely, the lows can be exponentially lower. The best preparation is to figure out how to be comfortable in the face of loneliness.
Did you always want to be a business leader or did the desire develop over time?
“Always” is a loaded term! In elementary school, I was entirely sure I wanted to be a professional football player. Even coming out of Williams College (Go Ephs!), where I focused on English Literature and Psychology, I was thinking about teaching and writing for a living. It wasn’t until after I returned from my journeys, settled in San Francisco – just as Netscape had brought the Worldwide Web to the mainstream – and started as an Editor at Red Herring magazine that I caught the entrepreneurial bug and realized my desire to be a business leader.
What took shape in the mid-90s, then took form as I left Red Herring to co-found a print and web media company (alarm: clock worldwide), and then was codified after returning to business school at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.
What is your top tip for other business leaders?
Spend as much time, if not more, worried about building a strong company culture as you do building a strong business strategy. Frequently, leaders focus disproportionately on developing products or go-to-market strategies and forget that most companies, and especially startups, are only as good as their people. The best people can work pretty much anywhere they want, so one of the only differentiators to attract top talent is if they are able to clearly articulate a set of mission, vision and tenets which the entire company understands and practices.
At Amazon, we hold ourselves, and each other, accountable to the Amazon Leadership Principles. The set of 16 LPs – which range from Customer Obsession to Think Big to Ownership to Strive To Be Earth’s Best Employer – is the foundation of Amazon’s culture and describes how we do business, interact with each other, and keep the customer at the centre of our decisions. All of which helps employees and potential candidates understand exactly how the company operates.
At almost every company I’ve worked for, some version of the LPs exist and at almost all of them, while their version of the LPs were good fodder for t-shirts and posters (and mousepads and coasters, etc.), they were neither rules that inform how employees should act nor guidance to help them work autonomously. At one of my former employers, the problem was not only that they didn’t really adhere to their principles, but they – more often than not – did the exact opposite of their stated principles.
No matter how good your products or your GTM strategy may be, without a strong company culture, you will never be able to Earn Trust (another Amazon LP) with your teams or your customers.
What are your plans for the future?
When I originally left the start-up in 2016, I didn’t join the acquiring company because I didn’t have any interest in working at a large company. Just a few months later, I was at AWS leading its Game Tech vertical. Things don’t always go as planned.
In my experience, I’ve often limited my planning to business strategies and executions, focusing on Delivering Results (another essential Amazon Leadership Principle) in my current roles rather than focusing on my next opportunity.
Personal planning can be limiting, and my career progression so far has constantly been sparked by the prospect of new and global challenges.
What would you like your legacy to be?
I did my best as a leader, a father, a partner, a mentor, and a friend to help others elevate their thinking whether in a professional or personal setting.
What makes a great business leader?
Anybody in business (or in life, for that matter) either conducts heat or generates heat. “Heat Conductors” take guidance or information from one direction, and simply pass it along. Think about the manager we’ve all had at some point who simply passed along the work of their teams up the chain (frequently taking credit), or took orders from their manager and simply rained it down on their team. Heat Conductors are eminently replaceable. “Heat Generators” frequently innovate out of whole cloth, and always add significant value as data travels up or down. Great business leaders are Heat Generators.