A CEO Speaks Out About Speaking OutMarch 02, 2012
by Ronen Shilo
Here's the paradox: I run a company that's incredibly visible, but not that well known. Conduit has 260 million users around the world, but our brand isn't top of mind. It's not even mid-mind, to be honest. One of those reasons is that I had never made a personal effort to get out in front of the company and act as a public advocate.
That's changed now. I'm becoming more visible, leaving many people wondering why I've decided to emerge from my cave. Have I developed a newfound urge for the spotlight? Am I jealous of Zuckerberg? Why the sudden availability?
They're all questions worth answering. They're questions that got me thinking as well.
Into The Spotlight
I didn't just wake up one morning and decide it was time to become more visible. It was a process. But I can tell you that I always believed that the responsibility of a CEO includes getting out there, and I had been thinking for a long time that I should start representing the company more actively and consistently. Plus, I realized that I wasn't doing myself any favors by resisting the exposure.
I'm essentially a product guy. People at Conduit are bored of hearing me say that if the product isn't right, nothing else matters. But I was also telling myself secretly that if the product is right, then nothing else matters either. In other words, a great product will speak for--and sell--itself. Anything else is just frivolous sizzle.
But I learned quickly that my thinking was faulty. There's a marketing and media side to the success equation that's really pivotal. And I probably used "it's all about the product" as an excuse to stay behind the scenes because I don't really enjoy the media whir.
Some people have asked me if there's a right time for a CEO to become an active presence in the media.
Like most things in business, there is no one answer. It depends on the personality of the CEO, how competitive the market is, and how mature your product is, among many other variables.
But these are the key questions that can shed light on some answers: What are you trying to accomplish and how do you measure success? Do you want to raise awareness with opinion makers? Are you looking to raise visibility because you are, or will be, raising money? Do you want to attract new customers or consumers? Are you starved for talent and in need of improving your recruiting? Or does your giant ego need some stroking?
While all of these questions can be important, you need to figure out what's most important to you, and how it all fits in with your objectives. Go deep before you go out. Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, has done just that. He's been terrific as a visible, sometimes in-your-face, evangelist for his brand. But often, I see a lot of CEOs working the media without a clear point of view about what they want to accomplish.
I realize now that I should have done this earlier, but I enjoyed taking the time to focus on product, on building the company. (And on family.)
As I look back, there wasn't a burning need for anyone to know who I was in the beginning. We had a rapid uptake of our product by publishers, so I didn't feel compelled to be visible. Soon after, toolbars--our primary business--began to get beaten up by the media. It was unfair, but so what? Life is unfair. Reporters didn't really understand what we did.
I couldn't help but think that if I had been out there more, I would have been able to push back. To strongly argue for our company and our brand. If I couldn't change their opinions, I would have at least created a dialogue. I think we lost the opportunity to shift the perception of the toolbar. Now it's too late to do that in any meaningful way. I'm not worried though, because I know there will be other opportunities to redefine our company.
So my advice to others is to be part of the dialogue sooner rather than later. It will benefit your company and your employees to do so. True, your product needs to mature, but it's easy to hide behind the maturity excuse, particularly if you're not really a media junkie at heart.
Visibility And Value
If I were hustling for an IPO though, everything would have been different.
There's no question about that. CEOs and founders contemplating an IPO recognize that visibility translates to asset value. That's actually why many Israeli companies hire an American CEO; they know that it will help achieve higher levels of awareness, whether for an IPO or an acquisition. But since neither of those is the case for my company, I had more reason to continue to operate Conduit under the radar. It wasn't a conscious plan. Like many things, it was unplanned yet retrospectively, right.
Now, the more I get out there, the more I'm amused by the differences in global media. The American and the Israeli media are as different as a hot dog and falafel.
Cultural differences are manifested everywhere and they're only heightened in the journalistic world. The media in Israel are tough. Compared with U.S. reporters, they're even brutal. American audiences are much more generous. Some Americans may disagree, but having been exposed to both cultures, I can tell it like it is.
I remember being at a conference in the U.S. where a CEO gave a presentation that was not impressive, to say the least. In Israel, he would have been torn apart, whereas Americans are more polite. Your social rules create an atmosphere of friendliness. I guess that's because we're in survival mode all the time, and pleasantries are a luxury Israelis don't get too often. Or at least they're seen as one.
Last time I was in the U.S., a reporter began an interview by proclaiming, "I hate toolbars." It was so unusual that I was really taken aback and felt for a second like I was at home in Israel. So forget media training. My advice to any American CEO is to come over here, expose yourself to some reporters, and get toughened up.
I'm also convinced that differing CEO backgrounds play a large role in how they relate to the media.
I once worked for a sales-driven CEO who started every day by asking everyone, "What did you sell yesterday?" He saw the media as one giant sales call. I'm from the product and engineering CEO track, not the sales or marketing side. This gives me the flexibility to speak about the product, the vision of the company, and how what we're building delivers on that.
If a CEO gets out there too soon, especially when he or she is from the sales or straight marketing side, there's a risk of overselling. Hype can make a fast difference, but in today's world of media scrutiny, it has a dangerously short shelf life. It quickly starts to rot and smell.
Personal Brand Takes A Backseat
As far as the ‘Ronen Shilo' brand, I don't think about it much. My public brand is no different than my private behavior. Those who know me would agree that I don't put on a mask when I speak to the media.
But I do want people to start to think of me and Conduit in the same breath. That's a good thing. Whether it's Bill Gates (before he started giving his money away) or Larry Ellison, or many others, the company benefits when it's strongly linked to an individual. People are more interesting than companies. So it's better for Conduit if I'm out there, and I certainly want to do what's best for my company.
Except, you won't see me making any speeches in the future. I like the intimacy of a one-on-one interview. For me, it's important to look someone in the eye, to read body language, to be in tune with the conversation. If you get thrown a curve ball, you can handle it. And I like an environment where surprises happen.
One thing I really don't like is a scripted speech. Once, when I was in the army, I had to give a lesson to a reserve group. They allocated an hour. Sixty minutes of air time! I finished what I had to say in five minutes. I was happy and they were happy.
The End Of The Media Hermit
After taking a breath of fresh air, I don't think I can head back to my cave any time soon.
I have to admit that I can get energized by meeting with the press, particularly with really smart reporters who've done their homework. (When it's the other way, and I have to educate a reporter who doesn't have a clue about what we do, it's frustrating. I'd never hire someone who hasn't spent time studying us, so why should I waste my time with a reporter who didn't gather any background information?)
At the same time, intelligent reporters can be challenging. They know the category and tend to ask some provocative questions that really get me thinking. They're out talking to a lot of smart people, so they have a perspective I might not otherwise hear. Learning from a reporter, that's something I never would have expected when I was in my media hermit period.
Come to think of it, I also never expected that coming out of my shell to answer people's questions would, in turn, get a lot of my own questions answered.
Ronen Shilo is the CEO of Israel's largest Internet company, Conduit.