2-11: "The Direction Finder" - Tom Stockham

TomStockham

"The Direction Finder"

Tom Stockham is the CEO of ExpertVoice. Before that, he was the CEO of ancestry.com and the President of ticketmaster.com. He was there when that particular rocket took off.

He is interested in making change that makes a difference, sees the future faster and more clearly than most and worries about how to bring other people on the journey.

So, this week’s theme is action. And this episode is called “The Direction Finder”.


Three Takeaways

  • The ability to turn vision into practical action

  • Availability to new possibilities

  • A healthy sense of optimism


"FEARLESS CREATIVE LEADERSHIP" PODCAST - TRANSCRIPT

Episode 2-11: "The Direction Finder" - Tom Stockham

Hi. I’m Charles Day. And this is ‘Fearless’.

Tom Stockham is the CEO of ExpertVoice. Before that, he was the CEO of ancestry.com and the President of ticketmaster.com. He was there when that particular rocket took off.

He is interested in making change that makes a difference, sees the future faster and more clearly than most and worries about how to bring other people on the journey.

So, this week’s theme is action. And this episode is called “The Direction Finder”.

“Truly at it's core it's about building something, that didn't exist before you decided, hey, there's a problem there that should be solved, and if we could solve that the world would be better. I love doing that with a group of people. Getting more and more really phenomenal people involved and working in the same direction.”

Action should, in theory, be at the heart of all leadership. Except, too often it’s not.

Too many leaders spend their energy hanging on to today and justifying small changes tomorrow. A lot of people can do that. It’s called managing. And it’s tremendously important to the operation of any successful business.

But leadership is much more than that. It’s about seeing a different future and then taking action.

But here’s the trick - the action you take should be designed to have only one outcome in mind. To encourage others to take action themselves.

It’s tempting and pretty natural to worry about how the action we take will affect us. To frame our decisions through the lens of our own fears and anxieties. What will this mean for me.

But great leadership is about moving quickly through those very human instincts to get to a more important question. “What will this mean for them”. 

Truly understand that and you’ll unlock creativity like never before.

Here’s Tom Stockham.


Charles:

Tom welcome to Fearless. Thanks so much for agreeing to do this.

Tom Stockham:

Hey, thank you for having me.

Charles:

What's your first memory of something appearing to you to be creative?

Tom Stockham:

Yeah, man, early in my teenage years, it was apparent to me, that like something that just blew my mind creatively was the way people came up with solutions to really mundane problems for me at the time, it was skiing. I lived to ski as a teenager and this was a lot of years ago, but, people kept coming up with different ways to solve problems with skis, and bindings and boots for skiing. And I thought, who are these people that are creating this stuff? And it just made me think about the way that products can solve really interesting problems.

Charles:

Yeah, creativity is such an intimate subject, isn't it? Because it affects us in such a personal way. It's through lenses that nobody else would particularly see, I think.

Tom Stockham:

Yeah, and I, you know, I'm almost embarrassed answering the question that way, that it wasn't art for example, and I love art, and I love sculpture. But those things, it was a product, it was skiing, it was something that I was doing that made me feel like, Wow! Who's figuring out how to solve this problem better?

Charles:

Where did you, where did you grow up?

Tom Stockham:

So, I was born in Boston, but I did most of my growing up in Utah, and in the mountains of Utah. And like I said, I, I as a teenager, I felt like the thing that gave me a breath of fresh air and the thing that really lit my life up was just the freedom and flow of skiing in the mountains here.

Charles:

What did your parents do?

Tom Stockham:

My Dad was professor at the University of Utah. He had come to the University of Utah to help start, what then was a relatively new field, that didn't really exist as a field on it's own, computer science. He had been in the electrical engineering department at MIT and come here to do that, and my Mom was a Mom.

Charles:

What drew your father to that at such an early, at such an early stage, or as you said, at the very beginning of that? What drew him to that?

Tom Stockham:

Yeah, so lots of interesting stories about my father and work he did in engineering and other things. Fun stories from his real youth, when he did things, crazy things like take apart movie cameras and try and put them back together and things like that. But, he was, he did all of his schooling at MIT and he was fanatical about things you could do with the then emerging computers, digital. And in particular he loved the sound of a symphony and he hated that once it was recorded it didn't sound the same anymore. And how could you solve that? And he started trying to use computers and digitizing sound to do that. And actually he's known as and credited as the father of digital audio.

Charles:

Is he really?

Tom Stockham:

Everything we're doing right here, the fact that we're talking and everything we're saying right now is completely digitized, he was at the very beginning of that.

Charles:

Your father's DNA is built into what we're doing. That's extra, what an extraordinary legacy.

Tom Stockham:

Yeah, yeah, I'm so grateful and privileged to be his son. And at some point later in my teen years, he said something that I'm sure to him was completely innocent around the dinner table. But he talked about the reality that there we a lot of really remarkable engineers in the world, but there weren't as many people to help turn what those engineers might build into real products and businesses. And that took a hold of me and set me on a path to do what I do.

Charles:

Wow, from a moment's inspiration.

Tom Stockham:

Yep.

Charles:

So were you, did you get involved? Were you close to the work he was doing? Were you engaged in studying what he was doing as well?

Tom Stockham:

No, not at all. I mean, as a, again, a teenager, I would fall asleep to the sound of old recordings of Enrico Caruso playing in my father's home study, next to my bedroom. That was pretty intimately involved. But no I wasn't working alongside of him until, I did get a chance briefly to work alongside of him, much later after I'd gone to school and graduate school and worked for a bit. But that was much later.

Charles:

What did you study at school?

Tom Stockham:

So, I, in college, my degree was a degree called a government degree, which was a Dartmouth college's blend of history and philosophy and political science and a bunch of subjects that they were the best professors at Dartmouth, and I was going anywhere that I could find the best professors. And then I finished at Dartmouth, worked for a couple of years in Boston, for a group called the Boston Consulting Group, and then got an MBA at Stanford.

Charles:

And what drew you to decide to get an MBA?

Tom Stockham:

You know, I had this notion as I said, since I was about 17, how could I, could I be the business end of technology companies? Could I help turn ideas and things that came out of technology into products and businesses? And I really thought, was passionate about believing that's what I wanted to do, but how can you know what that's, what you want to do? What is business? When you're a teenager it's just a generic word. So when I finished college, I really thought that's what I wanted to do, and I thought that consulting, strategy consulting was my root to discover what is business and would I like it, and would I be any good at it?

That's why I went to BCG, and then for me Stanford was the center of the technology world, has become even more so since then. And it was a path to get more immersed in business and business thinking right in the heart of technology and entrepreneurship in the Silicon Valley.

Charles:

I'm so interested in talking to the various leaders on my podcast and in my work about the different attitudes and experiences around academia in their lives. I mean, you know, there's such a diverse range I think. People who've been successful in unlocking creativity and innovation in the business world. And about their involvement and interest in further education. I mean from one extreme John Sifford, CEO of Ogilvy, been at the agency 39 years, never graduated college. You know, on the other extreme, someone like yourself whose had, whose invested in an MBA and obviously you got enormous value out of that. So did you find the rigor of academia at that level to be helpful in terms of bringing processed discipline to your thinking in terms of how you unlock creativity?

Tom Stockham:

You know I did, but I'd almost comment on it a little bit differently than that, it wound up ultimately, it was the thing that I needed eventually to gain enough confidence to say, "I could go do that." Sitting in a class at Stanford, so many remarkable experiences and guest lecturers that I could go on and on about. Really, truly, remarkable people, for example, Steve Jobs, I was in school at Stanford during the moments that Jobs was between his time at Apple and his then later return to Apple, he was just starting a company called Next. And I spent a lot of time with Steve, he actually wound up marrying a classmate of mine. And people like Steve Jobs and Scott McNeilly and Jim Clarkson and others, who I was able to look at and get exposed to through the academics. And really then say, "Hey, they're incredibly inspiring, incredibly inspiring, and I could do that! They're showing me something that I could do." So for me school in that way was both the rigor and the academics, but more the inspiration and the confidence building to enable me to go try things on my own.

Charles:

That must have been a remarkable experience to have such intimate connection to people who achieved so much. I mean what made what they were doing accessible to you?

Tom Stockham:

Absolutely, absolutely, we, you know talk in a world where you have this kind of academic surrounding, which really does enable so many of the parties - the students, the professors, the guest lecturers, all to talk in ways that are really open, really vulnerable at some level. And you get to hear people, you get to think about what their problems are, they're asking you to take a swing at, well how would you solve this problem? Here's the problem posed, it can be in a case study or an academic setting, what are your thoughts about it? How would you solve it? And then to get to talk with people who were dead at the heart of solving it and to hear them talk about their level of doubt, their level of conviction, their level of, the range of alternatives they considered. What role, creativity, or risk taking took in solving problems. And it just really, it humanized business building for me.

Charles:

What did you learn from them about risk-taking?

Tom Stockham:

A whole range of things. First, I think the most fundamental thing I learned is that risk taking is risky. It does, meaning, you know people talk about it in these ways that maybe make it sound heroic or things like that, and the reality is when you take risks, things go wrong sometimes. And if you're not, if things aren't going wrong sometimes you're probably kidding yourself that you're taking risks. And so you have to be prepared for, and open to, and really capable of dealing with when things go wrong. It taught me about how deeply people think about the possibility of something going wrong. And that there are certain people who really actually aren't that willing to have things go wrong. Which is fine, which is absolutely fine, but risk taking is not some vague, academic notion. It is a real, tangible thing and it is, what it implies is that things go wrong.

Charles:

And do you think that, can you do great things if you're not prepared to take risks? I mean, through your own experience, not to jump too far forward in your story, but through this extraordinary perspective you had, did you walk away feeling like a certain amount of risk is implicit in doing something significant?

Tom Stockham:

Yes, and for me, life would be much less interesting. Certainly life and business would be much less interesting without risk taking. I don't fault people who are much less willing to, much less capable of taking risks. I really, I understand that and that's of course, there are a lot of people like that in the world. They, and by, I'm talking as if that's a bad thing a little bit, and I really don't mean that at all. There's certain people who need the clarity of a plan, and they need to be incredibly confident what will happen as a consequence of each step in the plan. And those people are a really important complement to people like me, who are much more willing to say, "Well we can't know what will happen after step two, and that's okay. How well can we imagine several possibilities, and really, how might bad might it be if any of those possibilities play out? And if none of them are that bad, then why wouldn't we go take the risk?"

Charles:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, absolutely. Did you get the sense that they were afraid of anything? These people that you had, that you were exposed to?

Tom Stockham:

Yeah, I, actually I did. They were, again, coming back, my main impression was that they were real people, and they had fears and they had experienced pain and they had done things badly, done things very, very well of course, and done things badly and were willing to take responsibility for what was done badly. And were afraid, or also, you know, there were elements of sadness and regret. But, overall, they were incredibly optimistic people, they were catalytic in the world and they built remarkable things, that would not have been built without their willingness to imagine what was possible and take a risk on doing it.

Charles:

What do you think got them past their fear?

Tom Stockham:

That is a good question, it's some balance. A willingness to deal with the bad outcomes and planning well enough that the possible bad outcomes are minimized.

Charles:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tom Stockham:

And I don't know where that balance is exactly, I suspect I'll figure that out more and more my whole life.

Charles:

And it's different for everybody, right?

Tom Stockham:

Yeah.

Charles:

Yeah. It's so interesting. So from BCG and your MBA you, what was your next stop?

Tom Stockham:

So I went from there to actually run a US Senate campaign in the 1992 election cycle. I had actually tried incredibly hard while I was at Stanford to start a business. And I'm still, I still look back at that business and the idea and everything about it and think, Wow! That was a really good idea, that was a very good early, early, part of a business, but as a second year student in graduate school without any meaningful technology company experience, I couldn't get it funded and I couldn't push it to the point of becoming a real business. And in the meantime a person whom I knew was very passionate about running for the US senate in '92 cycle, and asked me to manage his campaign. Which was a, it was a really idiotic thing to do by the way. Talk about risk taking! I knew nothing about what that meant, or how to do that. But he was convinced that you couldn't change the senate and you couldn't change the way politics was done by continually going back to the people who had run the campaigns and done it always.

So worked hard at that, and it was a total failure. I did not get past the primaries. And then I went right back into starting a next company. Truly the next company was a, there were few candidates, but the next company's is a company that we came called Sonic Innovations. And it was the combination of some digital signal processing technology, some really advanced microchip technology, and putting all of that together in a very tiny device to go in a person's ear and have a very sophisticated sound processing mechanism in people's ear.

And that's where I got to work with my Dad for the first time. Which was really interesting, he was part of the founding team of that company. And built that, it eventually became a publicly traded company and then was bought by a European hearing technology conglomerate, and that was the path out of Stanford.

Charles:

Had you always wanted to run your own, and build your own business?

Tom Stockham:

Really, almost always, from the time I was seventeen.

Charles:

Where'd you think that came from?

Tom Stockham:

You know, it never occurred to me that being the business builder, the business part of technology companies did not mean creating them and building them. I, you know, it shouldn't, I, you know, I look back at in now and I think wait, why did it have to be that I would be the primary driver or architect of companies as opposed to going to work for a remarkable technology company? But it almost never crossed my mind, and that just wound up being the path I went down.

Charles:

So interesting isn't it? How some people are drawn to build their own businesses and other people have no desire whatsoever to go down that path. I just think it's an intriguing part of the human psyche as to why some people want to and some people don't.

Tom Stockham:

Yeah.

Charles:

So you built this business from scratch. Your Dad worked for you?

Tom Stockham:

He did. He did.

Charles:

And what was that dynamic like?

Tom Stockham:

You know it was, it was an easy, easy, dynamic, truly. I was the CEO and he was the head of the technology end of the business and it felt at that time, we had an amazing man out of Cal-Tech, Carver Mead and some other remarkable engineers and it just felt like we were a team. It didn't feel, to me like, that there was some kind of hierarchy about it, we were each, we each had responsibilities. We each had things had to go do and get done, and we went off and got them done. And I needed to get enough money to make the company function and generally chart a credible course about how we were going to get to market. And he needed to make sure that the audio technology functioned efficiently and could run. Carver needed to make sure that we were, we had an actual set of hard, you know silicon substrate that worked. So everyone had their responsibility and we just worked on getting it done, and frankly, I still feel like that's the more major part of whether you're running a company or anything.

To me every company I've been part of, it still feels more like a team than a hierarchy, though I do think hierarchy is important. But it's a bunch of people figuring out what are their responsibilities and taking their part and going and getting it done.

Charles:

Were you, were you comfortable as the leader from the first moment? Or was that something instinctive capability you had?

Tom Stockham:

You know, I still wonder whether I really have that capability! But I've always felt comfortable with that, I've always felt really comfortable with it and I've always felt humbled by it in two senses. One is Wow! These people are willing to do this with me and go down this path that I've outlined, that WE have outlined, but ultimately someone is saying if there are questions about which alternative. No, that's the path we're going down. I felt comfortable with that. Humbled by it, but also humbled by you make mistakes. And I come back regularly to thinking Wow! How badly did I just screw that thing up? So, and yet, I still love it. I love it! So ...

Charles:

What do you love about it?

Tom Stockham:

Building something? Truly at its core it's about building something, that didn't exist before you decided, hey, there's a problem there that should be solved, and if we could solve that the world would be better. I love doing that with a group of people. Getting more and more really phenomenal people involved, and working in the same direction. But, ultimately, it's those moments when you get to step back and say, "Wow! Look at this thing we've built, we are building." I get an incredibly deep sense of reward out of it.

Even on the worst days, the days where it's absolutely awful, and it is awful sometimes, I almost always wake up the next morning with a renewed sense of energy about it.

Charles:

Because you're focused on the thing you're trying to achieve?

Tom Stockham:

Yes. Yes. And you don't make linear progress every day, but overall if you take a step back you can see real progress over extended periods of time, and it's energizing. It's invigorating.

Charles:

You know, I have to say, I think it's such an important point that when we build our own business, and now working with leaders myself, one of the things that I'm always advising them to do is to find a moment, to make a moment, a consistent date, and to stop and look back at progress. Because your point, I think, it's very hard to see progress in real time. We need to just take perspective of about how far we have come as a business, as an entity, as an organization, as a group, in order to recognize that, in fact, we are moving closer to the reason we started this business in the first place.

Don't you find that the kind of day to day dynamic of running a business is very distracting. It's very easy to get focused on the things that aren't working and lose sight of the things that are?

Tom Stockham:

Absolutely. Gosh, I'd love to talk with you about that in a lot of detail, and another time, probably. But it's so true, and the other thing that's true about that is, everyone's ability to do that, and schedule for doing that is a little bit different. You know, the days and moments that I can see progress, and feel like really reassured by it, and proud of it, and celebrate it don't always line up with others abilities to. If you try to celebrate it, or you try to do it in a way where you're insisting everyone else come to your realization and party it doesn't always work. That's a really ... There's a lot of depth to that.

Charles:

I agree with that. That was certainly my experience.

You sell the first business. You're standing at one of those moments in life, one of those crossroads. What did you decide you were going to do next?

Tom Stockham:

Some friends of mine who ... Actually, people I had worked with at BCG, were getting really excited about this thing called the Internet.

Charles:

You heard of that?

Tom Stockham:

This is the moment when NetScape has just gone public. There are these tiny little fledgling companies that are trying to figure out what a search engine of the internet is. There is so much buzz in the media about the internet, and I get a call from some guys I had worked with at BCG said, "Hey, we're going to start this company. It's called Citysearch, and we're going to take all the information that you would typically find in the Yellow Pages." Many of your listeners may not even remember what a Yellow Pages is, but the Yellow Pages and weekly magazines, the kind of events types of magazines, "And we're going to put it all on the internet, and we're going to create these really interesting ways to navigate in a virtual world, and see where these businesses are, and get a sense of what they look like inside, and let's go start that."

I was fascinated by the concept, and I was deeply intrigued by the group of people, and so I didn't start Citysearch, but I was invited to that party relatively early in its development, and was thrilled to go do that.

Charles:

What did you see that could be?

Tom Stockham:

To me, it felt so obviously that as soon as you could have information change all the time ... So different than the Yellow Pages, where you print it once a year, and it's out of date the minute you print it, and it's so limiting. It's just a name and a phone number that maybe it gets to bold, or maybe someone gets to put a little picture of a washing machine in there, if they're a washing machine repair person. The notion that you could stop going from once a year print and distribution, or in the case of newspapers, stop going from this silly, "We publish our paper once a week," or, "We publish our paper once a day, and the thing we're proudest of ... We're proud of our news gathering, but we're as proud of the fact that we can print all these papers and distribute four million on them in four hours."

That just all seemed instantly irrelevant if you could change the information all the time, put more information, a lot more information, out and make it available, by ... I just thought, "Of course, that's the way of the future."

Charles:

I'm curious because the first company you built, Sonic Innovations, was designed to solve an existing need, right? I mean, you're obviously original as a team, and as an individual in about how you went about solving that. But here you are now, confronted by, as we know, infinite possibility. I mean, the internet was nascent in the extreme. You're conceiving something that had never been done before, and probably not even thought about before, this kind of notion of dynamic information updating. Did you find you were bringing different skills to those two different business ... How did you get your mind to be open enough to absorb all the possibilities of the second business?

Tom Stockham:

Yeah, you know the clarifying thing with any business is who cares? Really, at the end of the day, who's going to pay for it? How much are they going to pay? You start any business with a thought about, how valuable is this thing? Who would pay how much for it? How is it embodied? How is it going to get delivered?

The fact is, they weren't that different at the levels that matter. This hearing device technology, it was a very, very well established industry. It really had not evolved at all since World War II. Basically, every single hearing device was an amplifier that you stuck in your ear, and you bought them at certain places from certain people, audiologists, and so on. We thought we had a revolutionary device, and in its hearing ... The part of it that made hearing better, it was truly revolutionary. Look, incredibly revolutionary, and yet it wasn't that different in its components where it still needed to fit well in an ear, and not hurt people. It still needed to be distributed through audiologists offices, things like that, and those wound up being really challenging for us to enter, because these old, established players were in there, so you had to get really creative about that.

It presented a whole set of problems. The next thing, the internet, was a revolutionary idea, and we had ideas about how much people would pay us for it, and who would buy it, and, "Wouldn't this be instantly sensible to the business and to the consumer?" It was a compelling idea that just wasn't as quickly adopted as we thought it would be. It was really tough to start with local information back in the mid-nineties. It was much, much harder than we thought it would be, and took us much longer to sell big meaningful deals to small businesses than we thought it would.

Charles:

Because they didn't understand the value of that proposition?

Tom Stockham:

I think it was partly because they didn't understand the value, but I think more candidly it was there wasn't enough value. There weren't that many people yet looking for information about local businesses on the internet. It just took consumers longer to think that that was the way they were going to look for information. It took the world longer to gather enough local information, to make it really helpful to consumers. In the story of how things evolved, creatively we knew that our business was mostly going to be about capturing everything that was the Yellow Pages, and everything that was coupons, and everything that was even down to types of classifieds. It turned out that the first business that we really were able to transform was ticketing.

Tickets, at the time, were sold, over the phone. You'd start dialing on Saturday morning at 10 AM for tickets, or you would go to a local outlet, which the outlets were frequently at grocery stores, and you'd camp out overnight, and wait in line for tickets. We thought, "Well, heck, this local information thing is about the events. We could probably sell some tickets." We started selling tickets online with Ticketmaster, and it was that that exploded. That made sense to everyone right away, and we went from selling a couple hundred thousand dollars worth of tickets a month, mostly via AOL, to selling over a hundred million dollars worth of tickets a month in just a couple of years.

You were groping around, trying to solve a problem, and you find a problem that wasn't even the problem you intended, and all of a sudden, wow! It takes off in a big way.

Charles:

Just to push on this, because I think this is such an important aspect of unlocking creativity in the business environment, and just to back to the earlier point ... So I'm really struck by ... And I see this a lot, obviously, as well. You've lived it. To go back to the earlier point, so your original business brilliantly and innovatively changed a paradigm with a known problem, right? You found a better way to solve an existing problem that many people have.

Tom Stockham:

Yeah.

Charles:

There are clearly businesses today that need that aspect of original thinking. They have the problem. They need to find better ways to solve it.

The second business you built was built around the fact that there wasn't even a problem here. We're not even trying to solve any. No one's saying to us, "Oh, my god, please provide us with more updated, immediate, instant, local information." Right? Nobody was knocking on anybody's door asking for that to your point. It took you some time of trying different stuff to find the place where that was actually resonant, and valuable enough for people to spend money on. I'm curious about the lessons you learned in the second business about holding on to an idea, kind of a sense, almost, as much as anything else, that there was something to this, even if you couldn't quite define it or articulate it, or find the epicenter of it. You would keep trying, and digging, and focusing on different possibilities until you found the thing that resonated.

Tom Stockham:

Yeah. You know, the fact is the problems were there. The underlying problems were there. Whether it was that people were looking up ... They were using the Yellow Pages, which was only available if you could find the Yellow Pages near you. By the way, at the time it was easy to find the Yellow Pages near you most of the time. But they were looking in the Yellow Pages for phone numbers, an enormous amount of time, but the numbers changed, or weren't accurate, and the listing, the thing you were looking at didn't give you enough information about the place you were trying to call.

"What kind of barber shop is this? What kind of restaurant is it?" If it just says Ming's Restaurant, you might assume, "Well, that's probably Chinese." But if the only information you have is a name of a place, and address, and a phone number, it's unsatisfying. You did have to abstract, like, "Well, what might the solution to that problem be," more than with something like people have a hearing problem and existing solutions just aren't addressing the problem well enough. But the underlying problem is certainly there. In fact, if there isn't a problem, there isn't a business, there isn't an anything.

Charles:

Right.

Tom Stockham:

It's not that you're grasping on to something ... The real underlying thing for me is that the way that someone like Steve Jobs could apparently see a problem and come up with something that really, truly would be a better solution, and that people would love and adopt and embrace, and feel like was changing their lives.

Whereas other people see a problem and come up with a solution, but the solution isn't good enough. It's not different enough, or it's not understandable enough, or it's not tangible enough to really make strides. In any case, I think that the ... It's not that the problem isn't there. It's, "Can you understand what the problem is clearly enough? And can you understand what might really make it better, well enough?"

Charles:

And are you willing to spend the time and the energy to dig down into that long enough to get to that point of clarity?

Tom Stockham:

That's exactly right, and when you bump into things that don't go the way you thought they would go, it doesn't solve the problem, or people don't understand it well enough, that you can kind of bounce off of that, and redirect effectively enough to make a better attempt on the next pass.

Charles:

So you discover that selling tickets is a valued proposition. What do you do with that realization?

Tom Stockham:

You hold on for dear life! That was an incredible, incredible whirlwind. It was, in fact ... I laugh, there were a couple of years ago commercials where people would ... The subject of the commercial was a group of people sitting around a computer, and their site goes live, and they're looking at the computer screen, and it shows one sale. And then it shows two, three, five, ten, fifty, seventy ... And all of a sudden, they go from this look of, "Hurray! We sold something!" Then when the ticker on the computer is going at a thousand, they all look at each other like, "What are we going to do now? Oh, my gosh!"

Truly, that was the experience of the Ticketmaster thing. It took off so quickly. It wasn't, "Did people want this, or was it a good idea?" We collapsed the Sprint network in the Midwest when someone figured out how to daisy chain all of the University of Chicago's computers together to hit our servers and buy tickets. It was literally figuring out, "Well, how do you build enough infrastructure in a way that addresses that problem, and how do you help reduce the cheating that would happen?" All these things that became real problems we had to solve. But it wasn't about selling tickets. Tickets sold.

Charles:

That's an interesting point, as referenced as well, which you say, "Now you have built this business," or you've created this business, I should say, to your points. Not built, yet, but created this demand for this thing ... You have a business that is a runaway success, and you are responding like crazy to the needs of that business. Are you holding at the same time to a vision of what you want that business to be? Was there a point at which you were able to focus enough attention away from, "Solve the problem, build the infrastructure," to, "Let's remind ourselves where we want this business to be. What's our vision for this?" Were you doing both at the same time, or were you just in response mode?

Tom Stockham:

No, I think we were doing both at the same time. In fact, it was interesting. The reason to move ticketing online was not ... There wasn't enough for the people who would have invested in that to say, "Well, why do we care if they sell online? We're selling all of the tickets to a popular show when we sell them at outlets and on the phone. There are only so many concert tickets for a U2 concert. We're not going to sell more if we open this online thing." The real impetus was for things like going away from physical tickets, and turning tickets into digital items that could have a barcode, so you could cancel one ticket, sell it, ship it across town, have someone print it out on the other side of town, and still not have two people fighting at the door for the same seats.

Things like that were the real impetus for moving ticking online, and it was actually pretty easy to keep the vision in mind at the same time we were scrambling just to make the darned thing work. It was a lot more work to make things work than it was to shape and steer and craft the vision, but that's always true. That's always true.

Charles:

From Ticketmaster, where then?

Tom Stockham:

From Ticketmaster, I went to Ancestry.com. At the time it was called MyFamily.com. It was a wonderful, relatively small company at the time that had tried to build. It had been focused in the late-nineties on a notion that I think is most easily described as Facebook for families. It was an invitation based community to really connect more closely with your family, rather than at the time ... Actually, Facebook didn't even exist yet, but Facebook early on was your college community. It had invested a lot. It happened to also have this underlying thing, which was a subscription for information about your family history, ancestry product. One of the businesses that we had also gone into in the Citysearch days was the online dating business. We acquired a tiny, tiny little company at the time called Match.com, that started to grow some and was an online subscription. When investors in MyFamily.com were really staring hard at the post-1999 bubble burst, were they going to continue to invest in this business, the real underlying cash generating asset was the subscription for Ancestry.com. They called me and said, "Can you help us think about this online subscription business," and eventually asked me to come run it. So I picked my family up from the Los Angeles area. We moved back here to Utah. I have roots here. My parents were here at the time. Came to do that, I thought, maybe for just a couple of years, and I've been here ever since. That was an amazing, wonderful business, maybe one of the best businesses I've ever been exposed to, in the sense that it had a dominant, leading position in the marketplace, as it does to this day. It generated an incredible amount of cash eventually, just stunningly profitable, and it does a good thing for the world, connects people to their past, and it humanizes others in ways that few products can.

Charles:

Has that notion of doing something good for the world been present for you in everything you've done?

Tom Stockham:

Yeah, you do want to make the world better with what you're building. Really, really do want to do that. But I feel totally inadequate also in what I've done around that so I don't want to get too up on too high a horse about it.

Charles:

Coming out of the success you've had at Ticketmaster and choosing to move into a different business entirely, albeit that you're coming home, did you feel like you were taking a risk? And talking about sort of the economic environments, the macroeconomic environment at the time, did you feel like you were taking a risk in doing that?

Tom Stockham:

Oh, sure. Absolutely, but, again, risks are fun. They're part of what make life interesting. There was the potential for a lot of great return on that risk. I did feel, actually, in perspective ... So I looked at that business and what it was at the time and the people who were talking with me were essentially saying, " We don't know if there's really anything here. We think there is but we don't know how best to invest in it and what to build and we're really worried about it." I looked at it and I though, "Are you kidding me? You've got this level of business with that many subscribers paying that much, which is a tiny fraction of what they would be willing to pay for all of these other products you could offer. You're early in the market." That looked like an incredible business to me. So it felt much less risky to me than it seemed to feel to the others. That's a fun position to be in.

Charles:

Do you think you instinctively have a higher risk threshold or tolerance than other people because these are obviously ... You have a young family at that point. You're leaving a very successful business behind. The people who own it are saying, "Eh, not sure. There's only that much here." Where do you think your willingness to take that kind of step comes from, because it's not instinctive for everybody?

Tom Stockham:

I don't know. Maybe I'm delusional. I don't know. I don't know. But yes, I do have a different risk tolerance than many, many people, than most people. It's not always a good thing but it's a fact.

Charles:

Are you an optimist at heart?

Tom Stockham:

Yes.

Charles:

In general?

Tom Stockham:

Yeah. In general.

Charles:

In the aspects of life.

Tom Stockham:

In general. And maybe insufferably so at times.

Charles:

I'm not sure. We could all use a healthy dose of optimism, I think, at this particular point in history. I think that it's an incredibly valuable component of life and also leadership, clearly. So Ancestry.com is clearly a huge success. What made you decide to move on from that and what did you move to?

Tom Stockham:

So, actually, I didn't decide. I was asked to leave. I was fired by the board and I hated that. That really hurt and I ... It really hurt. And I can go more deeply into that but ... So it wasn't my choice to leave. I was asked to leave.

Charles:

Do you think it was fair? Or ...

Tom Stockham:

You know, these things ... Fair, that's maybe not quite the right word. I think I understand why people would have done it. The business had grown incredibly well, incredibly well, from the time I had arrived until the time I was asked to leave. It was enormously more valuable. I was two things. I saw much, much, much more potential in the future for the business, much more. It felt like it was in the very beginnings of its potential success, not cresting out, though we were experiencing some things that were cresting. Things we had built that were slowing down. They'd grown really quickly and slowing down. But I really wanted to keep building the business.

I was very optimistic about the future and wanted the investors and the board to stay long in the business. I was arrogant. How could anyone fire someone who had achieved so much success with a business? So I wasn't as careful with how I tried to convince the board and others of the potential of my ideas. And the fact was that I was ... The investors wanted to find ways to get out and they wanted the business to be healthy. They didn't want to damage the value that had been created so ... In any case, I understand why they might have done it. I still think that it was a big mistake.

Charles:

Looking back, would you have done the things differently?

Tom Stockham:

Yes. Yes, I would have. I would have been more careful about bringing the board along with my ideas. I would have been more careful about helping others understand my vision and what I thought was possible. I would have worked harder to provide an avenue for investors who wanted out of the business at the time a path to get out that they would have been happy about.

Charles:

Was that the first time you'd experienced people not buying into your view of the future?

Tom Stockham:

No. No. You constantly have people telling you they don't believe in your vision of the future. The first time you go to raise money in the very first circumstance, people will tell you they don't believe what you're talking about. Hell, before you even go raise money, the first time you talk with people. "I think there's a business. I think there's a way to solve this problem." Most people will tell you their skepticism about it before they tell you they like it.

Charles:

What made this time different?

Tom Stockham:

There are probably a lot of things but probably the most tangible thing was, "Hey, we've just 20X, we've just received 20X our money and it's happened in under four years and there's a few things that look like they may be shaking, that our growth may be slowing down, and you want us to buy into another 10-fold or another 20-fold? That sounds a little pie in the sky. We'd like to be out now." It was feeling like there was a bird in the hand, something really tangible right in the short-term to get out that I didn't pay enough attention to. I shouldn't have had any resentment about those people wanting to get out and I should've ... Of course, they should've been able to get out if they wanted to get out.

Charles:

But, also, human nature. I think to your earlier point, that, "We've done this amazing thing, I've been instrumental in doing that. How can you not trust me?" I think the notion of not being trusted and not being respected, perhaps, has a deep impact on most leaders. There is this kind of visceral, emotional reaction to that kind of stuff, especially when you've been successful. I see that quite a lot, actually.

Tom Stockham:

Yeah. I also, now, with the benefit of however many more years of my life and my career, that too is inevitable. That happens periodically and heck, I think you're not human if you don't question yourself. You can't blame other people for questioning you when things don't go the way you said they would go.

Charles:

Although we often do, right?

Tom Stockham:

Look, if you're going to be a leader, if you're going to build something that doesn't exist today, you have to talk about the way the world will look in the future when this thing exists. And yet nobody can predict the future. It won't look exactly like you described it. It will not, guaranteed. It will not look exactly like what you're describing. So where's the balance? How well can you do painting a picture about the future will be better and bring people along when it is a little different or a lot different than you thought it was going to be and persevere, have grit about it? That's a hard balance to strike.

Charles:

What did you learn about the reframing? I'm struck by that experience of I've given you a vision of the future. It hasn't quite worked out that way. There's some stuff that is. There's some stuff that isn't. Let me re-present this to you through a different lens. What did you learn about the best way to convince people, "Stick with me even though I haven't been exactly right so far."

Tom Stockham:

Boy, that too I'm still learning. Humility about what went wrong. When people call you to the carpet and say, "You said it was going to be like this and it wasn't." A genuine humility about that. It's tempting to say something close to, "Well, it almost looks like that. Look, squint over here. It almost looks like it." But usually it's better to say something closer to, "You're right. That didn't work the way we thought but the next thing is this and here's why, based on what we learned and what might work differently. Here's why that might work. But it's hard. There are no magic answers for that.

Charles:

Yeah. Yeah. I think it's an important part of developing your own leadership philosophy and profile, isn't it? Because you're absolutely right, especially in creative businesses where you cannot predict the future. There are going to be multiple times where you're going to have to reframe the promise that you made about why it didn't quite work the way you thought it was going to but still trust me and believe me. I think it's a critical part of the most effective leaders. They have that capacity to get people, to keep people connected to their vision of the future even when the vision has to be altered slightly.

Tom Stockham:

Yeah. And the other things is, it isn't just about you. It's about the other people, too. And to the extent you have people around you who are willing then to say, "Well, that didn't work and I never actually thought it was going to work. I thought it was going to work out this way and I see a thing over there." You can learn a lot from those people. Why do you think that's the direction it's going to go? What evidence did you see along the path that I missed?

Charles:

Yeah. I know the importance of listening is such a critical part of it. So bring us up to today. What are you now focused on?

Tom Stockham:

Right now, this business is about creating better recommendations that help consumers buy more confidently, buy better. The founding story of the business is I was an investor in the early core of this business which was about training retail salespeople so they could make better recommendations for people who were in stores. I was on a bike ride with my brother, and he had talked me into going. I'd told him I couldn't possibly go on that day, I was way too busy. But he had the charisma and said, "No, come on. Let's do this." And I show up for the bike ride and there are 10 people there, 9 of whom are on the same brand of bicycle. It's a kind of obscure brand of bicycle and I thought, "Wow. This guy gets all these people into biking and talks all of them in, convinces all of them that their biking will be better if they have this bike, and yet, the brand has no idea he exists and he gets no love for what he does." And yet, that's the way the world works and should work. Recommendations about what to buy should come from people we trust and who are charismatic and who are passionate. Could we bottle that up and scale it?

And so this business, ExpertVoice, is about helping people make better decisions about what to buy. Ironically, I contrast it back with the Citysearch days when we were thinking, "Hey, this world, where there's so much more information and so much more information available is going to be so much better." And it is, by the way. The world is much better. And yet, ironically, truly, if you're thinking about buying something that you want to do a little research on, there's way too much information now. 1,000 reviews for a water bottle? It's just not helpful. 540 different types of water bottles? What's the difference?

In any case, what we need now, what the world needs now, is recommendations from people who are knowledgeable and experienced, who are much more passionate than you are about the thing, so you can go make a better decision about ... Well, if you're thinking about buying a camera or if you're thinking about spending money on a water bottle or if you're thinking about spending $50 on dog food, what is the difference between these things? So this business is about answering that question and creating recommendations from real people who don't have warped motives. They're not paid to say what they say. They just want you to love what they love as much as they do. So trusted recommendations about what to buy.

Charles:

Yeah, what a compelling idea in this day and age. It must create real connections, as well. I mean, sort of on a value basis. I mean, finding people whose opinions you trust and having that kind of community is such an important aspect, I think, societally, going forwards.

Tom Stockham:

I really, really believe it in the deepest ways I can express. It's the most fun core of this business, this community of experts who are a little nutty in all the best ways and truly, they just want others to enjoy hunting or pets or skincare or home electronics. They just want it to be as joyful for you as it is for them. They've spent tons of time and energy researching and trying products and all these things. They're ready and willing to share but there's not a good mechanism for them to do that so we're working on that.

Charles:

I think it's a business of the time. It really feels like a business of the time. How do you lead? Through all of these iterations and journeys and adventures, how have you learned to lead?

Tom Stockham:

Like many things, there's a balance. You're never done. You're always working on something. But for me the balance is how effectively can you help people understand what the future would be like if you were successful, balance that kind of future-looking which is so uncertain. It's unknowable. The future is unknowable, of course. But you have to have a vision. You have to be able to paint a picture of the way the world could be and yet you have to balance that very carefully with what does that mean each individual should do today to help get toward that vision? How do you help propagate that in real execution and operations? I personally have always been a little bit better or maybe a lot better, or maybe the better way to say it is I've been inadequate, relatively speaking, on the operations/execution side of it. Therefore, I work hard to keep getting better at that.

Charles:

What are you afraid of?

Tom Stockham:

So many things. When you're building something, you're constantly striking a balance between investing in it, people's time and energy and money and everything else in order to go capture the opportunity in the biggest way possible. But when you're doing that, you're also risking lots of things. Things can go wrong. Things can go wrong and you may not be able to pay people anymore. You may lose people's money. You may really mess up and that's a ... I fear that all the time. It hurts when you do it. You do it. Inevitably, you do it. You screw things up occasionally and it hurts. That's a scary thing.

Charles:

What about personally?

Tom Stockham:

Personally, what am I afraid of? I don't know that I'm afraid of ... I'm afraid of hurting other people. I'm afraid of making judgments or doing things that wind up hurting other people.

Charles:

Thank you. Thank you for sharing that. I wrap every episode with three takeaways that I've heard about what I think have contributed to your success. It's arrogant in the extreme to think that I could know anything after an hour. But let me throw the three things that I've heard from you today and you can tell me whether they resonate or not. You touched on this just now, actually, and it had struck me before you said it. I think you have found a way to balance vision and practical expression, practical application of the vision. It's interesting that you think you're not as good at the practical side and so therefore work hard at it. But nevertheless, I think you've recognized the importance to provide the balance. There are leaders you see all the time, right, who have big, powerful visions and no interest or ability to convert that into the meaningful day to day reality. We have other people who operationally obsessed but never provide the context for why that stuff is important. It feels to me, anyway, that you have a healthy regard for both.

Second is you're available to new possibilities and you seem to be open-minded and curious about why something works the way it does and whether it might work differently and might be best at working differently. So I think that sort of curiosity and open-mindedness and being available to new possibilities has allowed you to get into areas that other people would not have seen, or hadn't seen at the time. And I think, lastly, it's transparent through everything, and you've said it, we talked about it. You are an optimist. I think it is such an important part of leadership, that if you can't see the hope as the leader, why should anybody else? It's easy because as leaders we have full access to every piece of information about the business, in theory. And so we have lots of reasons to worry and be despondent. But I think the most successful leaders are able to place that in context and retain a healthy sense of optimism that there is a reason to do this and there are ways to solve these problems. How do those resonate with you?

Tom Stockham:

I would love to believe all of those are true. That was wonderful.

Charles:

Tom, thank you so much for joining me today. I loved this conversation. It was absolutely fascinating. I wish you nothing but continued success.

Tom Stockham:

I loved it also. Thank you so much.