The road to the c-suite is notoriously perilous. The many attributes that one must acquire can be summed up in one word: balance. Between work and life, logic and emotion, knowing when to stand your ground and when to give a little now in order to win big later –– these all are factors to be considered when leading a company toward imminent, but long-lasting success.
In searching for a CEO to take the helm, Bigcommerce sought a leader whose backbone is strong, but whose ultimate goal is employee and customer success. We have found that leader in Brent Bellm. A former HomeAway and PayPal executive who led both companies to worldwide recognition and success, Brent is dedicated to driving success for the tens of thousands of clients using the Bigcommerce platform.
Read through the interview below to learn more about the man taking the helm of Bigcommerce –– from his small town roots and values, to his dedication to ecommerce and small business.
Robert Alvarez, Bigcommerce CFO: Let’s start with the fact that you are a long distance runner. That means two things: 1) you’re in a lot better shape than I am and 2) it means you run races that are longer than marathons. What inspires you to tackle challenges like that?
Brent Bellm: I’m very goal oriented in almost everything I do. I like being the best I can be at things I spend time on. I started [running] when I was in business school and I decided to run my first marathon. After the race, I’ve come to realize the longer the event gets, the better I am. I don’t have long legs; the shorter the distance, the poorer I am. I also make myself work harder and longer and suffer more than a lot of people. This suits me.
More importantly, I realized when I started running regularly that it did amazing things for my mood and my energy level. I start every morning before I come into work with a run or a bike ride. That run or bike ride gets my blood pumping. It gets my head cleared. It lets me think about anything I need to be thinking about for the day ahead. It gets things that are causing me stress or anxiety to flow out.
Every day when I get into work, you guys are getting the best of me. You’re getting high energy and positivity. It helps me to be happier and more successful at work.
Speaking of work, 15 years ago, you made a career bet on ecommerce at a startup called Escalate Retail. Can you talk to us about what surprised you the most and how ecommerce has evolved since then?
Escalate was a startup founded in 1999 that I joined at the beginning of 2000. It was one of the first two or three companies to ever try doing what Bigcommerce does, which is to build an enterprise SaaS platform for online selling, targeted at small and medium-sized retailers. At the time, it was the early days of ecommerce and it took millions of dollars to get an online store up and selling. Escalate basically replaced all of the software and the hardware, allowing someone to sell online for just a modest percentage of sales; it had an amazing value proposition.
When I left being a retail consultant, I thought, “All right, I’m going to set my career on this. I’m going to move. I’m going to setup my career.” I bet on them partly because the model made sense to me. It made so much more sense to just pay a percentage of sales as the store increased its revenue, instead of paying millions of dollars to open up a small online store.
The idea made all the sense in the world. I thought it was going to be successful, but six months into it I was like, “Oh, boy.” The technology wasn’t ready; the ecosystem of solution providers wasn’t ready. The people building it, myself included, we didn’t know enough then to do this right. At that point, I left and went to eBay because I wanted to serve thousands, or in their case millions, of online sellers. It was clear they were going to be a platform that succeeded.
Back then, the SaaS ecommerce model still hadn’t taken off. Later in my eBay/PayPal years, the hot model in 2010 was open source; it was Magento. I was surprised that the popular solution was still one to put so much burden on the merchant. It was the lead solution. Now here we are five years after that and the fact that this model –– the SaaS model –– is winning is great. It seems to me like this is the right model for the long term. I don’t know if there’s a successor model to this because the economics and scalability are so much better for what we are doing.
When the time is right, it’s right. Talk a little bit about your leadership style.
Leadership can be a lot of different things. One of the most important things to me is that leadership means when you see problems, you solve them. And, when you see opportunities, you go after them. The opposite of leadership to me is admiring problems or, even worse, ignoring them.
What I mean by admiring a problem is just talking about how big it is and how hard it is to solve, then tolerating it. My personal orientation is that if you come to me with a problem, I’m wired to drop my agenda, listen to it and figure out how I can be helpful to make sure we solve it and move on. It’s like when I go to bed at night. I don’t like emails in my inbox because they’re unsolved problems. I clear it out. I go to bed at night and I only have three or four emails in my inbox. I’m driven toward solving problems, taking advantage of opportunities, and to me that’s a big component of leadership.
The other component I would emphasis is drive to be as great as possible at what you’re doing. I like setting goals, but not unrealistic goals. I’m ok setting a lofty goal and falling a little bit short of it and would far rather do that than set a layup goal or no goal at all and just spend my time doing activities and making activities substitute for real accomplishments. You accomplish things when you set goals and you hit them, or you come as close to them as humanly possible.
I am extremely driven and that’s one of the things I want to help make sure that we are all doing. Every one of our departments and geographies is setting really ambitious goals and pulling as much weight as we possibly can. That will set us up for success.
Are those the same ideas you are teaching your kids? What are some of the values and beliefs you’re trying to pass down?
One of them, which our kids haven’t sufficiently learned yet, is how to say you’re sorry when you make a mistake –– apologize for it. I think one of the most liberating things on planet earth is when you can recognize you haven’t done something as well as you would have liked. Instead of following that up and feeling the guilt, admit it and then say, “I’m sorry,” or “I wish I could have done this differently.” That’s one of the values we’re trying to teach them. You can overcome an awful lot of mistakes when you’re young and old by learning that humility.
My wife and I come from small towns originally. Although both of us have lived in a bunch of countries around the world, I think our values are pretty small. That’s why we fit in and love Austin, Texas. It’s why we’re glad we’re raising our kids here. We’re trying to teach them some of those small town values of getting to know your neighbors, respecting people, living honestly and being good to others.
Stay tuned for more updates from Bigcommerce and Brent Bellm as he takes the reins and helps us to intelligently craft a more agile ecommerce platform for growing businesses the world over.
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