Strategy, context and clarity: Collis Ta’eed, CEO at Envato
Collis Ta’eed is CEO and co-founder of Envato. The business operates a number of global platforms where designers, developers and the general public can buy templates, stock footage and stock photos.
Envato was founded in 2006, and has grown to a profitable 300 person organisation with fantastic fundamentals. As Collis talks about, the business: “just grew and grew and you didn’t really have to do very much. It meant that sometimes you’d have a year where you did a lot of dumb stuff and you’d grow, and another year where you’d be really smart and on the ball and you’d still grow.” [See 17:30 in the video]
As you’ll see in this interview, Collis and his management team have made some incredibly smart strategic decisions to establish an environment where this kind of growth is possible.
This is a fun interview to watch, and there’s a lot to learn. Some of the highlights of the interview:
Collis’ role in the culture “I’m patient zero so to speak… the problem starts with you, whatever the problem is” [See 8:26 in the video]
The importance of the little signals in management: Why Collis holds the door open for everyone [See 9:55 in the video]
How Envato does ‘express strategy’ [See 16:50 in the video]
Why smart people do dumb things, and the importance of context [See 19:00 in the video]
How Envato built a remote friendly workforce, where employees can choose to work from anywhere in the world for three months [See 21:15 in the video]
What Collis wishes he knew on day one: “I wish I understood, especially around managing, how important it was just to be clear with people. Clear about goals, clear about feedback and clear about expectations” [See 27:35 in the video]
Steve Pell: Hi, I’m Steve Pell. I’m here with Collis Ta’eed from Envato. Today we’re going to talk about your journey, some of the lessons along the way. If I could just start by getting you to tell us about what you do and where you’ve come from?
Collis Ta’eed: Sure. Envato is a company that makes a platform, a global platform, where people get creative projects done. Mostly we cater to professionals, designers, developers, animators.
They come to Envato for templates or for stock footage, stock photos, that kind of thing. We also have website creation tools for small business users and sort of more general audience. My own background is that I was a designer. I studied math once upon a time, then became a designer, then founded Envato in 2006.
Steve Pell: 2006, so 10 years?
Collis Ta’eed: Yes, 10 years next week.
Steve Pell: Congratulations.
Collis Ta’eed: Thank you.
Steve Pell: How has the business changed over that time? You started as just yourself and your wife?
Collis Ta’eed: Yes, myself, my wife and my best friend from school started the business. It was obviously pretty blu-tack and sticky tape as far as an operation went. For a long time, we worked out of my wife, Cyan, parents’ house. They live in this big old sort of factory place. We lived downstairs in the basement because we were saving money.
It was pretty different back then compared to today. Today there are maybe 300 staff. About 200 here in Melbourne and 100 spread around the world. We’ve come a ways.
Steve Pell: If you were going to write your role description today, what would it say?
Collis Ta’eed: Interesting question. I sometimes joke that it’s chief email officer because I seem to do a lot of email. In my role description, I would say it’s a big mix of thinking about the big picture, I feel like that’s probably the more important aspect of the things I do, while also being a bit of a culture and values custodian for the company.
Then I role up the sleeves and help out wherever things are needed … where there are gaps. I sometimes think of myself as the last line of defence. If something made its way through everything and there’s just nobody else to do it then I guess that’s me. Maybe that’s just the founder mentality. You’re like, “Well, if we have five people. They do all the jobs they’re supposed to do and I do whatever is not done by these five. Today it’s 300. Whatever is not done by everybody else, I guess that’s me.”
Steve Pell: So grabbing coffees?
Collis Ta’eed: If that’s what’s needed, I’ll happily grab coffees.
Steve Pell: That’s really interesting. You’re talking about some very high level stuff and then some very low level stuff. How do you prevent yourself getting caught?
Collis Ta’eed: Some would say I sometimes get caught too much in stuff that, as an organisation, we’re probably equipped to cope with not the CEO doing it. Especially with things which were my former career, so design, it took me a while to hand over.
I was like, “I should still do the corporate websites.” It was like, “There are 150 people here. Maybe you shouldn’t be designing anymore.” It’s no longer like that but I still do sometimes get into the details of things.
I think I try to carve out time for things, for thinking in particular, for stepping away from day to day. But I also just work a lot. I have a fairly heavy workload. I’m a person who’s just comfortable working a lot.
I usually start work at like 6:30 in the morning. Between 6:30 and 9:00 is like my time to work on things which are a bit more spacious. Nobody is interrupting me. Nobody is writing back to emails yet which is quite nice. Then there’s like a large operational block in the middle of the day. I think just a little bit of carving out stuff.
And just trying to remember that there’s a balance. I also think at some level it’s wrong to just be in the big picture all the time, at least at this level. we’re still a relatively scrappy business and I don’t know if it’s super healthy to be really disconnected. It’s a somewhat personal preference, but I like to be a little bit focused on execution.
Steve Pell: Let’s talk about your management team today. What does that look like?
Collis Ta’eed: It’s quite big. I think in 10 years, excluding maybe the first couple, there’s only been one year where I had less than 10 direct reports. Typically I have up to 16 people reporting to me, which is a little weird I’ve come to realise. I don’t know. You may have encountered other people with this many reports. I like to be across a lot of things though it means that I … maybe it’s for the best, I also have to delegate … you can’t be too detailed across 16 people.
Today, I think it’s down closer to 12 and there’s a mix of sort of what you would think of as head office type functions: legal and finance, HR, IT. We have a programme function which is like coaching and projects, sort of facilitative project management. Then there’s a general manager for our customers group who are thinking about bringing in customers, a general manager for our content group, currently vacant, and a small business general manager. We sort of have a mix of business units and then internal functions.
Steve Pell: It sounds like you do spend a lot of time reflecting on your own management practise, is that right?
Collis Ta’eed: Yes, I think so. Not in a formal way. I guess I think about things a lot I suppose. I’m very concerned about improving. I feel like if we’re going to do something, you should try to be doing it as well as you possibly can and if you want to improve something then you need to a) be constantly testing out new ideas and seeing out how they work, b) trying to find new ideas either from inspiration or from synthesizing other people’s ideas, and c) you should be constantly reflecting and thinking what worked there, what didn’t work there?
A measure is good and the last few years, as a business, we’ve instituted The Great Place to Work survey which is put out by Best Places to Work. As well as we use a tool called Culture Amp, which is a more regular version because the Great Place to Work thing only happens once a year and Culture Amp gives us an ongoing pulse check, which for me as a CEO gives me a feel for the whole organisation but also my management team, the people I directly manage.
That has been eye opening in some ways. There’s areas where I was like, “Yes, I’m great at doing feedback.” No, it turns out I’m not. I get a thing saying I rate low on giving positive feedback… “okay, if people don’t think I’m giving enough positive feedback, it’s not that I don’t think it but clearly I’m not verbalising it.” So that’s a good trigger to then go, “That’s something I need to work on.”
Steve Pell: What’s your role in the culture?
Collis Ta’eed: I think as founder, you’re very much the originator of things, patient zero so to speak. In some ways the problem starts with you, whatever the problem is.
I suppose that’s a concentrated version of the role I have today which is kind of a custodian and exemplar. On day one when you might not be the only person or one of only a few people, then the culture is just you guys at the beginning. As you add more people, each individual person shows up, and is effectively going, “Okay, that’s what I’m supposed to be doing here. This is how it’s supposed to work. These are the kind of interactions we should have.”
It’s not static but your role as founder is very formative in creating that culture. If you create a culture where nobody speaks in the office and it’s very important to just look like you’re super busy all the time, then that will just keep going for quite a while unless you actually change it.
Today in the organisation, I feel like my role is maybe a less concentrated version of that. I think it’s important as a CEO to be modelling things like your values and behaviours you’re expecting.
Didier from Culture Amp once came and did a brown bag lunch here in Envato and one of the things he says in the middle of his talk is, “You know, you probably won’t remember a whole bunch about the strategy Collis puts out but you might remember whether he held the door open for you.” After that I was like, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know if I hold the door open. I’m going to hold the door open at every occasion from here on.”
But it did really bring home to me things I might be doing, which might not be as conscious as something as, ‘We’re unveiling the strategy,” but some of the smaller interactions, how you behave in a meeting, how you think about relationships with other people, what you think is okay to say or do, those things might propagate outwards. I don’t think it’s easy to change them. They get embedded into the place and the place has a particular feel which is very hard to see, hard to describe but you kind of know it. When you work at a place, you get a vibe from the place.
I think what I used to think was culture is like pool tables or something to do with that. Over time I came to realise, no, culture is more all the small interactions in how people work in a day to day way. Is it okay for the boss to be a bit rude? Is it okay to be really demanding? Is it okay to take time off? What are the things that are kind of the unspoken rules and boundaries? I think as a CEO, you have a large part in setting those rules, whether they’re deliberate or conscious or just implicit in your own behaviours.
Steve Pell: How do you manage yourself?
Collis Ta’eed: In the sense of managing my time or managing my output?
Steve Pell: Yes, for a lot of leaders of large organisations, you can be so consumed by managing the 300 people you work with, that you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how to get the best out of yourself personally. How do you think about getting the best out of yourself?
Collis Ta’eed: Good question. I think a big part of it is knowing yourself. I think as you get older you have a better sense of yourself and what’s okay, what’s not okay, how to get the best out of yourself.
For me, my particular work pattern is very intense for a long period of time and then completely switched off. If I don’t take a vacation every year which is more than two weeks where I have completely switched off and I’m uncontactable then I can feel my performance degrading.
But then when I’m at work, I don’t really ever switch off from things and work fairly intensely. I’ve come to terms with that being okay. I think for a while I used to think, “This is a bit weird. I shouldn’t be so interested in work. I shouldn’t be so obsessed. I should know more about current affairs.” Unless it’s in the tech space, I probably don’t know. My wife has to inform me when the PM changes or major events happen.
But if it’s something to do with a tech IPO or M&A in our space, I always know. I suppose coming to your question, a big part of it is understanding yourself and knowing that that works or doesn’t work. I think that gets the best out of me.
I’m always hoping to get more out of myself. It’s probably something I should reflect on more.
Steve Pell: If we go from managing yourself to how you measure your own performance? Not the board but you personally, how do you measure your performance?
Collis Ta’eed: Good question. I think a few things. I put a lot of stock into how the team are feeling working at Envato. So with things like Great Place to Work or Culture Amp, I’m mildly obsessive about it. I read the reports cover to cover and think about what does it all mean. I try to think about how we could improve that because at some deep level, I feel like especially when you start a company and you have a great deal of freedom and flexibility.
In our case, we don’t even have investors. It’s a bootstrapped business. We’re more than profitable. You have a great deal of flexibility and freedom to build a business which is somewhere you’d want to work. Why would you build a place which is not nice to work in? That just seems like the dumbest thing to do ever. I feel like it’s very important that people are happy working here. I put a lot of thought into that.
Then I think secondly, thinking about the future and being prepared for the future. It’s not a very measurable thing. How do you measure whether you are or not ready for the future? But I think I put a lot of mental focus on whether we have plans and strategies which I think are equipping us to be in a good position.
Then basic performance, how we’re tracking against last year? How is our P&L looking?.. the general health of the business.
Steve Pell: Are you a better strategic or tactical thinker?
Collis Ta’eed: I think both. I feel like I’m maybe getting better over time about thinking strategically.
I think like everything in life, you think you’re doing great. You think you might be at the current pinnacle and you’ll probably never get much better, but two years ago you sucked. Until two years from now when you look back and you’re like that was rubbish back then. Currently I’m thinking, yes, I’m doing good on the strategic side of things.
We’ve been focused internally in the business on how to express strategy in stories. Your traditional presentation of strategy is very diagrammatic or I want to say or PowerPoint-y. Something that we’ve been talking about a lot at Envato is how do you express what you’re doing in a simple way to explain where things are going? That’s been really good. It’s meant that I’ve put a lot of my focus there.
Tactically? At the end of the day we started the business with no money as a small founder-led business. That was very tactical I guess in the early days. I’d like to think good at both but I feel like I’m just praising myself.
Steve Pell: There are some fascinating things in there. What I would like to dig into straight away is the express strategy. Tell me some tips there? How are you doing that?
Collis Ta’eed: We brought in a guy named Shawn Callahan from Anecdote. One of the things he teaches is how to express a strategy in a story. “There was a way that things were, something has happened, we changed something and we’re thinking this could be the future.”
As an example for us, one of the things that we’ve been talking about a lot is in the past we grew very much organically. It was to do with how we’d started as a company. We’d just set up a particular structure that just grew and grew and you didn’t really have to do very much. It just grew which was kind of neat. It meant that sometimes you’d have a year where you did a lot of dumb stuff and you’d grow and another year where you’d be really smart and on the ball and you’d still grow.
But there was a point where that started to change. We started to see, okay, there’s a law of large numbers. You can’t just keep doubling in size. We’d see organic growth starting to taper off. It was a point where we realised we probably need to be thinking about how do we build a capability to do marketing?
Early on, for a long time, there was one person at Envato in charge of marketing. It was a very limited function. Now we’ve built up a marketing function. We looked into the future and think, “Well, in the future we’ll have a distinct capability that lets us deliberately market things and deliberately grow particular products.”
I think for a long time we’d had this plan. We’re just not very good at expressing it. You’d just say, “Yes, this year we’re building marketing capability.” But I think getting into a kind of mindset of having to explain why is this important and what will it open up in the future and what was the trigger that helped people contextualise and frame, “Oh, that’s why we’re doing things?” The more you can contextualise things with people, the more autonomously they can work.
I feel very strongly about is this, in any role in Envato or anywhere. It’s best if you have some space to make your own decisions, to come up with an ideal answer to a particular business problem. At first, I used to just think, well, people are very sensible and smart. We could just place smart people in spaces and they’ll do smart things.
Over time, I’ve come to realise in order to give them that level of autonomy, you need to give them context, otherwise they may do a smart thing in a completely different direction. It might be smart in one way but in the bigger picture just the wrong thing to be doing.
Context and storytelling around strategy I feel is a nice mix.
Steve Pell: Do you have other ways that you give people more context? Is it just communicate, communicate, communicate?
Collis Ta’eed: Recently I’ve been focused on providing more clarity in terms of organisation structure, KPIs and clarity. So I’m starting at the top going, “Okay, if this is our long term vision, then this is our current strategy and then this is how it fits into our organisational structure. Then, this is what you’re responsible for and here’s a KPI, or how you’ll know if you’re succeeding or not. Just at the strategic level. It might be operational measures at the moment but at the strategic level, this is the measure you’re optimising to.”
Then trying to work with people to help them then create initiatives or projects or plans which then are targeting back to that. Then in their own teams, to be forming goals which are helping drive those initiatives. So really trying to take quite a structured approach so that at any particular part of it, a person should know what part of the organisation they live in, what that part of the organisation is working towards, how that works towards the broader strategy, and what part they play in that part of the organisation?
It might be a few layers that go up. I think that sort of context then gives them the space within their particular role and particular remit to have quite a lot of autonomy to figure out the best approach to get those outcomes.
Steve Pell: Let’s talk a little bit about your organisation today. You’ve got staff members all across the world. You’ve got quite a large distributed work force. How do you make that work?
Collis Ta’eed: It’s pretty challenging. Having a remote team is not without its challenges. We started Envato early on with remote staff.
One of the reasons we started Envato, especially for my wife and I, is we wanted to travel around. We used to be freelancers and we had a client base. We were like, “We should travel!” But clients always wanted meetings and they wanted to do things in person. They wanted to call you at the last minute with change requests.
So we came up with the idea of having a business that was on the internet that we could go anywhere with. So early on, one of the things that was quite important to us was that we were sort of remote friendly. One aspect of Envato’s culture is it’s not so much about what work looks like but it’s what results look like. If you’re not here, we can’t see whether you’re working all the time or whether you look like you’re working. That’s okay as long as the results are there.
I think we set the business up in that sense and we had a good remote friendly vibe but I think the challenges of having a remote team only became more clear as we grew. That’s because the biggest challenge in remote working is communication by far. It’s always communication and time zones. Time zones are one which I just don’t know if you can solve. Communication tools are getting better. Hang outs and Slack and whatever the tool of the day is. But at the end of the day, it kind of boils down to deliberately always communicating.
It’s much harder in a team where you’re partially remote/partially in office. It’s a challenge we face sometimes where there’s a team who … let’s say there’s five people in the office and three remote. It’s so easy to forget the three remote people. Not deliberately. They’re great people. Really people-people, love people, still forget the three people who are remote. It’s a challenge to actively remember that you must include everybody.
I’ve heard of teams who practise a lot of remote working having strict rules about only communicating textually. So only on Slack or whatever tool. Even if you’re sitting next to each other, you might not be allowed to communicate verbally because then you’re excluding whoever is remote. We don’t go that far but I think it’s a good illustration of how important communication practises that are inclusive are. Otherwise, as a remoter, you feel very isolated, very disconnected.
I remember a remoter once telling me that they, for whatever reason, had had only this one limited piece of feedback over months. That particular manager was quite quiet and they’d been a bit disconnected and had received this one email, one time, about an image being cropped a little odd on the site that they were working on. He was like, “For months it was eating me up. Am I going to get fired?” This was the only communication they’d had. It was critical. What does it mean?
We’ve upgraded our management practises much since then and we have much more processes but I think it’s illustrative of how far away you can feel when you’re remote and how isolated you can feel if an organisation structure is not there to support you. That’s a horrible feeling and not one you want to create as a CEO or a manager but it’s just a lot easier to do.
In person, it’s a lot quicker to realise, “Hey, that guy looks like he needs a chat. She looks like she could probably do with some more feedback.” But a person who is remote, you can’t see them. If you’re not careful it’s out of sight and out of mind.
Steve Pell: If you were doing it again from day one, would you still go with a remote team from the start?
Collis Ta’eed: Tough question. I’m glad we did it. I don’t think I appreciated how much harder it would make a lot of things. If I were doing it again and optimising to making things easy I guess not but if I was optimising to making Envato what it is today then yes I would because I like that it’s remote.
It makes the place much more global and I think it has probably added to the culture and has also then made it so that today we’re in a place where for instance, we’ve instituted a process where anybody here in the Melbourne team can go and work from anywhere in the world for up to three months. You can just go, “I want to work from Venice.”
It’s up to you and your team to make the day to day practises work but we as an organisation are okay with that. It’s because there are already people working all over the world. “Sure, okay. If you want to go there, that’s fine.” I think that’s like a good outcome. There was a lot of hard work early on which has led us here.
Steve Pell: 350 people today. Maybe plenty more next year. What’s keeping you up at night at this scale?
Collis Ta’eed: I think a lot about growth, thinking about the future. I think as you grow, it’s almost more responsibility in a way. There are more people lives who depend on Envato. There are more of our user base are using Envato to make a living. In a way, that feels like more responsibility to have a plan for the future and to be clear about it and to be working coherently towards it. I spend a lot of time trying to create a coherent, clear strategy.
I think historically it was a bit more, “Take it as it comes and let’s see what’s happening. I might try out this, try out that.”
When we were smaller, maybe we just had more freedom and flexibility to do that. I think that as you get bigger, there has been more weight and responsibility on things.
Steve Pell: One last question. It’s the tough one. What do you know now that you wish you knew on day one as a company?
Collis Ta’eed: Everything. I’m sure that’s what everybody says.
What do I wish I knew? I think I wish I understood, especially around managing, how important it was just to be clear with people. Clear about goals, clear about feedback and clear about expectations.
I just think that so much of management just boils down to sort of that communication interface of, “This is what I’m expecting. This is how you’ll know if you’re doing well. I’ll let you know if you’re not going well.” Then following up with that and it not being surprising at the end. Then being essentially set up to succeed because they know what to do.
It doesn’t seem like rocket science but I think it went right over my head for a long time. I feel like if I could go back in time, I’d probably say that and probably 2006 me would go, “Oh yeah,” and then not do it. I think some things you have to learn the hard way.
Steve Pell: Collis, thank you so much for your time.
Collis Ta’eed: Thank you.
– This transcript has been modified slightly for readability –