Destroy the assumptions: Glen Rabie, CEO at Yellowfin

Our CEO interview series is back this week with Glen Rabie from Yellowfin. Yellowfin is truly one of Australia’s big startup secrets.

Glen walked out of NAB 10 years ago with little more than an idea on what was wrong with business intelligence. From there he’s built the company to a 80 person organisation holding their own against the likes of Microsoft, Tableau, IBM and Oracle.

It’s an impressive (and fast growing) company, that you’ll certainly hear more about over the coming years. Glen is also a deep thinker about leadership in building a sustainable and healthy organisation. In this interview we talk about:

  • Managing to the rhythm of the organisation
  • Building a brand that’s just as meaningful to employees as to customers
  • Making the right compromises as CEO
  • How data helps promote “real” conversations by keeping people grounded in facts (rather than assumptions)
  • Why the key role of a leader is to remove the fear
  • How finding a “strong sense of self” for the organisation unlocked huge growth

Followers of this blog will know that better workforce data is something that I’m quite passionate about personally. This interview is a really good case study in a company getting it right and seeing the benefits. It’s easy to see how more data transparency at Yellowfin leads to a more humanistic and healthy organisation.

As Glen puts it… If you want people to trust each other and the organisation, you have to get rid of the assumptions. You get rid of the assumptions by making the data transparent.

If you can’t see the interview below, click here to watch on YouTube


The transcript follows below:

Steve Pell: We’re here with Glen Rabie who is CEO at Yellowfin, to talk a little bit about your business and some of the challenges as you’ve grown the business and scaled it up. Could you start potentially with the elevator pitch? What Yellowfin is? What do you do?

Glen Rabie: We’re a business intelligence analytics application, so essentially we build software that allows people to analyse their business. It’s as simple as that.

Steve Pell: Fantastic. It’s going pretty well?

Glen Rabie: I believe so.

Steve Pell: You’re winning awards.

Glen Rabie: We’re winning awards and global recognition, growing everywhere, opening offices around the world. So yes, I’d say we’re doing well.

Steve Pell: To put that into some context. Where has the business come from?

Glen Rabie: Okay, I started Yellowfin back in 2003. I came out of the banking and finance industry, working at NAB, working with other BI products, and basically saw a gap in the market at that stage. I was going, “You know, this is incredibly complex and incredibly expensive and just really freaking hard. What do about it?” Rather naively I thought I could do a better job, and started the business. We had no business plan, nothing. It was literally just rock up and throw in the towel at work and away you go. I hired a couple of developers and just thought, “It can’t be that hard.” 10 years later, that’s the story.

Steve Pell: How big is the business?

Glen Rabie: Now we’re nearly 80 people with the offices in Melbourne, Sydney, US, a few locations in the UK.

Steve Pell: I’m interested to talk in a bit of details about some of the lessons you’ve learnt along that growth path. And I guess, the culture of the organisation that’s kind of got you there and how that’s changed. Have you noticed any big changes in the way that you’re leading the organisation as you’ve got up towards this 80 people mark?

Glen Rabie: We used to be super-inappropriate in the office, and we’re probably less inappropriate now, so that’s toned down. But no, I don’t think so.

I think the challenges of growing an organisation, something that’s relatively small, when you’re small and trying to do things and you’re working incredibly long hours and you’ve got that stress behind you, I think it’s a lot different than when you’ve all of a sudden got people. As a leader, when you’ve got time to think and you literally, in essence, you can wander around and do nothing if you wanted to because everything’s being done for you.

That changes how much involvement you have in the business. What you actually do in the business changes quite dramatically. From a perspective of culture, one of the big things for me was when I left corporate life was to have something really different to that. I didn’t want to have an organisation that was political, that had some really cancerous issues, which you see in big organisations.

That’s something that we tried really hard on. Because it does happen, you bring the wrong person in and one person can just destroy a place. So really, I suppose, being on top of that and making people understand what the values are of the organisation and what the culture is, and keep talking about it as an issue to say, “This is not something we want to lose.”

We’ve had guys since day one that have worked for us and essentially been here all along. As we’ve got more people, the culture has to change along with it at some level, the dynamics of the organisation changes. It’s interesting, for the guys that are there right at the start, for them it was actually quite a bit of a challenge, to actually walk them through, “Well, we’re not three people, we’re not five people, we’re now 15 people, we’re now 20 people,” and just what it means to them and how they fit in the place because early on everyone’s got complete access to be involved in the business.

That slowly dissipates as people become more specialised, so you have to take people on that journey to say, “Now, you don’t have a say in everything. This is what we need you to do because we’ve got other people to do this other stuff now.” I think those become the big sort of ‘who moved my cheese’ moments along the way. I think now it’s got its own pace and momentum in some respects.

Steve Pell: Is that pace, or momentum a big part of the culture?

Glen Rabie: I think so. One of the things that we’ve tried to do … if you look at a lot of other software companies, they tend to burn out their people very, very quickly. So they have quite a high churn rate because they expect people to work 18-20 hours a day and just pump out code or, “Do this, do that,” and try and get to market very quickly.

One of the things we’ve done is actually really respected the whole work/life balance. It’s one of the core things we do that just says, “We’re here for the long haul. We know we’re going to be doing this for years.” So it is pointless driving people super, super hard, let’s just have a really measured pace and let’s keep that pace constant. As an organisation, you can plan, people and live their lives, and they’re quite happy to come back in.

In some respects it’s relentless. It just keeps going and going, so you want to make that viable or make it something that people can do and stay with your organisation and maintain. So there have really been a handful of occasions where we’ve ever asked people to work longer. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think having something where people feel there’s less stress, they can concentrate on what they need to do and get it done right is far more important.

Steve Pell: So a really consistent rhythm rather than a sprint…

Glen Rabie: That’s right. So, for a good example, we have a release every six months around May/November. We’ve been doing that for years now and we have monthly patches. The whole idea is that it just stays in a cycle. You finish one, you move on to the next one. You don’t want these massive peaks or troughs. You don’t want people really being burnt at the end. You just want to go, “Okay, that’s done. Now we’re at the next cycle.” So from their perspective, it’s just another day at the office. Like it’s got to be a good day and you can have highlights. The highlights then become how you celebrate the end of those cycles, and that kind of stuff.

Steve Pell: Let’s talk about that. You were talking about something you’re doing this afternoon to go out and celebrate as an organisation.

Glen Rabie: Yes, so one of the things for us that’s really important is our end of month. The last Friday of every month, we essentially stop work at about midday. Lunch gets delivered. We get people from around the world to hook into a Go-To-Meeting, and essentially we talk through what we’ve achieved for the month. It’s a way to introduce new people. A way to talk about what’s happened, what’s been developed so that, in essence, the whole organisation gets a sense of what’s occurring. After that, we’ll do something too.

So this month we’re going curling, so that’ll be a bit of fun. It changes, so we’ll do lawn bowls, we’ll watch a movie, it doesn’t really matter what it is. That whole process, the owners of that process change every month as well. Basically three people do it, organise it, and it just gets rotated throughout the team, so that gives a bit of variety about what happens. The core is what have we done? What have we done well? And get people excited about what’s happening in the business.

Steve Pell: So I’ve got two tenants of the Glen Rabie approach to leadership. You celebrate regularly and make sure you’re keeping a constant rhythm in the business. Are there any others that underpin the way you lead?

Glen Rabie: Again, I’d probably come back to the whole, “Who you hire.” It’s a really cliché piece but, when you’re a startup, you make lots of compromises. One of the compromises you make are the people you hire because it’s very hard to attract really talented people when you’re working in a garage. You’re just purely lucky if you get awesome people. What happens is, you grow and you get brand and all that kind of rubbish, basically you get people who want to work for you, so then you can pick and choose.

That’s awesome but along the way, I think, regardless … we did make some horrible mistakes but the reality is just making sure you hire for cultural fit. Get people who get what you do and who want to be part of you and who are excited about the kind of company that you are. Skills, people can learn anything in essence. That for me was it because you might say, “I’ve got this great sales person,” but if that sales person is a complete dick, they’re just going to destroy your company whether you believe it or not. They might achieve great sales but to what detriment? Are they going to help you build a sustainable company? Unlikely.

You’ve really got to be able to say, “No, that’s not the person I want,” and you’ve got to define within your branding/culture, what it is you are as a company. You want to hire into that. You don’t want to have everyone exactly the same but it’s got to be within the sense of who Yellowfin is because that’s what your customer is going to know about. Your customer is going to sense that. If you’re an IBM, you want to be a thoughtful concerned organisation, so that’s the kind of people you want, that’s the vibe you want to have.

For us, we’re more about really easy going and youthful, so that’s the vibe we want. It’s that kind of sense of people you want to bring into the organisation. It doesn’t matter, you can have anyone from any kind of background but do they fit that kind of mould ultimately is what you’re after.

Steve Pell: How are you looking to that in your own process? How are you achieving that?

Glen Rabie: If you want to, check out any of our job ads that we do on Seek. We go to a lot of effort to articulate our differences. So what is it about Yellowfin that’s awesome? Basically when we’re doing a job ad, we’re advertising our company. We’re saying to people, “This is who we are. This is what you’re going to get and we want this type of person.” We blatantly ask people to say … we give them a question in the ad to say, “This is what we expect you to have. We expect you to apply to the job.” That gets rid of about 95% of applicants straight away no one reads them.

But the point is that becomes the cultural filter and then we just find the best out of that 5%. I think we’ve got a very good sense of who we are as well, so when you meet someone and you’re talking to someone, either they get it or they don’t. It’s not hard once you understand who you are. I think that comes back to this whole piece about the organisation again. It took us a long time to understand who we were, in reality. Like you think you’re being great and cruisy and you’re doing all these things but until you really start to think about it, articulate it and put values around and really spend the time thinking about it, you don’t really know. Then once you decide, “Yes, that’s it. That’s what we want. That’s what works for us,” then you just want to amplify it.

Steve Pell: Was there a moment when you realised, “We don’t really know what we are?” Or was it more “Now we know what we are …”

Glen Rabie: Yes, I think it was the latter. It was one of those days … I was doing a briefing to a big analyst group and in preparing that briefing and having to think about it, it was a long sort of three hour briefing,  so I had to pad it out a lot. In doing that I was going, “Well, what do I talk about?” It was really at that stage the penny dropped. I go, “Okay, that’s it” It encompassed everything. It encompassed the company and the product, and all of a sudden I realised how we were differentiated from all of our competitors at many levels.

That’s the thing I’ve just gone, “That’s what we want to hang our hat on. That’s what we want to take and run with,” because there’s value in that. It became easy to articulate everything about us, about the business and about the product. But how long did that take? That took like seven years or something. It wasn’t in an instant. That was kind of the watershed moment. Having said that, since then, that’s what we’ve seen most of the acceleration in the business. We’ve really understood, “Okay, this is what we stand for”. It drives everything. It drives product strategy. It drives the way we interact with companies, our partner strategy. So many things intertwine into that whole piece that it then becomes … you don’t really consciously think about it but you can look at it and go, “Oh, that’s why we do certain things.”

Steve Pell: Was that a watershed moment for the rest of the team or was it more a watershed moment for you in how you lead the team?

Glen Rabie: Probably, for me, in a sense I’d say for me but then I think it became very much so much easier for me to articular to everyone else and to guide people a bit, to say, “This is where our strategy is. This is what we’re trying to do.” Then from there on in, you start to talk about it more and more and it just gets picked up by people. So then it becomes part of what we are. So yes, for me to be able to say, “Okay, that’s what it is,” and away we go.

Steve Pell: To go back to one of your earlier points there talking about a lot of transparency right across the business, are there risks there? Have you seen that blow up in your face?

Glen Rabie: Look, there are things that you don’t share. You don’t share payroll and things like that. There are elements of that. Because everyone works the data and everyone uses our tool, the reality is that anyone if they wanted to could go and put their hand in and just check out our financials if they wanted to. There’s nothing that we can do to stop that. At some level, there are some financials that we don’t share but we still want to talk about the fact that we are growing and getting bigger.

I think as a private company, this hasn’t been a problem. Again, it comes back down to the philosophy about how you iterate because people don’t want to see businesses throwing off millions and millions of dollars and they’re on sub average wages. I think what it transparency makes them mindful of is that culture and that equity. You can say, “Okay, you can look at others.” I can hand on heart say, “You know what, that’s fair. What you’re getting is fair. You’re being paid market rates or above and we’re investing in the business.”

So people can see that and don’t feel that they’re being used. I think that’s where it really comes in, is if you’ve got CEOs that take home $5 million dollars and you’ve got someone earning $20,000 a year, that kind of disparity causes a lot of issues ultimately.

Steve Pell: Does it benefit the performance of the business having that ultimate transparency right now?

Glen Rabie: I don’t know. I think what’s good about it is you don’t have to communicate it. You don’t have to physically talk about it. That way it also lets you have conversations when times are tough. You can say, “You know what? I know we grew 60% but we’ve also put on all these extra people. The reality is, from a financial perspective, we’re actually down 10% on last year.” So it helps you have conversations  that are real. Because keeping all that black boxed means that people just make their own assumptions, and you want to remove those assumptions.

You want to say, “Well, the reality is this. The reasons we made these choices, the reason we can’t put on more staff to do this is because of this.” That way you can just have those conversations rather than people going, “We’re making so much money, why am I not getting these resources.” Those are the things that transparency makes easy.

I know if you’re thinking of listing and doing all that kind of stuff, those become issues that you’d probably have to pull back on but at the same time, I do like the fact that it removes excuses. It just says, “There’s the data, you can look at it.” It’s not up to a single person to channel that into the organisation.

Steve Pell: When you talk about “removing assumptions” something that you’re pushing in? You don’t want any assumptions in the business?”

Glen Rabie: It’s all part of that rumour and innuendo. That’s the start of cultures that are divisive. Everyone’s got their own agenda ultimately. I’ve got my own agenda compared to the business … to everyone else. So how do you make that cohesive rather than divisive? I think by everyone having access to information by these monthly presentations, that ultimately says, “This is where we’re at. Things are bad, things have not gone well,” and just be honest about it, those are painful things to have.

But one thing you want to do is you want to protect people from the fear of failure at some degree.

A good example of that is when we were really tight of cash back in the day, those are conversations you don’t want to have. We nearly folded the business probably about three or four years in. We were literally waiting on one deal. I didn’t tell anyone about that till about four years later. Once we were really kicking goals I’ve gone, “I just want to tell you about a point in time where this might not have happened and how hard it was to get through that.” Everyone were like, “Oh, I didn’t know that.”

Those are things people don’t want to know because people fear for their jobs, they fear for their livelihoods. That’s the role of the leader of a startup is to remove that fear. You need to let people think this thing’s going to go on forever because you don’t want to lose people and have them worry about stuff. That’s that bit but other than that, if you’re going well, you want to share that and you want to be able to talk about that. You want to be able to talk about how you’re making resourcing decisions.

Again, it’s part of that broader strategy. It’s like, “Well, we’ve got to focus on customer service and we’re going to put in a whole lot of time and effort into customer service. That’s going to bring people. Sorry dev guys, you’re not getting any more dev because we want to grow this part of the business. We believe that if we do this really well, we’re going to get customers.”

So you’ve got to help people understand about that whole resource cycle, about where we need to focus our attention on the business, and have that conversation because when someone says, “Well why am I working … why are there only two of us doing. There’s too much work to do,” you can say, “Well the reality is, is because at the moment there’s more value in spending money over here and getting more people to do that. Your turn will come. We will get to you but there’s only so many dollars.”

Steve Pell: Do you think this is something that a lot of larger business can learn from? Getting that resource transparent so they can drive better business performance?

Glen Rabie: Yes, I think so. Coming back to my corporate background and, again, some of the things I saw there about how people communicated. In banking and finance, most people are embarrassed about what they earn. Bottom line. If you dig down into them and go, “Do you really deserve that kind of money?” Most of them will or should say, “No,”… for the paper shufflers that they are.

So I think at some level there’s a whole lot of things going on with communication which is insulating yourself from others so that people don’t know what you earn and therefore what you do. It’s about preventing people from really determining your value. No one wants to have that articulated. That causes this ripple effect.

The great leaders that I did see, there were a couple certainly in the bank that were phenomenal, I think that came down to them being really open and honest people, and just having conversations the whole time and just said, “This is why we’re doing things. This is why we’re not. This is what we can’t do. This is what we can do.”

That just gives people context, and that changes all the time too, you don’t have this conversation just once. That comes back to the monthly thing, you could have it quarterly but quarterly just seems too long. Monthly whips around like pretty quickly, so it kind of works for us. Sometimes I felt like we just did it, you know? Again, I think the bigger organisations could push that down. At NAB, they did it at a corporate level, they like corporate TV. That was almost like daily they had like … some were weekly but then that was kind of this whole corporate thing and I think that’s too much.

At an organisation, that has 13 levels of hierarchy, the people at the bottom are just too far removed from that whole corporate story… “Who cares what the share market does,” as far as they’re concerned. So what does it mean to them? How does it all trickle down? How do you actually get people engaged and say, “Well, this is what we’ve been given,” because in any department, you give the cash. Someone says, “Here’s the funding, here’s the budget and this is what you can do.”

Actually getting people, all the way down, involved in that budget conversation saying, “This is how much money we’re going to get this year. This is what we can do. Here are the constraints. We’re not going to be hiring more people.” Just be honest about it. That way people go home and go, “You know what, that’s the way it is.” At least then they themselves can make decisions in context. They don’t get annoyed when there’s too much work because they go, “It is what it is.” That way you can prioritise stuff and say, “Well, I won’t do that. Just get rid of it.”

Steve Pell: One of the things I’m really interested from talking to people at your scale of organisation, is generally your views on how you run an organisation reflect into your product. Is that something that you see? Is there a way that you think an organisation needs to operate, to work well, that reflects in how your product works?

Glen Rabie: Yes, I think the product has a brand of its own. We’ve tried to inject, at some places, fun into our product as well. We’ve got a whole collaborative framework in there, again, which we built largely for ourselves. We didn’t really build it for the customers because we wanted to use it, and so we put it all into the product. Again, I suppose that comes back to that, what do you do? How do we manage our own business? Yes, it has. We’ve tried to create a personality within the project, and who you are reflects that. Again, that’s part of the differentiation of just a staid corporate numbers driven application, so yes.

Steve Pell: Fantastic. If you come from that perspective, are you seeing that how your product is being used is changing the way the organisations are being managed?

Glen: Look, that’s hard to say. At one level, I think what’s happening globally is that people are wanting to have better access to that. At some level, that’s occurring, and giving people the ability to actually monitor their own performance at some level. So if I’m in a department and I can see departmental dashboard to tell us how we’re tracking, whatever my key metrics are for that department, I think that’s really useful. It helps keep people on track.

If those measures drive the right performance, then yes, people are going to get huge benefit added being able to monitor their business far more effectively. I think beyond that is that question of, “Well, if the numbers are going down, as to why? What’s driving the numbers?” Therefore if I can analyse that, it just helps me to understand what’s going on and, again, have those conversations. “What do we need to do?” Unless you start making decision off this data, there’s no real value in it, so it has to help people drive in the right direction, to give them the guidance about what’s important.

Steve Pell: If you go back to day one in the organisation, knowing what you know about 10 years of pain, what would you want to know that you now know?

Glen: One thing we didn’t do, we didn’t have a really good graphic designer early on. I probably would have thought about that a little harder and actually got someone to design our products. Functionally, we knew what we wanted to do but it took us a long time before we really focused on the design of what does it look like. That’s had such a phenomenal impact on our business and sales which we should have done just a lot, lot earlier.

The whole world is becoming far more design centric. I think that’s something, in the software space, you really want to be on. You can’t afford to just create crap software anymore. It could do the job if it’s ugly but people just won’t use it. So that’s a key learning that probably would have saved us a bit of time.

When you’re starting new product, you can see all these gaps in the market, you can see all these things that you don’t do because you’re looking at other product. “Well, they do x, y and z.” The customers are saying, “What about this, what about this, what about this?”

I think you’re really better off focusing on a niche within the product set, and having a long term product road map and saying, “These are things we’re going to tackle over time,” but really getting one or two things done really, really well.  I don’t think minimum viable product is the right word. I actually don’t like that concept at all because to me that sounds like you’re going to market with something that’s sticky taped.

But I think you’re better off going, “Let’s just build an awesome product.” Spending a little bit longer on product development, build a really awesome product that does something really, really well and is fully functional for its little niche, knowing that you’re going to build it out. We made some architectural decisions really early on which were accidental that really helped us expand. So making sure that whatever you build is scalable. You plan for scale really early on which we didn’t do either.

I think putting in place from an office perspective around the business, like how are you going to support the product? How are you going to license it? How are you going to do all these things? They are worth thinking about. We brought them on as we grew and they were not ideal.

Again, you learn them along the way but maybe taking some of that time to think, “Well, how are we actually going to scale the business? What are all the things that are important?” you don’t need to do it but just plan for it. Just know that, “Okay, this is when we’re going to do stuff. This is when we have to get that in order.” There’s a lot of SaaS product now that’s pretty cheap to do, which is awesome.

My one real thing is I’ve had a mentor since day one. The one thing that’s really easy for people looking externally to organisations is to give advice. It’s super easy to give advice. The really challenging thing as a startup is to take advice because you don’t have the resources. So people can say, “You know what? You’ve got to have the best legal contracts on the planet. You’ve got to do this, you’re going to get paid and it’s going to do all these things.” The reality is you just can’t … you don’t have the time, you don’t have the money, and you’re trying to get a product to market.

So I think unless you’ve got funding you can bring people on to do all that stuff for you, you’ve just got to be really clear about what you are and what you’re not going to do, and make risk based decisions. Like, “We’re not going to patent because we’re just going to be faster.” It takes 12-18 months to get a patent done, so forget it. Let’s just move and do and don’t worry about it.” You just start to make these risk based decisions, and again, it just means that even if someone gives you advice you can say, “That’s great advice but I’ll do that in three years. I’m not going to do that now because quite frankly I can’t do it don’t have the people, etc.”

Steve Pell: Great, thank you so much. Really appreciate the chat.

Glen Rabie: Yes, it was a pleasure.

– You may notice slight differences from the interview in this transcript for the sake of readability – 

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