Sean O’Leary is the CEO of Edj Analytics, a decision analytics company he founded with two other partners in 2013. While Edj’s initial product was created for the National Football League to make better in-game coaching decisions, the team has used the same basic methodology for applications in financial markets, higher education, and health care systems. Prior to Edj, Sean was a co-founder and CEO of Genscape, a pioneer in proprietary data monitoring and dissemination in the wholesale power, natural gas and crude oil markets globally. Genscape was named the number one best place to work in Kentucky under his mentorship and became known as one of the truly cool companies in this space.
What inspired you to work for yourself in the first place?
The opportunity to build something that was meaningful, with a good idea of the necessary steps, but no real blueprint, was something that always appealed to me. I started mowing lawns when I was about 10 and enjoyed both the financial rewards as well as the pride of doing a good job. It sounds hokey but it’s true. After college, I spent time at large companies, but always had the gnawing feeling that I wanted more control and a broader creative outlet.
I finally was able to realize this at Genscape. Sure, there were tons of mistakes made along the way, but the pressure to execute in so many ways was a rush for me. I had no idea, in hindsight, what we were getting ourselves in to, but that probably was for the best. We were attempting to do something that had never been done before, with no real experience in the development side of the business, with lots of hand-wringing from friends and family. It was a challenge for sure.
What were some of the more pivotal mistakes that have changed the way you do things now?
Early on, we brought on some experienced people to help us raise cash. At one point, we actually moved one of them into the CEO role. We felt really good about our willingness to accept him, because we were comfortable with our blind spots. We later found out that it helped us raise cash as it showed a lot of maturity to our future investors. Against our better judgment, as certain things were happening that just didn’t feel right to us, we still gave him way too much rope. It turned out later we were right, despite the fact that he had 20 years of experience on us. That was the last time I ignored my gut. I’ll often run ideas that I’m not 100% sure of by people whose opinions I value, but it takes a lot to convince me of something that doesn’t feel right.
Staffing issues that inevitably popped up as we grew were another struggle for me early on. We had really loyal people who would’ve tattooed our logo on their back if we had let them. They had such great attitudes and they worked so hard, but once we hit about 30 employees, there were a handful of people that just could not make the leap with us as a company. That’s a very difficult situation to be in, especially if you’ve never faced it before. I made the mistake of giving some of these people too much rope, even though I was skeptical that they could handle the increased responsibility. I still don’t relish this part of the job, but I’ve learned that it’s so much better for everyone, the person struggling, co-workers, me, etc., to pull the plug as soon as it’s obvious that the decision needs to be made.. The early days at Genscape were marked by a number of examples where decisions were made (or not) that took too long due to simple inexperience.
What do you think was the single most important thing you did at Genscape that contributed to its success?
Our understanding and willingness to develop our technology as quickly as we could. We felt strongly that taking off-the-shelf components and cobbling them together quickly to be the first to market was going to be a big advantage. And it proved itself out. We eventually ran into a prospective competitor, a physics professor at the University of Texas, who—given his technical understanding and access to capital through the university—should have murdered us. But he didn’t have the market savvy, he didn’t really understand what the product should look and feel like. But more importantly, he was trying to build the perfect mousetrap, and he took forever. We just moved faster, and that really helped us.
The single most important thing we did at Genscape was our willingness to go as fast as we could to develop the technology. We really felt strongly that being the first to market was going to be a big advantage. And it proved itself out.
There’s a movement out there called the “Lean Startup”…the philosophy focuses on spending a bunch of cycles validating the product with customers before taking it to market. Do you disagree with that?
It’s silly to think that you have the best idea and you are going to put something together and just throw it out there, especially if you don’t have much experience in the market. Prior to Genscape, I was an energy trader. I was a prospective client so I knew we had a good idea, and understood what the features and functionality should have been for the product. We did show it to a few people just to get confirmation. Fortunately, the first version of the product really did hit the nail on the head, primarily due to our experience in the market. And for all intents and purposes, that product is pretty much the same today. Newer technology, newer software, but pretty much the same 16 years later.
With Edj, as we get into verticals that we lack direct experience in, we are taking a proactive approach to meet with people to quickly understand their problems and the various nuances of their business. We will definitely take a more “lean startup” approach to new product development than I did the first time, for sure.
You are in a unique position as a repeat CEO. What made you want to go through all of this again?
I enjoy working with really smart people to create something that’s really hard to do. I also like to have a heavy influence on building a culture and work environment that allows people of various interests and skillsets to do fulfilling work. I think with Edj in particular, we are focused on solving problems that matter. We want to help people avoid repeat visits to hospitals. We want students to stay in college. We want to see non-profits have more successful capital campaigns and help companies improve their recruiting and hiring success rates. Yes, we also enjoy helping NFL coaches win games, we are fans, no doubt, and the work we do in this area is pretty cool. However, the biggest driver for us is the sense that we’re doing work that’s really unique and interesting. As the company grows, we intend to increase our focus on more projects that contribute to the greater good. We are a for-profit firm and have a pretty aggressive plan for growth, but we also want to help make our community, and the world in general, a better place.
So what about the Genscape experience have you carried into the culture at Edj?
We were always really big on allowing a lot of flexibility to the staff to do their jobs. If they wanted to work from home every once in awhile, or if you had a child that was sick, or there was a school play…we really encouraged people to do those things. We have to balance life and work. We just made sure that this flexibility came with the understanding that we had work to get done. Near the end of my time at Genscape, I approached our board to let them know that I was going to get rid of all our paid time off and vacation policies. I thought it was interesting that companies like Netflix were succeeding with this policy, and I thought it would provide a better quality of life for our people while enhancing an already unique culture. Unfortunately, our parent really struggled with that because it was so non-standard. I vowed that I would implement that at my next company, and we have. Other things, like monthly team building exercises, lunches, and after-hour activities are also part of the deal. We have a laid back but competitive culture. It’s fun.
Don’t wait until the last minute to start looking, because it will always take longer than you think. And don’t be overly optimistic. Assume that no one is going to give you money. Talk to a lot of people. You do yourself and your company a disservice by only going down one rabbit hole at a time..
With a lot of newer CEOs, one of the struggles I’ve seen is trying to figure out how and when to go for funding. Do you have any advice about that?
The time to go for funding is as soon as you see an opportunity to really grow your company, but you need to be organized beforehand. Recognize that the benefits aren’t just financial, because with the funding comes advice, expertise and experience, which is especially valuable for a first time CEO. You can take all of the MBA courses available, you can find a fantastic mentor, but until you are in that seat and you have to make those decisions, you don’t know how tough it’s going to be. As it relates to funding, I would say, understand your weaknesses, understand where the company is going, and anticipate the time it will take you to get that funding and when you need it. Most companies need it when they are ready to take off. Don’t wait until the last minute to start looking, because it will always take longer than you think. And don’t be overly optimistic. Assume that no one is going to give you money. Talk to a lot of people. You do yourself and your company a disservice by only going down one rabbit hole at a time.
What are the best habits for a successful CEO?
Set a great example in everything you do, be willing to admit what you don’t know, be resilient, and believe in your vision. Also, always do the best you can for the business and your employees. The job description of a CEO can be broken down into two primary things: first, we need to make sure there is a vision for the company. Regardless of who helps set that goal, the CEO needs to make sure all internal and external constituents understand where the company is headed. The second responsibility is making sure that everyone has the resources to be successful. That can include financial resources, a clear plan, the right org structure, string managers, etc.
At what point at Edj did you decide you needed to make an investment in marketing?
We did it much earlier at Edj than we did at Genscape, really before we’ve even had products available for broader applications. Looking back on the Genscape experience, that is the one area that we should have been spending more time and effort on. There was a belief in the organization that we had such a defined direct channel to our clients and prospect base, that it wasn’t really necessary to spend the money. The management team we brought in as I left were from larger companies with a different experience, where they emphasize spending money on marketing, and it has broadened their appeal to markets and prospects that we really didn’t see on our radar back then. Seeing the success that they had, we definitely instituted it a lot earlier at Edj.
We’ve seen it pay off already. It seems that we’ve had 3-5 phone calls or emails from prospective clients for each article written about us or LinkedIn note I’ve shared since our updated website went live.
How do you think that design impacts the perception of your company?
Your website is your first opportunity to present your business not just to people who know you, but people you want to know. Every little thing matters if you want to be perceived as a professional, interesting company. I can’t imagine having design work done for us that wasn’t really really good…it’s a reflection of who we are and that’s important to me.