Dean Stoecker is the co-founder, Chairman and CEO of Alteryx Inc. Enterprise Times interviewed Stoecker as one of its series of Business Leader Interviews. Stoecker is fairly unique, as he founded his company after a long career and a family rather than at the start of his career. It was one of the most interesting and inciteful interviews in this series to date.
ET: Who is your inspiration and why?
Dean Stoecker: “My father because he was an entrepreneur. I learned a lot about how to balance risk in starting and running a business. I have a couple of other inspirational folks though, that guided me throughout my career and my journey here at Alteryx. One of which is Buckminster Fuller, who said that we’re building all the right technologies for all of the wrong reasons, and we’re never going to be able to take care of Spaceship Earth very well, nor for very long if we don’t see it as a common cause, it has to be all of us, or none of us. That stuck with me for years and years.
“Three years ago we put together an Alteryx for Good programme to really pay tribute to Buckminster Fuller. We allow our employees to give free software to non-profit organisations to help them be better stewards of donations around the world.
“There’s a couple of others. Alan Turing because of his focus on artificial intelligence. JCR Licklider is another one that I often rely on and I quote, and source in presentations. JCR Licklider wrote Man-computer symbiosis. It’s a great paper for anyone involved in technology.
“Licklider was all about removing the friction between the human and the machine. He said, if we do that correctly, then we’ll push singularity out forever. I believe he’s right, we’ve built our platform and our company on this notion that if you make it easy for people to engage in data science and analytics, you actually amplify human intelligence. That’s going to be a requirement if we’re ever going to get to artificial intelligence.“
How would you describe your leadership style?
Dean Stoecker: “I lead from the front for sure. But, I often need to step from behind to make sure that people are getting the skills that they want, they’re learning things on their own, they’re mentoring with each other. I would hope that people remember me for not building Alteryx to a multibillion dollar company and they remember me for pushing out a bunch of great leaders that went on to build their own companies.
“I tend to do more listening than talking. God gave us two ears and one mouth and I’ve always believed that as a leader, you should use them proportionally.”
What are your key business challenges for 2020?
Dean Stoecker: “The focus is really building a culture in the organisation. I don’t think it’s competition that’s going to hurt us. I don’t think it’s macroeconomic conditions that are going to have an impact on us and I don’t see any looming technology challenge that we’re facing. I’ve told Wall Street for quite some time that the only thing that can stop us in our growth is ourselves. That means I have to spend a significant amount of time on building a corporate culture. I do that with twice a month boot camps where I present to new associates of ours.
“We launched our Alteryx for Good programme which is part of that culture building effort. I put together an inclusion and diversity programme because it turns out that, what makes us different is what makes us strong. That culture aspect is really important to me. As we get closer to 2000 employees in 2020 I would love to have a powerful culture that’s unstoppable.”
What are your personal challenges for the next 12 months?
Dean Stoecker: “The balance of travel internationally and being at home with my family and my grandkids. I don’t think it’s been any different in my career. It’s a bit more accelerated today.
“A few years back that wasn’t the case. Making trips to the east coast was not a big deal. Making trips to Dubai and Singapore and Kiev in the Ukraine are just challenges because it takes a day to get there and a day to get back and so for me that’s a balancing act. I love to play golf with my wife on the weekend whenever we can and so work life balance is really the challenge.”
What was your darkest business day and how did you overcome it?
Dean Stoecker: “I give a talk called the emotional journey to creating anything great. It’s not just building a great business, a great family, a great marriage, a great career, a great friendship, a great relationship. It’s a journey that always includes a dark swamp of despair where it’s not one thing it’s the hundred things that start to knock you.
“For me it was a period of time where we were growing fast. I resisted raising money. We went 14 years self-funded. The thought of losing founders money was hard enough, losing somebody else’s money was untenable. The hardest part was continuing to grow and innovate as a technology company without having outside funding. But I’m glad I did it.”
What’s your proudest moment?
Dean Stoecker: “It’s funny, most people would, if you ask them, say Dean would probably think that going public was the proudest moment. Signing the book at the New York Stock Exchange or standing on the podium and ringing the bell. That wasn’t really my most proud moment. It was when we changed the name of the company back in 2010, from SRC to Alteryx. To me, that was a just such an incredible day because it signified a start to something considerably bigger than any of us had ever imagined.”
You started Alteryx and led it through an IPO and you continue to successfully grow the company. There are few founders that have done that. Some see the end point is being an IPO, some see the IPO as a stepping stone on the journey. What’s your next stepping stone and is there an end goal?
Dean Stoecker: “I always felt that the IPO was a fundraising event. It was just the beginning of the next leg of the journey. I didn’t see it as a liquidity event. I saw it as a branding event because that was part of the reason we went public. We didn’t really need the money. It was a chance to be on the world stage to let people know that we were real and we were serious about winning in the data and analytics space.
“What is the next part of the journey? I’m thinking about act two and act three. That is, how do we take this amazing platform that we’ve built that’s delighting, analysts and trained statisticians around the world, to help them solve, meaningful challenges in their business? It’s exciting to see for me that the next part of the journey is about elevating the platform to where other people are innovating on it, rather than just us. The ultimate value in a platform is when people start building new things on the platform, and we’re beginning to see it.
“For the next few years, we’re going to put into motion all the things that are necessary to make sure that we activate an ecosystem of developers, Python coders, R developers, people who are just using Alteryx designer to build analytic pipelines and analytic processes. You’ll find that the next wave of innovation over the next decade will all emanate from the Alteryx platform, behind the scenes.”
Should a founding CEO stay the whole journey as you have done? When should they step away?
Dean Stoecker: “That’s a good question. I’m probably atypical of CEOs. One, I’m not a tech CEO. I know enough about technology but I’m a sales guy. Tech leaders often burnout when they get to that go-to-market phase. To me that’s the hardest part. Building the technology is one thing, but taking it to market and figuring out the product market fit is extraordinarily painful. It’s extremely expensive. I waited to raise money until we had to go to market because I didn’t want to run out of money before the idea had actually found a product market fit. That’s really the CEOs primary role, to make sure the company survives until you find the product market fit.
“Today, I would say a lot of tech founders think that raising money is a badge of honour and I always considered it a sign of a weakness. The reason for that is nobody’s ever going to love a founders idea as much as the founder. CEOs today think that everyone’s going to love their idea. The reality is it took 14 years for people to actually love our idea. When they started loving our idea, like we loved our idea, that’s when I started raising money. I raised $163 million in three rounds over four years and then in the fifth year went public.”
If the Alteryx mission is revolutionising business through data science and analytics, what is the vision?
Dean Stoecker: “Our vision is to actually solve both business and societal problems by putting our platform into the hands of every data worker. We envision a world where ordinary people are solving complex challenges with easy to use tools that make data accessible.
“The analytics makes the data dance to tell better stories to get better outcomes. Whether it’s reducing the negative impact of the opioid epidemic, climate change, improving the situation for homelessness, or it’s driving top or bottom line performance for enterprises who have profit as part of their objectives.”
ET: What’s the latest business book you read?
Dean Stoecker: “My wife asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I said a book called The Culture Code (by Daniel Coyle). Because culture is such an important part of our future I wanted to read about how other companies have figured out how to build great teams in great business units by defining culture that was strong, sustainable and attracted talent.”
What’s the worst and the best decision you’ve made? as a CEO?
Dean Stoecker: “I think my worst decision was hiring too fast.”
When you say hiring too fast is that too many or the wrong person too quickly?
Dean Stoecker: “It’s a little of both. Not paying attention enough to the data that tells you when to hire and the talent that you’re attracting. The negative side would be hiring too fast and the flip side of it is not hiring fast enough. You have to have the right motion and you need to put your foot down on the pedal at the right time.
“Knowing when to push the gas pedal down is really important and there were times where I went too slow, there were times I went too fast. I’ve now figured out how to read the data using our own platform against our own company’s data to give us the signals on unit economics in our go to market. Knowing when to continue to hire sales people, understanding the data that drives our business, like customer acquisition costs and churn rates and net expansion rates.
“It’s true that having a data science and analytics culture prevents you from making serious mistakes and that’s our mantra now to enterprises around the world. If you want to survive the half life of enterprises today, you better figure out how to drive a digital transformation effort in order to do so.”
It’s easy to talk about the what and the how. Simon Sinek says start with why. What is Dean Stoeckers why?
Dean Stoecker: “My Why, is I want to change the world. I want to make a difference in meaningful ways. I know there’s probably a lot of ways to get there and I chose the path of software because my background was data. The Why is really about using data to change the world, make it a better place. At the end of this, we gift it to our kids. Hopefully, we are smart enough to gift it in the form that is better than we got it ourselves. Shame on us if we don’t!”
What keeps you up at night?
Dean Stoecker: “Other than my 15 year old standard poodle and my five year old Australian shepherd, I think a lot about culture. I don’t stress over the business itself. I worry about how to create an organisation so that other people can jump out of bed and be excited about going to work. You can say you’ve built something great by driving market cap or driving revenue. But it’s really great when you’re getting people excited about what they do.”
What is your planning horizon?
Dean Stoecker: “There’s different kinds of planning. We have a strategic planning team. The effort is called Bing Fa . I am a big Art of War fan, by Sun Tzu. He said that strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory and tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. Every year, we spend a good amount of time each quarter actually aligning strategies and tactics. Some of those strategies are shorter term things, quarter by quarter or year by year.
“Lately, particularly since going public, much more of my time and my senior leadership time, is about longer term planning: three to five years. You don’t wake up one day and realise that you have to do something to be a $3 billion company or a $5 billion company. Those things take time and they have to start now.
“You have to plan for lots of optionality because the tech world changes very quickly. I’m thinking about, 2024, 2025. We’re thinking about what is the long ball looking like for Alteryx when we’ve won the hearts and minds of the 47 million analysts who otherwise would despise their careers because they’re living in complex vlookups and Excel? When we win their hearts and minds, what does this organisation look like? Who else uses the platform? What vertical solutions are we solving? What businesses have we helped create?
“That means we’ve got to be thinking about organisational design. What does an organisation look like in three years? It’s going to be very different. An organisation that’s got 1,200 employees has to have a different structure when you have 3,000 employees, or 5,000 employees. A lot of planning goes into that, it’s a hard thing for a lot of people.
“I believe only 42 companies have ever gotten to a billion dollars in revenue. We intend for us to be one of them. That means we have to think differently. One of the benefits of being a founder is you get to see the evolution of an organisation. I’m not talking about evolution of products, I’m talking about the evolution of the structure of how a company runs. That part is exciting to me. One of the very few college curriculum that I’ve actually ever used in businesses is organisational design.”
How do you keep believing in your vision when the odds are stacked against you?
Dean Stoecker: “That goes back to that dark swamp of despair where it’s not one thing that puts you down or punishes you it’s a hundred little things. You can’t hire the right people because you don’t have money in the bank and you can’t pay the bills.
“You have to figure out how to rely on your roots. For me that’s family, it’s humour, it’s my faith, it’s a higher power, it’s friends, it’s laughter. You should never take yourself too seriously in business. I think it probably gets the better of a lot of people who aren’t really sure who to rely on or what to rely on in order to get through those dark, dark moments of despair.”
What’s the one question you’d like to ask another CEO to answer?
Dean Stoecker: “That is a great question. If you think about success it has so many different meanings for people. My father was successful. He was middle income, had five kids, put us all through school, gave us all jobs. To me that was success. I feel successful today having built the business to where it is. The question I would ask different CEOs would be; How do you know when to stop?
“I don’t feel a need to stop and it’s not about money. It’s being part of creating something great, building things and then helping people build who want to build things with you. I would be curious to find out what is success and when do you not need any more?”
Can you answer that question yourself ?
Dean Stoecker: “I’ve never really set a deadline. I’ve never really said, when I get here, I’ll have accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. When you want to build thing and you continue to see things being built, and people being successful, you want to keep going.
“I’ve hit most of the milestones in my career. I’ve led small teams, I’ve led big teams. I lead a company that’s got a market cap of somewhere between 6 and 7 billion dollars. A lot of people would probably say, isn’t that enough? To me, it’s not. At some point knowing that you can walk away from a business and know that it would continue to build on its own. Maybe that’s the moment.”