TECHNOLOGY · PRODUCT
My team talks a great deal about risk taking and accepting failure. I encourage our larger growth portfolio companies to promote risk takers to lead and enable technology leaders to act like startups within any large organization.
Aaron Stibel is a founding partner of Bryant Stibel. Previously, Stibel served as President, MDR Solutions; President Dun & Bradstreet’s Small Business division; and Senior Vice President, Chief Technology Officer of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp.
Stibel was the co-creator of DiscoverTax, a Boston based data warehousing startup purpose built for local, state, and federal revenue agencies now used in a majority of states and the IRS.
He has held leadership positions in technology startups including Granitar, The Search Agency, BrainGate, and Credibility Corp after starting his career in PricewaterhouseCoopers’ management consulting practice.
Stibel won the 2012 CIO100 award, has several patents, and has been a featured author of several technology articles.
Stibel received his BS in Computer Science with concentrations in Mathematics and Applied Mathematics from The Johns Hopkins University.
Rooted in Technology
I started my career at PriceWaterhouseCoopers in Management Consulting Services right after the merger in the late ‘90’s. Given my technology background, I landed in the hot billion-dollar market known as “document management,” now typically a free solution called “content management.”
About a year into my tenure, things hit a speed bump when PwC led a failed process to sell its consulting practice to Hewlett Packard. During this effort, I was moved to New York to work on what is still the worst project I have ever been part of: lead data analyst in finding potential insider trading by PwC partners. This work resulted in a low-20’s life crisis. Selling decks was not for me. I needed to go back to my roots in technology.
So, I did what every other young tech guy did in 2000, I went to an “eBusiness” startup.
Specifically, as employee number 24 at what Red Herring called the next “great gem” – the online media services firm, Granitar. I was the content management specialist working for media companies like Boston.com, New York Times, and Knight Ridder. When it was time to expand, I left Boston and headed west to Dallas to open the Southwest office. We went from 24 employees to 300 to zero in a span of twelve months.
So, I did what every other young tech guy did in 2002, I became very unemployed for a while.
Soul Searching on a Futon
I lived on my friend’s futon for over nine months without a job. Looking back, I wish I’d taken better advantage of this time. Being young with no responsibilities and having the tech bubble recession as an excuse could have been a ridiculous amount of fun. But at the time, finding a job was more difficult than having a job. That’s not to say I didn’t have any fun… Many out-of-work techies in Boston took to some day drinking at a popular bar called Daisy Buchanan’s – which, turns out, was a favorite watering hole for off-duty cops as well.
After making friends, we were privy to some cool benefits. I found that when you see the blue lights blaring outside a bar at closing time, it’s not always being busted. Sometimes they’re just keeping the bar open for themselves (and us). The second benefit was getting invited to a secret bar – pool tables, jukebox, bartender et al. – being run in the basement of a Dorchester triple-decker owned by a few officers. Boston cops and unemployed geeks, who would have thought it.
It was time to find a job, any job.
Back to Business
So, I did what every exhausted out-of-work tech guy did, I accepted a very boring job offer.
Revenue Solutions was basically a staffing shop founded by a couple of smart ex-Andersen guys, for the purpose of doing maintenance work on tax systems. It doesn’t get more boring than this. The work consisted of updating mainframe code from the ‘70s and ‘80s that process tax returns. But that’s not why I was there. Locked up in the IRS and every state’s tax authority are millions and millions of financial records that if properly mined could find trillions of dollars of uncollected taxes. We were five guys, not in the proverbial garage, but above one. We had a promise from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that if it worked, they would pay us a license for the software.
Twelve months of intense coding later, DiscoverTax was born and it failed miserably. It found the money, but did so at one record per second. At 15 million records per tax year, that doesn’t work. Six months later, however, we did get it to work and we had a client. Three years later, we had our second state. Five years later, we were 300 people with 26 states and the IRS as clients. This was entrepreneurism from within. A startup built inside a company.
I learned two very important lessons here. Number one, you can have a startup mentality in any organization. From the small startup to large corporations to government agencies. This mantra has helped me in every aspect of my career and was a more important lesson than any technical experience. Second, and equally as important, to support entrepreneurism from within, treat your employees like founders. We were five guys that created a massively successful software platform, and because two guys owned the shell company, we had no equity.
So, I did what very few people would have done, I left my own startup to start over.
A Family with Credibility
The most difficult but rewarding period of my professional life was as CTO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. We inherited 200 sales people, 100,000 customers, infrastructure for three offices, and a declining revenue base.
Our goal: transform these assets from the ground up, quickly.
Our constraint: The technology team consisted of just me.
My job essentially was to rebuild everything in 18 months: product, sales software, data, BI, finance, websites, back office, phones, network. Whatever my team thought of me – or I thought of myself – I knew one thing for certain back then: I was 100% completely unqualified for the job.
However, that lack of qualification is wholly responsible for the overwhelming success my team and I had for two main reasons:
#1: I worked harder than any other CTO would have: Caring more about letting my seven co-founders down than I did my own health at times. They put their faith in me and I found a 25th hour in every day.
#2: I acted like a startup CTO because I had to, and it worked: I had my small team focus on the only thing I believed mattered – product. In doing so, I went to SaaS for everything. If there was a SaaS offering for janitorial supply, I would have taken it.
This approach was a fight with our board at the time. “How can you possibly have zero CapEx?” was something I heard every board meeting. The technology consultants hired to help me even wrote a secret letter to the CEO saying I was risking the whole business by choosing a cloud phone provider rather than an expensive trustworthy premise-based system. I knew the riskiest decision was for me to operate a multi-million-dollar premise phone system. But it turned out to be a forward-thinking move; all telephony is in the cloud now.
The other thing I learned with Credibility is how much Culture matters. My seven partners, now the exact same partners at Bryan Stibel, are a family. You cannot take risks unless you trust your partners will laugh away your failures as much as they applaud your successes.
Things worked out from there when we eventually sold the Credibility Corp business back to Dun & Bradstreet for $320 million. Dun & Bradstreet has since utilized the systems we built and migrated their customers onto our product platform. I stayed with D&B for a few years as a CTO, and later took over as President at one of their portfolio companies – MDR Education – and finished up as Co-President of the SMB division.
Creating Value with Bryant Stibel
At Bryant Stibel, I am often sought out at as either the technology expert, the product expert, or the recurring revenue expert. One of the greatest strengths about BSG is that since this family has been together for decades we all have cross-discipline experience by way of osmosis or more – which is why you’ll find me consitenly out of my swim lane.
My true passion at BSG is enabling large firms to think small, to act like startups, and to move fast.
It’s very easy to bring ideas to the table; it’s far more difficult to execute, especially in large companies.
I love what I do: working with management teams to not only find value creating ideas, but staying with them to help execute the plan. The execution can’t be learned in B-school. My experience with BSG has shown me that to execute like a startup in the confines of a larger organization, a company must have the experience to align culture with smart people.
If I’m not working, you can find me building. With my husband, an accomplished interior designer who does most of the work, we have built or renovated nine properties. In fact, my eight-year-old son has lived in ten homes. When I do find spare moments of free time, I enjoy playing tennis and running. Though we are very active, my family is not adventurous; we religiously spend our free time in NYC, Nantucket, and Palm Beach. Back home on the west coast, I am proud to be a board member with the University of California San Diego and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).