I'm Dan Holloway, Founder here at Operational Voodoo.
I have been driving growth and scale within venture capital and private equity-backed businesses for over 20 years. Focusing heavily on Business Operations, Tech and Entrepreneurship.
Allow me to provide a little insight into an experience I had some years ago.
Something that I hope you may find interesting. Possibly amusing. But most certainly a little surprising...
Rolling back throughout my career to date, I learned how to start, grow and scale businesses pretty early on.
Every business I have ever worked in, whether my own ventures or those owned by clients...
Some of the biggest wins have come from simplification. And simplification almost always came about by cutting out stuff that didn't need to be there.
'The stuff' ='the bullsh*t' / 'the BS'.
And there's rarely more BS than that born from ego or fear. Usually from those in positions of power and/or control.
People at the top need to check themselves more often than they think they do...
Anyone who tells you "Growing a Business is easy", frankly, is either too inexperienced to know better. They're flat out lying to you. Or they have been exceptionally lucky (and are highly unlikely to ever recreate that luck again)!
You see, the truth is. Business is actually very easy, yes.
We lovely, complex humans...
We are not easy.
Far from it in fact...
It's we lovely, complicated humans, who make business harder than it has to be!
I see so many entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs alike, stressed, unhealthy and burnt out.
Usually telling themselves all sorts of stories as to why it's justified. But usually, stories they look back on and regret.
Which leads me to my little story (grab a coffee!).
I was called a liar in a job interview...
I had a job interview many years ago where, after the usual introductions, the first thing the interviewer said was:
"You are only here because I hate liars. So I want you to sit here and explain to me, why you think it is ok to lie on your CV to get an interview."
Suffice to say, I was a little confused by that statement!
A few seconds passed. Looking each other in the eye.
There I was, waiting for the punchline of some kind of joke. But the punchline never came.
This guy was completely serious!
I remember thinking at the time, how this guy must be somewhat narcissistic to work for... But I was curious so went with it, asking him to explain.
Turns out, he didn't believe I had achieved the things I had, in a fraction of the time it had taken him to do so.
He was the Managing Director of a firm looking to hire an interim COO. The role of COO was one he had, until recently, been performing himself.
It had taken him many years to become a COO, working his way up through the ranks of that same company for most of that time. Before recently becoming the MD.
If I recall, it was somewhere in the region of 20yrs.
Prior to that, he had studied business at university and then went on to do an MBA as a post-grad.
It quickly became apparent that he was judging me, using his own career trajectory as a baseline.
I'll try to remember as much of the conversation as I can.
It went pretty much like this:
Interviewer: "Your CV says you were an IT Systems Engineer, by my calculations, at the age of 17yrs old. How's that possible when you should have been in school?"
Me: "I did the first year of A-Levels but academic education was never where I excelled. I didn't want to go to University so I left school and got onto an IT Support Apprenticeship program. After attending a local company for 'Interview Experience', I was called into the office of the CEO of the apprenticeship organisation. He informed me that much to his surprise, the company, a Business Internet Service Provider, wanted to offer me a job. And if I wanted it, I would start a few weeks later".
Interviewer: "Ok, I suppose that makes sense. But what about being an IT Manager by the age of 20yrs old? I highly doubt that!"
Me: "I was actually 19yrs old. It was a few months before my 20th birthday. I was headhunted by another local business that wanted someone to run their internal systems. They had asked a client what kind of person they should be looking for. And turned out, that client was a client of my employer. Someone I had worked closely with on a number of projects. They suggested me. We spoke and found our goals were aligned, so I boarded their business to build out their internal IT function".
Interviewer: "Let's skip forward then. It says here you ran your own business for the best part of your 20's?"
Me: "Yes, that's right. I essentially did my IT Manager job so well, I didn't really have much to do. Contractors that had outsourcing agreements also didn't have much to do as much of the systems were automated... Truth be told, I would play Playstation some days, just waiting for the phone to ring... That didn't sit right with me so I suggested to my employer that I set up my own business, with them as my first client. So that was the foundation of my Managed Services business. It expanded from there mainly via word of mouth".
Interviewer: "I'm getting the impression I owe you an apology here... But do you mind if we carry on?"
Me: "Sure. While it's the first time someone has invited me to interview to justify their thinking I was a liar. It's not the first time someone has had trouble believing my background... Honest truth. I found running my own business very lonely. Especially for someone introverted, in their 20's. And this was before remote working and social media was anywhere near what it is today... I wasn't enjoying my own business at the time. It was running me down. So when I got a call from a recruiter asking me if I wanted to come on board to lead systems and operations for a venture capital-backed business, I jumped at it. I sold off my clients to other firms, aided in their transition, wrapped-up my business and went to get working on a big-scale VC project."
Interviewer: "What did that look like?"
Me: "It was so much fun! My first venture capital interview was quite surreal. It was very informal. I met the exec in charge of the investor's plans in a coffee shop in London. There, they basically told me what they wanted. Which was crazy. I'd never heard of anyone even thinking of crazy plans like this... I knew VC's liked big audacious goals, but theirs seemed a tad nuts, even for a VC! Even so, it was exciting. Honestly, I didn't at the time know if I could even pull it off, but I decided to get stuck in and work hard until I did. So that's what happened."
Interviewer: "What did they want you do to?"
Me: "The goals were: Relocate the head office, with everything that goes with that. Redundancies, hiring new teams, office fit-out, tech systems, infrastructure, telephony, network systems, cloud migration etc. All while multiplying their physical locations by a factor of 10x. And at the same time as that, acquiring/merging with a number of other businesses, absorbing those into the larger organisation, with everything that involves... All of which, we had to get done in 18-24mths... With a heavy emphasis on 18 months! Oh. And we only had a small team of really hard-working, fantastic people, to do it with."
Interviewer: "Well it says here you got it done.. Why did you leave?"
Me: "Well, that's the other side of VC's was a different kind of learning curve. Once the heavy-lifting was done, they wanted to cut costs even further, as they geared up for an exit. They wanted as few executives on the team as possible. The CxOs stayed to handle the exit. And get their big bonuses. The Directors and Heads of Department roles almost entirely went. We knew the cards we were being dealt well ahead of time. We were looked after and given time to find new roles. But it was a little bizarre. But honestly, the fun work was done. And I was a very expensive resource to be sat there, managing a day-to-day process, waiting for accountants to sell the business."
Interviewer: "That was naughty of them! And somewhat illegal, HR wise... Couldn't you have fought it?"
Me: "I could have done, but what was the point? More money? Making them suffer for laying me off? I'm not that way inclined. And I was excited about the next step. Which came in the form of a Head of Operations role for a hosting business. Global presence. Managing global teams. Multiple data centers. Hundreds of staff. Thousands of servers. And an even bigger goal to strive for!"
Interviewer: "Bigger goals than the last one? Ok, spill it, I want to hear this one.."
Me: "This was another 2yr plan. Which ended up taking more like 5-6yrs. But that wasn't my fault! ha. It started with needing to merge 18 newly acquired tech and hosting businesses, into as few 'new brands' as possible. All 18 businesses had already been acquired. And quite frankly, many of them looked shiny from the outside, but 'under the hood', as it were, they were a mess! Shiny from the outside. But shocking on the inside! It took 2 years just to unpick the web of problems and figure out where those problems even started! All while maintaining operations, trying not to lose too many clients. And if we could, gain some growth. Suffice to say with this one, it was a lot of plate juggling!"
Interviewer: "That doesn't sound as fun?"
Me: "Weirdly, it actually was. I learned a lot about internal politics though. That was the hardest part. Everything else was just a lot of long hours, planning and implementation. We eventually got it done, though. And by the time the issues were ironed out, the business had risen in value from $30m to over $110m. Not a bad increase i'd say."
Interviewer: "Did you leave for the same reason as the last one then?"
Me: "Yes, pretty much. Although there were a lot more politics involved with this one, the end result was the same... The heavy-lifting had been done and it was time for me to move on. This time post-acquisition. With the acquirer wanting to install their own teams into 'new executive positions'. It was around that time I also started coaching and mentoring startup organisations. Their founders and their teams. I've lost count of how many now, but they all had similar problems. They didn't have a clear strategy, they didn't have a defined offer, and they didn't have the right people, systems, processes or tech to deliver."
Interviewer: "Do you still do that? The coaching and mentorship?"
Me: "Yes, I have been consulting with a number of startup businesses for a while now. I really enjoy it!"
Interviewer: "Ok, so maybe you're not a complete liar. But our business is not a good fit for someone like you. Even if I did believe your CV after this conversation."
We said our goodbyes and I left.
So why do I tell you this?
Suffice to say, that conversation has always stuck with me. For a number of reasons!
I didn't judge the person calling me a liar.
Don't get me wrong. I was annoyed.
But his issue was clearly from within.
It was nothing to do with me!
It only took a few moments into the conversation for me to realise... This was a person who had spent two decades working within the silo of the same organisation.
It was an echo-chamber. And an unpleasant one at that!
No one questioned the culture.
No one pushed back on the toxicity.
No one tried to change the negativity.
And that culture was seeping from every crevice of the organisation.
Their customers were churning.
Their partners and suppliers were in constant flux.
They had no governing board.
They had no external consultants whose opinion would be listened to outside of the fixed role they were being hired for.
There was no appetite for employee engagement, fulfilment or wellbeing.
Could I have helped this business..?
If there were appetite to be helped. Which there wasn't.
This interviewer was one of a number of the senior leaders. All of whom were pretty much in the same boat.
The leadership needed to go.
And they were not going to break down their own self-built ivory towers.
So I wished him well and we parted ways.
I looked back a few years later and no surprise. The business has failed and had ceased trading.
The house of cards had fallen.
There would have been many reasons for this.
But none, in my opinion, than the unchecked ego's of the leadership team.
So let this be a lesson.
If you run a business and you don't have checks and balances to your own decisions.
You need them!
Maybe not now. Maybe not soon. But before you know it, you will. And by that point, it may be too late.
Do you want to learn more about what it's like to work with a Fractional COO...?
If you're an entrepreneur, then you know that it's a lonely road. There's no one to help you when things go wrong, and there's no one to celebrate with when things go well. That's why it's so important to have a business coach by your side.