Rob Schmults is the SVP at Intent Media, an ad tech company that enables retail sites to monetize visitors who leave without making a purchase. Rob has over 15 years experience leading and building teams at internet companies. We recently spoke with Rob about his previous experience and talent issues in the tech startup space.
The Makegood: Rob, your experience with the Internet dates back to 1994, having a background in all aspects of running and growing online businesses. What would you say were the biggest challenges to building internet businesses in the mid-1990s?
RS: I guess the biggest challenge was just how new everything was. On the surface, it seemed like all the rules were out the window and that you could draw your own map. We were given TCP/IP and told to have at it. But as it turned out people tended to draw the map to reflect what they already knew – a continuation of paths already taken. So you had websites that tried to mimic print or broadcast which totally — if understandably — missed the point that the web was its own medium. And it only appeared the rules were out the window, when in fact many of them — economics, management, leadership — remained fully in force. While exciting, this made for a pretty messy combination. Companies had to spend time figuring out the basics of online, often from scratch, while business basics were, in many cases, ignored. Lots of money was spent inefficiently. Things that are now cheap and easy were at that time massively complex and expensive such as sever capacity. But that’s the nature of a new market. Some great ideas and much of the infrastructure and people that are building today’s business learned from those early experiences and have came out the other side running their new internet businesses much more efficiently. Unfortunately, many of the businesses from that era simply evaporated.
The Makegood: As the SVP Strategic Partnerships for Intent Media, you manage business development and marketing. Can you tell us how you are helping the company evolve?
RS: I’m overhead. Essentially I get to surf on the efforts and achievements of the amazing team that’s been pulled together here. We’re atypical for a start-up in many ways. First, most start-ups launch with some no-name clients and then, if all goes well, work their way up from there. But our guys go out and start with the largest players in online travel: Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity. That not only brought a ton of credibility, but it meant my colleagues can talk with certainty about how the business performs at massive scale, about how fast our response times are under load. We actually know that we can do what we say. Second, most start-ups have tremendous focus and passion around their core concept, but often overlook the details surrounding it. We’re lucky in that our DNA largely reflects the companies we seek to work with: a large percentage of us — including all the founders — have online retail backgrounds. And that the leadership of our engineering team has been on the other side of the table. So they build a solution that is designed to have minimal impact on the systems and tech team of our clients. I can’t tell you how much easier that makes my own job.
There’s one other way we are — or rather were — atypical. We were having plenty of success without marketing ourselves and so decided the risk of promoting ourselves before we had fully staked out a strongly entrenched and defensible business wasn’t worth the danger of inspiring copycats. That made the marketing side of my role either a lot harder or a lot easier depending on how you look at it.
The Makegood: What would you say are the biggest challenges to hiring talent in the tech startup space today?
RS: We have a structural problem right now in the US. The demand for engineering and development talent far outstrips the supply and it’s only going to get worse. And it’s not just in New York City and San Francisco. Intent Media’s lucky in that we align with a number of hot buttons for tech talent: big data, ability to work across the stack, we’re well funded with the security that brings. But even so, we’re always looking to attract more engineers than we can find at any given time. And based on commiseration with others, we’re actually better off than many. It’s a classic supply and demand imbalance that by its nature is going to take a while to correct. We need more initiatives like Cornell’s future engineering campus in New York City and we need immigration reform.
The Makegood: What advice would you give to tech startups looking to hire, and job seekers, in order to improve the hiring process?
RS: It’s trite but true: you have to build a great culture. And not just the trappings. You really need to build a company where people feel psyched to come to work. Where the challenges are interesting and compelling, where the opportunity you are going after is real and generates meaningful value and where you’re keeping up your hiring standards so that people know they are part of a great team. If you can build that, it will translate into being able to successfully hire more folks to join that team. But even then, there’s a ton of blocking and tackling when it comes to identifying, attracting, and retaining the best people.
For job seekers, it always pays to be clear about what you want. And saying “I want a marketing job” doesn’t cut it. Be thoughtful about the attributes you are looking across the job spec, the people, the business, all aspects of the job and its context. Then map that back to your search. You can use those attributes as part of your research process to find the companies you should be considering. You can use it to evaluate a company during the interview process. Which should be as much about you evaluating the prospective employer as it is the employer evaluating you. And ultimately you should use it to weigh any offer you might end up considering.
The Makegood: Thanks, Rob.