Craig Vodnik faced early challenges at cleverbridge, but built a team eager to help beat the odds Featured

9:25pm EDT October 29, 2013
Craig Vodnik, cleverbridge Craig Vodnik, cleverbridge

When all the dollars and cents were added up for 2012, cleverbridge’s revenue topped $363.5 million — and co-founder Craig Vodnik realized the company had come a long way from when he answered phone calls in his Chicago basement.

“I was also out prospecting for new leads and new business, so I would do that when I wasn’t answering the phone,” Vodnik says. “We didn’t have venture capital or angel investors, so we bootstrapped it ourselves.”

Cleverbridge is a full-service e-commerce provider for companies that sell software and software as a service.

“Cleverbridge was launched because my partners and I were working in this industry at a previous company in Cologne, Germany,” says Vodnik, who also serves as vice president of operations. “That company was acquired by the market leader. When that happened, we all looked at each other and said, ‘This isn’t what we want to do. We want to control our destiny, and we’d rather go start our own company.’”

The challenge for Vodnik in those early days was bigger than just having to work out of his own basement. It was the fact that he was the company’s only employee in the United States. The other co-founders, Christian Blume, Martin Trzaskalik and Peter Blunck, were all in Germany.

“As the volume, the number of things to do, the strategy discussions and features we wanted and the market all started picking up, my time was filling up fast,” Vodnik says. “I said, ‘I need some help to come in and answer the phones and take some of the randomness out of my day and make it more structured so those calls could be answered by someone else.’ I just couldn’t be interrupted all the time.”

What followed was a series of valuable lessons in team-building that enabled Vodnik to get the help he needed to grow the company to where it could sell its services to at least one person in every nation around the world, including Antarctica. Here’s a look at how he did it.

 

Focus on the opportunity

Vodnik needed to focus on strategic direction and growth issues and what actions he and his co-founders needed to take to build cleverbridge into the company they wanted it to be.

“I went to some of the universities around here and I started posting advertisements for part-time help for customer service because that was something I knew I could train somebody to do,” Vodnik says. “I knew I could push it off and theoretically, students would be interested in finding part-time work for $10 to $12 an hour.”

Vodnik sweetened the deal by focusing on the company’s international presence and the need for people with foreign language skills or technological expertise. This was a growing company and they would get a chance to apply their skills toward helping it expand in tangible ways.

“So I was hoping by finding people who were internationally focused or savvy, they would build more of a rapport with cleverbridge and possibly stay on down the road after they graduated,” Vodnik says. “That model really resonated with people.”

The lesson learned was that whether you’re a business on the ground floor like cleverbridge or an established multimillion dollar organization, you can gain a lot by engaging the people you hire in your efforts to grow the business. This is especially true of younger people who are just getting started in their careers.

“It’s about helping them understand where this can lead them and making it a mutually beneficial situation so that they realize there is something in it for them as well,” Vodnik says. “I can go across the board at cleverbridge and show you all these different people where we went in and said, ‘Let’s hire this young person and give them a chance. Let’s invest in them upfront, give them knowledge and spend time with them.’

“The benefit we’ve attained from a profitability perspective has probably been two or three times what we would have received from an equivalent person we got off the street who had five years of experience working someplace else.”

You get people who are willing to work for a smaller salary to gain valuable experience in the real world of business. At some point, if they really have the skills and help your business grow, you owe it to them to compensate them more appropriately or risk losing them to a competitor.

But you’ll earn a whole lot of valuable loyalty during those more difficult times.

“When the going gets rough, these people, if you’ve invested in them and treated them the right way, will give you the benefit of the doubt and choose to stay rather than go at the first sign of a storm,” Vodnik says. “You also get people that you can train the way you want them and that has a huge payoff in terms of efficiency. You’re not trying to break someone’s bad habits that may have formed somewhere else.”

 

Don’t wait to train

Flash forward a few years and cleverbridge was no longer a bootstrap operation working out of Vodnik’s basement. The company was now doubling its office space every two years and broadening its reach to additional clients. Vodnik recognized the need to become even more proactive about preparing employees for a steep growth curve.

“We created a structured training program within the organization so that anybody in the company — and this applies from customer service up to any senior manager — has the ability to take these classes,” Vodnik says.

“It’s a great way to develop internal talent so that we don’t have to compete with the market. We get to know the person before we actually put them in the position to make a value judgment about whether they will be the right fit for the team or not. It’s identifying skilled talent and training those people before we need to fill those positions.”

Vodnik began talking about the training opportunity a few months before the classes actually began. It was done in a repetitive fashion and the goal was to find the people who were really interested in learning and weed out the ones who didn’t have their hearts in it.

“We’ve sold it to people as something that is really going to benefit you,” Vodnik says. “This is something you would have to pay for if you went outside the company, and we’re offering it to you during the day while you’re already here.”

The people you choose to do the training will also go a long way toward determining its effectiveness.

“You want somebody who has some patience and can clearly explain things and do a lot of the pre-work of organizing materials in a very clear manner,” Vodnik says.

“What we see as a problem with a lot of training is people try to dive way too deep into something. If the person doing your training is a very verbose person, that generally isn’t going to be a good trainer. They’re going to be standing up there talking and not reading the audience to know if they are hitting the mark.”

 

Sharing the spotlight

The plan to focus on younger talent and groom future leaders in the company through in-house training has paid off in big ways for cleverbridge. The company has been profitable since 2007 and now has more than 220 employees.

One of the keys to its success is the continued engagement between leaders and employees.

“It’s very important for the leaders of the company to be up in front on a frequent basis,” Vodnik says. “Talk to the people. Talk about what’s important and talk about what’s going on, but don’t hog the spotlight. Make sure you’re allowing other people to share. Delegate that responsibility. Give other people who are the next line of management in the company the opportunity to talk so that they feel they are contributing and are seen the right way in the organization.”

If you have people who have something to say or contribute, but aren’t as comfortable being up in front of people, go up there with them.

“Some people aren’t as comfortable getting up in front of a whole group of people, especially on their own,” Vodnik says. “There are ways to work around that.”

The lesson is that successful companies keep their peoples’ best interests in mind and do what they can to help them grow along with the business.

“You treat them right and invest in them, and you’re going to see a much bigger payoff down the road,” Vodnik says. “You can’t do this model across the board with every single position. But if you’re growing for the long term, it’s a great way to go.”

 

Takeaways

  • Respect the energy of youth.
  • Help your people develop.
  • Find people who can listen. 

 

The Vodnik File

Name: Craig Vodnik
Title: Co-founder and vice president of operations
Company: cleverbridge

Born: Chicago

Education: Bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering, University of Illinois, Champaign.

How did you get into nuclear engineering? I was going after aerospace engineering. Because of the timing when I was going to school — the Cold War was ending — they were cutting the number of aerospace engineers they accepted into college. The cool part about nuclear was it was an advanced topic, but the class sizes were very small. It was like being at a small university, but with the benefits of a much larger university.

Who has had the biggest influence on you? My mom. I’m a lot like her. She started her own business and did what she had to do to get things done and make ends meet. She was a single mother of two boys. She worked very hard and didn’t let a lot of things bother her. A lot of that came through in me. 

If you could speak with anyone from the past or present, with whom would you want to speak with? President Abraham Lincoln. I’ve always been very interested in history and in Lincoln. How did he get to the point where he said, ‘I’m ready to take the U.S. to war with itself in order to save the country.’ I just think that whole process of getting to that point had to be a gut-wrenching decision.

 

How to reach: cleverbridge, (312) 922-8693 or www.cleverbridge.com