James Zarley Featured

8:00pm EDT July 28, 2006
When James Zarley started ValueClick Inc. during the height of the tech revolution, he eschewed the Internet business model and opted instead for the classic approach of producing a product and a profit. That approach helped him build an online marketing company that produced $304 million in revenue last year and is expected to exceed $500 million this year and surpass $1 billion in five years. Smart Business spoke with Zarley, chairman and CEO of ValueClick Inc., about taking advantage of opportunities, admitting your limitations and planning for the future.

Educate employees about the business.
(It is) absolutely critical that they are aware of what you’re thinking, why you’re thinking it, they feel a part of it and they’re in partnership with it. It really is communicating up and down the organization at every single level.

From my standpoint, there are very few secrets. The only thing I don’t share with employees is what I legally can’t. Everything else, what’s in my head, what I’m thinking, what my views are, I share with people. And I encourage them to do the same with me so that those opportunities can really be brought out into the open.

Exploit your natural talents.
It takes certain skill (to be a leader). These skills are something that must be within you. There are a number of things that you learn either through reading, education or experience.

I don’t think that ever stops. I continue to learn every day and I continue to make mistakes. Hopefully I don’t repeat them often.

Define leadership — who the people look up to and respect, people who have credibility within their organization, who have innate capabilities of having good judgment and common sense. You don’t have to be a trained financial expert but you certainly must understand margins modeling, pricing and those types of things so that the team you work with can determine what the opportunities are and how to seize them.

The key is people must see you as a leader, and they must respect you as a leader. You need to have credibility when you’re standing in front of your employees and talking about the vision and direction of the company.

Don’t feign omnipotence.
There’s nothing wrong with a leader saying, ‘We, as a company, don’t know what the answer is in this direction yet, so we’re not going to talk the talk because we can’t walk the walk yet.

You gain credibility by backing what you say you’re going to do. You gain credibility by making sense so the people really understand why you’re doing what you’re doing or saying what you’re saying.

People want to look up to whoever it is. They want to, if necessary, lean on that person, but also look up to that person and respect what that person is saying.

Embrace your fallibility.
I have a saying: The knowledge of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. Whatever your weakness is, whatever mistakes you make, they cost you some things.

If you can’t acknowledge that you made the mistake or that it’s a weakness, then you can’t ever gain from it. You have to acknowledge where your weaknesses are and learn from those mistakes so you don’t repeat them.

Sometimes you can make light of your weaknesses. In our organization, we have people that are strong in certain areas and not as experienced in other areas. I refer to the chief financial officer as being the CEO of finance and to the person that is in charge of mergers and acquisitions as the CEO of acquisitions.

These people have strengths in areas where maybe I don’t. Together, we’re all much stronger because we have the experts in each one of these particular areas that are really the decision-makers.

Have fun.
One of the ways to (measure success) is how much fun are we having. The atmosphere that you have in an organization is an indication of how creative your people will be and whether you build an environment where people are empowered to think creatively so they’re not afraid to make mistakes.

When you walk into an organization and you can see it, you can tell when they’re really alive. I get a very warm feeling when I walk into those places where you can feel the buzz and you see the expression on people’s faces that they like being where they’re at because of the atmosphere that’s been created by the leadership.

It’s not just the CEO. It’s people up and down the organization. That’s a foundation of a company, creating that kind of environment.

Build the team.
There is no way one person can build an organization. You can set the groundwork, but it really takes an awful lot of people — not just vice presidents and general managers but people up and down the organization in every category that contribute to the energy.

It’s got to start somewhere, but it is a collection of people who think and act in those same ways and who are respectful to each other.

What you have when you are done are people who are in a collective partnership as opposed to, this person is the CEO, this person is the vice president. ... All of that title thing diminishes, and you have a bunch of people that are working harmoniously together and are not intimidated by each other.

HOW TO REACH: ValueClick Inc., (818) 575-4500 or www.valueclick.com