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What to Look For in Talent – Interview With Exact Media CEO Ray Cao

exact media cintrifuse startupcincyIf you’ve looked at our job boards recently you might have noticed that Exact Media is aggressively looking for talent. Ray Cao, Exact Media CEO and co-founder, talked with Cintrifuse about what he looks for in employees and what startup founders should look for in talent.

Cintrifuse: Can you give us an overview of Exact Media – how it works and what you guys do?

Ray Cao:  Two years ago I was building a company called Loose Button (now Luxe Box). It was a beauty subscription service. When you signed up, you received a package of six or seven product samples from high-end beauty brands – anywhere from Estee Lauder to L’Oréal Luxe. It was like a magazine subscription except instead of a magazine, you got a box of samples to try.

In the first nine months, that business took off like crazy but in our tenth or eleventh month there were probably 35 clones around the world that popped up. Being a young, naive entrepreneur, I thought it was fantastic.

What I didn’t realize at the moment but realized shortly after, was these clones made it very difficult to break into other countries and regions around the world which was our plan. We had a profitable business but it was not growing at a break neck speed like it had the first nine months. So I made a decision to remove myself from the day-to-day business and spend sometime experimenting to figure out our next evolution.

[pullquote]We take some of the unused assets brands like Walmart, Best Buy or Toys-R-Us own and help them create value or monetize them.[/pullquote]

One of those experiments took off and has now become Exact Media. So, to be honest, Exact came out of necessity. I’ve never been interested in building a lifestyle business. There’s nothing wrong with lifestyle businesses but, for me, if I’m not building something with the potential of doing a billion plus in revenue, I’m going to move on and look for something else.

So what we created with Exact are networks and partnerships with some of the biggest retailers in North America and in the UK. We take some of the unused assets brands like Walmart, Best Buy or Toys-R-Us own and help them create value or monetize them. For example, if a customer orders a shirt online from zulily we say “Hey, she’s probably going to wash her shirt at some point in time. Why don’t we drop in some laundry detergent from Tide into her outgoing parcel?”

Basically it’s engaging her in a moment where you have her full attention and in a context that actually matters. It’s a very simple idea of taking, in the current case, the empty spaces of her parcel and enabling brands to do targeted and scalable sampling. That is the model for Exact.

CF: What kind of people do you hire at Exact? What’s your company’s culture and values?

RC: We believe in hiring one fantastic person over a bunch of mediocre ones. One fantastic person equals three or four good people so we really take our time when we look for talent.  The idea is that every new hire we bring on needs to be better than the last one, which is a bit of a challenge because we’re hiring a lot right now. If it all works out, I should be the dumbest person in the room.

We took a lot of lessons from Loose Buttons and applied them to Exact Media. We used to hire young, very young, straight out of school or co-op students. One of the things about young talent is they have great energy and hustle. What they lack is experience and nothing replaces experience.

[pullquote]We believe in hiring one fantastic person over a bunch of mediocre ones. One fantastic person equals three or four good people.[/pullquote]

Learning from that, we built a combination of fantastically experienced individuals with some of the young hustlers. Today, we have a brand strategy team made up of former consumer package goods talent. So we have a number of ex-brand managers from P&G, Johnson and Johnson and General Mills. The other side of our business is the network or retail side. Again, drawing on experience, we hired people who used to work for or with places like Kroger or Target – people who really understand the retail side.

Essentially we’re looking for people who have been on the other side of the table and who have experience but at the same time still have a very entrepreneurial mindset. We’re just looking for people who have been able to build success in past experiences. People who excel and have been a top performer at a great company.

CF: If I’m a top performer at P&G or L’Oreal, what is going to entice me join Exact Media?

RC: There will always be a bucket of people who remain in the world of Unilever, L’Oreal or P&G. The people we attract are a subset of those people in large organizations who always stood out in a different way. They like experimentation, they like breaking things, they like trying new things and they’re not afraid to try new things.

I don’t like using the word intrapreneur but it is that sort of the person. I think Exact, and startups in general, are for people who want to take what they would normally learn in 10-15 years and compress that into a few years. That’s not for everyone.

[pullquote]I think Exact, and startups in general, are for people who want to take what they would normally learn in 10-15 years and compress that into a few years. That’s not for everyone.[/pullquote]

We continue to build things and continue to evolve. When things evolve, they break down and you go back into building mode. I think that’s an excitement level only certain types of people are truly attracted to. People who really want to build – that’s the type of personality we attract.

CF: What are you hoping to build towards? What is your big vision for Exact Media?

RC: I look at this from a couple of perspectives. One is from a product perspective and the other is from a geographic perspective. Whatever we build needs to have a global impact and be able to scale globally.

Maybe not in every single country but certainly the bigger ones like China, India, the UK or Brazil. When we started Exact, we had the focus and mentality of going global from day one. Part of the reason why we’re in the U.S., the UK, and Canada  is because of that mentality.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with building a great American company or a great North American company but the world is changing. It’s shifting to places like Asia and I think that presents a phenomenal opportunity to create impact in other parts of the world. Global is a big part of our vision.

The second piece is really going after these moments or these engagement opportunities where you can really get the attention of the consumer. We’re flooded with ads all over the place. You look in your mailbox and it’s junk mail, you look online and get flooded with banner ads, you are flooded with billboards all over the city. I think it’s going to get harder and harder to get the attention of consumers and, for us, it’s really about finding ways to capture that attention and to enable brands to create value.

[pullquote]Finding a good co-founder, partner or someone who can be involved in the early stage is super important. It gets very lonely in the early days.[/pullquote]

CF: What advice would you give in terms of hiring throughout the stages of your company?

RC: First, it’s possible but very difficult to build a company by yourself. I’m fortunate to have a co-founder helping me build the business. We’re able to go through the struggles, challenges and opportunities together.

I think one mistake a lot of entrepreneurs make is they think they can do everything themselves. In the early days you kind of have to do everything yourself but it’s very, very difficult. Finding a good co-founder, partner or someone who can be involved in the early stage is super important. It gets very lonely in the early days.

When you look at the next stage of hiring, one of the pivotal moments that transformed Exact was when we got our first customer and then ended up hiring our first customer. The gentleman we brought on is now our CMO. He came from P&G and had about 18 years experience in brand operations and marketing. That really transformed our thinking around hiring people with a lot of experience. We saw how much faster experienced people can move.

The reason we were able to hire our first customer was because we had a product people believed in and said “I see what you guys are doing and, as a brand marketer, I think it’s a fantastic product. I want to be a part of it.”

I am definitely a believer that the product is half the battle. The other part is bringing that idea to life and into reality. It is important the product is exciting enough that others are willing to jump on even though there is a lot to figure out.

The third thing is just something I always believed in and that’s every hire that you make, especially in the early days, is going to speak volumes about your company. It is your brand. People will look at who else is part of your company. I think that every new person we hire has to raise the bar for Exact. When it comes to talent, the minute you start making exceptions and you have people who don’t fit, other people will see it right away. That’s when it becomes harder and harder to get great talent.

CF: Can you talk about what’s next for Exact?

RC: Immediate focus is to continue hiring aggressively. I think we’re going to add about 30 people by the end of the year so talent is going to continue to be a big focus for us.

We’re going to look at customer expansion too. Doing more with the brands from the companies we’re already working with but also looking for new customer opportunities. We realized there are so many other brands we can help so we’re going to focus on that.

We’re also going to work on innovation around how we build this out from a tech and data perspective – investing in making our platform more self serve and more automated.

CF: Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs or people who are looking to be entrepreneurs?

RC: I think it’s dangerous to bucket entrepreneurs as people who start companies. There are certain types of people where building a company from scratch is the right thing for them. For most people, that isn’t right for them but those people can still add a tremendous amount of value to startups and to entrepreneurs.

[pullquote]The term “entrepreneur” needs to be used carefully in that it’s not just founding a company. A large part of it is helping build a company from the very early stages.[/pullquote]

At Exact, about 75% of the people we hired were not entrepreneurs and never worked for a startup. They had the mentality though. The hustle and the drive and a very entrepreneurial personality. They just needed a change in environment to bring that personality out, that inner desire to be creative and to create things.

The term “entrepreneur” needs to be used carefully in that it’s not just founding a company. A large part of it is helping build a company from the very early stages. There’s a huge opportunity for people in Cincinnati that work at the big companies to say “I don’t need to start a company but how can I be entrepreneurial?”  Whether it’s within their current company or with a smaller startup company.

The city will be more vibrant when more people start thinking this way. The more you can feed the ecosystem the better it will be. I would really encourage more people to think about how they can contribute to entrepreneurship beyond being the one who starts a company.

Follow Ray Cao on Twitter @ray_cao
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