Lisa Falzone of Revel Systems on the Thrill of Entrepreneurship
MARCH 6, 2014
A. I was captain of the swim team in high school and I swam at Stanford. That was really my entrepreneurial endeavor. I was very competitive. And swimming really helped me learn how to perform under pressure, how to just work hard and get the job done.
Q. Other lessons from that experience?
A. Richard Quick was my coach at Stanford. He was a six-time Olympic swim coach. He was very good at inspiring and motivating and rallying the troops. He had this saying of, “Believe in belief.” It’s basically a belief in the power of the mind — whether you’re swimming or starting a company from scratch — to just overcome all obstacles.
Q. Tell me about your parents.
A. My dad is a dentist, but he only does really complicated cases, and does a lot of out-of-the-box solutions for patients who have had jaw surgery, for example. He’s very creative and looks at things in different ways than the mainstream. My mom is more of a get-stuff-done driver.
Q. And what about after college?
A. Because swimming was my passion before, it was difficult to find that passion after I graduated. It took me a good three years of trying things — marketing, sales, big companies, small companies, finance. I looked into starting a dozen different businesses before I started Revel.
Q. But you were determined to start your own company, obviously.
A. For me, there was that kind of adrenaline rush. When I was swimming, I loved to race and I loved the thrill of being on the blocks. You’ve worked hard for six months for a two-minute race. The pressure’s on. I love that. It’s very similar to entrepreneurship, I think, because every day you’re creating your own path. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and the stakes are high.
Q. So your first management role was as a C.E.O. Any early speed bumps in leading people?
A. One classic mistake I made was that I assumed everybody was as driven as I was and had the same standards. I made a lot of hiring mistakes, because at the beginning you assume so much about someone and you tend to assume that they’re just like you.
Q. So how do you hire now?
A. I find interviews really difficult. One thing I always ask is, “Tell me what your last boss would say about you.” And then I’ll say, “What’s their name, and give me the contact information.” Because they think that I might call them — and sometimes I do — I can get really honest feedback.
Disposition and attitude are really important, too. If they go on some rant about how bad their last boss was, that’s a bad sign. Attitude and passion are often more important than smarts.
Q. What is some advice you’ve learned from mentors?
A. One piece of advice from our investor is that if you have to get rid of someone, that can create bad blood, so do it quick. You’ve got to pay attention to employee morale, but you can’t let it guide you. You always have to be focused on the vision and what you’re trying to accomplish, because if you focus too much on what’s going on around you in the moment, sometimes it can tear you off your course.
Q. Other ways you’ve evolved as a leader and manager?
A. You always want to have composure in front of your employees. They can tell if you’re stressed, and then they feed off that. So if I’m ever stressed, I try to either not show it to my employees, or I go work in my office for a little while.
I didn’t realize this so much when I started, but everything stems from you. So it’s really important that you always try to remain happy, too, and do whatever you need to do to make sure you’re in a happy state. Because if you’re not happy, none of your employees are going to be happy.
When you’re stressed, you can be doing a bunch of things, and you’ll send a short email and it won’t be worded carefully, and the person you sent it to will take it the wrong way. Instead, you should take the time to sit with the person and say, “Here’s what I need you to do, and here’s why.” Sometimes I still forget to do that. I’ll say, “Here, do this.” But just calling the person in for a five-minute conversation can be a lot better.
Q. What kind of career advice do you give to college students?
A. When you’re trying to find your path as you’re transitioning out of school, it’s about finding your passion and not giving up. I feel like a lot of people give up and they do things that are just for work. If you’re graduating from a university in the United States, you’re already so far above what most people in the rest of the world have the opportunity to do. We’re in America; you can do whatever you want. If you can’t be happy doing your work, no one can. So it’s about not giving up. There are a lot of people who try to follow these certain paths, and they want to do X, Y, Z brand-name thing when they graduate. It’s about finding what you want to do.
Q. But work isn’t always fun, and it’s not always about being happy.
A. Right. My work is really a love-hate relationship. Swimming for me was love-hate. There were many times I wanted to quit swimming. Like all good relationships in life and all things that you’re passionate about, there are highs and lows.
Q. What’s the hardest part about being a C.E.O.?
A. No one tells you you’re doing a good job, ever. I’ve also always been a bit of a people pleaser. But it’s not helpful to be a people-pleaser when you’re a C.E.O. because you’ve got to stick to a vision, and you’ve got to realize that not everyone is going to like you all the time. So that’s been a little tricky.
Q. What’s your favorite part about being a C.E.O.?
A. You’re constantly learning about yourself and learning about people and learning about life, really. Every single day you’re put to the test.
This interview has been edited and condensed.