Chris Cook, Founder and CEO of Fuel Digital

15 May, 2020

Erik Bermudez

Erik Bermudez


 

Chris Cook is founder and CEO of Fuel Digital, a vendor specializing in Strategy Consulting, Experience Design, and Solution Development. They are becoming well-known for their radical commitment to customer success, providing consulting and solutions services to hundreds of clients. Fuel Digital's motto is "Never Let a Customer Fail," and living up to that promise requires the right kind of company culture. Join us to learn more about Chris Cook's strategy for developing that culture, driving success for his clients, and bringing out the best of your team.

Full Transcript


Eric:

Hey everyone, welcome back to Taking the Stand. Thanks again for joining us. And today we have a very special guest with us, Chris Cook from Fuel Digital. He's the founder and CEO of Fuel Digital. Chris, thanks so much for joining us, appreciate your time today.

Chris:

Yeah, no happy to be here.

Eric:

Why don't we go ahead and just dive right in today. A little bit of your background, Chris, I've known you for quite some time. Fuel Digital is one of our valued and preferred integration partners here at File Vine and we built a really good relationship. I'm really excited to ask you not necessarily about that, but really about your background and how you've come to build phenomenal company cultures that seem to have a relentless focus on client success, which is something that I feel like is almost a lost art in today's environment. I'm excited to dig into that with you today. That's the theme of today's show.


But let me give you a little bit of background. Like I mentioned for everyone listening, Chris is the CEO of Fuel Digital, but also has always been in the world of technology and software development. In fact, he's owned and built and sold companies in the past. We are extremely appreciative to have you on the show with us. With that, let's go ahead and dive right in. Logan?

Logan:

Absolutely. Just wanted to echo what Eric was saying, Chris, happy to have you here today. We've done work together in the past and it's always been a pleasure rubbing shoulders with you. Like Eric was saying, you've obviously been very instrumental in building a lot of successful things. I've been with File Vine for years now and I've kind of seen what it takes to build up a company and what it is now. And obviously the culture is at the center of that. I wanted to get your take, when managing teams or building new companies, where do you start on building that culture? How is that important? How do you define it? Can you give us your thoughts on that?

Chris:

Yeah. Okay. So, defining culture. I've thought a lot about this since we had our conversation yesterday. And the more I've thought about it, the harder it seems to be able to articulate what culture is. It's like asking me to explain how I breathe. It's something that just happens. It's something I do. I think one way to define culture is that it's just the embodiment of your values. Your values define how you act, how you work, how you relate to other people. It's just who you are as a person. And basically the combination of all your people is who you are as a company. And I think it really gets down to being as simple as that.


And I think a lot of people are going to bring to the table their own personalities, the way they do things, their workflow processes, how they interact with either clients or with coworkers. I think that's all being spun into this cocktail of what a company's culture really comes out to be.

Logan:

I would love to dig into that a little bit more, Chris. It's interesting, culture is obviously important. In fact, I've heard one saying, I can't remember who said this, but culture eats strategy every day. You can have the best strategy, but if you have a wrong culture fit, it's not going to work. And we talked a little bit about hiring and the level of importance that you place on hiring. Do you, if you find someone that checks all the boxes, but is not a right culture fit, do you believe that you can mold someone to kind of fit your culture? Or is that something that is the top box, and if that's not checked, it's an immediate no-go as you're acquiring talent?

Chris:

That's a great question in terms of can people be molded? And I'm sure they can. But for us, for me in particular, I mean, I think that culture is everything, especially for a business like us. Where we work on some really tough projects, some complex things, the stuff that we do is constantly changing. So, everyone on the team has really got to bring it every day in order for us to be successful. Especially now with everybody working remote, working from home, you have to have people who really enjoy what they do and who they do it with. And that allows you to get through those tough times, whether it's this virus thing or whether it's working through a death March project, where you've got a ridiculous date or timeline that you've got to meet. Having that culture, it gets you through those tough times.


And it also drives trust. We don't have to worry about our folks working from home or working from the beach or the river, wherever they are. We trust them. We trust that they're going to get their job done. We know that they're going to deliver for us. And they count on us the same way, they trust us. It really is critical to what we do. In that interview process, it's really important. I mean, you have to not only be good at what you do, but you have to be a good teammate. And there are several things that go into being a good teammate, but basically it's you're going to carry your end of the load. You're going to hold up your end of the bargain and you're willing to help a teammate if they're struggling to hold up their end of the bargain. So, that attitude, I guess it's coachable, but it's tough. And we really try to needle that out in our interviews. Because frankly, we can train you and you can learn the technology. It's constantly changing anyway. So, the culture is even more critical.

Logan:

Okay. One follow-up question, and this is one that may be a curve ball for you. Hiring is such ... I don't think anyone has identified a perfect science to hiring. Even Google, is what, I can't remember, they're 15 to 20%, they miss-hire. I'm wondering, have you found any key principles, secret sauce elements to hiring that has made it a little bit easier for you?

Chris:

No. Other than to say I interview every prospect. At previous companies when I've managed teams of 150 people, I still interviewed every single person that came in that would potentially be working in my group. It got to be pretty busy, but it's important. I feel like building that connection, and really in 30 minutes or so I can usually figure out if that connection is there. And if that sort of mentality and attitude that we're looking for, is there. I don't know if I can give you a playbook for figuring that out in that 20 minutes. It's more of a feeling than it is something that I can put down on paper.

Logan:

Yeah. I can only imagine how difficult it is to try, in that 20 minute interval, gauge what that person's culture is going to be like, if you've got any skeletons in the closet or something else like that. They probably have all the credentials because they made it to your doorstep for that interview. But who knows until you're working on a real project with how they react under pressure or how they react with bad news or things like that.

Chris:

Honestly, that's a great point, Logan. We aren't 100%, by far. We've obviously made mistakes over the years and brought in people who weren't a good fit. But it's funny how, if you've got a strong culture already and the people that are on the team are all pulling in the same direction, if you make one of those hires, it becomes really apparent pretty quickly. And nine times out of 10, those people sort of self select themselves out of the firm. They, for whatever reason, they're typically not as successful. It's like coming into anything, if everyone's pulling in one direction and you're pulling the other direction, that's not going to work for anybody. So, we try to focus on it in the interview process. We're not perfect, but I think it works itself out pretty quickly.

Logan:

And I think that trying to aim for perfection and finding that person, that's a fool's errand. You'll never find that person that's just golden. It's just impossible. My question would be is how do you train it up or coach it? Because obviously people are going to bring their own values to the table, their own flaws and stuff like that. There's got to be a way to get buy-in or to help craft or develop that goodness that's in there. Because I think everybody deep down inside has got their skills, their traits, their talents. And sometimes it just takes a little bit of polishing up to bring that out.

Chris:

Yeah. And it's something I'm asked a lot is, where do you start when you're trying to implement culture or focus on culture? And it's tough. Again, there's not really a playbook for implementing culture. I think culture just happens. I think leaders have to communicate their values and they communicate them by the way they act, the way they live, the way they work, not by the things they say. There are a lot of folks that can talk the culture talk, but when it gets down to it, don't walk the walk.


That comes across to your team. Whatever those values are, they have to be from the heart, you have to live them and you have to believe them. It's funny, we were talking about this, I don't know, four or five years ago about how we had developed culture and how we make sure that the culture remains strong in even going through some tough times. And one of my friends said, basically, you can't fake cool. And I think that sums it up. That might be a good t-shirt.

Logan:

I'm going right now to get it printed and order it and every size from China. Well, let me ask you a little bit further on that then. Give me some examples of positive culture that you've done. I've heard of companies that'll say, "Hey, take an hour each week to go do service work." Or there's a happy hour that they all get together on Thursday afternoons or something like that. But what are some examples that you've implemented or have seen success with for maybe those sort of listening that don't have an idea of where do I start with culture? What can I do now?

Chris:

That's a great point. And I think the key word is team. Like we talked about yesterday, our motto is never let a client fail. And actually we extend that to never let a partner fail. We take the same approach with our partners, like File Vine, as we do with our clients. And that means doing whatever it takes to make that client successful. And we know that taking good care of our clients is only going to be possible if we take good care of our employees.

Chris:

And that means a couple of things. To your point, is giving them a work environment that they enjoy. They like coming to, they like being around the other people that are in that environment. For us, it also means compensating them well and sharing in the profits of the company so that they are rewarded for our success and they feel like they've got skin in the game. And then making sure, I think this is critical and it's something that a lot of people sort of fail to acknowledge. But they need to understand that leadership team has their back and that we're not going to put them out there in situations where they can't be successful. Whether it's signing them up for a death March or whatever it is. They understand that we have their back.


And if they screw up, they understand that we have their back. Everybody messes up and that's fine. You have to have a culture where mistakes aren't penalized. People understand they can take risks, make a mistake, and we can recover and bounce back from it. It's like screwing up a play on the lacrosse field. It's all about the next play, not the last play.

Logan:

Chris, that's really interesting. And I love that. I think you've mentioned before, one of your mantras is never fail a client, but to never let the client fail. So, it's kind of this two way street. I think that all goes back down to expectation setting and explicitly stating clear expectations with clients. As we've worked with Fuel Digital, that's something that you and your team, I feel like excel at, is just the clarity and the expectations. And it's just not what you will do, but it's also explicitly stating what you won't do, which oftentimes that part gets missed. And people take a silent as, well maybe, maybe not. When really that's just going to lead down a path towards failure. I wanted to ask, how do you think culture spills over into appropriate client expectation setting? I mean, that's such a crucial part to ensure the success of a project that you do.

Chris:

It is. And it gets back to not putting that delivery team in a place where they can't be successful. I think you mentioned it, it's all about communications and setting expectations with the client. One of the ways that we do that is that we have our delivery teams estimate every project. We actually pull together a formal project plan that lays out the timeline, the steps that we're going to go through and the cost, so that they are telling us what a given project is going to take to deliver. And then we use that to set the client's expectations. That way we don't drop our team into a situation where there's no way they can be successful.


I mean, we've all been in places where, and no offense if there are salespeople on here, but a sales team or a sales person will sign up for some nightmare just in order to get the client to sign and then dump that on the delivery team and say, "Hey, go pull me out of the fire on this thing." And you can't do that. So, we involve them upfront and they basically tell us what it's going to take. And then they're expected to deliver to that. But I think that's a big part of it.


And then it always comes back to not letting the client fail. We went from Ironworks saying, "Never fail a client." And that means a few things. It might mean working nights and weekends to hit a critical date. It might mean absorbing some hours in a case where we're going over budget and the client doesn't have any more budget. We'll eat those hours to make them whole, if it's something that we underestimated or something that we messed up. Basically treating the client like you want to be treated. And like we're all on the same team and not a client and a vendor.


Over time, we realized that we were doing what the client asked, but the end result wasn't as successful as everyone hoped. And we realized that we were maybe not being as good a consultant as we were a developer. So, we really focused and changed our motto to never let a client fail. And this little twist just means that we focus on helping our clients make good decisions to see around the corner so that the end result is something that both sides can really be proud of. It comes down to being good consultants, as well as just good developers. And that seems to be working pretty well.

Logan:

I couldn't agree more. I think that when people feel pride in ownership and the good work that they're doing, it's going to help develop that culture immensely. Being able to be a part of that final outcome, that's just so beneficial. They say, "Hey, look, here's the work that I did." Both parties are happy that this is something that I can put up on the shelf. Awesome. Well, we want to wrap up real quick. I've got a couple of rapid fire questions. You don't have any prep for these. So, hopefully you've got some good answers that'll come off on the fly. But I don't think we're going to be digging too deep here. So, I want to hear what your favorite book is.

Chris:

My favorite book? A book that I've read two or three times is Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy. That's one that I really enjoy. Gosh, I'm an avid reader. So, there are literally hundreds of books that I could name, but that's one that I have read a few times over.

Logan:

Tom Clancy's great. I love all his stuff.

Chris:

I know, I miss him.

Logan:

My dad used to read his stuff growing up, and I'd always see these books that are like this thick laying around. They're great. Okay, great. What piece of career advice ... Or, excuse me, what is the best piece of career advice you've ever received?

Chris:

I think it's love what you do. The only way you can be passionate about what you're doing is if you love it. There were ... Well, there was a time I probably could have not gone back to work. But I love doing this stuff. One of the things that I'm able to do now is help other people on our team to see what it takes to build something. And I'm passionate about that and I love it. So, that's what I'm doing.

Logan:

Okay. So, I'm going to flip it then. So, what's the great piece of career advice you'd want to give?

Chris:

Take ownership in something. Everyone can own something, whether that means owning a company, owning ... even if it means owning some piece of a business from the standpoint of you helped to create it, you designed it and you helped to build it. And I think having ownership, you take extra special care of whatever that is. And that's one of the things that I tell our team. And you said it a minute ago, it's about taking pride in what you do. So, whatever that is, do it all the way. One of the best phrases I've ever heard is the way you do anything is the way you do everything.

Eric:

Interesting.

Logan:

Yeah. Very interesting. Okay. Last question. What's the one thing you look forward to most in retirement?

Chris:

I can't picture being retired.

Eric:

I was about to ... If you ever do retire, Chris.

Chris:

I'm hoping by that point, I will have some grandsons and I can help them learn the sport of lacrosse.

Logan:

That's awesome. Great stuff there.

Eric:

Well, look, thank you so much, Chris. That's a wrap for today's show. Really appreciate your time today and especially the valuable insights that you shared. Those were awesome and really grateful for your time today. Thank you for being on with us.

Chris:

I'm glad to do it. It's good talking to you guys.

Eric:

Thanks everyone for joining today's show of Taking the Stand. We'll catch you next time.