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#CoFounderAlignment Series: Interview With Mark Josephson, CEO of Bitly

This is the first in the Co-Founder Alignment series, where we explore the ins and outs of co-foundership. Mark Josephson, CEO of Bitly, shares his experience of being a co-founder and reveals the reason why his first startup failed. Mark grew up in a small town in which his parents were professional counsellors and this has shaped the way he makes business decisions. He finds having a degree in psychology has contributed to his overall success and discusses the need of psychological skills in business. Mark explores how business relationship dynamics impact on the success of a business and imparts some wisdom on how to begin a startup with a co-founder.

Interview transcript below:


Hi, everyone, this is Banu Hantal, the leadership psychologist, and today I'm with Mark Josephson, CEO of Bitly. Thank you for being here, it was an awesome talk that you did

Mark: Thanks so much.

Banu: I was looking at your LinkedIn profile and I noticed you have a bachelor's degree in psychology.

Mark: I do.

Banu: And I read that your dad was a clinical psychologist.

Mark: Yeah and my mother, too, and my brother and my sister.

Banu: So you're coming from a family of psychologists?

Mark: I am

Banu: So having that background and growing up with that kind of knowledge base, do you think it influenced the type of leader you became today?

Mark: It absolutely, fundamentally changed or drove who I am today. I know for a fact from experience and from life that every single person is fucked up. I don't know if I'm allowed to swear on air.

Banu: Yes definitely as I do that too.

Mark: I know that you've got issues that you're working on.

Banu: Of course. That's why I became a psychologist.

Mark: Exactly right because you have to go through all that and I do too and I know that everybody does. I grew up with it, that was our family business and I grew up in a small town, in a small state where everybody knew everybody. And everybody went and saw my parents when their marriages were in trouble and their kids weren't behaving or performing well in school or they were going through their own issues in life. I knew. And so I just assumed that everybody is working on something and so it doesn't freak me out when I see people working through things. So in fact, I look for what it is they're working on because I know that there's something.

Banu: In San Francisco, I don't know if you see a similar trend in New York, but here people finally started taking psychology not in terms of fixing problems, but in terms of using it as a tool to achieve greatness and breaking the average. And we have all ambitious people here, as you would know.

Mark: I remember working with my dad a long time ago when he got the first biofeedback machines and he was using biofeedback in his practice to teach people to relax. Now it's now you have Headspace, which is one of the best apps.

Banu: I agree and I do use it for my clients. I do HRV trainings with my clients.

Mark: It works. It physically works that what you're thinking about changes how your body behaves and performs, and they're inextricably tied.

Banu: Do you use it?

Mark: I do, yeah.

Banu: What type of biofeedback?

Mark: So I don't use biofeedback but I try to meditate. My parents meditated twice a day for 40-50 years.

Banu: What type of meditation are you using?

Mark: I'm doing a version from the book 'The Relaxation Response'. Which is one of the early books. It's super easy read. So it's just basic relaxation tools and systems.

Banu: Great. So let's talk a little bit about the executive relationships or the co-founder relationships that I work a lot on. I feel like it's kind of the model relationship for the rest of the company. It's about becoming role models and how to relate and work with each other. On top of that, I think it has a lot of influence where the company is going. So in your past, did you have any instances where you felt like you messed it up with someone in your executive team and you were like this was wrong?

Mark: Just one?

Banu: I mean the one that you would like to share and what you learned from it and how you had to transform.

Mark: Sure. I mean, there's been so many. There have been so many times when I could have done a better job or handled it differently, but the one that pops to mind is somebody that I really have a tremendous amount of affection and admiration for. We built something together and then our relationship was too rooted in the personal than the professional and that caused us not to communicate well together, and it ended and not how I would have wanted it to end. So I think that part of what you need to balance when you're an executive or a co-founder is having the real conversations. There were things I should have said and done that I didn't because I felt a certain way, and I know that he feels the same way, and so I wish I could go back and do that again.

Banu: I actually see this all the time because a lot of the co-founders start the company because they know each other and they are friends. And I see a lot of avoidance of communication because they don't want to hurt the relationship. They don't want to hurt the person.

Mark: That's true. I got the feedback "I wish you would have told me this before" and I wish I had shared it before. It would have been a whole lot more meaningful and productive and healthy if I did.

Banu: And I think we have to figure out how to do it in the right way. I think a lot of people feel lost. "Am I going to talk?" and "if I talk am I going to damage this relationship even further?". The comfort comes from having the skills so they know how to do it properly.

Mark: Yeah, but there's a thing that we're doing at the company that I'm really excited about, which is called Bitly Excellence. They talked a little bit about it up [at the conference], but Bitly Excellence is something that we set up for every employee in the company with their manager. It happens once a month and they have to come prepared to answer six questions. The same six questions all the time and the first question is: Are you happy coming to work each day? Are there relationships inside the company you wish were better? Are you on track for your personal goals? Are you on track for your professional goals? I think that having those real meaningful conversations start to drive awareness and success, and I'm thrilled that we do that because you can teach people how to have them or you can force them to have them and teach them that way. And so I love it. It's awesome.

Banu: I love it. I'm a big believer in putting process and structure in place that the behavior shows up because especially in a start-up, everything is so fast paced and everything is high priority at the time, these kind of things sometimes get put on the side.

Mark: On my executive dashboard, we have percentage of Bitly Excellent meetings held in the particular month of the quarter.

Banu: Oh, that's awesome.

Mark: So we're tracking down.

Banu: That's pretty great. Another thing you mentioned during your talk, that made me think about, is winning together, because I sometimes feel I need to train my clients not to win too much because there is something as winning too much. When people like try win in co-founder or executive teams, it becomes a competitive play, like being the person who's right, whose idea is right, or winning the argument. And they have a good debater client. And it becomes more like winning the argument than actually compromising. So what has been your experience about winning as a person, as an individual and winning as a CEO, what is the difference?

Mark: I've had to learn a lot and a lot of it the hard way. One of the things I'm working on now is empowering versus directing. And I got feedback from my team and the 360 that sometimes when I drop into a conversation, the message I'm sending is that I don't trust them to do their jobs. Which is not what I'm thinking, but that's what they're feeling and so I spend a lot of time trying not to talk and trying to listen more in my job as my job has changed as we've grown. So I think a lot about that and I don't have to have the answer for it to be my success. I get all the I get all the accolades if the company wins and all the dings if we lose. It doesn't matter if I touch it or not. That's the nature of my job and figuring that out and for my executives as well, my team, they win when we win. So we do talk about that and we try to make sure we all win. We actually added one new value to our list this year, which is nobody wins unless everybody wins. Our sixth value, which is something that Bruce Springsteen used to say at the end of his concerts, "Remember, in the end, nobody wins unless everybody wins". So that's actually one of our core values.

Banu: And they say sometimes winning mindset is the losing mindset and turning it into that, I love that. So what would you advise someone who is at the beginning of their journey, founders who just started? What would be some wisdom you would like to share?

Mark: Get a coach.

Banu: Get a coach?

Mark: Yeah, get a coach. Have somebody that you can talk to about it. It's incredibly lonely. This is not a sob story. I love my job and I wouldn't trade it for any job in the world but nobody asked the CEO or the founder to go to lunch. So you're the one that's sitting at a desk doing the work and you've got lots of things that you're thinking about. I found it really helpful in my career to have friends who were going through similar things and coaches who can help me just listen to things I was thinking about and have a sounding board. I think it's an amazing, amazing resource.

Banu: Thank you very much.


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