Apr 29, 2020

Founder stories: an Unleashed Q+A with Mark McDermott, CEO at ScreenCloud

This month, People + Culture Partner Ginni Lisk spoke with Mark McDermott, CEO and one of the founding members at ScreenCloud.

ScreenCloud is a software company that, in simple terms, provides content management solutions delivered via hardware (digital signage). ScreenCloud’s impact goes far beyond digital signage though; they are enabling brands to truly connect with their customers, and workplaces to design and provide a whole new approach to internal comms.

As you may have expected, a company working in the communications space has a confident communicator at the helm! Both in terms of Mark’s leadership brand and his personal brand (read on to find out how the two combine) communication is something that he cares deeply, and thinks critically about, always. In the current coronavirus context of uncertainty, revenue loss and furloughing, we ask Mark how he’s been leading the business (and doing so after himself contracting + recovering from Covid-19!)

GL: It would be great to start by hearing a bit about the impact of coronavirus at ScreenCloud.

MMcD: Like most businesses, we’ve had to think about our finances and address loss in revenue, and we’re worried about our customers. We display screens in physical spaces; with so many of those spaces closing and footfall being so heavily impacted by social distancing, our customers are losing money and our screens can’t create their usual value. We’ve put in place a ‘crediting’ system for our customers, to flatten our own curve (recognition goes to my smart team for thinking on their feet to do this) which has meant that many of our renewals didn’t need to cancel, but there’s ongoing concern and as we speak I know that one of our biggest customers are really struggling. As a business, we’ve had to respond, and we’ve done that through a mix of salary cuts, reduction in hours and furloughing some of our team.

Furloughing has, of course, been the subject of lots of discussion recently, what’s your perception of how it’s worked?

For us, furloughing felt like a good solution. Without it, we would possibly have had to make cuts we didn’t want to and furloughing gives some breathing room to regroup and replan. From the business perspective, it’s giving us some space; it’s not a long term solution but this is a cataclysmic event!

Have you had any criticism from your team?

The most difficult thing has been how quickly everything changed for us and how we had to change what and how we communicated as a result. One week, we had an all-hands where we addressed as a company that many of our customers are closing doors, that because we display inside those places, this was going to impact us… we sent a message that shit is getting real, that this is happening and we should expect a shock, but… it was also absolutely the case that we were speaking to banks and VC’s. I encouraged the team to feel reassured that we’ve had multiple term sheets over the years that we have said no to because they didn’t feel right at the time and that at the moment of that all-hands, there were are a number of ‘nine out of ten’ active investment conversations in flight; so we all had reason for optimism.

A week later, we were all taking salary cuts and were furloughing. Understanding how things changed so rapidly in that short a timeframe is of course, really hard for the team.

What has been the cause of that pace of change — and how do you feel about it as CEO?

It’s because seemingly overnight, those ‘nine out of tens’ with investors become ‘zero out of ten.’ That’s not a statistical failure rate that makes sense; completely vanishing is very different to things getting worse! When your world collapses, from a founder perspective, it’s like taking a baseball bat to the face, not a punch to the gut. The pressure on founders and CEOs in that context, who are being asked to rationally figure out what cuts need to be made, is huge. I’ve spent lots of time thinking about how I would know if I was responding well.

Without furloughing we wouldn’t have space to even try and model this and react. This is the worst economic event in a century; but what is my frame of reference? As a CEO furloughing gave me the opportunity to go and find a solution.

From the employee perspective, it’s no doubt a confidence knock. And it’s sadly forcing decisions in many areas where skill, talent and great attitude can’t change the situation; for example, if there is no point investing in Google Adwords right now, even someone awesome who’s performing really well in performance marketing isn’t needed — it’s really, truly not a reflection on talent, and I’ve worried about making sure that the necessity has been clear in my comms to the team, I don’t want anybody to perceive that they’re being ‘picked on’.

The elephant in the room is that this can’t go on forever, and I appreciate that furloughed members of the ScreenCloud team are going to be thinking “am I going to come back to work?” Of course, I know that hangs heavy.

I am trying to give optimistic answers but I’m also aware that I have a duty to be honest and to manage my teams’ expectations. It’s just hard not having anything to draw upon… 2008 was polite enough to give you a head’s up, particularly as a small business. But this time we’ve all felt the brunt simultaneously and within a period of one or two weeks.

In terms of how I feel, and coping mechanisms, personally I tend to compartmentalise things. I think to myself, “I’ve been given the furloughing lifeline to go and do what I need to do” and that lifeline has taken things from feeling impossible to extremely hard, but something I can work with. So now I’m focusing on what I need to do. I tend to put feelings to one side because otherwise, it’s torment; it won’t make me better or make me work harder, it will add unnecessary stress and I need to be calm and in control to raise investment. I need to be impressive. I need to be the swan on the surface, not the legs kicking like crazy underneath. I need to perform.

Using a football analogy, it’s like the Cup final; 85 minutes are on the clock and I’ve got a penalty to take, and I’ve been handed the ball. I just think, would anyone in the stadium want you thinking about anything other than the task at hand, at that moment? If those football fans are my team at ScreenCloud I want them to know I’m focused, and thinking ‘I’ve done the training, I’ve kicked this ball 100,000 times before, I have a plan and I’m going to score this fucking goal.” Having anything else in my head would not be helpful.

You’ve founded a few businesses and have some strong leadership experience; what would your advice be for first-time founders coping with the same things?

Clear your mind. Do what you need to do. If you think “what would happen if I fail?” and you plant that seed in your mind, then you WILL fail. There is always something you can draw from. You’ve been against the wall before. It’s about self-belief more than the experiences we’ve had individually; for all of us, there is a consistent pattern of coming-through challenging scenarios. We all learned to walk.

Yes, age and experience and awareness helps, but now is not a time to get fancy, it’s not a time for flair — it’s time to go back to basics. Score a reliable penalty, not the most exciting one. Give yourself the best odds of winning. People don’t want ‘complicated’ in tough times, they want simple and relatable and a narrative that fits.

If the focus of your narrative in boom time is about innovation and the future, reframe it for now; what innovation that you’ve done to date is useful for today? You have to be instantly relevant.

It’s fascinating, but it’s also really difficult to know if you’re doing the right thing. It’s weird going from super optimistic to much less in the space of hours and days; it’s a constant judgement call re: communication — if I share everything with full transparency I’m bringing lots of people along for the rollercoaster ride of peaks and troughs; bad news in the morning and good news in the afternoon, it’s literally moving that quickly! Of course, ultimately those blow by blow updates would not be helpful.

Using the football analogy, what do you think about giving the ball to the person most likely to score the penalty?

I’d say if that isn’t you as a CEO, then you’re in the wrong job. If you weren’t that person all along, you should never have been doing it in the first place. Honestly only a narcissist would ‘apply’ for the role of CEO, it doesn’t work like that — it happens to you.

For sure, get advice and coaching and feedback from other people who may have more natural flair for this sort of thing, but 100% do not delegate it. If you don’t send a message to the team that you’re capable, it’s going to drive more anxiety and even more wondering “how am I going to get out of this?” And, know that it’s ok to recognise and articulate that you need support, it’s ok to need help and as CEO you don’t need to hide or mask your vulnerability — quite the opposite.

Telling your team “this is the hardest speech I’ve ever given” is ok to say, when it genuinely is the hardest speech you’ve ever given.

And you are still recovering from suspected Covid-19! What’s your leadership approach been during all of this, so far?

I quite often reflect on the common pitfalls of an ‘under-hiring + growth at all costs’ way of scaling; it’s the common route for lots of reasons, but it leads to burnout.

2016 was my burnout year; my role really was loosely defined as ‘everything that isn’t engineering.’ From payroll to customer support to investor relations, it was on me and I was working seven days a week. I was showing all the classic symptoms of burnout and it prompted me to go back to exercise; which has since been carved out as a non-negotiable part of my week, it is sacred.

I’m an Advanced Fitness Coach and I now teach six group exercise classes a week, usually early morning or in the evening, but I try to keep Fridays as my no-meeting day with ScreenCloud, so I can also do a 10 am class to teach people with kids for whom early morning wouldn’t work. Being a fitness coach (and I’m using the word coach — not instructor or trainer — deliberately!) means engaging with diverse groups of people (of course at the moment, entirely online) and in turn, I get coached on how to be good at it; I have benefited from loads of education around how to connect with people — when to use intrinsic vs extrinsic cues, when to give 1:1 attention and when to be more macro, how to deliver clarity in your communication, to focus on not wasting any words and making sure they all land, and how to drive everyone’s individual learning in a group setting.

And this transfers back to leadership?

Yes, 1000 times it transfers to my CEO role.

Anyone can force themselves to do anything for a short period of time — but progress will fall back if you don’t establish momentum. I always say you don’t “go” on a diet, you “have” a diet; it’s intake and we literally all need it. It’s the same with fitness, you already have a lifestyle. It’s the same with my CEO hat on and my leadership brand; I already have one. It’s with momentum that you really level-up and over time, become a master.

At work, that’s what we should be aiming for as leaders; driving momentum to help people achieve their own mastery. The confidence it takes for someone to open up to being coached takes a while and it’s based on trust, and I see that trust building the moment someone starts to proactively ask me questions; as a fitness coach and as a CEO.

I work hard to flex my style, I respect more introverted personalities or the need for anonymity when that’s what people want. And as a group, we’re helping each other because it’s about us and our energy. It’s about a moment we share and a commitment to saying “we’re going to work as one.”

As a CEO I have incredible, supportive, brutally honest but impactful board members — they want to work with people who want to be the best, like my master trainer in the fitness world.

Founders and VC’s in particular, need broader horizons and to draw from completely different industries… you don’t meet many of me in the tech world! I get all this amazing education from a completely different perspective about the human condition and it’s incredible.

You’ve mentioned VC’s a couple of times and the overnight change you’ve experienced from potential investors in the corona context, it would be super interesting to hear more about your view here — I’m sure it’s something lots of our readers are also experiencing…

VCs that appeal to me more are former operators rather than your ex-Goldman Sachs type. I believe that businesses aren’t built in spreadsheets and that numbers are a result of action. Of course, data is important and being numerate (and having highly numerate people in your business) is crucial, but it’s one element and in any business of any size, there is always a majority of the team that is building and delivering.

Right now, I think there’s a lot of hypocrisy in comparing the usual VC conversation (about having a great team and taking a long term view of 5–10 years) and suddenly in response to an extraordinary event, even after all the time and energy that’s been spent ‘courting’ you, those relationships that the VC has been working hard to form — like, just stop?!?

I understand that there is uncertainty in everyone’s worlds at the moment, but as an investor, if you are really true to your words; you really are all about the goal + having a good plan to achieve it, there should be the opportunity to continue having conversations about the small things that can continue, and to account for the opportunities in this ‘holiday’ from normal activity to get the mindset right.

At the moment it feels much more like “we’ll chat on the other side, and if you’ve survived, we’ll be interested again.” If that were me as a fitness coach, I’d have just demonstrated to my group that I’m only really happy when the sun shines and ultimately, that’s easy. Really good people work together in tough times. VC’s are just proving themselves as an asset class, and I mean, that’s fine — just cut the bullshit.

Money is the worst product on earth — my dollar is the same as the next person’s dollar — and so you’re forced to look at terms, and so often it’s just a race to the bottom. VC’s are therefore having to think in terms of “value add” and right now, in this time of crisis, it’s the perfect opportunity to double down on that value add offering.

I know I can’t push for the greatest terms in this time, because the business world isn’t the best place — but don’t tell me you’re “open for business” when you’re not. I truly believe that the biggest lies that are told, are the ones you tell yourself — by a country mile.

Reputations take a long time to build in a boom, but VC’s could really be sorting their reputations out in a matter of weeks at the moment; why not put action behind your words? There is an opportunity here for perception and trust to be cemented. Instead, it feels like most VCs are betting on everyone saying ‘no’ and frankly, I don’t have time for that.

Put it this way; I am not getting paid for the online exercise classes I’m doing during social distancing, but I’m doing them… I just wanted to keep coaching; it’s not a huge community gesture by design and that’s not why I’m doing it, but in carrying on, suddenly it’s having that community impact.

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