AtTask (www.AtTask.com) is an Inc. 5000 company based in Lehi, UT that is changing the way Corporate America views Project Management software. Scott Johnson (@scjnsn), Founder and Chairman, took some time to sit with Ascent Advisor (@ascentadvisor).
Peter Wride – Ascent Advisor: When you founded AtTask in 2001, what vision did you build the company around?
Scott Johnson: The vision for AtTask really came out of an interactive agency that I co-founded, and as that agency grew I had similar questions that other business leaders have: “Who is doing what? How much is it costing us? How much more can we do?”
Back in 2001, it was not even called Project Management software. We didn’t know exactly what to call it, and that may be partially true today, too! As we look forward and we see that project management software as a category, it represents this tired management thinking of top down command and control. How do you control your resources and force them into buckets? We’ve experienced that the most effective organizations are collaborative, they’ve democratized the work, they empower people and give them responsibility to solve their own problems. What management really just needs is intelligence and ability to provide some direction, so AtTask became a collaborative work management software. The bucket of project management still continues to be this sort of second best place to put it.
Ascent Advisor: AtTask has a very strong culture and brand. Was that intentional? Did that grow from the founders?
Scott: From day one we’ve really tried to hire people who are willing to challenge the status quo, who are passionate about ideas and want to make a difference in the world. We’ve never accepted the idea that AtTask was just a job. People who are looking for “just a job” wouldn’t be comfortable here.
Ascent Advisor: One of the benefits associated with your software is the end user enjoys being in the system. What impact do engaged employees have on the success of a collaboration tool like this?
Scott: This kind of hits at the heart of a huge problem – not just Corporate America, it’s across the world. The people who are responsible for leadership and organizations research, buy software, roll it out, and then say, “Here’s what we are going to do.” They force software vendors to get confused about who the real user is.
We have people that want AtTask to provide millions of functions and features. We need to serve them because they are the ones that buy the software, but they don’t have their own constituencies in mind. If it doesn’t help people in the organization do their job better; it’s garbage to them. We see this all the time.
It requires us as a vendor to look be willing to look beyond who has the money to who is going to be using our software. We then come back to those people who have the money and say, “Let me tell you what’s going to be successful in your organization,” and educate them about what’s required to actually get good information. If you are dragging people along you’re not going to trust the intel because people aren’t volunteering information.
Ascent Advisor: You’re trying to get people to enjoy enterprise software. That’s a big task!
Scott: You know what? Every discipline needs that. Not just the project management discipline.
Ascent Advisor: In 2003 you had a platform, with clients and revenue, and you decided to scrap it and build from scratch. What compelled you to make such a change?
Scott: That was a tough period of time. AtTask was a bootstrap company. We had no investment dollars backing us so our product was our lifeblood. It became obvious that it wasn’t going to scale the way we wanted it to, as we added features there was no place to park them in the product. It needed a complete architectural overhaul. We had some potential customers looking at it, and we knew if they rolled it out to 5000 people it would die an ignominious death. We just felt like it was something we needed to do, so we milked our current customer base for about a year and a half while we developed the new architecture. It worked out fantastic and we came up with a really very modern architecture and it served us really well for a lot of years.
I firmly believe that if we’re not willing to obsolete ourselves, somebody else will. We have continued to ask those questions and our release of the TeamHome product in early 2011 represents our willingness to say the PPM industry in entirety isn’t delivering the value that it should. Something needs to change. We need to be willing to reinvent ourselves and figure out what kind of software is going to be accepted and used by people and make a difference for their companies and not just thrown out a year later.
Ascent Advisor: The time period from when you were sustaining these old customers and you’re trying to develop a new architecture – reinvent your wheel essentially – how did you keep your employees engaged during that time period?
Scott: We had so much to do that I think we had Stockholm Syndrome. AtTask consumed our lives. In the “good old days” we use to stop at midnight to watch an episode of “The Office”, have dinner and keep working. That was a normal thing we just did. We were really close, we knew what we needed to deliver and it was just kind of this monumental effort to get there. There were a handful of people and we were trying to compete with companies that had hundred-plus employees and a lot of funding.
Ascent Advisor: In 2007 you had 34 employees and today you have almost 300. How do you make sure those people buy-in to AtTask so that your clients have the same experience? How do you make AtTask live in these people?
Scott: It starts with our HR group. We have a distinct set of values and attributes that we look for in people. They need to be team players. One of my interview questions is: “Explain to me in a past life how you’ve gone beyond your individual responsibilities and helped your team out. What kind of credit did you expect for that?” You can pin people who are in it for themselves and who are the grand-standing, “me, me, me” types, versus the team player. That’s very key.
We also look for smart people. I’m a firm believer that in a dynamic, changing environment you have to be able to grasp the change and see the vision. We don’t really have anybody that you have to always drag along; it just doesn’t work.
Ascent Advisor: Since 2007, your first time on Inc. 5000, AtTask experienced phenomenal revenue growth from $2.6 million to $31 million. What’s the biggest challenge that you’ve seen in that fast-paced growth?
Scott: Culture is pretty easy to manage and to keep healthy when you have one layer of management. When you have four layers of management and now the CEO and the executive team make decisions, then the executive team needs to talk to their senior team, then their senior team goes and talks to their team and by the time it gets four layers down, negativity can creep in or somebody’s world is changing and they’re not really happy about it. The troops downstream get a different message than maybe what other people have, so trying to keep that unified company where everybody can have one mind. That’s the biggest challenge.
Ascent Advisor: In a blog post that you wrote you discuss how strategy tends to come from the executives and the consultants, and then we package it and we hand it off to the people who are going to execute it. It says,
“Examples of front-line individuals developing ideas and procedures outside of a strategic role are many. All too often, organizations are not able to benefit from those developments due to preconceived notions about who are the thinkers and who are the doers.”
How do you take advantage of strategy from the bottom up and from the top down?
Scott: All I have to offer there is what I wish I would have done. What I’ll do next time. I really do think that ideas come from the front lines. Something I was impressed as I read Steve Jobs biography is that they had a group of strategic thinkers in the organization that weren’t necessarily in management, but they had an offsite and discussed “What are ten things we should do?” Take that and whittle it down to three things and then go back and figure out how are we going to do these three things? Those ideas came from all across the organization. They didn’t just come from the executive leadership.
I think that it’s important to bring voices in from all across the organization. It should be people who are fired up and care about the company and who are out there doing battle every day. Bring them to an offsite, and say, “What are things we should be doing?” There might be thirty things we should be doing, and it’s the CEO’s job to figure out what are three things that we can nail that are going to make a big business difference. I see a lot of room for improvement on what I did in the past.
Ascent Advisor: What is one challenge that executives are facing that employees people don’t fully understand?
Scott: If a company is going to grow 50% in a year that means that status quo doesn’t ever really exist. You have to make some changes. There are people that feel like because their world changes, or their job description changes, or their territory changes, or whatever it is that changes, they feel like they’re getting a raw deal from management. I just wish that people in the front lines could see the amount of care and the amount of desire for their success that management has. If not, why would we even be here?
Sometimes it’s painful: your job may change or your amount of autonomy will change or your kingdom get reorganized, and it’s not bad, it’s just what needs to happen to keep a growing company.
Ascent Advisor: Back in September you stepped up to Chairman. What has that helped you see about the business or about the company?
Scott: As CEO it’s really easy to just get swamped by just everything that’s going on. I mean you could come in and be busy just existing. Stepping back, at least for me personally, has helped me realize that it’s okay to be away from the details. My advice to CEO’s would be to take some time where you just don’t think about the details, but think about the business itself, and take some fresh air and step away. Also, I was there for eleven years and I’m just amazed at what some fresh eyes can do. Eric [Morgan, the new CEO at AtTask] has come in and is doing great things. It’s been a dramatic change for me, but I’m really impressed with the fact that some new eyes will come in with some things that I would have never seen and done some things that I would have never done, that have been good for the business and will continue to be good. I like that.
Ascent Advisor: In addition to being Chairman at AtTask, you work with some tech startups as well. What draws you to a company?
Scott: A couple of things. There are a lot of stupid ideas out there! There are a lot of solutions looking for problems, which I really don’t like at all. What really draws me is: Do they provide a value to somebody? There are some successful companies out there right now, raising a lot of money, and have a lot of market value, that you say, “What is the value to society?” I’m just not seeing it.
It has to be something where there’s enough market potential to actually go out and make a nice business. From a founding team prospective, I just love people who are energetic, smart, challengers, who have this burning desire to go change the world.
Ascent Advisor: Sounds like they’d fit in at AtTask.
Scott: Exactly! If we can’t hire them, they should go start a business.
Ascent Advisor: What’s the next hurdle for AtTask? What’s the next thing that you see on the horizon?
Scott: The next hurdle for AtTask is this big monument of project management for the masses. You say “project management” and it makes people want to run away. So for us it is creating that space of collaborative work management and helping the market realize how absolutely relevant it is to everybody who’s a knowledge worker.
Ascent Advisor: Changing the way that people see “work” essentially?
Scott: Exactly. We want AtTask to be associated with the effective way to get work done. There will always be project managers. There are, frankly, a lot more accidental project managers then there are people who went to school for project management. It’s being able to provide that value for the end worker and the intelligence and structure that the organization needs. It’s a shift in AtTask’s identity.