Innovator’s Insights: Spotlight on Michael Wilson, Founder of Small World Labs

Expert Contributor to Silicon Hills News

Michael Wilson Founder and CEO, Small World Labs

Michael Wilson
Founder and CEO, Small World Labs

Focus, discipline and taking the long view are hallmarks of Michael Wilson’s leadership at Small World Labs. The Austin-based Software as a Service (SaaS) company he founded in 2006 provides an online community platform that helps nonprofit organizations connect, collaborate, and engage with their supporters and members.
“Starting Small World Labs our initial strategy was to focus on non-profits and associations, like alumni associations,” said Wilson. “But when we went out we learned it was too early for those markets.” It had become quickly apparent that in 2006 non-profit organizations weren’t yet ready to incorporate online community into their communications.
This realization and the founder’s desire to self-fund Small World Labs forced a quick – albeit temporary – shift from the original vertical strategy. “We needed to make a decision whether we were going to raise a lot of money to carry us past this point in the market, or refocus away from non-profits to early adopters instead, so that we could continue to bootstrap the company.”
Having recommitted to bootstrapping the business rather than take outside funding, Small World Labs aggressively pursued business in any number of markets.
“For three years we worked with everyone from big corporations like AT&T to small entrepreneurs who were tricking-out cars,” Wilson said. “But as time went by it became difficult to be all things to all people, especially for a company our size.”
By 2009, information about the effectiveness of online communities had spread and decision makers inside non-profit organizations were ready to take another look.
“We felt the market had matured and we could refocus on our original customer target, which was the non-profit sector,” said Wilson. “And since that time we’ve been 100 percent focused on that market.”
That focus has served as Small World Labs’ true north, guiding its most important decisions. “When we had to decide between investing resources in platform quality, like adding capabilities and constantly improving the user experience, versus putting money into sales and marketing to fuel growth, we chose to invest in the platform. Our view was that the long-term game is going to be based on client experience and client success. So even if we had to lose out on some early opportunities, that would be a better outcome than over-investing in sales and marketing and underinvesting in delivery.”
Today, that investment and focus is paying off as Small World Labs counts UNICEF, American Heart Association, the United Nations Foundation, American Cancer Society and many more not-for-profit organizations as customers.

Executive Q&A with Michael Wilson

Q. What does a “typical” day look like for you?

A. Not sure I can describe a single, typical day, but I can tell you what they look like in aggregate. I conduct one on ones with direct reports in strategy, HR and more where we go over what’s happening and what’s coming up. I’ll likely doing something with marketing, primarily around thought leadership, like helping finalize a conference presentation based on a client we’ve worked with. If there’s a deal we’re working on and the sales team wants feedback or input on the approach we’re taking I’ll work with them. I’ll also meet with product and technology teams.

Q. What part of your job gives you the most satisfaction?

A. I love building things that last. Investing, or even over-investing, in the up-front part to create something that can continue on its own. That includes culture; it starts with the interview process to attract and bring in the right kind of people. The team that you’re building is more than half the battle. On the product side, investing time in usability and feature capability, then you can deploy a solution that can be used by a large audience for a long time.

Q. What are the qualities that make someone good at your job?

A. Have the courage to make a lot of mistakes and have the wisdom not to make the same mistake twice.

Q, What’s the most difficult part of your job?

A. The hardest part right now is getting it all done. We’re at that size, 25 people, where I’m still directly involved in a lot of areas. Days are not short. Anytime I find myself doing something that’s a repeat of what I’ve done before and it’s not an investment in making other people better, or scale, it’s an activity with no return outside of doing it that one time. I want to focus on what takes us to the next level, what helps people around me, more than just getting point activities done.

Q. What experience, or experiences, best prepared you for your job?

A. I swam competitively from age seven to 20, through part of college. The way competitive swimming is set up it’s a high commitment level. Starting in 8th grade I was already doing two-a-day practices three days a week and practicing every day except Sundays, year-round. That rigor, that commitment that it instills in you carries you forward because at some level, when you’re starting and running a company, you have to have the will to just keep going. Challenges present themselves and it sometimes take a lot of work to get there. Having mental stamina helps.
And my first job out of school, in Palo Alto, I worked for a spin-out of McKinsey and BCG. I was fortunate to have an opportunity to work with a wide variety of tech companies and a wide variety of challenges. It felt like it was paid business school.

Q. Why do you choose to live and work in Central Texas, as opposed to other tech-centric parts of the country?

A. This decision was very explicit. Prior to starting Small World Labs I went to South America for two years. When I came back I thought, OK I’m gonna’ start a company, I want to try and minimize the number of new variables involved so I’ll pick a place I’d already been. That narrowed it down to the Bay Area; Austin, where I’d lived while working for Coremetrics; the New York-Connecticut area, where I went to school; and Kansas City, Missouri, where I grew up.
I knew I also wanted a place with an existing network, where there was available tech talent, so I focused more narrowly on the Bay Area and Austin. Coming down to those two areas, I asked myself, if you’re going to live there, how much do you enjoy the place? Austin won hands-down; it was a no brainer.

Q. What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without?

A. I have two. The first is the smartphone because I can read and research anywhere. When the family is on a road trip we often just drive in a particular direction and research as we go. Another one that I’d add for very different reasons is Microsoft Excel. In my opinion, Excel enables you to break things down into its component parts and build something that is a model, which can serve as the root for repeatability and scalability, regardless of what you’re doing.

Q. Outside of your current position, what’s your dream job and why?

A. I would love to be the head of the Sunlight Foundation. It focuses on increasing transparency in government. My perspective is, across the board, sunlight is the best disinfectant. If you’re adding transparency to what people are doing they tend to want to do the right thing.

Q. What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?

A. Don’t take any job just for its salary before the age of 30. Take the job that will give you the best experiences for later on.

Q. Who is your role model?

A. There are lots of people I look up to in terms of what they’ve accomplished. But I’m looking for a mentor so if anybody’s interested …. To fill that gap I try to get together with people in a similar situation. I participate in the “Boot Board” that meets once a month. It’s a sort-of bootstrapped board of directors, spun out of Bootstrap Austin. The intent is to create a quasi-board of directors of other CEOs where you can really open the kimono. I also have lot of entrepreneurial friends and we’re always talking about our businesses.

Q. What was your first computer?

A. It was an Apple IIe. But it was actually my neighbors. We’d go over there and play with the green screen.

Q. What’s your favorite mobile app?

A. I guess my favorite is probably “This American Life.” I don’t listen to radio very much anymore so I listen to “This American Life” or “Planet Money” audio applications. I’ll listen to those every day.

Q. What do you think is the most important technology in use today?

A. It’s a little old now but the fact that there exists the Internet is everything. Prior to the Internet, access was the biggest limiter in terms of information. The Internet as a vehicle for breaking down barriers to access just continues to change people’s lives. It had a tremendous impact on my deaf parents by breaking down these previous barriers, which were much more pronounced for them.
Beyond that would be wireless access because it’s even less expensive and more accessible. You see this a lot when you travel to developing countries, which I like to do.

Q. What’s the most underrated technology today? (It doesn’t generate a lot of buzz but provides significant value.)

A. The spreadsheet.

Q. What’s the most overrated technology today?

A. Technologies that have a short life span. They enable other technologies, but they tend to be subsumed because they don’t’ have critical mass or size of audience. In the beginning they provide new capabilities and you get a burst of usage, but over time the installed base of providers catch-up and it’s the size of audience that starts to matter more. So if you don’t become immensely big, the long-term value for the marginal feature is a difficult game to win. They’re cool in what they do but the expected life span is short.

Gregory Wise, vice president with Weber Shandwick

Gregory Wise, vice president with Weber Shandwick

Greg Wise is an Austin-based marketing and communications professional with the PR firm Weber Shandwick. He can be reached at Gregory Wise

Editor’s Note: Gregory Wise will write the Innovator’s Insights column for Silicon Hills News on accomplished technology experts in Austin. To be considered for the column, please contact him at Gregory Wise


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