Chris Young is a General Partner and Co-Founder at Revel. He is a serial entrepreneur and CEO with experience across a number of industries, most notably as a pioneer in the digital video advertising space where he founded and exited two companies, Digital Broadcasting Group and Klipmart. Chris currently serves on the board of directors of Zype and MarketMuse and is a board observer at Lockstep and Kite. He also serves as Board Chair at StartOut, a nonprofit organization empowering LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs.
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Table of Contents
Welcome to your ValiantCEO exclusive interview! Let’s start with a little introduction. Tell us about yourself.
Chris Young: I’ve spent the last 23 years as either a CEO or venture capitalist. I’ve built two companies from the ground up before existing both of them. This has put me in a unique position to be able to advise people as both a founder and CEO. There’s one thing I know, which is starting new businesses, and I love being exposed to the energy and the challenges and the excitement of creating something amazing from nothing.
NO child ever says I want to be a CEO when I grow up. What did you want to be and how did you get to where you are today? Give us some lessons you learned along the way.
Chris Young: I’m not sure about wanting to be a CEO, per se, but I was certainly entrepreneurial from a very young age. When I was 12, living in London, I told my father that I wanted to go off to the US to boarding school to “seek my fortune.” I knew from an early age that I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I started the Young People’s Bank when I was eight years old, among other small business ventures. I even began lending money to kids to get snacks from the school truck in the fourth grade. When the principal found out, they called my father in to say that I’d been loan sharking. My father met with him and said, “How dare you try to dissuade my son’s capitalist instincts!”
All of this is to say that —from a very young age —all indications were that I had entrepreneurship in my blood. o be a great CEO, you need to have those instincts.
Tell us about your business, what does the company do? What is unique about the company?
Chris Young: Revel Partners is a venture capital fund focused on B2B SaaS software and marketplaces. My partners and I got our collective start 20 years ago in advertising technology as both founders and CEOs.
Revel is all about staying close to what we know, which is Big Data, analytics, and machine learning. Those same forces that drove innovation and transformation in advertising when we were CEOs are now impacting new verticals across the board. AI-driven SaaS platforms are helping build marketplaces and increasing connectivity between clients and enterprises no matter the category. The lessons learned from the application of data and analytics to advertising have guided our investments across verticals and enabled us to drive very successful outcomes.
How to become a CEO? Some will focus on qualities, others on degrees, how would you answer that question?
Chris Young: To a certain extent it’s simply in the blood. It’s instinctive. But, if you were going to try to learn, the best way is just throwing yourself into it — feet to the fire — and starting a business from scratch. You’ll find out quickly enough if it’s in you. You’ve got to have the instincts. You’ve got to have the vision. You’ve got to have the organizational capabilities and understand the critical path to get there. You’ve got to problem solve, be nimble, and, of course, correct on the fly. You’ve got to be honest with yourself and honest with those around you. Above all, you’ve got to be a great communicator.
Many of these key skills can be learned but you have to have instincts first and foremost. You can learn to be a good CEO but to be a great one it has to be in your blood. It can’t be learned or taught. There are myriad programs designed to help people learn to be good CEOs but that can only take you so far.
What are the secrets to becoming a successful CEO? Who inspires you, who are your role models and why? Illustrate your choices.
Chris Young: My chief role model is my father, Charles Young. Whether it was building a clubhouse together, when I was nine years old, and him teaching me the value of understanding raw materials within the context of a larger plan in order to create something, or going to work with him at Citibank. Through him, I began to understand — at a very young age — the components of business. He was always encouraging me whenever I demonstrated entrepreneurial inclinations as a child. All of that came from those very early experiences and the exposure to entrepreneurship and learning to value those sorts of things. It went straight through my wanting to go seek my fortune when I was 12 or 13 to enrolling in a five-year MBA program later in college.
I was driven. I knew exactly what I wanted and my Dad supported me. He even provided seed capital for my first business. It was the first money I ever raised. He knew full well he may never see that money again, but he believed in me. My father is by far my most important role model.
Many CEOs fall into the trap of being all over the place. What are the top activities a CEO should focus on to be the best leader the company needs? Explain.
Chris Young: The role of the CEO evolves as the company matures. In the early days, you are going to want to be all over the place, actually. You’re going to be doing everything and you want to be doing everything. You’re helping to shape the business. You’re helping to get that race car going that you’ve envisioned and designed. So, you’ve got to be in the driver’s seat, you’ve got to be tinkering under the hood. You need to be hands-on as the business matures.
As you begin to find product-market fit and you’ve got revenue running through the engine then your focus changes. At that stage, it really is about hiring great people and building a team, and attracting talent. As you scale, you need to have the best people in place. So, recruiting talent is incredibly important. Then there’s communicating the vision and strategy to that talent so they can execute properly. Being honest and communicative, sharing the vision, and empowering the people around you to help the business take off are the key skills for a CEO to have as you move into the next phase.
The Covid-19 Pandemic put the leadership skills of many to the test, what were some of the most difficult challenges that you faced as a CEO/Leader in the past year? Please list and explain in detail.
Chris Young: With Revel our focus is on B2B SaaS software businesses. 90% of the time with those sorts of businesses COVID acted more as a tailwind than a headwind. That said, we did have a couple of businesses in the travel sector that were heavily impacted (negatively). In those cases, they had to move quickly and make difficult decisions and drastic changes in order to ensure survival. (As an aside, 18 months later, both of those companies are experiencing hyper-growth, again.) It took smart leadership and a willingness to do whatever it took to survive.
While they were in that existential situation, the other 90% of our portfolio — which is roughly 30 companies— found COVID-19 to be a hyper-growth catalyst. A lot of clients had to quickly move from legacy platforms to more robust, SaaS-driven toolsets, to enable remote models. This need created incredible tailwinds for many of our companies. Their challenges, conversely, were around hyper-growth and managing for that growth in a very tight and competitive labor market.
What are some of the greatest mistakes you’ve noticed some business leaders made during these unprecedented times? What are the takeaways you gleaned from those mistakes?
Chris Young: I always say that being properly capitalized is a key component to having a successful business, particularly as you never know what’s coming around the corner. You have to be nimble and be prepared for anything. The ones who stumbled during the pandemic tended to be the ones who weren’t properly capitalized. That’s a great mistake that CEOs have to learn from.
In your opinion, what changes played the most critical role in enabling your business to survive/remain profitable, or maybe even thrive? What lessons did all this teach you?
Chris Young: Having great corporate governance is vital. Now, corporate governance can sound a little scary, but it’s really about getting a smartboard together of accomplished people that have tribal knowledge and expertise in your space. They can advise you and be a great sounding board for CEOs. It’s an invaluable resource to have because it often gets lonely at the top. Sometimes you can get lost in the day-to-day of your business. Having people that can provide that 30,000-foot view who have expertise in running and scaling businesses, as well as expertise in your sector, is invaluable.
It’s a common mistake to overlook this, too. Many times businesses get started and don’t put in place the right corporate governance. They start as a couple of co-founders with no board, but as they evolve and experience hyper-growth they make the mistake of not putting in a strong corporate governance structure. I’ve seen this repeatedly create problems for CEOs and stymie growth.
What is the #1 most pressing challenge you’re trying to solve in your business right now?
Chris Young: It depends on the life stage of the business. In the earliest phases, the most pressing challenge is tinkering and finding product-market fit. Here’s my product. Now, who’s my ideal customer within the market? CEOs have to experiment and ask: Am I going to the wrong customer? Is my product too narrow or is it too wide? What resonates with the target customer? So, for early-stage businesses, finding PMF is a constant challenge.
For mature companies that are post-PMF, the biggest challenge is often staffing and making sure they’ve got the right sales playbook and marketing flywheel in place.
You already shared a lot of insights with our readers and we thank you for your generosity. Normally, leaders are asked about their most useful qualities but let’s change things up a bit. What is the most useless skill you have learned, at school or during your career?
Chris Young: The most useful skills come from hands-on experience. So, if that’s where CEOs develop their most useful skills, then classroom experience —while not totally useless – is certainly very limited in terms of helping future business leaders understand what it takes to be an entrepreneur and CEO and helping them find success there.
Thank you so much for your time but before we finish things off, we do have one more question. We will select these answers for our ValiantCEO Award 2021 edition. The best answers will be selected to challenge the award.
Share with us one of the most difficult decisions you had to make, this past year 2021, for your company that benefited your employees or customers. What made this decision so difficult and what were the positive impacts?
Chris Young: Again, for most of our portfolio companies, the difficult decisions were around managing hyper-growth.because COVID acted as a tailwind. Those CEOs who were adversely affected by the pandemic, however, made decisions quickly, weathered the storm, and now they’re experiencing a huge uptick and hitting record revenue milestones.
The lesson is brutal and simple: You must do whatever it takes to survive. You have to be open-minded, whether it’s cutting expenses 90% or pivoting the business completely. As a CEO you must be open-minded, resilient, and nimble enough to adjust your critical path to achieve your vision. Often times that means tweaking your vision to make sure that your product is fitting with the market or adjusting to unanticipated events that are outside of your control.
Jed Morley, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Chris Young for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Chris Young or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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