Ryan Smith is co-founder and CEO of Qualtrics, an experience management platform that serves more than 8,500 enterprise customers by managing all customer, employee, product and brand experiences, including two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies. When he was a teenager, he got his first job at a golf course—after his parents dropped him and his brothers (ages 11, 13, 15, and 16) off in downtown Provo, Utah, and told them to come home when they had work for the summer.
What is something you’ve learned that you lean on daily?
For me, it’s all about the mornings. Five to 8 a.m. is where it all starts and happens. It’s very hard to help charge the batteries of others if yours are always running low. I am learning to listen more to my body and mind for what I need to do daily to bring my best self. We don’t always wake up feeling the same every day, but we often still do the same routine. Instead, I try to really own my routine in the morning on a daily basis. Very rarely does a day start badly and end well. Before I just jump into the world, I want to feel something. I try to keep my body and mind open.
Some days I play basketball or mountain bike, or I might have a breakfast meeting, or I’ll go eat by myself and hang out for an hour. Or I’ll drop the kids off at school or listen to music. I might just sleep. I might walk to work, ride my bike or drive. I might wear a button-down shirt or shorts and a T-shirt. It’s never predictable, and that’s important—to own the routine and think about what feels right.
What one piece of advice would you give someone starting a company?
Just get going. It’s like a boat before it leaves the harbor—many folks spend an enormous amount of time cleaning the boat and less time sailing. When they finally go out, everything is spotless. They have nice flags flying. Then you see the boats coming in at the end of the day, and they’re filthy and the crew’s sitting on buckets and no one has any clothes on. You just have to get out there. The open water is where all of the action is, and the moves that you make out there are what will determine your success.
The startup world is the same way: where you begin is not where you’re going to end up. Qualtrics is a good example—we started selling to academic researchers and blossomed from there—but it’s true for so many companies. Whatever you’re working on will be different a year from now, even if you nail it, because the shelf life of innovation is short. So get going and get your product in your customers’ hands. And make moves.
At the same time, you need to pace yourself for a longer journey than you can imagine. Starting a company in the enterprise space is a 10-year play no matter what, and that timeline should be considered from the beginning and affect every decision you make, from who to hire to how fast you move. If you get it right early and then scale, you’ll get farther, faster.
What small change has made a big difference in your life?
Realizing I’m not good at everything and being okay with it. When Qualtrics started, I was fortunate enough to begin to work with my older brother. One day we sat down and he said to me, “These are the things I’m really good at. These are the five things I suck at.” Then he wanted to know what I sucked at. I didn’t realize I sucked at anything!
That awareness of where you need to improve is so helpful. I’ve learned where I am not strong and am constantly working to improve. A small change for me has been to become more prepared as the company has grown. Patience is another small but large one—I’m still not very patient, but understanding that about myself is important. And as a CEO, you often need to master polar opposite traits. You have to be humble but confident. You have to be focused on growth, but also on cash flow. You have to love your people but must also make tough decisions. It’s easier to balance all that when you know your strengths and weaknesses.
What don't you know that you wish you knew?
I wish I knew how to write better. I love to read. I am fascinated by great writers. I’m decent myself, but it takes a lot of work to be exceptional. But I don’t actually think much in terms of what I wish I knew. If there is something I really want to learn, I’ll go work as hard as I can to figure it out.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
One I read recently is The Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis. It’s about Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two psychologists in Israel who basically started the study of behavioral economics. I’m fascinated by that field. When Qualtrics was still focused on academic research, we reached out to two behavioral economists and sponsored them, like Nike giving LeBron shoes. We asked, “What research do you want to do?” and then gave them the keys to Qualtrics.
Radical Candor by Kim Scott is another good one. It’s about how to articulate the culture around communication, which is something most companies struggle with. We rarely say, “How should we talk? What’s our culture around communication? What’s the proper way to give feedback? How should we behave in a meeting?” To decide you’re going to have a radically candid culture and then get everyone aligned with how that will work is genius. One thing she’s specific about is that you need to care about the person before you can be radically candid with them—otherwise, you’re just an asshole. For example, I work with my brother, and I know how much he cares about me. He can tell me things no one else can, and I think that’s part of why Qualtrics has been successful. If you can be radically candid, you can stick it out through multiple iterations and go much deeper to solve hard, painful problems. Very rarely does innovation come without multiple iterations. Being able to go extremely deep or through multiple iteration cycles as a team is definitely a competitive advantage. Radical candor can help with that.
When did you realize you were wrong about something?
I realize I’m wrong about stuff every day. Every major product we’ve launched, every major market we’ve gone into—everything we’ve ever done was wrong when we started. I’m wrong about hires, and about how I approach situations and engage with people. Even after 16 years of pattern recognition, I’m still wrong a lot. The best people I know are still only right about 70 percent of the time.
I’m not afraid of being wrong. I’m afraid of not realizing I’m wrong. It’s important to me that Qualtrics is a place where it’s safe to be wrong and not have it all figured out. But we must also learn quickly and not keep making the same mistake. I don’t have to be right myself—I just want the ideas to be right. We bet on ideas and execution. It doesn’t matter who comes up with them. As one of the members of our exec team says, “There are no extra points for going alone.”
What unit of time matters the most and why?
That’s easy. There are nine minutes in every day that matter most—three when my kids wake up, three when they get home from school and three when they go to bed. You don’t need a lot and it’s not always possible, but if I can be there when my kids wake up and when they go to bed, nothing in the world matters more.
I travel a lot. When I’m scheduling a trip, those are the times that I’m always thinking about and optimizing for. If I’m on a call when my kids are going to bed, I’ll say I have to hang up and we can pick this up again later, and I’ll go kiss them good night, tell them a story, do prayers. Whatever I’m doing, I want to optimize for those moments.
- Just get going
- Know what you suck at
- Listen to yourself
— Ryan Smith, Co-Founder & CEO, Qualtrics