I want to start this off by talking about values. I find many CEOs roll their eyes when I ask, “What are your values?” If I could be honest, when I opened up my business, I had that same reaction. I felt like it was a little too fluffy for what I thought needed to happen. I didn’t have time for fluff. I still don’t have time for fluff.
However, I did keep seeing it over and over as a theme in books and in things I was reading. I stayed and paid attention to it, figuring that I was not the smartest person in the room. I might need to learn something new. Sure enough, over time, I realized that it is one of the most important things that we can do as Leaders and Founders.
Our guest is Mike Betzer with Hypergiant. He is a seasoned entrepreneur and leader who has built his businesses around values. They are incredibly important at Hypergiant. Their mission is to transform the future, and they will do it through small groups of dedicated and brilliant people who are committed to solving the world’s toughest and biggest problems. They stand behind their key values, which are to be endlessly curious, work hard and have fun, and lead with solutions, positivity, and inclusivity.
After both of us being in business for many years, we both can agree that when you hire, fire, manage, train, govern, promote, and compensate against your values, it makes everything a little bit easier. It has personally been my experience. It’s made running a business and the employees in my business so much easier than I expected. I’m thrilled to chat with you and start with this conversation around values and how they’ve helped you grow and sustain your business. Welcome, Mike Betzer, to the show.
Thank you for saying in a nice way that I’m a seasoned executive, which is a nice way of saying I’m old but I appreciate it very much.
You have truly been successful in what you’ve done. I would love to kick this off by giving everyone a little bit more context around what it is that you guys do at Hypergiant. Honestly, I could spend days talking to you about what you do there. I’m sure you can do it as well. Tell us a little bit about Hypergiant.Scaling your company requires three things: focus, focus, and focus. Click To Tweet
The first thing we say, because everyone likes to say this is we are an AI software company. Everybody was like, “That’s cool.” People are putting AI on every single thing. This is an AI monk. Everyone is saying AI on everything, which is awesome because we are leveraging data to do things in different ways. There are so much data. I love AI but it’s the most overhyped thing being said now. Probably more podcasts on AI than anything else in the world.
What we do is we help our customers go from data to decisions in the timespan that is relevant for them. If you are talking Air Force, it may be seconds. If you are talking about something in critical infrastructure, it may be a couple of minutes or hours. It all depends on the situation but there’s plenty of data. You have to get that data to the right person so they can make the right decision.
We are an AI company. We help them move from data to decisions. We do that for space, defense, and critical infrastructure. That’s all that we focus on. It’s a cool time to be in this space. I may have a slight advantage with my values because it sure does help when you are doing something cool and important. Our little piece is helping to change the safety of the future of people and the planet. It is pretty cool.
I grew up at IBM. I was a software engineer for IBM, and we were right on the cusp of trying to figure out how to use in those days one-to-one marketing data to help push our products out. It was the early days of data analytics. In those days, I started to appreciate what could happen when we start mapping patterns and data for decision-making. When I was reading and doing research around your company, I was like, “This stuff is mind-blowing. It’s awesome.” I love what you are doing.
I also think that there are gazillion podcasts about AI, and there aren’t that many podcasts talking about the people that are making it happen. There’s a huge team of people you have behind you that make this work worth happening. None of that data is ever accurate on the internet. Tell me about your company, how many people you have and what types of people.
We are a small company with 200 people, mostly software engineers, data scientists, project managers, implementation specialists, and designers. What we do is we will go and sit down with a group of people in the Army that is thinking about something new. We will go and spend a week with them and go away and design what we think is the right solution. We have a bunch of crazy pool wicked designers who can say, “What you are doing now, what you said you want to do or what you are thinking about doing.” Sometimes they don’t even know what they want to do. We looked at all the stuff they are doing, and it’s hard.
We are like, “If we could take data from here and here, put that together in a beautiful new interface, half of this data goes away because there’s noise. The 20% that matters is now going to be on a screen that is beautifully displayed.” Their job becomes more fun. Not only do we turn to make the job for our employees fun but we try to make the job for the people in the military that are looking at screens, trying to decide, “Is this a threat? Is this a problem or is this a flock of birds?”
“Is it going to cause an enormous amount of problems in the few hours that we haven’t even considered?”
I don’t want to panic anybody but to me, these threats are greater than ever before. Data is changing faster than ever before. What’s happening in space is cool. There’s more data but round about everything that we’ve ever seen. It’s important to get this right, and there is clearly a technology race between us and China. In 2021, I said between us, China and Russia. Now, I would say it’s between us and China because Russia has a whole other set of problems.
We have to get this right. We haven’t focused enough on our home game and understanding everything is happening in America over America, protecting our assets here. There are a lot of fun things that we are doing. Sorry, I’m getting deep into what we do. We have 200 people that do things like that for the Army, Air Force, space, and our assets that are in South America or the Middle East. It’s a great thing to be focused on.
It’s also probably interesting because it is still an emerging field of data analytics in the sense that it’s talked about a lot but it doesn’t feel like a lot of people understand the power of data. There’s probably an element of also educating people about what they could do if they had the triangulation of data. That’s neat.
Some of it is public data but you have a person sitting there looking at those, “I get checked the seven separate screens to decide how I put this together and make that decision.” They have twenty seconds, which is impossible. We are like, “Let’s take this together. What matters?” Put it on one screen and let you see these, what we call baseball cards, to show you your accuracy, probability, and outcome based on if you do this thing.You either are humble, or you'll become humble. It's up to you. Click To Tweet
It’s interesting because you didn’t find this business. You took over as the CEO.
I have been lucky. I have built multiple companies. I’ve had amazing teams that have worked with me, and it has been great. I joined Hypergiant in 2021 because this company is starting to take off. They wanted to get someone in here who has been a part of large SaaS software companies in the past. Ben Lamm, who was the Founder, found me. I’ve known Ben for years but I’ve never worked with him. He found me and said, “You need to come to do this because we are going to change the world.” I even liked the mission statement, which is, “Tomorrowing today.” We want that creativity to get people’s minds.
Let’s talk about your leadership journey. I personally have found some of my biggest challenges when I’ve inherited a team, which is now what you have. Tell me about some of those struggles. What has that been like for you?
There are different phases in companies. When you launch a company, you’ve got to accept the first million dollars because you are not a real company until you get that. Get to that first million dollars of revenue where people are truly paying you for something to prove you have something. To me, it’s $10 million. For $10 million, you need a full team. You need HR and finance. With $1 million, you can do that with a few people. With $10 million, it’s a real company. $10 million to $20 million, you have to have something. To get to $200 million requires something different. Getting from $20 million to $200 million requires three things, focus, focus, and focus.
One thing that I have done at Hypergiant is that our mission is space defense and critical infrastructure. That’s all one thing but sometimes DOD is considered Army or Air Force but serving that same mission. It is serving people who are putting their lives on the line for everything we enjoy. We want to make sure they have the best technology.
Our government, in the last few years, has moved away from a building mentality to a buying mentality. They want to turn to the best software companies in the world to help them solve their mission. It’s like, “This is great. It’s wonderful.” It’s a wonderful time to go on space and defense. Critical infrastructure is also the same thing. It’s all part of our national security. Our overarching thing is, “That’s what we are going to do. We are not going to do anything else. Everybody focused. Everybody gets lined up on that mission.”
This comes back around into the values discussion. I have found that what has worked well has gotten clear on what the vision is, this long-range impossible, hairy, audacious goal. For us, it’s ending suffering in the workplace. It will probably never officially happen but we are going to do everything we can along the way. Yours is, “Tomorrowing today.” I have to think about that because it’s a bit of a twist in my mind. It’s never going to happen officially but does it inspire people? People will see our mission statement and be like, “I’m all in with you.” The right people. Others will roll their eyes and be like, “Whatever.” I don’t want to work with those people either.
The values piece has been interesting because I created those values for my employees and my staff. Not necessarily to communicate to customers. One of our values is no jerks. I don’t know if a lot of customers would like to see that because they might self-identify. You and I are similarly yoked in that. You mentioned a little saltier topic than that when we did our pre-interview but tell me a little bit more about that. What made that happen for you?
In the foundation of my soul, I believe you either are humble or you will become humble. It’s up to you. If you use that as the backdrop, then you say to your note, “Jerks need not to apply.” It’s the same thing. As you said, “A little saltier.” It’s the same thing. I don’t have time or energy and don’t want any people in my company to have to deal with people whose egos and arrogance are beyond what they should be. They need not to apply. We have insanely smart people. We deal with a lot of PhDs and data scientists but there are parts of the business they don’t know either. People need to respect what they know and what they don’t know. Those are the people we want in our company.
Have you ever had that where you’ve had a misalignment, especially on your leadership team?
What did you do?Don't waste time or energy with people whose egos and arrogance are beyond what they should be. Click To Tweet
You try to bring them to balance. I don’t want to say most of the time it doesn’t work but if I had to say, “Are you more successful converting people over or not?” I have to say, “No, some people are not suited to work on a team.” This is the way it is. This is the law. You need to try to help them come to the middle ground. Most of the time, you have to let them find an opportunity to be successful somewhere else because this is not the place. I said that carefully, “Give them an opportunity to be successful somewhere else because there are companies that want to operate like that. Go to it. You could be amazing somewhere but it’s not here.”
I have now met thousands of people on this journey and have never met somebody that I didn’t believe in once I got to know them. Everybody has a gift to give this world, and I’m a super judgmental person. I judge everybody I meet. It’s first thought, not last thought. I don’t say that lightly that everybody has a gift to give. I truly believe it but they are not from my company necessarily.
Every time we’ve lost someone, we revisit the values and say, “What was missing? How could we have figured this out in an interview? What would we have done differently in the onboarding period?” We try to self-correct on that but sometimes you can’t tell everything in an interview. What do you think of that when I say that?
Different types of people are needed in companies at different parts of their journey. Many times there’s bad. Everybody does have a good heart. I believe behind every person inside their soul is a good person but they have to be in the right culture that is a match for them, and that may not be where they are.
It is unfortunate because this was in some of the stuff that you’ve said. It is sad that many people put up with it and muscle through it. Find your happiness and your place that’s the right place for you because it’s amazing when you can’t get enough of your job, and when your job is your mission, your mission is your passion, your passion is your love, and it’s your hobby. It’s cool.
I was talking with some friends of mine and some fellow CEOs, and we were talking about this concept of a 32-hour workweek, which is starting to be discussed a little bit more in circles. I think to myself, “I probably am in front of my computer maybe 20 to 25 hours a week but I spend 80 hours a week thinking about it because I love it.” It’s all the media I consume. It’s all the stuff I read.
I can’t get enough of it because I love it so much. It’s a cliché. When you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like work. It’s interesting. I do want that for everybody. When you think about your leadership journey, what are some of your biggest struggles? Do you mind opening up and sharing something like that with me?
When I got here, I focused on Hypergiant. The company was doing about seven things that were all cool, and it was hard for me to say we are not doing that now because these are all cool things. As an example, we have a bio-reactor that is in the Smithsonian. That’s a cool thing to think that we can use AI in a bio-reactor to help create more oxygen and better air for the Earth, which is a wonderful cause. We also have this cause to help the Army and the military to do this. They are different missions.
The first thing I had to do was get smart enough not to fly the plane into the mountain. Let’s make sure I don’t pick the wrong mission. As I got smarter, I talked to a lot of people. I get smarter by hanging out and listening. There’s one thing for every leader to do more of, and it’s to listen to your people. The answers are right in front of you, whether you are listening to customers or your employees in their needs. Just listen.
The work first thing I had to get once we solved and decided on our mission together as a team, and it’s like, “We are going to have the discipline. If it’s off mission, we are not doing it. We are not having a meeting on it. We are not talking about it. It’s off, over, and done. We are putting it aside.” Those would keep coming back.
It was hard because I had to take people that are insanely creative and say, “I want you to be creative here. If we all are creative here and rowing the exact same direction, we are going to have twice the speed and accuracy.” It took six months to get everybody aligned to that mission. When I saw the right behavior, I had to reward it. When someone does something, rather than bop them on the head, you are like, “Do you think we should be doing this now? Is this aligned with our mission?” “No, not really.” “I get it. I’m done. I’m deleting it.”
It’s listening and a little bit of patience in helping people because they have been successful but what got you to $20 million won’t get you to $200 million. People have to understand that. They are ready for it. The team was ready. The lucky thing for me is my team wanted it. The first thing is, “Why are you here? What do you want to achieve?” At the end of the day, everybody in my company, “We want to impact the health, safety, and welfare of mankind by having a national security software company that can do this. They are like, “Let’s go.” That’s our mission.People need to respect what they know and what they don't know. Click To Tweet
What about your team? Is there anything that wakes you up at night that makes you worry about your team or your people? You can’t hit this mission without them.
The number one thing for me that is hard because this is all new is this remote work. How much stress can people handle? How much can they deal with all of this? You are working 24/7, always on, and now you don’t have the water cooler talks. The things that we have been dealing with in the last several years are new.
In some ways, they are great because people are getting more time at home. They are also still doing as much work because I don’t think we’ve lost any productivity. There’s a lot more strain on people because I do think there is a shift that takes place in your drive. You do turn this off and on. Luckily, my kids are grown, our house is quiet, and it’s easy but for many people, that’s not the case. What I worry about is how hard we can push. I want people to be healthy. If people are healthy and happy, they will do amazing things.
That ties into your value of working hard but have fun encouraging that second half of that value. One of the things that I’ve seen some companies do is force people to take a vacation. We’ve seen a trend where there is no more vacation accrual. You don’t accrue it, you take it, and we want you to take it. Some things like that are because of this big trend and burnout. It is easy to work all the time. I’ve had to, for me personally, bound my schedule.
If you look at my schedule, you will see that there are times when it’s, “Kendra is unavailable,” and it’s because I’m going to go for a workout or play basketball with my eight-year-old. Who knows what I’m doing? It’s my break. If I don’t take that, then I will work all the time. With my team, that’s what we do. We live and die by our calendars and schedules. Here are the breaks that we are taking. There’s no judgment around any of those breaks, and we still have an enormous amount of productivity with that.
We do the same thing. We give people money for anything they want to do for health. I don’t care. You can buy a meditation app. You can join a gym. You can buy tennis shoes. You can buy a Peloton. We won’t pay for the whole Peloton but we will pay for a good chunk of it. We give them money for whatever they want to do to improve themselves. I don’t care if that is donating your time. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter but it must be away from work. We give them money for that.
I don’t want to say we forced time off but we strongly encourage time away all the time. We haven’t gone to a use it or lose it mentality. We let people roll. Sometimes right there, at the end of the year, people start doing funny things, “I got to use it.” We trust and are self-governed. If I’m seeing things that you are not self-governing because you are on Slack every night at 11:00 and 5:00 in the morning, someone is going to break you.
It is the duty of the manager to help monitor some of that. Tell me a little bit about your management team. Where we see culture start to implode is in that middle level. Once you are leading leaders, that’s when culture can be negatively impacted. Where we specialize is in helping scale culture. What do you do for your managers to make sure that they are carrying the values through?
The first thing that I’ve done is I had a quarterly retreat every quarter with my exec. As the new CEO in year one, I think year one is all about alignment. I hate to take people away from work. Some people hate the idea of a retreat because it’s touchy, feely stuff. We need time in a room to collaborate and share what we are excited and scared about, what our risks are, how we could fail, what we are not thinking about, and who’s better than we are. You need time to do that.
Every quarter, I have brought my leadership team together for a two-day getaway, unplugged, and the computer is off. Usually, I’m at someplace that doesn’t even have good Wi-Fi. They can’t work. You make sure that we are aligned because if you aren’t aligned at the top, it’s impossible to be aligned the next level down.
I believe in making a lot of time for that first tier. Now, we are starting to work on that next tier. I call it the ELT, Executive Leadership Team, and the SLT, which is my direct stress. I’m making sure that we are thinking about our rigor communications and what we are doing. I also do things as I meet with every employee when we hire new employees. I meet with every employee again within 90 days. When you meet new hires like this new hire thing, meet the CEO, what I found is it’s good, and people like it because most CEOs don’t do it.
People are happy. They didn’t know what to ask. They are careful and polite. I come back and do it again in 90 days. It’s interesting to see the day 1 versus 90 days in their maturity and also when their openness. We are a small company. We are 200 people, and most of those are hands-on keyboard data scientists and software engineers. We don’t have a lot of layers of management but it’s me, my directs, and one more layer of management. That’s it.As a leader, you should listen more. The answers are right in front of you, whether you're listening to customers or your employees and their needs. Click To Tweet
We see this epidemic of people who’ve done well in their job, get promoted into a management role, and not be trained to be a good manager. That’s when things can start to fall apart. That’s one of the secret sauces that we’ve seen work with companies.
Especially in our sector, because if you are not careful, you may promote your best software engineer to be a manager of engineers. Being the best software engineer and the best manager of engineers is a totally different skill. We do spend some quality time with the people earning trust. Once you’ve earned trust, people are like, “What do you want to do? What do you want to be?” There are a lot of people that don’t want to be the CEO but think they should say they want to be the CEO because that’s what everyone says. It’s like, “You don’t want to be a CEO. Let me explain what this job is and see if you do want to be a CEO.”
“Let me tell you about raising capital.”
“Let me tell you about all this administrative stuff you have to do in this job.” A lot of that is trust and communication. If people trust you, they will share with you and share what they are doing and not doing, what they love and what they don’t love. It’s building a team of trust.
What would you say to your younger leader? You hear those questions like, “Go back to the day when you were younger. What would you say?” What would you tell yourself as a younger leader? What would you do differently with some of those early employees that you were leading?
The younger me, my ego was too high, and I believed in working harder. I grew up with a great family work ethic mindset. It’s like, “You work harder.”When people are healthy and happy, they will do amazing things. Click To Tweet
You are such a good Midwesterner way.
That’s the way we did it. You worked harder. Where I am now is much more into meditation, listening, and staying in your Zen. It’s like, “Listen to what’s happening in the world? What’s happening around us? What’s happening with that person? Where are they?” If you listen when you are talking with somebody, they give you amazing nuggets of what they are concerned with.
If you are an amazing listener, you lead differently, and leaders don’t listen, especially young listeners. They don’t listen unless they are humble. Most young people aren’t humbled because they have to be aggressive, confident, and all these things to prove that they are worthy, and we, as people who fund companies, were more than that. We were creating this society because how many humble, good-listening people speaking to a venture capitalist is going to get funded?
That is a personality that is attractive to that, which is probably partially why you see less funding to women organizations and minority organizations too because there is a built-in humility in a way. That’s interesting. That’s a great point.
It’s interesting what you said about women and minorities. The other thing is the diversity of the team. I had no appreciation for diversity. I don’t mean in the race but in every diversity. I don’t believe I was biased intentionally. “You wrestle by wrestle.” The next thing you know, “I like that.”
Like attracts like. It’s a natural human characteristic.If your team is not aligned at the top, it's impossible to be aligned the next level down. Click To Tweet
It’s such a poor team from a diversity of thinking, and it will mess up the company. You may be okay because you may get lucky, and you are on the right path. Generally, I say, “That’s not true. There’s no company that doesn’t pivot, change or adjust.” The more diversity of thinking you have around you, as long as everybody can listen to each other, the better chance you have of finding the right path.
I have a long story for a desire to have a more diverse team for my married to Mexican. I’m in the HR field. I’m a Leader. There are a lot of things that say, “I need to do more for diversity” I looked at my team and was like, “We are dominated by White women. Let’s see here.” From one angle, people would say, “That’s a diverse team. Look at all the women.” It’s not diverse in the definition.
A couple of years ago, I committed to it. There’s representation from every single person on my team, and it is cool but it’s representation like this, age, we’ve got every generation covered. We have more males on the team. We also have different races, religions, religious backgrounds, class backgrounds, and a variety of sexual orientations. That’s the diversity.
It’s a total diversity. Not just race and gender, which is a great place to start. We call it the thousand small steps to having a diverse organization. It’s at 194 steps of things that we’ve captured over the years of things you need to do. It’s one small step at a time to get there but I appreciate that you have that. Is that an initiative that you have?
It is an initiative that we have. I manage it carefully because a person of diversity, as your work becomes more diverse, the last thing a person wants to feel that you hire is you hired me because I’m diverse. It’s part of my objective and job to create that environment. I’m also cautious like, “We haven’t hit our quota. We need to hire more women.” It’s like, “That’s the wrong way to run this thing.” I’ve learned the value of that over the last several years.
It’s interesting to interview people that come from a different perspective than you do. Even the way they process decisions it’s different. People are quiet and bring it to the table later. It’s like, “I want to think about it for two days and bring my answer because that’s what they are.” It’s like, “That’s great.” It’s good to have different people at the table. I still have work to do. I don’t know if you’ve ever done it. You are always working on this to make this better.
It’s like any ecosystem. There’s a life cycle to any ecosystem, including death, decay, and rebirth, which I see as also part of running a business. It is a more regenerative model. With a truly regenerative model, you do have a lot of diversity that comes in and sometimes surprises you and sometimes calls. I oftentimes look to nature and physics to find my answers. Watching an ecosystem thrive is such a great analogy to business.
I look at the evolution of our country. If you look at our country and us as a superpower, the way we have acted in the past and the way we have to act now, becoming a much stronger democracy with all of these other countries and the collaboration. I am excited because I have an opportunity to take all everything I’ve done in enterprise for the last several years and apply that all to government and best practices here.
If you are in the Army, you are trying to recruit new people to be in the Army. If you are trying to recruit somebody in the Army, it’s going to be working on the computer, running drones, managing drones, managing surveillance, and doing these things. It doesn’t look very gamified. Good luck recruiting the young people.
I feel blessed and lucky to be doing what we are doing because I have such an advantage. It’s AI, and it’s making our country safer. It’s helping our Army and the Air Force in doing things with drones and with some cool things and satellites all over the place. Helping people that are working for us every day to help make them better. It helps me in recruiting and retention. You get to work with these generals. It’s a wonderful time to be doing what we are doing.
I could chat with you all day about it. We just flow by. Is that amazing? This was fantastic, Mike. I can’t thank you enough for sharing some of your insight with our readers and with me. I learned some things myself. I’m super grateful for it, and best of luck to you and Hypergiant as you guys go forward. I can’t wait to see what you do and thank you for all your doing.
Thank you very much. It was great being with you. I am a super fan of your mission and what you are trying to do. At the end of the day, we’ve got to take care of people. Our most critical asset on this entire planet besides this planet is the people on the planet. What you are doing is trying to make that better every day too. That’s awesome. Good for you, and thanks for the time.
Thank you, Mike. To everyone reading, I look forward to chatting with you again next time on How I Turned the Corner. We will talk to you soon.
About Mike Betzer
Mike Betzer has over thirty years of experience building technology companies across a wide range of industries from Telecommunication to Saas companies.
Most recently, Betzer served as the Chief Digital Transformation Officer of Khoros where he helped modernize the customer engagement software company during a two year period.
Prior to Khoros, Betzer served as Chief Customer Officer at Lithium Technologies, CEO of Humanify, Social Dynamics and Ineto. His career also includes leadership roles at Siebel Systems and Oracle and MCI.