At NJ Tech Meetup, Entrepreneurial Advice from Master Team Builder Wiley Cerilli

Photo: Wiley Cerilli talks to entrepreneurs at the NJ Tech Meetup in December. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Wiley Cerilli talks to entrepreneurs at the NJ Tech Meetup in December. | Esther Surden

At the October 22, 2012 NJ Tech Meetup in Hoboken, Wiley Cerilli, who sold the tech company SinglePlatform (New York) to Constant Contact for $100 million, gave a humbling talk in which he delved into his entrepreneurial roots.

As always, the meetup, which took place on the Stevens Institute of Technology campus, featured excellent speed networking, interesting audience “asks” and great startup pitches.

This time the pitches came from three inaugural-class members of the N.J. accelerator TechLaunch: SeamBLiSS, NuSkool and MMGuardian, whom covered in the past. MMGuardian ended up being the audience choice award winner.

Many of Cerilli’s lessons came from his father, who died when the speaker was a teen. From him he learned the power of imagination. “There are so many things up against you as an entrepreneur,” he said, “whether its competition or fundraising, or there aren’t the right people on your team or you don’t have the right revenue model. You have to be able to imagine that there is a way this is going to work.”

As an entrepreneur with learning disabilities, Cerilli provided hope to those around him who have similar issues. He read an article that said CEOs with dyslexia are better at assembling teams because they know their weaknesses and surround themselves with people throughout their lives to help them compensate. When they become CEOs, they transfer that skill to assembling a “rock star” team.

Near the end of his talk, Cerilli gave tech entrepreneur attendees solid advice based on his experience thus far. Some of his points are detailed below.



On hiring and firing:

  • Those who say they can do something usually can do it. Those who say they can’t probably can’t. Find the people who say they can.
  • Hire “founderlike people for as long as you can.” Hire superheroes: “Spiderman has certain strengths, but his weakness is that he can’t run like Flash, so hire Flash.”
  • Great people know great people. “We’ve added 60 people to our team over the past several months. Between 80 and 90 percent of those were referred by someone else.” 
  • If you don’t think the person you are hiring can bring in someone else of the same quality, you probably don’t want to hire him or her.
  • Fire people as quickly as you hire them. Most founders don’t regret the decision they make to let someone go. Often, firing someone boosts morale for the rest of the organization. “It’s your duty to protect your culture and your morale.”
  • Help employees come aboard, but if they don’t deliver, make the hard decision. SinglePlatform created an onboarding program to bring people up to speed in three months, with very clear deliverables. “As soon as there are doubts, there are no longer doubts,” Cerilli said.
  • Hire people for the stage at which you want your firm to be. Companies go through different stages (for example, family, tribe and organizational), and not everyone is right for all of them. “I’m not the best person to scale a company with thousands of people. I enjoy the family and tribe stages the most,” noted Cerilli.

On execution:

  • “Be so good that they can’t ignore you. … Be world-class at one thing.”
  • Keep your plan simple. “One of the mistakes we made was rolling out too many features.” When you make the plan simple, it’s easy to execute.
  • When you need help to execute an idea, go after it immediately.
  • Execute early and “violently.” Said Cerilli, “We found ourselves preparing for the weekly meeting, then preparing for the monthly meeting, then for the quarterly meeting. We don’t do that anymore; now we go out and solve one problem. We often fall flat on our faces,” but we can learn from our mistakes and attack the next problem.
  • Create open accountability. With a simple plan comes simple accountability. Each month SinglePlatform emails its employees the goals for that month and which group is accountable for them. “We have color codes that show how close each group is to hitting its goals. Every group knows where it stands.”

On culture management:

  • “Our culture is one of the things I’m most proud of,” Cerilli said. SinglePlatform tries to create an environment “where motivated people can excel.” Part of the company’s culture management is spending time onboarding people. “We get them drinking the juice early on.”
  • Keep the energy level high. “We have standing desks so people can stand up and work, and we encourage them to do some kind of activity once an hour.” Visitors to SinglePlatform can see employees lifting barbells and doing push-ups.
  • Keep the environment fun. The company acknowledges birthdays and anniversaries. “We have a gong in the office that we ring” when someone makes a sale or achieves another accomplishment. “This has employees tweeting about how much they love to work at SinglePlatform,” said Cerilli.
  • The company sponsors a speaker series. “Every month we have someone come to inspire our teams. We want people to learn how to go out one day and build their own teams” if they want to.
  • Celebrate your wins, but “go nuts in a box” — don’t go crazy in front of the employees. If you have to go nuts, do it behind closed doors.

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