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Chris Smith with Praxis

Culture Champion

Episode #99

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Can you identify the perfect company culture for you? Chris Smith with Praxis Escrow explains to us how he came to understand the perfect culture for him, and how it's helped him grow and adapt the culture within his own company!

Chris Smith

Chris Smith

CEO & Founder at PRAXIS Technology Escrow, LLC

Chris began his career in the software escrow industry in the late 1990’s as a Director of Sales with Fort Knox Escrow Services where he learned the value of flexibility and outstanding customer service. After Fort Knox’s acquisition by Iron Mountain, Chris and several of his fellow directors founded Escrow Associates with the purpose of continuing the tradition of providing client-focused flexible escrow solutions. Chris and his partners grew Escrow Associates into the world’s third largest provider of technology escrow services. In 2011, Escrow Associates was acquired by NCC.

Today, Chris is again recreating what it means to have a partner in the technology escrow arena. “I am as passionate now as ever about the software escrow industry and I believe my new company, PRAXIS, is the solutions provider the market has been looking for to derive maximum value from the practice of software escrow agreements.

His Company

His Company

PRAXIS leveraged more than 20 years of industry experience to reinvent software escrow services because today, all businesses rely upon technology (on premise, cloud, mobile & more) for business critical functions which must continue even if the vendor fails.

The entire PRAXIS experience is designed to address needs from end to end, with customizable agreements, dedicated customer service, and best in class protections. Our goal is to allow businesses to effectively rely upon technology while knowing that their future is secure.

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Full Transcript

Speaker 1: Welcome to the Epic Company Culture podcast where your host, Josh Sweeney, will give you, the business leaders, HR professionals, and company culture aficionados, the knowledge you need to take your company culture to the next level.

Josh Sweeney: Hello, my name's Josh Sweeney. And welcome to the Epic Company Culture podcast. Before we get started, I would like thank Prototype Prime for this amazing podcast space.

Josh Sweeney: We are joined here today by Chris Smith, from Praxis Escrow. Thanks for joining us, Chris.

Chris Smith: My pleasure, Josh.

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, thanks for coming in. Well, we'd love to hear about your company culture, but we wanna get started off by hearing a little bit about you and Praxis Escrow. So tell us about you and your business.

Praxis Escrow

Chris Smith: Okay. I'll give you the short version. So, Praxis Technology Escrow is what's known as software and technology escrow agent. We hold on to source code from software companies. If they go out of business, we give it to their clients. It's almost like an insurance for mission-critical or business-critical software applications.

Josh Sweeney: Awesome. I'm very familiar. We've had to put things in escrow before.

Chris Smith: It's a funny little niche.

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, as a small business, I understand. Anytime we're doing business with a very large entity, and there's a big disparate amount of revenue between the two companies, that tends to happen.

Chris Smith: That's right. In many industries, emerging technology industries, there's no 800 pound gorilla. Many of the companies are venture-funded, not profitable yet. And so it's a reasonable question to ask in the sales process, "What happens if you guys go out of business?"

Josh Sweeney: Gotcha, love it!

Most Memorable Culture

Josh Sweeney: So from a company culture perspective, I know you have a lot of experience in this industry. You have some other experiences before being in the escrow business. What would you say is the most memorable, positive, company culture experience you've had so far?

Chris Smith: Really good question. So, as you mentioned, I've got a lot of experience in the industry dating back to the late 90's. And my experience has been both entrepreneurial, as well as management or executive level with large Fortune 1,000 companies. And, for myself, I've identified that I exist best and thrive best in that entrepreneurial environment, start-up through about the time you need an HR representative. At that point, it's probably the wrong ship for me to be on.

Culture AFTER Acquisition

Chris Smith: My most memorable experience probably, related to this, is I was Director of Sales for a small entrepreneurial company that was number two in the software escrow space, actually here in Norcross in the late 90's. And we were acquired by a Fortune 1,000 company. And the culture difference was so drastic that, probably within six months or a year, the greatest majority of all the employees, including myself, had left.

Josh Sweeney: Gotcha. Yeah, I totally understand. I worked for a start-up here in Atlanta. And we were acquired by a Fortune 500, and I think it was about six months, and everybody's outta there.

The Start-Up Culture

Josh Sweeney: So what is it about the small business culture, the start-up culture, that you seem to enjoy so much?

Chris Smith: Boy, that's a great question. Ultimately, my customer service and my culture, my company culture, experience dates back to my first job in high school. Actually, even before high school I worked for ... I grew up in a small town, and I worked for the local grocery store. We knew all of our customers, and our managers all knew us. And they worked hard to keep a great company culture. I thought it was natural for a business to have softball tournaments in the summer and go on rafting trips and do all these great things. And then, it was only in my second job that I realized that there are big differences between who you work for, etc., beyond just what you get paid or the location or the hours.

Josh Sweeney: Yeah. I think only being in multiple different companies over time really helps you uncover that there's varying ... wide varying degrees on that spectrum of amazing places to work and not as much.

Least Favorite Culture

Josh Sweeney: So on the not as much side, you don't have to name any names, but what would you say was the company culture that you enjoyed the least, and why?

They Ruined our Party!

Chris Smith: Well, I think it's that same example that I touched on earlier when we were acquired by a Fortune 1,000 company. I describe it as "they ruined our party." I used to drive an hour each way and get to work at 6:30 in the morning and literally go in there with my hair on fire excited to see everybody and go to work. And this company that acquired us was financially driven. They were only concerned about the financial results. And even though our results had been really positive, they came in and immediately cut pay, cut incentives, got rid of a lot of ... got rid of the basketball goal that we had, got rid of a lot of the fun things in the environment.

Right away, because the culture changed so drastically, and I was in an Executive Management role, I had to answer a lot of questions to our employees about, "Gosh, why is this going away? Why is this changing? Why can't we still have fun at work?" And they acquired us because we were so profitable and so successful, and immediately changed everything. And, as I mentioned, that led to the departure of most the people.

Chris Smith: So I think, ultimately, that was probably my least positive experience with company culture, but maybe one of the most poignant.

Things Lost

Josh Sweeney: Gotcha. Yeah, it's really interesting you say that 'cause we talk to a lot of people about company culture, but I don't normally hear somebody coming in and taking out a lot of things, at least not within that timeframe. It's maybe they kinda fall off. I know one of the ones I worked at, and this is kind of a small thing, but it was Red Bull. They provided drinks, they provided snacks, and then all the sudden it was like that was gone. But I felt like it was a little bit slower over time where we lost things. But eventually it was all gone with that organization.

Josh Sweeney: So within your company now, this is your, I guess, your second company, is that right?

Second Start-Up

Chris Smith: Correct. So Praxis Technology Escrow is my second start-up, if you will, within the software escrow space. So I had some corporate experience, started a company with a group of investors, we built it up over a 10-year period and sold it. And then I rode off into the sunset, did some other things. And when the timing was right, I came back to the technology escrow industry because I saw some specific advancements in technology that let us build a better mousetrap.

Josh Sweeney: Right. Awesome! And you can build the culture you want with basketball goals and everything else that you wanted to have?

Chris Smith: It's fascinating to start over, Josh, and be able to build a better mousetrap from the services and pricing standpoint, add some technology to the mix. But, as you said, to design the culture. And so, in preparing for this podcast, I was reflecting on my ... the practice is now almost three years old.

Remote Culture

When I started the business, I leased office space, bought brand new office furniture, set it all up for this fun culture, if you will. And right away ... but as time went on, I learned more and more that people wanted to work remotely today if they could. I have staff members from all over the country now, even overseas in some cases, where that was never really possible back in 2002 when we started the previous version.

The Culture Shift

Chris Smith: So, in many ways, I'm living the same life again, except now I'm responsible for all facets of the business. And, as you mentioned, I get to design my own culture. And even though I started with one traditional sort of culture in mind, it's shifted quite a bit over the last two and a half years, and I wouldn't go backwards now if I could.

Josh Sweeney: That's awesome to see that kind of that adaptation, right? 'Cause you did it one way, and I think rationale thinking would say, "Well, I did it this way, and it worked." And you had an exit, so maybe you do it that way again. But you've had this big fundamental shift in just where people work from, how it's combined.

What are some of the other leaps that you've had? You mentioned that working remotely wasn't even possible before. I think a lot of times we forget that nowadays. It's become so prevalent. It's like, "Well, when I started the company, I couldn't do it." The technology didn't exist. What are some other things that you feel like you've discovered in the new business that you've shifted?

New Discoveries

Chris Smith: Gosh, it's endless. So some of the same technological advances that allow us to work remotely or to improve the services that we provide to our clients through cloud computing, more ubiquitous internet service, faster internet service, virtualization software, all of these things that help us build a better mousetrap are, in many ways, the same tools that allow us to work better remotely. I may not be answering your question directly, but things like Slack, using Slack to be able to chat easily with people all over the world in real-time is amazing. We do a lot of video conferencing through Skype, etc. I mean, it's endless. There's examples all the way across the board.

It Makes Sense

Chris Smith: But the interesting thing is that I'm an old dog, but to teach me these new tricks, it's only taken a relatively short period of time because it just makes so much sense.

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, that's awesome. 'Cause we work with so many clients where we see it from the outside, but it's hard to get them to make that shift to see it themselves. So it's great that you've made that shift and seen the technology and gone the way that you needed to go.

From Physical to Virtual Space

Chris Smith: Well, trying to be practical. So I talked about the office that I started up. And I'm sitting there with all my brand new office furniture, and my first staff member was in Virginia. My second was one was in Florida. Third one was in Texas. And, you know, I'm sitting there by myself each day locking up the office. I'm like, "Why am I doing this?" So that furniture now sits in storage, and I have a smaller virtual space which is incredible. Gives us access to scale for meetings and all of that without the burden of the overhead, and I don't have to sit by myself.

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, definitely. That's awesome. So you kinda ... you had it all built out, then had to pull it back in.

The Constant Change

Chris Smith: And to your point about doing it the same way I had done it before, there's some truth in that. I was trying to follow a roadmap that I'd seen be successful, not just in my business, but in others. And you go do those things, and the times have changed, the people have changed, their attitudes have changed. The same is true with our customers today, with our employees. So they're far more willing to except cloud-based solutions. In fact, in many cases, they have to to get the protection that they're looking for.

Chris Smith: So it's been a rapid acceleration. And because of when I left the industry was roughly 2012, and when I came back was almost middle of 2016. Fascinating. Many, many changes and acceptance over a short period of time.

The Cloud Revolution

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, so tell me about ... I heard you mention the cloud ... you know, them accepting cloud-base escrow solutions. And, if I recall, you go back 10 years, this was more of a ... software escrow was software put on a disk in a vault, right? Isn't that kinda where it comes from?

Chris Smith: So yes. Historically, the whole idea was to take the intellectual property, put it on some robust magnetic media, maybe make two copies in case one degraded over time, and store it off-site, off-line, on purpose, right? And keep it locked up in a media vault. And we still do some of that. But that, for us, is about 10% of our business.

For our competitors, that's probably 80, 90% of their legacy business. So they still have a business commitment to these storage facilities in huge buildings. And we're just the opposite. So it's just very little of our materials now come in electronically. But what's helped our business considerably is cloud computing, and connecting directly to the software vendor's GitHub account, their Bitbucket account. And so we back up the code, by default, a minimum of 52 times a year compared to our competitors getting one or two updates a year.

Removing the Burden

Chris Smith: So it's wildly better product, and the software companies love it because they get to set it up one time and forget it. It's like anything else, even in our business. One of the questions you asked earlier about culture, why our employees love it so much, is that we try not to do anything that's repetitive too often without automating it and removing the burden that the ... data entry is a perfect example. We try to do that one time, have our clients do that one time, and it means that we have far fewer client services representatives per active customer than our competition. But it means that also that our client services people are far happier because they're doing smarter tasks, they're learning more, they're accomplishing a lot more.

Josh Sweeney: It's not those repetitive items over and over again.

Chris Smith: Try as much as we can to eliminate those.

Josh Sweeney: Yeah. It's interesting that y'all are connecting directly to GitHub and things like that. 'Cause, like I said, I've had experience with escrow not too long ago, and it was ... I think we got letters every three months or something to send in new media or give them some sort of backup or whatever we had to do for that. So I could definitely see how that would be a pain to keep it up-to-date without that kind of level of access.

Fixing the Problem

Chris Smith: When I looked back at the industry again, after we sold in ... we actually sold in '11, and I was finished in '12, I studied some other things. Got involved in some software start-ups, as you know, and learned about GitHub and the fast pace of agile development. And I kept looking at our industry, and nobody was fixing this problem. It's a glaring problem.

It's one of the fundamental questions in our industry is, "If I file for escrow and I get the materials, would they be useful? Would they be up-to-date? Would I have the passwords, etc.?" And we can answer all of that in one fell swoop and make sure that it's updated as frequently as someone wants, including their data backup. It's amazing. But nobody in our industry has done that. We were the first ones to do that in '16. A few are trying to follow us now. And the fascinating part about that, to me, is that the answer's just laying there, but because maybe it's their culture, they're reluctant to change.

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, that's awesome. It's interesting to see it going that way and all of the technology changes that afford us and give us the ability to do that.

Josh Sweeney: So with you talking about how the culture is remote, coming from a culture where your last company was all in the office for the most part, right?

Chris Smith: Mostly.

Building Camaraderie

Josh Sweeney: And now it's pretty much mostly remote, how do you handle that? How do you build the camaraderie, the team experience, how do you manage these remote people just like ... and get the same quality of experience as you might've before?

Chris Smith: It's a great question. And it's taken me a little bit to be able to modify training, for example, and do that in a way where we tick all the boxes on the way in because we have a very ... for a small business, we have a very rigorous training program and it's very detailed across many different facets.

So for example, if you come in through sales, you still learn customer service, learn what the deliverables are and how to do that, even, to a certain degree. And so to be able to change the training methodology in a way that it's largely remote now through Skype and Slack and all these different sharing tools, Google Drive, it's gotten so much easier. And many of those tasks are accomplished almost at their own pace. So the information's available, but it's also centralized so they can come back to it over and over again to follow-up.

The Huddle

Chris Smith: And then we adopted this concept called the huddle. Learned about that, I think, from software development, I can't recall.

Josh Sweeney: Okay.

Chris Smith: And we have brief huddles only when needed. My rule is a huddle is never more than 30 minutes. We don't have sales meetings or any other type of meeting. If we have content to share, it's in a very short period of time. It's in a huddle. And we have some scheduled, but you know what, if there's nothing on the schedule, we'll cancel 'em. And people love that because they know for sure they're not gonna sit and listen to me drone on as you are now.

Josh Sweeney: Right, right, gotcha. Well it's been good for me. Hopefully it's been a good experience for you so far.

The Biggest Current Challenge

Josh Sweeney: My last question would be from a company culture perspective in Praxis now, what would you say the biggest challenge is, or the thing you're most looking forward to correcting, changing, enhancing, whatever it might be?

Chris Smith: That's a great question. Your questions, as I looked at 'em in advance, really made me reflect on a few things. And I would say the biggest challenge that we have because we have a remote culture, because it requires adults to work in a very independent way, and they have to be really smart and they have to be really motivated, particularly talking about on the sales side now. That's a role that we're currently filling as we grow. Our growth has been solid.

Hiring for Culture Fit

The biggest challenge is hiring the right person. So, and I mentioned this to you before we started, is everybody interviews well, right? Or they wouldn't be back for the second or third interview. There's some magical moment in there when they just become themselves. And they either fit or don't fit. And it's ... we work with people and give 'em second, third chances, we talk to 'em about their ... we try to set expectations in advance.

Chris Smith: But I would say, for me, the hardest part ... and I've tried a lot of different things over the years, personality profiles and short-term assignments in advance, temporary work and this type of thing to try to give people a feel for it. And man, I wish I could get better. If I could hire the right people.

Josh Sweeney: Hire the right people. Yeah, well we work with a lot of clients on hiring the right people. It's always a challenge 'cause even through lots of experience, we tend to still get it wrong occasionally.

Josh Sweeney: Awesome. Well were there any other questions that I had asked, or any other company culture takeaways that you really wanted to share?

Chris Smith: I think the one thing that I wanted to touch on here, Josh, that I maybe missed earlier was that ... you'd asked what was the favorite part of our culture now. And it really does contrast, wildly so, with our previous culture.

Measure Outcomes, Not Activity

Chris Smith: So in the past, we had solid work hours from eight to five, lunch hours supposed to be this amount of time. And it wasn't so much that we were micromanagers in that respect, it was more that that was just tradition. It was the way things were setup, it was people's expectation, "When do we go to lunch?" This type of thing. My favorite part of it now is that at Praxis we don't measure activity, we measure outcomes. And we set specific outcomes. And we don't care if it takes you a minute to reach those outcomes or 12 hours, right? You get to choose.

You also get to choose when you work, you get to choose where you work. We really ... that freedom has meant the world to me. So I continue to work year-round for the most part. I do take some vacation here and there. But even on vacation, through miracles of things like DocuSign, I'm able to sign contracts when I'm helping my mother with some project, for example, my mother's getting older, needs help from time to time.

Functional Anywhere

Chris Smith: So I'm just as functional sitting in her assisted living place as I am in my office. And I think, for me, that ability to be anywhere and still be productive or as productive, is probably my favorite thing.

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, that's awesome that you've been able to make that shift and that we have that ability now 'cause I love being able to go travel or whatever I need to do. I can be out of the state, onsite with a client, and then go back to a hotel room, get whatever I need to get done because of the technology we have.

Challenge with Flexibility

Josh Sweeney: So, I guess my follow-up question for that one is, it's a major shift for a lot of people to go ... when you have a nine to five operation, and people are at their desk, and you have visual oversight of them, they're some assumptions in that they're getting what you need done, or you're standing there and can observe that they are not, right? And then the new method and the new way of thinking is ultimate flexibility, work anywhere, anytime, no big deal.

But what I've seen that's the challenge for people is that, with that method, you have to be very clear about the outcomes. So if I don't care if you work 10 hours or you work five hours as long as you reach the outcome, you have to be very diligent about having outcomes for everybody or the team. How do you manage that? How do you balance the outcomes, and also, in conjunction with that, make sure that you're not asking for too much but also not requesting enough.

Look for Outbound Outcomes

Chris Smith: So great question. I would say with sales people, you're looking at their outbound outcomes, if that makes sense.

Josh Sweeney: Right. Their activity level.

Chris Smith: Yeah, we basically look at meetings, sales opportunities, closed deals won or lost. I mean, it's really very simple. And that's all tracked in our database. It's all tracked electronically automatically. They don't have to do any data entry to get there.

Chris Smith: On the flip side, on the client services side, everything is reactive. Almost everything is on some inbound deliverable or maybe a reminder that's set. We use a lot of automated tasks ... or not automated, automatic reminders and tasks within our database so that letters that need to go out on time go out on time, etc. And so there's certain time frames on the reactive thing that's set, right? So your deliverables, if you're in client services for us, is based on times for this particular task when it shows up. And on the sales side, it's outcomes of these specific things.

What is the Quota?

Chris Smith: And you ask a really good question that every good sales person should ask is, "Okay, I understand I have a quota. Is that based on previous performance? Or is that what you want to have happen?" Because those are usually two very different numbers. So what we try to do is we try to blend ... it's a little bit ... we blend the averages from our successful account executives, and then we ask people to meet those standards.

And if they get close enough, there's a lot of coaching opportunity there. You know, in the early 30, 60, 90 days employment, we're looking specifically at things like how hard are they working. And we can tell that not by them sitting in front of us, you can feel it with the questions that you're getting. I've been doing this for 20 years, right? So if I'm not getting good questions from a new sales employee, then I know for sure that they're not working because if you're out there in the world, this is a funny little niche business. If you're out there in the world saying hello to people, you will have some hard questions for me shortly. If you don't, then, obviously, you're not ... you're either not successful in finding 'em, or you're not working. And either way, my answer's the same.

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, if they're generating enough activity, emails, calls, whatever it is, they're gonna have questions because they're gonna get the questions from the prospects.

Chris Smith: That's right.

Josh Sweeney: Yeah, awesome.

Josh Sweeney: Well thank you for joining us on the call ... on the podcast. We really appreciate you coming in.

Chris Smith: Yeah, my pleasure. Good luck to you.

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Josh Sweeney: Well, thank you for joining us on the Epic Company Culture podcast. This has been an interview with Chris Smith of Praxis Technology Escrow. We hope you enjoyed the show.

Speaker 1: Thank you for tuning in to today's episode of the Epic Company Culture podcast with Josh Sweeney. If you enjoyed this content, please subscribe on iTunes, SoundCloud, or Stitcher. For additional content and transcripts, visit epicculture.co.

Speaker 1: If you have questions or topics you would like us to address or expand on, tweet us at epicculture1 or email at podcast@epicculture.co.

Podcast Highlights and Resources

Quotables:

  • I've identified that I exist best and thrive best in the entrepreneurial environment.
  • After being aquired by a Fortune 1000 company: They ruined our party!
  • Even though I started with one traditional sort of culture in mind, it's shifted quite a bit over the last two and a half years.
  • Our employees love it so much, we try not to do anything that's repetitive too often without automating it and removing the burden.
  • There's some magical moment in there when they just become themselves, and they either fit or don't fit.
  • My favorite part of it now is that at Praxis we don't measure activity, we measure outcomes.

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