When Dane Atkinson was just 18 years old he started his first company SenseNet. Not one to rest on his laurels, Dane went on to found over a dozen startups in the intervening years before co-founding SumAll in 2011.
With a lifetime of experience in the startup world, I talked to Dane about being an entrepreneur (hint: it’s a lot like being a pirate) and what it’s like running a company where employees can vote on every business decision.
Is there something you know now that you wish you had known three years ago before starting SumAll?
From a company standpoint, we’ve learned a lot more about how people understand and use data. Our perspective has been greatly broadened over the past three years. I’ve also learned a lot about what people within the company actually want in terms of freedom and transparency. This has led to policies such as having transparent salaries. It has been a very educational three years – I’ve learned more in these three than in most.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen at SumAll – product or otherwise?
I advise people who are starting their own companies that you shouldn’t be as obsessed with your idea in the beginning because ideas evolve very quickly in the startup community. It’s rare for an idea not to evolve, but somehow our original view has persisted. We’re still leveraging various datasets being interconnected. We haven’t pivoted yet.
What’s a bigger motivator for you: better people or better product?
Better people all the way. It’s always people. People make the product.
What are some of the upsides and downsides of being an entrepreneur?
There’s been a trend lately where being an entrepreneur is cool. I’m a lifelong addict of the entrepreneur lifestyle. I think that it’s one of the best ways to grow yourself as a human. When you’re an entrepreneur, the company or idea either works or it doesn’t. When you make mistakes you can’t hide from them. If the most important thing for you is personal growth, an entrepreneurial route is excellent for you.
There are very few downsides, but it depends on your personality. It’s like having a child – it’s very consuming in the beginning, but it does continue to give you more and more rewards throughout life. Caution though, if you can’t draw fuel from the chaos, then entrepreneurship can be a rough path.
What is it like being CEO of a company that doesn’t have a traditional management structure?
I can’t cheat. I still make plenty of mistakes, but I can’t hide from them in the same way. So I’m forced to be at another level of transparency. I’ve always attempted to run a democratic kind of organization. If I had to do it again I absolutely would because of how rewarding it is but all of us have had to adjust to this ecosystem.
A big problem for me is it’s extremely hard to know where to inject myself and where not to. I’ve struggled with understanding what the team really wants from me in this kind of structure and when they want more direct guidance or when I should get out of the way. This is easier in a more conventional company.
What are the pros and cons of transparent employee salary?
We have very little churn in employment for compensation reasons. SumAll has a more honest, less political, more meritocratic environment. And…people don’t kiss my ass as much anymore.
At other companies, salaries are eventually uncovered by employees and that discovery tends to causes great pain that can’t be talked through resulting in unhappy employees. At least the conversation here at SumAll is open and, if people have issues with compensation, they can talk about it. That’s a con as well because you have about four to five times more conversations than you normally would have.
Do you have advice for someone who is starting his or her own company?
Most people who enter the startup world don’t think of it as a career path, but it actually is.
My biggest piece of advice for someone would be to not get overly attached to your first startup idea. It’s very hard not to have the DNA of your startup intertwine with your soul. I’m six to seven startups in.
We’re all hunting for a map with an X on it – for the treasure at the end of every startup’s dreams, but there is much more than that. Entrepreneurs are all on the same ship–we share the same delusions, freedom and camaraderie on the high seas. Even when one ship fails, we tend to not get jobs back on land, but instead find another ship.
Just don’t love the one ship you are on, there will be more. It’s much more important to love the people you’re on the boat with because they’3ll cross your path more times than you expect.
Be credible all the way through. Expect the unexpected.