In 2006, Tod Sacerdoti started BrightRoll, which became the digital ad industry’s largest programmatic video advertising platform. Omar had lunch with Tod to discuss his keys to productivity and how he used that to grow BrightRoll which was ultimately acquired by Yahoo in 2014 for $640M.
Q: Since meetings are the single most expensive time commitment for executives, let’s start with discussing meeting productivity. What tools and tricks do you use to make meetings more productive?
Tod: In any meeting that I run (like staff meetings) I try to be clear about whether a portion of a meeting is about an update or a decision. It is important to stay clear on which part of a meeting is which type. Until the meeting starts every agenda should be open and contributed to by the attendees. For updates, I have people send them out ahead of time so everyone can read the update before the meeting. There shouldn’t be any time spent saying things that should have been written in advance. We try to get much of this done in advance of the meeting.
For decision-making meetings, everyone contributes to what needs to be discussed. I prioritize the decisions to be made ahead of the meeting. We spend all the time on the most important items. We don’t spend time on less important items. It is ok if you don’t get to item #4 on the list. The opposite isn’t true – you can’t miss the important ones.
Q: What about the number of people who attend the meeting, what works best?
Tod: I am ruthless about only required people being in a meeting. I don’t like extraneous people in my meetings. A board meeting is a good example of this. No one is allowed in our board meetings unless they absolutely must be there. I understand the value of a learning opportunity so we do allow people to be present in a meeting as part of a mentoring process, but that is done explicitly. Meetings shouldn’t be reserved meeting slots, and they shouldn’t fill time. Meeting blocks are huge parts of productivity problems. If a meeting occurs in an hour block and it only takes 10 mins then stop at 10 mins. When the work is done – leave. Don’t allow meeting blocks to dominate how you spend your time. I also love feedback on meetings. Could this meeting not happen or could it happen in another way? We continually use feedback to improve how we conduct our meetings.
Q: How do you handle all the distributed attendees in meetings?
Tod: Be remote office first. By that I mean, if you run a distributed meeting – think of the people not physically at the headquarters. In a startup, everyone does the minimum value proposition (MVP) everything. The MVP meeting usually sucks for the remote person. Think of how the experience is for the remote person first and then optimize for their benefit. Doing that means better conference meeting equipment. It means having a rule that no two people talk over each other in the room. If you do a round-robin of opinions everyone in the remote area should be treated equally. Always optimize for that remote person first, if their experience is good it will be good for everyone else.
Q: Any tips on meeting length?
Tod: “I am strongly biased towards shorter meetings where no-one works on their laptops or longer meetings where laptops can be allowed but nothing in the middle. At BrightRoll we were adamant about the no laptop rule. I feel like if you are running a meeting and you can keep it to 15-30 minutes, great. If, however, your meeting runs much longer it is harder to keep the same no laptop rule.”
Q: Another key productivity characteristic of extraordinary executives is responsiveness. When you think about effective executives how do you think these executives handle being responsive?
Tod: People who are highly productive tend to have the highest response times. Which is always surprising because you would think that they are busier than everyone else. I don’t know why that is so correlated with productivity. It probably comes from ruthless prioritization. If it takes less than a minute to get something done, just do it now. It is a simple heuristic. You probably get no more than 20 to 40 inbound disruptions a day that requires any level of response. And most of these require a response that is less than a minute. It is faster to handle some of them immediately rather than trying to prioritize them to be handled later. Some people don’t respond strategically but I never found it hard to be responsive.
Q: Tell us more about your ruthless prioritization.
Productivity is about prioritization first and then it is about having a process on the things you have deemed important.
Tod: Prioritization is key. Productive people are very good at maintaining a hierarchy of prioritization. They can divide their items between things that must get done now, things that are important and must get done sometime today, things that I must get done through delegation and things I don’t need to work on at all. Productivity is about prioritization first and then it is about having a process on the things you have deemed important.
These processes encompass much of the work in your company. It includes having a meetings process, delegation process, decision-making process, it applies to how you run your team, and how you run your organization. It involves continually improving these processes rather than being dogmatic about something that used to work but is no longer optimal.
Q: How do you make sure your team tends to take things to completion and what are some of the best traits in yourself and surrounding team that helps them complete things that matter?
Tod: This is one of my personal values even before starting BrightRoll. GSD was and is one of my most important acronyms: get shit done. GSD was my defining characteristic. When I started BrightRoll one of our core values was GSD. People would always ask where did that come from and I think it was the most important characteristic of all our cultural values and – it was the characteristic we optimized for the most. Fast forward many years and we had a very strong culture around GSD. A large number of people used, it, and said it and applied it.
Q: How did this value hold when you started to scale?
Tod: We started hiring professional managers when we got to a few hundred employees and GSD became the most controversial of our values. For the earlier team members that grew up with GSD, it sometimes meant that they would go around a process in order to make sure that we got something done. There were incidents where they were overstepping a process to get stuff done but this became a problem. To scale as a leader you need to understand how you preserve the lean GSD attitude while also respecting the processes you agreed to maintain. I am not sure there is a simple formula for achieving this balance. The only thing I would say is that we were lucky in getting GSD done. GSD is important for startups and it happened to be in our DNA.
Q: What about having focus, how do you stay focused?
I found that as my responsibility expanded my focus actually became tighter.
Tod: Focus is all about prioritization. I describe my experience at BrightRoll and each metric of time (could be a quarter or year) I found that as my responsibility expanded my focus actually became tighter. When we started BrightRoll I did a ton of things. But later as it scaled my focus got shifted more narrowly. Each year my focus became more nuanced, even as my expertise grew. My ability to add value had increased but my focus had also increased.
In general, I invest in people who are going down that focus maturity curve, so for example, three years after hiring them, they should be more focused in what they put their time into even though their responsibility might have grown. The opposite of this is dilution. That happens when you outsource everything and you aren’t applying your increased experience levels in more nuanced ways. I believe that this is the single biggest reason why founder backed public companies produce higher returns. The people who have the real incentives to invest those additional elements of focus on their companies are the owners. That is why the outperform their peers in terms of market cap. There is a very clear correlation between an increase in experience and increase in focus. Ultimately that dictates the value that we create.
Q: What haven’t I asked that would help us unlock your real secrets around being productive?
Tod: Where my mindset goes is productivity is about tough decisions. Who do you hire, who do you work with? Who is in your meeting who is not in your meeting? What do you delegate? The big hard decisions are the major drivers of productivity. They aren’t sexy but those are the biggest producers. In my career, the hard decisions are the highest producers. Things like making the decision of Getting-stuff-done as the center of the company did more than anything else we ever did. Productivity is about making those hard decisions to that have wide scope and impact to the company.