Q&A With Pointcast's Chris Hassett: How To Run A Net Pacesetter
In just four short years, PointCast Inc. has gone from being an anonymous startup to a red-hot Internet media company, flush with $48 million from outside investors. Behind its success is the insight that most people would rather have information "pushed" onto their screen from the Internet than have to spend hours finding it themselves. Since PointCast launched its Internet broadcasting service last year, more than one million viewers have come to use it regularly. The company's 34-year-old CEO, Christopher R. Hassett, talked with Assistant Managing Editor Sarah Bartlett about the management issues he has faced since co-founding the company in 1992.
Q: How did PointCast get started?
A: Well, it began with me sitting around at night trying to figure out what I was going to do with some of the personal investments I was trying to make. And fundamentally, it was hard for me to figure out how to get what I wanted out of the online services. So if I, with a technical background, was having difficulty, it was pretty apparent to me that the mass market certainly wasn't going to be engaged in this activity. It just wasn't going to work for people who didn't have a technical background.
So we [my brother and my wife and I] thought, let's make it easy. Let's participate in the invention of this new personalized broadcast medium, and by making it easier, we will open the doors to masses of people and create a new business opportunity.
Q: What happened at that point?
A: We incorporated. That's kind of the first thing you do. It costs $50, and the lawyer visits your company. My brother Greg and I began writing the company's first application. I was in my living room and Greg was in his house.... I put about $80,000 into the company in the beginning of '93. By the way, we were not getting paid.... We used the money to fund advertising. In the early days we were trying to build a very lean organization, because you want to test an idea without investing a huge amount of money until you get a sense of what the market will bear.
Q: You've gone from a company with three people to one that has 220 employees. How hard has that been?
A: To grow and build a culture in your company and have a camaraderie and a respect level among your employees that allows you to succeed, and at the same time to try to get some work done, and get the product launched, and get the world to understand what you're trying to do--it's an enormously difficult challenge.
Q: How did you create a PointCast culture?
A: There's a set of management tools that have evolved since the beginning of corporate capitalism which can be as mundane and silly-sounding as weekly staff meetings, which are so tempting not to do, because you have too many other things to do. But if you don't do them, you lose control. So it starts with kind of simple things like that, all the way up to making sure, when we were building our staff, that we found people who will communicate our cultural values down to their employees. Of the cultural values that I've put in place, every single one of my vice-presidents knows them.
Q: What are they?
A: The first is that everybody's an owner in the company, everybody's part of the option plan. The second is, I don't, in any way, put up with politics. I don't like to be lobbied. If you get involved with another employee, we'll all three sit down and talk about it. So there's just ways you can build an understanding, that we all have to respect each other, so you don't get into the situation where the friction between groups builds over time and things just break down.
Communication is key. Anybody in the company can have access to me, at any time they want. Admittedly, my schedule is packed. But if they want to get to me, they can. And I want to see that at every level. I don't want a closed-door policy. We have company meetings. We have rallying events. We have two parties a year: a holiday party and a summer picnic where families come.
We really try to build a team, because after all, it's a competitive world out there.
Q: What are some of the tougher management issues that you've faced?
A: I'll tell you what's really hard, is the temptation not to focus on culture. Because if you just think about all the things that you need to do in your day, you tend to prioritize. It's real easy to put down at the bottom of your list the kind of amorphous things that are difficult to see the results of, like culture. So what ends up happening is, you start to drop them off the list: "We won't have a company meeting next week. There's too much going on." So one of the hardest things is to avoid the temptation to do the wrong thing.
Q: How do you get around that?
A: I'm just very disciplined. I won't let it happen. I don't care what's going on. I won't deprioritize the organizational tools that are necessary to keep the company tied together. And that's hard at times because we are growing so fast, and we recognize that we have so much opportunity in front of us that sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees.
Q: How do you delegate?
A: I have a set of vice-presidents that basically run the organization.... I don't like to micromanage at all. If you have talent at high enough levels, where they can take an objective and execute on it, then you've got the right people working for you. If you have people that you have to micromanage and tell them how to do their job, you don't.
Q: Did you have to go through several layers of people in order to find them?
A: Oh, yes. I recruited each and every one through a process where, at any given stage, I interviewed 10 people. But sometimes I can go through 25.
Q: Do you ever find time to relax?
A: I ride a motorcycle. And I have gotten into race-car driving. I have had no intention of ever racing competitively, but it's pretty fun to drive a car at 140 miles an hour, without personally getting a ticket.
Q: How about walking at a really slow pace?
A: Actually, something I do often, when I get this involved, is I will take a long walk and I'll just digest. You talk about information overload. You're growing this fast, there's a lot of decisions to be made all the time. And people are always needing of your time. And if you can get away for 15 or 20 minutes a day, just to digest, it's very helpful.