Ron Yekutiel, serial-entrepreneur, CEO of Kaltura and former helicopter pilot in the Israeli Air Force, shares his take on good leadership and how building a business based on your core values can take you very far.
On a clear fall day, from the 15th floor of a building in the center of San Francisco, Ron gazes out the window at the cityscape. He is used to seeing the world from above. This energetic Co-Founder, Chairman and CEO has learned many valuable lessons over the years.
As a kid, what did you dream of becoming when you grow up?
RY: I was always curious and wanted a high degree of freedom for exploration, and to learn things on my own. I enjoyed many things and did not have a clear calling towards one thing or the other. By the end of high school, because I was joining the army soon I decided to become a pilot. My need for freedom and flexibility would not change, and what better way to nurture that need than being high up in the sky?
What was your first entrepreneurial experience?
RY: I had a business at the age of 17 that did quite well; we ran a club on Fridays for young teenagers together with the municipality. However, that business was killed in a day when scud missiles started falling on my hometown. I certainly did not have that in my SWOT analysis! This happened a few months before I entered the army, so I didn’t build it up again.
What got you hooked on entrepreneurship after coming out of the army?
The energy. The sense of creation – of inventing something out of nothing. The feeling of acceleration as a business goes from zero to one. And the flexibility – I love being in charge of my own destiny. What still gets me hooked today is enabling synergy. There is something about being an enabler in a room when things are starting to happen, when putting new people together and suddenly one plus one equals three. That’s an amazing feeling.
What was the main inspiration for starting Kaltura?
RY: Our approach was different from the usual 'let’s-take-a-problem-and-solve-it' type of reasoning common to other companies. We created a founding team first. We are all serial entrepreneurs, and we came to an agreement that we wanted to do something together. We then centered on a philosophy we all believed in, our why, and based on it we even chose our company name and logo before deciding what we would do or how we would go along doing it. We all wanted to do something that promotes pluralism. We chose a sun-like logo that represented colorful contributions meshing into a round center, and our name, Kaltura, which is gibberish, but rings similar to the word culture in a great many languages. We then decided on our core founding values: openness, flexibility, and collaboration, which alongside our logo and name have anchored us ever since and have reminded us daily why we are really here. Only then did we decide what we would do - help democratize media through enabling any organization to harness the great powers of online video to advance their goals.
A clear and meaningful why acts as a very important North Star for a company. It has been tremendously valuable for us. It helps us attract, inspire and motivate great likeminded people, it helps us stay the course and gives us joy, passion, and meaning. It also helps us make better choices and achieve greater financial success.
How would you describe your leadership style?
RY: I would say I am a paranoid-optimist. Shooting for the moon and planning for the best, but at the same time I am very self-critical and prepare for the worst by continuously analyzing what could go wrong and how we should mitigate this possible outcome. In general, I see myself and other leaders as sort of “navigation systems”. I grew a liking to GPS systems in the 90’s when I flew with them at the Air Force, and had later developed commercial GPS systems in my first startup. I enter clear measurable destination or goal and analyze the fastest, cheapest and safest way to get there. Then, I continuously and transparently evaluate and reassess progress while recalculating new possible routes while frequently zooming in and out alternating between reviewing the big picture, and small details. I like that metaphor also because I believe leaders should lead by example and from the front. From the driver seat, not passenger seat.
What do you see as the traits a good, entrepreneurial leader should possess?
RY: I actually wrote a whole blog article about this topic, which has been published in entrepreneur.com. In short, I see five pillars of successful entrepreneurial leadership – Envision, Enlist, Embark, Execute and Evolve. If you count these on the five fingers of your hand, you can extend a hand, or a fist if necessary, to get what you need, and you can give back by lending a full hand to those around you.
You spent eight years in the military flying helicopters; how has that affected you as a leader?
RY: That experience taught me a lot. Putting the mission first, resilience, how preparation and practice makes perfect, critical attention to detail, staying focused, working under pressure, how to zoom in and out from detail to overview, and the importance of briefing and transparent and self-critical debriefing regardless of rank. Years of training taught me to always lead from the front, work harder than anyone else, and set the example. Lastly, comradery and proper teamwork is key. Without it you will crash.
Another thing I learned, though it might seem mundane, is the importance of being on time. It is naturally important for execution and team collaboration, but beyond that it reflects on the integrity of my word and sets an example for others to be true to theirs.
What is the most surprising thing you have learned about running a business?
RY: Much of what I’ve learned is not particularly surprising, but one of the key things I’ve learned is that
"There is no dissonance between doing good and doing well"
You can really do both. Another is that, in the words of Bill Gates, we generally overestimate what we will accomplish in a year, but underestimate what we will accomplish in ten years. I’ve almost always fallen short of my aspirations in any given year, but looking back ten years at Kaltura, we have gone far farther than we have initially dreamt. The moral is; dream as big as you can, and then some. If you work hard and long, you’ll get there.
Any advice for other entrepreneurs on how to keep their personalleadership growth curve up to speed with the company growth curve?
RY: As your company grows, you grow from telling people what to do, to explaining to them what to demand from their reports, to then showing them how to lead, and to ultimately mentoring them how to grow other leaders.
"During that growth process, one must transcend from being a manager to becoming a leader"
Initially you can get away by telling people what they should do, what the challenges would be, and how they should overcome them, but ultimately this will not scale.
"People should be empowered and inspired, not just to come up with their own answers, but to formulate their own questions"
To achieve this, my advice for leaders is to let go of micro management, mentor people to come up with their own questions and answers, make space for some errors and failures, and make sure to spend enough time with all levels of management. Not just with the senior leaders, but also and mainly with the directors and managers.
What does your typical day look like?
RY: Long hours and a lot of travel. I have an amazing family and kids, but I need to be global and present when building the business. Roughly, a typical week or month is divided into four parts: one fourth for strategy and direction, one fourth managing my direct reports, one fourth being in the front lines working with sales, products, marketing and spending time with the teams, and one fourth on evangelizing the company.
What are you working on right now?
RY: In line with the above rough time division, I’m spending approximately half of my time on day-to-day management of my reports and on helping at the front-lines, including in this past month three overseas trips to push important deals and partnerships forward. In the past month, there were also three trips for investor conferences which would fall under the ‘evangelism’ side. On the strategy and direction part, since we completed our latest fundraising effort around a year ago, we reorganized the company into two business units, hired and on-boarded two new senior executives, and went through a rigorous three-year strategic planning and budgeting process. Right now, I am also helping with planning and seeding a new and important growth engine for the company, expanding our activities beyond longer-cycle enterprise deals to also include transactional deals. This includes the introduction of new products, use-cases, marketing vehicles, and operational platforms.
Anyway, in the words of Shimon Peres, the late Israeli President and Nobel peace laureate and a life-long dreamer and entrepreneur,
“I find most interest not in what I am doing today, but in what I would do tomorrow.”
Ron flew in to San Francisco to spend two days with NGP is the bay area. He spent the week prior at work in Singapore, Australia, South Africa and New York and next week he will be traveling again. If there is ever a moment of spare time, Ron spends it with his family or out running, preferably on the beach. He laughs,
“If you want to run a global company, you better be high-velocity”.