Executive Q+A with Smartsheet CEO Mark Mader

His European upbringing helps to inform his American approach.
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Mark Mader developed a passion for technology by observing how businesses make choices based on many variables. In nearly 11 years at Smartsheet, Mader has directed that passion toward making the ubiquitous spreadsheet less of a loathsome tool and more of a friendly facilitator via work collaboration software. The idea, Mader says, is to address “hundreds of business-use cases across dozens of industries and functional areas.” In the process, he has helped guide Smartsheet from being a startup with 10 employees to soaring as a multimillion-dollar company with nearly 400.
 
EARLY YEARS: I grew up in Frankfurt, Germany. My father worked for the European subsidiary of a U.S.-based printer manufacturer. In 1976, we moved to Seattle and I’ve carried two passports ever since. Growing up abroad and returning many times has had a big influence on who I am and how I engage with others.
 
EDUCATION: I spent my college years at Dartmouth, majoring in geography. Through my exposure to GIS [geographic information systems] programs that layered data and helped identify patterns in human capital, natural resources, landscape, etc., I witnessed the impact technology has on decision making and how technology can drive better outcomes.
WINNING: I was a student athlete throughout high school [at Lakeside] and college. Those experiences stoked my competitive fire and taught me the importance of competing the right way and not necessarily at someone else’s expense. That said, my wife can confirm that I don’t embrace losing all that well.
 
SMARTSHEET: We saw an opportunity early on to disrupt business collaboration, as well as to change an ingrained and 
underproductive mindset in which knowledge workers simply fired up a spreadsheet, tracked their work and then sent it to somebody. We were told many times in the early days that we would not succeed, that the problem was too challenging and would be solved by the companies who already provided the tools that “everybody used.” But we stuck to our beliefs, focused on that idea of doing something big and meaningful, and are well on our way to proving our doubters wrong.
 
MISSION: Smartsheet was founded on a belief that teams, individuals and millions of people worldwide deserve a better way to deliver their very best work. The company’s vision is to enable people and organizations to manage their work, their processes and really automate the work that they do, day in and day out. 
 
LESSONS LEARNED: The extensibility of Smartsheet’s platform wasn’t always geared toward multiple actors. Our original vision was all about solving problems for the information worker. What we’ve learned is that you can’t be successful by solving for one audience alone. An executive, for example, wants to see a summary “single pane of glass” to arrive at a decision, rather than the details of the work as it’s being done through to completion. That is a very different value proposition than the information worker who’s working to deliver that output. Another lesson centers on automation. We’re investing in solving complex and large-scale work automation challenges, in addition to enabling people to collaborate, share, track and update individual and team work. We want these solutions accessible to not just the top 1 percent of the web-savvy universe, but also the teams and organizations outside of the Bay Area who may not yet be fluent in SaaS but seek to improve on their ability to collaborate on and deliver great work.
 
EXECUTIVE Q+A RESPONSES HAVE BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED.
 
LOOKING AHEAD: Over the next several years, we plan to build substantive, industry-specific solutions that can deliver ROI rapidly. It’s beyond users viewing Smartsheet as a team-based enablement tool and extends to evolving our product to solve high-value business problems without breaking the compelling, easy-to-use, self-directed attributes of the offering along the way. We’re one of the few solutions that actually spans a wide spectrum of usage; our smallest customers pay us $120 per year and our largest pay us well over $1 million a year. There are not many software companies that play across those value categories, and we continue to really embrace that.
 
TECH LANDSCAPE: In an industry and category [SaaS] that’s historically been based out of Silicon Valley, we’re excited to add to the technology beachhead here in the Pacific Northwest. We take a lot of pride being one of the larger privately held software companies based in Bellevue,
still growing at over 70 percent year over year, with a global reach of paying customers in more than 190 countries. 
 
CHALLENGES: If you look at it from a macro perspective, as most companies grow, their growth rates slow. And if we’re looking at the next five to 10 years, we’re calling for an increased rate of growth in our business despite hitting higher revenue thresholds, which is highly atypical. Most companies don’t do that. As I look ahead, that’s our biggest challenge: bucking the inherent tendency to slow down as Smartsheet gets bigger, moves upward in revenue, grows in staff, etc. The great news is that we’re part of a multibillion-dollar market that continues to grow as the shift to the cloud hits its stride. We’re deeply integrated with Microsoft Office 365 and Google for Work, have new partnerships on the horizon and are fueled by a user community in the millions. These conditions provide a great foundation for growth.
 
PARTNERSHIPS: Google and Microsoft are interested in figuring out how they can strengthen their ecosystems, and they’re teaming with solutions they believe will positively address that goal. They’re hungry for innovative companies that are resonating at scale [and] that tell a good integrated story, while also competing on multiple dimensions within Google for Work and Microsoft Office 365, respectively. They see value in getting complementary solutions that make them stickier with their consumers, and we’re part of that journey.
 
COMPETITION: I’m hesitant to name a direct competitor that Smartsheet wants to dominate and disrupt, since the total wallet size for cloud apps and computing is growing so massive, yet is so early in its maturity curve. There will be many multibillion-dollar winners. We are as fixated on “winning” as we are focused on beautifully integrating with other leading software providers. It’s a matter of how well you play with them, in addition to how well you are able to distinguish what you do better than anybody else. It’s not that you have to eliminate the other player. If you can compete and you both win, awesome! 
 
TAKE 5
Get to Know Mark Mader
 Recent achievement: “Reclaiming the title at last year’s family ping-pong tournament!” 
 Favorite dining spot: Flo Japanese Restaurant, Bellevue. “It’s two blocks from my office, the service is consistently good and their sushi is always on the money.”
 Diversions: “Theater and music are huge. I love spending time in the outdoors as well. It’s a huge part of who I am, and I never take that for granted in the Northwest.”
 Dream vacation: “A place I haven’t been before. It likely involves a long-haul flight and salt water.”
 Cross-lake commute: “During the summer, I occasionally take the Sea-Doo to work. It’s a heck of a way to avoid traffic on 520.”

Coffee with Guppy: Seeking Authenticity with Tom Kundig

Coffee with Guppy: Seeking Authenticity with Tom Kundig

A chat with the celebrated Seattle architect.
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Tom Kundig is a principal and owner at Olson Kundig, the Seattle architecture firm and design practice founded on the idea that “buildings can serve as a bridge between nature, culture and people.”
 
Nancy: What does an architect do? 
Tom: An architect solves problems. We observe what’s going on culturally, both historically and currently, and try to make buildings that resolve a situation, whatever it might be. 
 
Did you always want to be an architect? 
Oh, no. My dad’s an architect, I grew up with architects around me and there was a certain culture about architecture that I didn’t particularly appreciate, but what I did appreciate were the artists in that environment. Eventually, against all sanity, I wound up in architecture and couldn’t be happier. 
 
How important is the budget when you take on a project? 
It’s critical because a budget gives context and, from my perspective, the tighter the budget (within reason), the better the building because it makes you edit. When the budget is loose, the building can become overindulged. 
 
Are you a different designer now than you were when you started out? 
Oh, yes. I understand a lot more about the human condition and I understand the technical drivers much more completely. Architecture is a profession of wisdom, and it’s rare when you see that wisdom in a young architect.
 
Do you have a favorite building in Seattle? 
It’s a toss-up between the Pike & Virginia Building, designed by Olson Walker in the late ’70s/early ’80s, and St. Ignatius Chapel on the Seattle University campus. 
 
Is there a building you wish you had designed? 
Nope. There are so many conspiring forces to make mediocre buildings that when a good building happens, no matter who did it, we should just stand back and applaud! 
 
 
Tom Kundig says his main driver is "to make as much as I can out of life."
 
Are there signature elements of a Tom Kundig design? 
My desire is for an authenticity, both in cultural function and in the way that the natural materials — whether brick, steel or wood — age and get better with time. 
 
In every project you’ve done, is there always at least one thing that you hate? 
Uh, yeah, on virtually every project, but I never admit it! (Laughs) 
 
What gets you excited about a project? 
A client who’s curious about the world because that person is going to engage and ask questions in a way that may take me out of the way I typically answer.
 
What has to be there in order for you to take on a client?  
Trust. If you hire me, then I’ve got to trust you as a client and you’ve got to trust me as your architect, that I’m going to be doing my best work working for you.
 
Have you ever had to walk away from a project? 
Yeah. It’s difficult but it’s not about me. It’s about the situation. I’m not the right architect for you, you’re not the right client for me and we are wasting our time.
 
When do you know if something you’ve made is good? 
When I’m drawing and things are happening and fitting together, it’s like listening to music inside my head. It flows.
 
Is there a Tom Kundig Life Statement? 
I put a quote in my first book: “Only common things happen when common sense prevails.” I don’t know who came up with it, but it always makes me smile and it’s kind of true. If you’re looking for adventure, or something new or something worth living for, you’re looking for the edge, whatever that might be. 
 
How do you balance your creative mind with your business mind? 
I think a creative mind is a business mind because business is creative. You’re dealing with a set of issues and you’re trying to find a pathway, trying to resolve the issues, into a success. 
 
What piece of advice would you give to your younger self, when you were just starting out?  
Be more secure about your abilities and less insecure about your existence so that you can do things with a well-placed confidence. 
 
What song would you like played at your funeral? 
(Laughs) I don’t know! I won’t be hearing it so I don’t really care. 
 
You’re stuck on a desert island and can have one book, one record, one food and one person
My wife, Jeannie. Beethoven’s Ninth. A hamburger. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
 
Who or what is your worst enemy? 
Noncritical thinking. People who don’t think about what they’re saying. 
 
Beatles or Rolling Stones?  
Beatles. I share a birthday with John Lennon and sympathy with his larger musical and political agendas.
 
What four guests would make for the perfect dinner party?
Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Feynman, Indira Gandhi, Muhammad Ali. 
 
Do you have a spiritual practice and if yes, how does that practice manifest? 
I was raised a Unitarian, so it is a very personal spiritual practice and certainly influenced by both Buddhist teachings and Jesuit friends. 
 
› For more on artists, entertainers and entrepreneurs, tune in Art Aone with Nancy Guppy on the Seattle Channel (seattlechannel.org/artzone).