How I Aligned What I Love With What I Do & Scaled Myself

February 3, 2010 · Print This Article

This post will require a certain degree of vulnerability. Sometimes we build a hard shell around us when we’re going through difficult times. This is a story of personal growth.

A year ago I was sitting late at night in my Durham office at iContact wondering if I’d become a corporate sellout.

Was I trading in some of my most productive years of life to build a company I was no longer passionate about?

I had gone from being an entrepreneur to a manager. I was 24 and we had 150 employees and $20M in sales. I was dealing with purchase order forms and paid time off policies. We had achieved all the goals we had ever set out for ourselves. Where was the entrepreneurial passion?

We had gone from #20 to #2 in the market in five years and I had no idea how we’d get to #1. I thought it might be the time to start thinking about finding my replacement.

Even though we were still growing very quickly, we weren’t quite growing at the same percentages as we were before and for the first time in our company’s history we were going to have a year in which we would not double sales.

My confidence was wavering. I had made some big mistakes:

  • I had waited too long to launch a stock option plan for the whole company.
  • I hadn’t hired a CMO soon enough.
  • I hadn’t built the right ecosystem of mentors that could help me get to the next level as a CEO.
  • I had focused too much on the surrogate-family side of our culture and not enough on the performance-focused side that was needed.
  • I hadn’t created values that people believed in and used every day. I could recall just four of our ten values without looking.
  • I had waited too long to start a formal manager training program.
  • I hadn’t truly aligned my passion for social responsibility into the ethos of the corporation.
  • I hadn’t created any effective mechanism for communicating strategic direction to the company and we had a lot of confusion as to what our focus was and operating choices were being made with different assumptions as to direction.

And these were just the mistakes I knew about!

Was I Right for the Job?

As I sat there in May 2009 I wrote in my journal “I’m not sure I’m the right person anymore to lead the company into this next stage of growth. We need to make some changes to keep the growth and hit our goals. Scary to think about. Terrible to have lost some of my confidence.” I wrote an email to our CFO on May 20th thinking about succession planning for me.

I wasn’t sure whether we should try to get acquired or keep the faith that we’d get to the $60M-$70M in annual revenue needed to go public and stay on track for the 2012 IPO. At certain points I lost the faith.

Finally in July we got the CMO we wanted. And things were looking way up by the end of the summer when we got an investment term sheet with a nine figure PMV. Wow!

But then came October. In the same week my business partner got cancer (he is now doing well!), my mom started having worsening chronic arm pain (she is now doing better), and a company that was looking to acquire us told us they weren’t going forward. I guess they say that difficult times are the foundry from which greatness is cast. But it’s sure not fun being the molten iron!

Through that baptismal fire I came to a critical understanding of self and what I needed to do to align what I love with what I do–something I’ve been preaching atop the mountain for five years in speeches but only half-heartedly living. It helped me discover my authentic self. It helped me find my Csikszentmihalyian flow.

Motivated More Than Ever

So I sit here tonight in my home in Chapel Hill motivated more than ever. iContact is now at a $34M revenue run-rate and growing that by more than $1M each month. We will hire more than 50 new team members in 2010. We had our first ever post-investment EBITDA positive month in December(!!!). We’re well on our way to fulfilling our dream of “building a great sustainable company in NC for our customers, employees, and community.” And we’ve got a plan to go from #2 to #1. We have a plan to win.

I no longer question whether I’m a corporate sellout putting in my time. I’m aligned, I’m focused. I’m learning. I’m surrounded by amazing people every day who know how to do what they do so much better than I ever could.

What I Changed?

So what did I do? Three things (and I’m still working on fully implementing them)…

  1. I worked to align my long term life mission with what I do everyday today. My life mission, the one that’s been on my bedroom wall since May 2007, is to “be a leader of our generation as we work to end extreme poverty in our lifetimes.” While I was learning a lot about leadership and management and being paid to do it, I was somewhat unclear how building a SaaS company aligned fully with a passionate desire to end extreme poverty in the developing world over the next fifty years. The incessant question in my head was whether I’d be better off finding my replacement and either applying to the Kennedy School of Government or moving to Africa to invest in entrepreneurs there. I learned a lot about the integrated 1/1/1 corporate philanthropy model of and wanted to see if we could do that at iContact. On January 8th, 2010 we launched an expanded CSR model, what we call the 4-1s Corporate Social Responsibility Model, at iContact in which we take 1% of equity, 1% of product, 1% of employee time, and 1% of payroll and invest it in local and global non-profit organizations. Since we’ve expanded this CSR program I’ve been able to see the tangible and immediate connection between my passion for social responsibility and what I do going to work every day. In 2009 iContact contributed $109,000 to 63 different 501(c)(3)s and in 2010 we’ll reach $150,000. But it’s not just money anymore. Now, each of our employees has the opportunity to be paid to take 1% of their time (2.5 days off from work) each year to do community service during business hours, which we’re tracking through VolunteerForce. While we’ve got lots of work to do to improve it, the model has real impact and tangible value for us and the community and it’s significantly helped me to a much greater degree see the meaning behind what we do everyday. I love it!
  2. We changed our company values at iContact. I realized in July of last year that we had ten “Corporate Values” but I could only remember four without reading the sheet. At an EO entrepreneurial exec ed program at MIT in June I learned you should never have more values than you can remember and that to be worthy of being a company value you’d have to be willing to let someone go if they didn’t live up to it. Our values fit neither requirement. In December at our two day Senior Leadership Team (SLT) offsite in Chapel Hill we came up with WOWME. WOWME stands for 1) Wow the Customer 2) Operate with Urgency 3) Without Mediocrity 4) Make a Positive Wake and 5) Engage as an Owner. We launched these values last month at iContact and now every SLT member knows them by heart and we’re working toward all managers using them during every performance and coaching discussion. We will hire and fire by these values, live up to them, and hold each other accountable to them. They’ve even inspired me to pick up my game and get it in gear. I love it!
  3. I let go of control. The best thing I’ve ever done for the growth of iContact is let go of control (and I’m still working on this skill). We have a six person Senior Leadership Team at iContact that can all do their jobs much much better than I can. We now have a thirteen person Leadership Team underneath them all of whom have more business experience than I do. When I realized that my job was not to ensure they did their jobs the right way but rather to enable them to do their jobs and hold them accountable for the results, my world shifted. I’m still learning in this area, but this single realization is enabling me to scale. I now focus on 1) people 2) strategy 3) culture 4) investment. Each time we get to a new stage in our company’s growth ($100k, $1M, $5M, $10M, $25M) I have to reinvent myself and my job description. I love it!

And here are some other life changes that are less critical to helping me align what I do with what I love, but are still fun to share…

  1. I made an equity investment in an African company. On January 4th I became a 10% owner of Village Energy Ltd. of Kampala Uganda. For four years I’ve been personally making contributions to non-profit organizations focused on ending global poverty. My philosophy has changed on economic development over the past year. Today I believe that while effectively monitored bilateral aid is an important component of ending extreme poverty and emergency humanitarian aid is morally and critically necessary in many locations, an investment in a local entrepreneur in Africa will have much greater long term impact in terms of job creation, tax revenue base, and constituent-focused democratic institution building. I was very excited to invest in Village Energy which is bringing a $60 solar panel powered LED lighting solution to rural village homes through a microfinance and franchise distribution model for $3-$4 per month per home. The product is a substitute good for kerosene which often costs $5 to $6 per month, causes lung inhalation problems and often burns down the thatch houses. I hope this $15,000 investment turns out to have much greater social impact than a $15,000 contribution. There is SO much opportunity to invest in Africa and so many entrepreneurs and companies poised for growth. And there is a huge gap between the countless MFIs that loan out $50 to $1000 and the Acumen Fund which invests $50k to $250k. Ten years from now I dream of running a socially responsible venture capital firm on the African continent. The challenge will be finding a scalable model of investing $5000 to $50,000 at a time. I think it can be done. I know the pipeline is there.
  2. We started a new entrepreneurial division of Virante. Virante is a 11 person company downstairs in the iContact building that I started as “Virante Design & Development” in 2000 that is now run by CEO Malcolm Young. I won’t say much about this early stage effort now because the team is still acquiring all the related domain names and IP, but it’s a socially responsible ecommerce play that I’m extremely excited about. Fortunately we’ve already got the team to make it happen and it won’t take much time. With the help of the Virante team and a 17 year old intern Aneesh that comes in each Wednesday they’re making it happen. Here I must quote my new New York friend Kim Scheinberg, “Starting a company is like having a baby. By far the most enjoyable part is the idea conception phase.”
  3. I followed my passion for writing and started the next book. This post is the beginning of book #2. My plan–one 5 page blog post per week that by the end of 2010 will be a ready to become a book. The title–”Dare Mighty Things: How Entrepreneurs & Social Entrepreneurs Are Changing the World.”

I have had two wristbands on my wrist since November. The first one says “Make Poverty History.” The second, “$100M in 2012.”

Thank you to everyone who has supported me through this endeavor and to all who are with us in this journey.

Here we go…


Thoughts, comments, suggestions??? Feedback is the breakfast of champions!


24 Responses to “How I Aligned What I Love With What I Do & Scaled Myself”

  1. Ron Sanyal on February 4th, 2010 12:22 am

    Truth shall set U Free and make U happy! I am proud of you.

  2. Joseph Joel Sherman on February 4th, 2010 1:31 am

    Thank you for these lessons.

  3. Dave Kresta on February 4th, 2010 1:51 am

    Awesome post Ryan. I am on a similar hunt as you are and your story is an inspiration to me because you’re ahead of me by many laps.

  4. Ash S. on February 4th, 2010 3:15 am

    Amazing post! You speak with such clarity, passion, and honesty. You have such clear plans of where you started, where you are, and where you want to be. The line in your post that said “When I realized that my job was not to ensure they did their jobs the right way but rather to enable them to do their jobs and hold them accountable for the results, my world shifted” really resonated with me.

    Its so true yet so hard for business owners to actually do. We often think we are the only ones who can do the job right, when in fact we are just crippling the business by not expanding our own capacity to take on new challenges in order to grow and scale.

  5. Samuel Watulatsu on February 4th, 2010 6:05 am

    I am pleased to come accross this link Ryan. I really appreciate and respect your focus and direction and look forward to keeping in contact with you and your programs. By the way, I loved your philosophy that I saw written and pinned in your house.

    I will discuss more with you as time goes but keep up the great work.

    Samuel W.Watulatsu,
    Founder & Trustee,
    Foundation for Development of Needy Communities (FDNC)
    P.O Box 2431, Mbale, Uganda.

  6. Amber N. on February 4th, 2010 8:22 am

    Where can I get those arm bands?
    Thanks for the post. It means a lot to hear the thoughts and dreams of a leader who is also human! :-)

  7. Paul House on February 4th, 2010 10:40 am


    Thanks so much for your honesty in this post. Perhaps you know it already, but you provide guidance and a light in just what you are trying to do. I am sure as time goes by you will only align more and more with your goals and values.

    Best wishes on your path.

  8. Paul House on February 4th, 2010 11:09 am

    I actually meant to add that there is a nice “fireside chat” with Sergey Brin and Larry Page at Europe Zietgeist 2008 where they tackle the problem of how to stay focused on working on things which “change the world”.

    The essence of their message is that 70% of resources(time, money, etc) should be spent on core activities. 20% on fairly radical ones, and 10% on the far out there long-shot stuff.

    I would like to see “How to stay focused on changing the world” as a topic for a post down the line. :)

  9. Kristen on February 4th, 2010 11:39 pm


    Great commentary and bearing of the soul. I constantly brag about you to my new friends up in the Triad about how you’ve started the for-profit, been giving to Africa and of course the meetups. I wish you the best of 2010 and hopefully I’ll be able to see you in person again soon.


  10. Paul House on February 11th, 2010 2:47 pm

    And one more thing. The four hour work week is not a bad book about sticking to dreams, living a meaningful life, and avoiding work for work sake. I think it is meaningful for the person in the mail room to fortune 500 CEOs. Just thought I would mention it.

  11. Nicholas Kemp on February 20th, 2010 6:34 am

    All I can say/write is WOW! Dare mighty things indeed! Look forward to the book!

  12. Michael Haley on February 28th, 2010 7:40 pm

    I’m sorry to hear about your friend, partner, and mother battling health issues. Glad to know they are doing better and I wish them all the best.

  13. Jon Payne on March 1st, 2010 7:43 am

    Great posts here Ryan. I’m trying to follow your path (on a much smaller scale) and let go of every detail with my own firm over in Charlotte. I’ve followed you for many years (Intellicontact Pro, Broadwick, etc.) and am continually inspired by your growth – personally, professionally, socially, etc. All the best to you moving forward!

  14. Ilia on March 1st, 2010 3:51 pm

    Really awesome post Ryan. Looking forward to making it down to one of the meetups, catching up, and checking out the Triangle.

    Talk soon,

  15. Lou on March 9th, 2010 7:51 am

    Ryan, I’ve heard about you from Sarah Stealey, and you surpass all expectations. I’ll sit with you on Thursday’s BL panel and truly look forward to it. You’re learning lessons it took me decades to learn, and I’m not there yet! Kudo’s to you anf your world.

  16. Beth Reeves on March 18th, 2010 11:11 am

    hi Ryan —
    I share your passion for social entrepreneurship and revitalizing Durham — I sit on the Board of the Durham Regional Financial Center, helping to save homes and build financial stability with individuals in need, and we have big plans for 2010. Would love to see how we can align our efforts —


  17. Thanh Lu on March 19th, 2010 3:57 pm

    what the heck! this is the best post I’ve read in the last few months! Thanks for sharing it. I really mean that. Your exposure to your thought process and actions taught me a lot.

    I would recommend checking out InVenture Fund about investing in between MFIs and Acumen Fund.


  18. Ordinary, extra-ordinary, everyday « Dr2BOgembo's Blog on April 6th, 2010 9:36 pm

    [...] been reading a lot about social entrepreneurs including a really cool posting entitled “How I aligned what I love with what I do and scaled myself” which ought to be required reading for any aspiring social [...]

  19. Tamajong on June 15th, 2010 11:24 pm

    Very inspiring…Thank you for the wonderful ideas and thoughts…Feedback is indeed the breakfast of champions!

  20. Mike Ryan on July 28th, 2010 12:50 am

    Ryan, Thanks for sharing in so many ways. Doing good and doing well serving others. Bravo! Cheers!

    Mike Ryan

  21. Nelson Bran on August 17th, 2010 5:38 pm

    I came across one of your many websites today and as I read I felt the same electricity everyone feels when they read your words (or meet you). Then I saw your pic and thought to myself ‘there is no way this young man could be the same human reciting such wisdom’ – not enough life experience… And yet there you are… youing and wise all at once… I do knot know you my friend but it is an honor and a privelege to have come across you… Continued success in all you do and know that what you do and how you word it ignites a highly contagious (necessary) torque in us all TO DO THE RIGHT THING. Thank you.

    Nelson Bran

  22. Results of iContact’s Foray Into Social Responsibility | Team Member Articles | iContact-Blog on September 23rd, 2011 1:13 pm

    [...] that life can be very short. Out of these experiences, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to align my values with my work at iContact to the extent possible. I wanted to see a direct connection between the work that iContact was [...]

  23. Dave on October 5th, 2011 3:28 pm


    I would like to talk to you about your vision. Can we set up a time to talk?

    Dave Jones
    “unifying excellence in the marketplace”

  24. Wes on November 5th, 2011 9:37 am

    My favorite part of this piece is the second half where you speak about your life changes. I think oftentimes in life many of us undervalue the impact of such changes.

    Good for you and your career. Keep it up and all the best!

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