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Herb Morreale, Top Innovating Chairman and CEO Shares Best Practices

This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with Herb Morreale.

Herb MorrealeHerb is CEO and founder of 6kites, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in custom software development and social media. 6kites clients range from emerging start-ups to established market leaders in the US, Canada and UK.

Prior to 6kites, he held various executive roles at XOR, Loon Lake Investments, Kalos Strategy Group, Gold Systems, Adeptive Software and Me.dium. Herb is a semi-active angel investor and mentor to other business leaders.

Herb is the founder and chairman of Topplers, a non-profit organization which seeks to impact the world by inspiring, educating and motivating people to "Set Big Things in Motion". One of Topplers initiatives is the Domino Award. The Domino Award encourages students to "think big" by seeing how the work of computer scientists have significantly impacted modern society. The goal of the program is to honor the past, and in doing so inspire students to see the potential they have to make a difference through their future work. The Domino Award is open to over 40,000 undergraduate computer science students at 300+ universities and colleges across America.

In 2013, Herb was presented The Distinguished Engineering Alumni Award from the University of Colorado for his career achievements, community service and continued involvement with the School of Engineering.

When he's not working or serving as a Techstars Mentor, Herb enjoys competing in triathlons, hanging with his family, traveling near and far, and having a beer with friends whenever possible!

To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link


Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic

:00:29: Can you describe your journey from age four to your twenties and the milestones and valuable lessons that continue to shape your vision, goals and execution style?
"..... I played with Legos like lots of kids and the process of building things, tearing them down and trying to do them differently happened at an early age. I was also one of those kids that decided that they had to have one of those early home computers, so I saved up my money and ended buying a TRS 80 with a little help from my dad and began the journey down programming....My programming journey continued and ultimately led me to the University of Colorado where I studied Computer Science. Around that time I had the opportunity to serve as the president of the local ACM Student Chapter. I think that was the first time I had stepped into any kind of leadership role, bringing people together and looking for ways to get access to technology leaders that otherwise we wouldn't have had access to. That opened my mind to thinking beyond just the programming....The other thing that shaped a lot of the things that happened later was that I had a professor who was always looking for innovation and new ways to get students involved....But probably the thing that led to who I am today and began to form me was I started a company the last year at the University of Colorado with a fantastic guy, Trent Hine. That turned out to be one of those classic stories of students in college who go on to build a company. We started with two people and eventually grew that to over 500 people and that was from about age 22 to around 30. You are pretty much doing it all in business. I went from doing coding to systems administration, networking administration, hiring people and ultimately selling the company, building partnerships and all those different aspects of building a business. So by the time I was 30 a lot had happened and it made me uniquely well-rounded at an early age. It has driven me to think what else can be done in the area of entrepreneurship, to build companies, to look at emerging technologies and how far you can take that sort of thing...."

:08:56: What are some valuable enterprise tips that you can share from your experiences with 6kites?
"....6kites is my latest journey and when I look at the enterprise today and what's going on, I think of the ability to cut through the hype and find the fit for emerging technologies within your business....Sometimes in some enterprises you can look at R & D and invest in the emerging technology, making sure you are coming up to speed and learning, but leaving out what is the ROI until a little bit later time, because it is more investigative...."

:11:07: What you hope to achieve at 6kites?
"....6kites is interesting in that when I started this company I decided to go back to the very basics and bootstrap it. So there was never any intention in any way to raise money for the company and that is still the case today....We now have three areas of the business. Doing social media professional services and at the same time doing very sophisticated, significant software development. The third area (which is new) is an area called platforms where we have partnered with multiple market leaders, have become experts on their platforms for the purposes of integration and configuration and professional services around that. We've gone from this company which was built primarily just on relationships (and wherever they may take us), and software development (having this really broad approach), to starting at this stage and time to focus on a strategy, which is much more about the platform....So looking ahead for our business, I continue to see the professional services (because a lot of companies don't know how to work through some of the emerging technology and find that strategy), also to take the platform companies to have their core features set, but can offer their customers much more once it begins to connect into large other systems...."

:15:06: What do you hope for eventually? Do an exit again as in the past or get acquired at some point?
"....I have no plans for an exit for the company. I really do try to wake up every day and say 'what can we do extremely well, what are we passionate about and how are we measuring that'? I believe if you continue to do that you end up having something of value and that value can be ultimately monetized in different ways.....But as an entrepreneur at this point in my life and at this point in the business I'm really not thinking about what's going to happen down the road. If I wake up every day and the people that I work with wake up every day and they enjoy what they are doing and they are challenged by the work and we are proud of what we are doing, that can be absolutely enough for now and as time goes by we'll see what is the right thing to do...."

:17:04: You've been successful in a number of different roles in your career. What are your top tips from your prior roles?
"....I think the obvious thing is that there are always people involved when you are trying to get something done, so leadership is a key part of this....A deep knowledge of the area that you are working is quite important. The more you understand the nitty-gritty, then whether you are leading the team, speaking to customers or whatever it might be, you have a better appreciation of the complexity of the situation. I think the deeper you are in understanding that, the better you can do that....If you asked me this question five years ago I would have had some other perspective, three years before another perspective. It's definitely quite a journey when you are doing a number of different businesses and different domains and each one of those are often like children. That is what business has been like for me, whether it has been the technology itself or whether it has been the leadership role, each one has been unique...."

:21:45: Can you describe Topplers and the Domino Awards?
"....Topplers and Domino Awards are some of the things that I'm probably most proud of. After I sold and exited XOR, I wanted to find a way to be more involved with the University of Colorado and to give back. I always thought it was important to remember where you came from, and out of that was the Domino Award; a program for the students where they write an essay that honors the work of notable technologists and how that added up like a series of dominos tipping over, drawing all of the pieces where that led to this and talking about each one of those technologies along the way and how that then has created a new meaningful impact on the world. One of the pieces within the Domino Award which is important is that the essay is supposed to be up to or around 500 words. Why that's important is that it is something you can knock out in a day and following the domino analogy, it all starts with a little flick of the domino and things add up....Today the Domino Award operates under a non-profit that I started called Topplers. Topplers is all based on little things adding up. We have different programs that we run within Topplers and now one of them is the Domino Award. I think there are somewhere between 40,000 to 45,000 different students, undergrad students in computer science these days (which is fantastic), and we make it available to all of them...."

:27:08: What are your dreams for the Domino Awards into the future?
"....Looking ahead from my own perspective of things adding up I'm always trying to not necessarily make it bigger and better, it's about the impact that's happening from that small thing cascading down. One of the things we are reaching towards is increased participation....Another is the experiences themselves to the winners; there are so many possibilities there. There is so much great stuff in the area of technology, it's fascinating to offer more experiences and continue to provide access to the most innovative, high impact kind of things and I'd like to expand the experiences....The other thing is we've been fortunate and surprised by the demographics of participation in the award. Relative to the population of females in computer science programs, we have a highly disproportionate level of participation and also in the winners. I think that reflects that different kinds of students participate in this award because they are thinking in a different way about technology....It's not just about participation in this kind of thing, it's an award and there are certainly other awards out there for undergrads but they are different from the Domino Award. So in terms of how the program is executed, it's reach, impact, not just during the experience but afterwards, connecting the people that both participated and won. Raising the profile of this I believe opens up doors that then create more fuel and energy behind it and then it can continue to grow and make a large impact...."

:31:31: Can you describe specifically two cool things that students do as a result of the awards?
"....It's easy to be specific because I just had the experience with the latest two winners just a week ago. We went to the SXSW Interactive festival. When we got there we had access to pretty much anything that the students wanted to explore. (I always tell them this is your time and I'll follow you wherever you want to go so look at the program). This year there was a heavy focus on entrepreneurship. We ended up at the Techstars program which is an accelerator that I have some affiliation with. We were able to have audience (with approximately only 20 others), with the CTO of Amazon. What was fascinating about that conversation is he walked through the history and evolution of the Amazon platform and I can tell you having heard a number of presentations over the years, none had ever discussed in such detail all the aspects that go into large-scale architecture. So they are sitting there writing notes in the front row looking at this guy and going 'oh my gosh, this is the CTO of one of the largest technology footprints in the world'.....Another specific one goes back to an experience with Sean Parker. To be able to have a conversation with a guy who was at the time about 20 years old, who had been at this almost celebrity status and then to have that all change. Being able to have a conversation (at my home and sitting up all night) and talk to somebody, who at a very young age, changed the way that digital rights worked on the internet...."

:35:32: Can you share some tips from your work as a Techstars Mentor?
"....Companies propose their ideas to get into the Techstars program and a handful are selected. They are evaluated and are then brought in to be accelerated. They get a very small amount of money but what they are working towards is getting the next chunk of money from Techstars....It culminates in pitch day where they all get up on stage and they give their pitch. That sets them up for raising money (if they are going to do that), or moving on exiting their business if they don't need to raise that money. So that's how it works. As a mentor within that program there's one basic principle and that's to give first. That focuses the thinking on how can we make an impact as a mentor, giving of ourselves in a way that they can absorb...."

:39:36: What do you see as the investment trends going into 2016 and 2017 and further out?
"....One of the trends that's happening now that I think is just getting stronger is in the area of software. I'm talking here about the areas of investment and what's happening in those areas, that because of the tools available and how quickly we can develop software these days and access APIs (all the things we've never been able to access quickly before), the thinking among the investment community is that it's really not that hard for you to get an idea together and go out and test it I only see that as becoming more and more true....The other thing that I'm seeing a bit more focus on is the combination with software as a service, in particular, and it doesn't always have to be a SAS solution, but more focus on the recurring revenue aspect of the innovation of what you are building....One of the interesting technologies that is getting a lot of attention is the area of bots. I think we are seeing larger companies begin to explore what's possible. Facebook has put some stuff out recently with bots so the whole idea about bots and its connection to machine learning is just coming up....The other one I see happening is the virtual reality space and moving beyond just the interesting things you could do to where maybe there's a market for this and the technologies that are happening. There is more innovation there and there is more view of how that could be commercialized...."

:46:00: You've seen so many entrepreneurs in your work and as a mentor for Techstars. What do you think are the attributes of an entrepreneur?
"....I believe it is about the passion. You have to believe that you have something that is worth pursuing, especially once you get past the initial fun of the idea, because being an entrepreneur is really hard....The other thing that I see is that a lot of the entrepreneurs have partners. I do see a lot of the entrepreneurs beginning to understand more and more that two or three people coming together as founders as opposed to one founder with the idea (and then hiring and getting in debt), and more of 'let's go into this together'....So when I look across entrepreneurs I usually see a good team and a passion...."

:49:37: One of the things I hear from executives of enterprises is that agility is now key, whether with a start-up or launching a new product or service within a larger enterprise. Do you think there is a start-up mentality and if so, what are the key steps for successful start-ups or for enterprises when producing innovations to keep them competitive?
"....When you look at agility as it relates to getting something going, there are some challenges. On the positive side, the concept of agility is that we are going to do something, we are going to learn from that very quickly, we will take those lessons and will evolve it - and keep doing that at a pretty rapid pace and in a fairly disciplined way. When I think about agile and the general concept of agility, it's about breaking things into chunks, deciding to commit to that and the whole team committing to it....The idea of being agile I have seen work in all kinds of environments and the only thing that is important, in my opinion, about being agile and moving quickly is that the team decides....I'm seeing the smaller teams catching on. Taking that further, very small teams are coming up with some great ideas and as it moves, more people can be added on...."

:54:56: Is there anything you can share as what you think are attributes of a great executive?
"....If you look at value systems and understand that, I think that's a big part of the leadership challenge initially - truly understanding what's happening in the business and that takes time....The best leaders are the ones that have the trust and knowledge that they've gained through that trust about the organization, and I happen to come from the school that often an outside CEO isn't necessarily the most effective choice. If you go back to entrepreneurs (I think this is also probably true in larger companies), maybe there is somebody there who doesn't have all the experience or skillset for that stage of the company, but the person who in your gut is the one that can get it to the next level can be mentored...."

:01:00:02: You have many interests. Can you talk further about some of the things that interest you and are passionate about?
"....What really drives me is how do we build exceptional software? Not just build it and get it out there, but build it in a way that we're very proud of it, that it will hold up and everybody says 'wow', and it's done on time and on budget. To try to do that is a big challenge...."

:01:05:00: Do you feel computing should be a recognized profession on par with accounting, medicine and law with demonstrated professional development, adherence to a code of ethics, personal responsibility, public accountability, quality assurance and recognized credentials?
"....I think it's an appealing idea right on its surface because so much of what's happening within technology is the foundation of really important things happening in this world....Finding more ways to measure individual progress through the learning experience and knowing that they understand the holistic view of what we are tackling, certifications (in and of themselves), I think are good things...."

:01:08:37: There are different aspects of professionalism; it's a spectrum. One aspect is that you've taken a course, self-studied and have a snapshot of experiences at one point in time and you continually evolve that development of your skills through your lifetime, maintaining your development. Another is this idea of adhering to a code of ethics. Other aspects of professionalism are things like taking some responsibility for the work you are doing and having some accountability like ensuring that there is some kind of measure of quality. Certification is just one part of professionalism but doesn't have to be there. Do you see reasons for having some of those other dimensions of professionalism?
"....I think that's a good distinction, I'm glad you made that....I look at ethics and I look at an area like privacy. I'm not sure where the line gets drawn in any of that....In software, quality could be managed by 200 people downstream from what you are working on so there are many, many more quality checks than might go into a particular thing like medicine or accounting. I think it is just too big and complicated that I can't get myself to say, 'yes we absolutely should be doing this'. More education on these topics - I'm definitely behind that....."

:01:14:08: From your extensive speaking, travels, and work, do you have some interesting stories to share (perhaps something amusing, surprising, unexpected, amazing)?
"....I've been so fortunate to have different experiences of all different natures and it's like being asked what is your favorite song or band or movie. And it stumps you when you get a question like that. When I think about the business side of things then a memory pops into my head. It was my trip to India....From the business side it made such an impact on me that we don't need everything we think we need in order to be successful. In India you come across that in many different ways. It is the practical use of what is available to you and often things that don't look like they might be good enough from one perspective are actually very good and the pride of other folks. It brought me back from thinking everything needed to be just the greatest highest end stuff and come back to what is the utility and what are we trying to accomplish....."

:01:18:02: Herb with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your deep experiences with our audience.