“I believe in the ABC’s of life: always be curious,” said Steve Johnson. “If you’re a lifelong learner the best roles and future are not necessarily going to involve a promotion, but rather something you like that interests you. That’s what brought me to Hootsuite.”
Steve Johnson, 1987 business and computer science graduate, is the Chief Revenue Officer for Hootsuite, a growing software company that enables businesses and individuals to manage their content on multiple social media platforms. Since beginning in Vancouver, Canada, in 2008, Hootsuite has grown to be available in 16 languages in more than 175 countries, making it the most widely-used social media relationship platform in the world. With clientele as diverse as the NHL, eBay, and Sony Music Entertainment, Hootsuite has more than 10 million users and boasts 744 of the Fortune 1000 companies as customers.
But why did Johnson risk investing his time and energy in an organization that began as a group of daydreamers in a dingy garage? “The tech industry is very volatile. Now everything is going great for us: we’re at 700 employees compared with the 26 we started with. But it could have easily gone the other way,” he said. ”That’s the risk in tech and something you’re always scared about. I had a family and insurance like most people, but you have to look at the bigger picture and think about what you want to be. I wanted to be a part of something really disruptive and big, where I could personally make a difference. Even if we didn’t make it, I knew that I could make more of an impact in a 26-person company than in a bigger, ‘safer’ company.”
Johnson did not always plan on his dalliances with technology, beginning his career with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. “I can’t say that I was interested in tech in college,” he said. “Union was early on in its resources, but I liked entrepreneurship and wanted my own business. I did an auditing internship before my senior year that I really didn’t enjoy; because of that I’m a massive proponent of internships.”
After graduation, Johnson immediately began working in the tech industry and discovered his new joy. He has since started and sold his own company, and also worked within larger corporations. “In my career, I’ve taken a series of roles, sometimes lateral ones,” he said. “So from ‘director of sales’ I might move to ‘director of partners.’ From a career perspective that’s typically not such a great move because I didn’t go up, but I wanted to expand myself and knew I could learn something new.”
Johnson was introduced early on to Hootsuite by one of its initial investors. “With my broad array of skills I was the missing piece of the board they were looking for, and they thought I would be a good fit,” he said.
Most companies tend to focus their business on either high-dollar, low-volume sales, generally to larger organizations, or low-dollar, high-volume sales, usually to individual users. But Hootsuite’s visionaries saw their product being used by both sectors, and Johnson had the experience to make that happen. “What attracted me to Hootsuite was that I didn’t know how it would pan out, but the company met my chief criteria,” he said. “It had a global vision and was dealing with social media, which everyone knows is really big. But it was also disrupting how people communicate: that’s the reason it has grown so fast. I thought the challenge was interesting and it was somewhere I could make a real impact.”
When Johnson joined Hootsuite, the company had raised $1.9 million in Series A funding through investors. It has since raised a total of $250 million, including $165 million for its Series B funding round that was the largest venture capital raised for software in Canadian history. “There are a bunch of things that have made Hootsuite so successful,” he explained. “We nailed our revenue model, but we got the money because we have a model that performs well. Every day some 1,000 people sign up for a free Hootsuite account or for the Pro product. Our ‘go-to-market team’ has been very effective, which has then driven investment and success.”
But Johnson does not attribute Hootsuite’s success solely to its leaders’ business acumen. “At the beginning we were desperate for employees, but we made sure to choose only people who truly believed in what we were doing,” he said. “We were in a horrible building on a bad side of the city with dogs nearby. People would come in, look at the place, and then never come back. Other applicants didn’t even know what Hootsuite was and saw it as ‘just a job.’ But you have to think about the ‘why’: if it isn’t rewarding and something you want to stick with, you won’t be successful.”
Now Hootsuite’s latest Vancouver office, a converted police station, was ranked by TechCityNews.com as one of the world’s top 10 “coolest offices,” featuring a nap room and a yoga studio. Johnson attributes the company’s low turnover rate to its early focus on finding passionate employees. “Our vision is to revolutionize the way our customers communicate,” he said. “We’re not just about helping people manage and de-clutter their social media, though we also do that. We’re about empowering customers to turn messages into meaningful relationships. People have to buy into that, and if they don’t then they probably shouldn’t be here.”
Johnson’s message to find meaningful work is not only to Hootsuite employees. “You have to have some bigger reason, growth just isn’t enough,” he said. “Companies that have a noble purpose outperform peers by 40 percent. They have something bigger than a product and it’s far more rewarding and authentic for people to buy into.”
Johnson appeals to students and young professionals to spend time reflecting on the bigger picture when looking for a job. “The most important thing to understand and know is what you like and what is your long-term view,” he said. “What are you created for in this world that can truly make a difference? That’s the why of what you do that can help you maximize your talents and learn as much as you can. Think big!”
By Joellyn Sheehy ’14