Emma’s journey

Clint Smith takes us inside the maturation of a Nashville tech darling and how his role has changed

A successful organization needs different things from its leaders as it grows. The gung-ho attitude of the first days will gradually give way to more measured and strategic moves. Likewise, the role of the CEO morphs, too. Here, Clint Smith talks about how his days have changed since he founded online marketing company Emma with Will Weaver more than a decade ago. (Illustrations by Taylor Schena)

Our first space was a pair of cubicles in Grassmere Business Park. We traded a website redesign for it — thanks, Investment Scorecard! There was much thrashing out of early ideas and plans, and little cell phone coverage. By early 2003, we were paying actual rent for the space that’s now The Catbird Seat. It’s there we made our first few hires, including Annie Williams, who’s still with us. About a year later, we moved into our own tiny house on 29th Avenue across from the Parthenon.

By the time we had about 20 people, we outgrew the 29th Avenue house and headed for a slightly larger house in Hillsboro Village. Apparently, a 1:20 bathroom-to-people ratio is not sustainable. We now know that.

At 20, we also felt the need to actually write things down on paper — things like Emma’s take on work, culture, people, goals, you name it. So we created a company manual and called it the Emma Style Guide to avoid it actually feeling like a company manual. By then, we had a better sense of what we wanted to put in that guide — what it meant to be a part of Emma. That time for a young start-up to incubate and establish a strong sense of self is key.

In the early days, my role at Emma was very much about the ‘what’ — it’s that hands-on time digging in to help shape products and pricing and customer service and sales and, well, everything. Now, my work is still hands-on but is much more about the ‘who.’ It’s my job to make sure we’ve got the right people owning the work, and those people have what they need to do well. We call our map of teams and people the Turbine, and, if we’re not quite hitting the mark with some part of the business, I can usually point to the spot on the Turbine where we’re missing the right person.

Early on, we weren’t big enough. Now we have to work hard to stay small. Jeff Bezos at Amazon talked about “two-pizza” teams — if two pizzas couldn’t feed the team, it was probably too big to be effective. For us, it’s more like one pizza and it has sausage on it. We have to constantly challenge teams, meetings and projects that want to be bigger than they have to be.

We’ve made more than our fair share of people mistakes over the years. A big one is assuming someone who’s good at something will be good at managing other people who do that thing. Neta Moye, a Vanderbilt professor who is now at George Washington University, really crystallized it for me. She said that most people assume roles progress in a straight line up a career ladder when in fact they are switchbacks, requiring different skills and experiences than the spot you just came from. Mary Sobon works with us on people and teams now, and I tell young entrepreneurs she’s the first advisor I’d tap in any future start-up.

Early on, the questions were fairly simple. Like, “Can we pull this off?” Or sometimes, “How come we only have one bathroom for 20 people?” As we started to see it work, the question became, “Can we pull this off in a way that allows us to actually pay ourselves?”

Over time, the questions have gotten more interesting, thankfully. Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s Deli says that as leaders, it’s not our job to have all the answers, just to ask the right questions at the right time. He also describes business decisions as “plays” he runs — sometimes the plays work, sometimes they don’t. Either way, you go back to the huddle and call a different one. I like that.

These days, the question I ask most is, “Are we moving fast enough?” For a long time, the answer was clearly no, but that’s changing. All of a sudden, we’re finding experienced developers and product people. We’re more disciplined about setting priorities and taking on projects. And we’re starting to lean on Emma’s ability to integrate with services that are already doing something we need to well.

We’re trying to not just look ahead but also work ahead. The digital marketing space moves pretty fast, and while I can’t tell you what it will look like a few years from now, I can tell you we need to be nimble to the point of actually liking how fast things move, as opposed to dreading it. Last year, we carved out a “Labs” team to aim further down the product roadmap. That team of three really smart people explores future product ideas and creates early concepts or prototypes other teams can then build. They’re currently working on several really interesting projects, like a high-design email signup app for iPads and a whole new way of visualizing audience responses.

The bigger we get, the more transparency we try to have. To help, we’ve started using a “rocks” board, where a rock is a meaningful project. That board starts as sticky notes on a whiteboard every quarter and makes it onto a digital board we pull up every Wednesday morning and talk through as a group. Every rock/project owner sits in, and in about 30 minutes we cover the entire slate of work happening at Emma. We also share the rocks board with everyone on staff and display it on a large TV monitor in our bistro area. The color-coded rocks tell you at a glance what’s on track (green), in danger (yellow) or downright stuck (red). Also, green is my favorite color.

I used to write every word of our website, marketing, job postings, you name it. Occasionally, I still write a few key pieces, but other, more talented people do most of it. Writing is definitely held in high esteem at Emma, so if you plan to pursue a job opening here, I strongly encourage you to give that introductory note a solid once-over.