Joyce Durst is the Co-founder and CEO of Growth Acceleration Partners (GAP), a leading nearshore software development company that partners with US-based clients to develop custom software applications. We break down what it takes to keep customers for life, how to run remote teams successfully, and ways diversity can be a company’s secret weapon.
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Keep Your Employees And Customers For Life With Joyce Durst
My guest in this episode is Joyce Durst, the Founder and CEO of Growth Acceleration Partners or GAP, an outsource software and data engineering firm that excels in executing complex mission-critical projects that require high quality at every milestone. The acronym GAP also stands for GAP’s values which are Greatness, Agile, and People. Welcome to the show, Joyce.
Thank you, Steve. I’m so excited to be here.
It’s great to have you here. You had a great career and you ended up an entrepreneur. Can you describe your journey from being Senior VP for a billion-dollar enterprise software company to building venture-backed and exiting a venture-backed software company? You then started your own professional service firm. How does that even happen?
First of all, you need to have a long career. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been working in the software industry for many years now. It’s been full of great experiences and a fair amount of successes and failures. Those have blended together to bring me here to where I am now. I’m happy to share that with you and your readers.
When climbing the corporate ladder, I worked for a multi-billion dollar, a very successful, fast-growing software company. I loved doing that. As I moved up the ladder, I’m an engineer by education, and my family tells me, “I’m an engineer in my mindset all the time,” which can be good and bad, but as I climb the corporate ladder, you move more and more into management roles.
Throughout my career, I’ve spent time as a software consultant and a systems engineer in product management, marketing, development, and sales. I tried out a whole bunch of different things as I moved up the ladder and eventually, you get into pure management roles. In the multi-billion dollar software company, I ended up as a senior vice president responsible for about a $250 million division of all kinds of database products.
It’s tremendous learning and leadership opportunity but once I got there, I began to focus on, “What did I want my legacy to be? What were my purpose and my mission in working and building my career every day?” Steve, what I determined was most important to me was figuring out how to invest more in the people around me and how to make sure that you were accelerating the growth of people’s careers. You were accelerating the growth of company success.
For me, there came a time when I needed to leave the big company land and go try my hand at being an entrepreneur where you could control more of the culture, focus, and priorities of a company. I did that and jumped right out there into the fire of running a security software company that was venture-backed.
For anyone who’s out there in big company land, do not believe that because you were running a multi-hundred million division of something that will in any way translate to being a CEO of a startup trying to figure out how to make its first million dollars. It’s totally different things. In that journey, I made every possible mistake that a human being could make. Learning how to be the CEO of a startup company and learning how to raise money. Also, learning how to make decisions very quickly. Again, it’s not a lot of success in that particular endeavor, but tons and tons of learning. I’ll be forever grateful for that.
We sold that company after about six years into a larger player in the space. From there, I wanted to have even more control. I found a cofounder and we founded Growth Acceleration Partners. That was many years ago. I used all of the learning that I had. Nelson Mandela said, “I never lose. I either win or learn.” In that particular endeavor of the venture-backed company, I did a lot of learning. I took all of those lessons and put them to work as we started GAP. We’ve been profitable from the end of the second month and have been growing very steadily ever since.
What I learned was if you want to have a successful company, make sure you know your why. What’s your purpose? What’s your mission? Lead with your values at the forefront of all of your decision-making and never back down. That’s what you have to put out in front. For me, that’s worked incredibly well for many years now.
You went from a big company where you had all the resources at your fingertips and you had hundreds of people working for you and all the balance sheet of this big company. You went to venture-backed when you had to raise the money and figure everything out. You’re doing your own company where you don’t even have people giving you money, so you have to generate that as well. That’s ultimate control and ultimate at the same time.
You have grown the company to 600 people in a professional service business, which is huge and it’s very challenging. We discussed this, and you have generated a nearly unprecedented 40% growth rate. Normally, I don’t see more than 20% year-on-year growth in the professional service environment because you have to bring all those people on. You have to inculcate them in your culture, and you doubled that. How is this even possible, and in the context of the two things that you mentioned that you do every day, is this something that helps you get there?
I do a couple of things every day and it’s the foundation of the whole company as to why we started it and how we live our life. To some people, when I tell them, “Here’s what I do every day.” They’re like, “As a CEO of this fast-growing company, that’s what you’re going to make sure you do every day.” I’m like, “Yeah.” The first thing that I do every single day is 100% of our employee is on Slack. I randomly pick one.
Someone not on the executive team, someone not in leadership. I call them. I ask him, “Tell me how it is working in GAP now. What are you finding that you enjoy and that you love? What are you finding frustrating? Give me at least one idea of something that I can do or the company can do better to make this an even better experience such that you want to spend your entire career here.”
The person on the other line is always surprised and sometimes a little nervous that the CEO is calling them out of the blue, but once they start talking, they’re a wealth of information. I do that because we founded this company based on these two principles. We want to have, first and foremost, employees for life. These are smart and talented engineers. They can work anywhere. In fact, many of them get 2 or 3 job offers every single week.
If they’re going to stay working here at GAP, that’s on me. That’s on the company. Are we creating an environment where they can learn, thrive, grow, feel challenged, and enjoy working with their teammates? That’s what I’m asked every day. I need to talk to at least one real person doing actual real work in the company and say, “Tell me about your experience.” That’s the first thing.
The other half of that coin is I feel the same way about customers. We want to have customers for life, which means that’s not only about technical stuff or about pricing. It’s not only about any of that. It means you have to know what success means for that individual person. That VP of engineering person, that CIO, CTO, application manager, whoever that is, they have a family. They have stress. They have a lot of other things going on. How can I help make them more successful? How can we help them participate in some of the learnings and best practices that we get from other customers?
We take that as a personal challenge to say, “I’m building that relationship for life,” whether they stay with us for 7 years or 70 or however long that is, I want that person to know we cared about them and we did all that we could to make sure they understood that we view their business as important as ours. Those two things, employees for life and customers for life, I try to every single day do something that makes sure I’m keeping that as my mindset. If we get everybody to do that, then magic happens here.
As you were explaining this, several years ago, I remember that one of the Korean car companies. I think it was Hyundai. They set up shop in a city near me. I read an article about how they operate and they have this principle of the zero defect principle. It’s not Six Sigma. It’s absolutely zero. The article explained that the idea is that when you get to this point of precision and quality is that your cost goes down because you are not working on anything. You’re retreading your past. You’re fixing everything.
You have a perfect product and are very consistent. You can improve the quality. As you were explaining, the employees for life and the customer for life, essentially what you’re doing is if when you keep employees for life, you don’t have to churn people. You have to replace and train other people and deal with the moral issues that the departure score.
On the same hand, you’re not losing customers. You don’t have to replenish your customers and you don’t have to prove yourself again. You’re keeping all your employees and your customers. You’re creating tremendous consistency in the business, which allows you to grow much faster than other businesses that have t redo half the stuff they’re doing every year.
I would say as part of that, on both sides of that equation, we find it’s important to continually almost daily reiterate the why. We keep ensuring that the employees understand why their work is so important, how that will make the customer successful, and how that will help them grow in their careers. All of these activities and the same on the customer side. When we have employees out, we’re going to take them out for a day because they’re going to a technical or leadership workshop.It's important to continually reiterate the why. Make sure the employees understand why the work they do is so important, how that will make the customer successful, and how that will help them grow in their careers. Click To Tweet
We go back and explain to the customers again, “We’re investing in developing these people so that they’re even stronger for you.” I think a lot of companies sometimes fall short of this. They tell everybody what they need to do, but they don’t spend enough time telling them why and how they’re so important, the employees and customers in this overall picture of building stronger things to make the world better. I want to make sure everyone that we’re working with questions, “Joyce, I don’t know why I’m doing this. Let’s stop. Let’s make sure we talk about that until we’re both comfortable,” and that has helped.
This is a tremendous opportunity that most companies don’t take advantage of because when you create alignment around the why, you give people this spiritual inspiration to connect with the values and mission of the company. They then bring not only their hours and their mental resources, but they will also bring their emotional, enthusiasm, and creativity to the company. That’s a tremendous opportunity for businesses that they don’t take advantage of in most cases. Staying with the culture, can you describe the culture of GAP and what it takes to be considered a true GAPster?
Let me tell you a very quick story about how we discovered our values. I say discover because you can’t have a bunch of executives sitting around a table and go, “These sound nice. I’m going to put these words on a chart and make a bunch of posters. I will put them around the company.” That doesn’t do anything. You can only discover your values because your values are whatever they are. It’s what you bring to work every day.
We went through an exercise. We read this in a book that we follow called Traction by Gino Wickman. I the example that he gave, which I loved. We took some of our favorite people from across the company, ten different people. We printed their pictures and put them on the whiteboard and we had a group of about twenty-plus people and said, “We want you to go to each person’s picture and write down one word or attribute that you find of that person. It might be integrity, hard work, or whatever it was.”
We did that across all these pictures and then we circled all of the words that appeared over and over again. We go, “Those are our values. You’ve already said it. They’re already in all our people and they’re consistent.” For us, it basically equated to striving for greatness and being agile in everything we do. Not only in software development but agile in the way that we embrace change, collaborate as a team, and share leadership being agile.
The third one, the most important one for me, is always investing in people. I would say we were a little bit clever in that we made sure, David that they spelled out GAP. Maybe unlike some other companies you have worked with or for, I can promise you all 600 GAPsters tell you exactly what the values are because they’re Greatness, Agility, and People. Also, the team carries that into every fiber of our being. It’s in every decision we make in hiring and recognizing and rewarding.
If there’s a performance issue, it’s almost always on values, not on technical capability. Everyone that comes in, the GAPster team evaluates, “Does this person have the values?” If they don’t have the values, they won’t make it into the company. They then use that to say, “Are we working not just with GAPsters with our values? In all of our interactions with our customers, are we being true to our values? Are we helping our customers participate with us in those?
The third area is whether are we raising up and improving people in the communities where we live and work by doing that. We have an organization called GAP Gives, which is focused on involving GAPsters and donating time, money, and expertise to our communities’ projects to strengthen them. Again, that ties back to our purpose and it makes employees excited to be part of this because they know that we’re not only about making money. We’re about people being more important than profits. We demonstrate that on a daily basis.
You allow them to feel good about their job. They are part of a mission that they care about. They have values that they share. It’s super powerful when you can reduce, you synthesize down your core values to three so people can remember. The acronym that matches the company’s acronym, then it’s even better. You talked about agility and it sounds like it’s so important for you. You have a big company. You have 600 people. How do you stay agile?
That’s the biggest challenge for most large companies. How do you stay agile, entrepreneurial, and nimble with a large size and not get bureaucratic? If you can embed it into the culture, that can be very powerful. We talked about the culture, but I was also intrigued by the diversity you built in this company. You travel to a number of countries across the Americas. It’s basically a near-sourcing company. When did you discover the power of diversity and how does it help the company succeed and why?
I’m a little bit embarrassed to say this. I didn’t discover the power of diversity when I was working in a big company in the software land. People know. There are just not enough women-led tech companies. There are not enough minority-led tech companies, but with women specifically, we’re still a very small percentage. I never actually thought anything about that until we started to run a large number of projects for big clients at GAP.
Early on, somebody asked us, “How do you get all those women in engineering leadership?” About 60% of our engineering leadership is female. In all honesty, Steve, I’m like, “We didn’t say no to the people that were the right person for that job.” That’s all I could come up with, but I started to like, “I need to study this. This was years ago.” What I found was, which is there are tons of research studies on this.
Once you and not only women, people of different cultures, and people of different ages, it’s diversity on any level. Once you start to have more than one and get to three women in leadership, other women start to believe that’s possible. Once you start to have positions of leadership in different countries, not all the leadership positions in the US, then people believe that’s possible.
What we did is, “Let’s remove the barriers and get enough people in leadership positions so that we have a diverse team.” What you’re going to find is more people won’t come work for you. More people say, “Raise their hand. I want to go be in a leadership position because they go, ‘I’m not the only one.’” You could be successful in this company. I would say that’s been our secret to success is encouraging people because here’s what I hear all the time.
I hear this from other tech companies. There are no women raising their hands, saying they want to be in a leadership position. I’m like, “Go ask them. Tell them you support them and you want them to raise their hand.” We do this with people that are younger in their careers. Again, men and women, or people that live in countries that aren’t in the US, like Costa Rica, Colombia, and Peru. I think we have people in seventeen different countries now and we’re like, “We would like you to consider this leadership position. If you don’t like it, try something else. We believe in employees for life.”
That has helped broaden the pool that is brave enough for maybe the first time in their life to raise their hand and say, “I want to be considered.” The outcome of that is the beautiful thing because the outcome is if you build a more diverse team, the increased volume of ideas and perspectives will blow you away.If you build a more diverse team, the increased volume of ideas and perspectives will blow you away. Click To Tweet
We know without a doubt that the solutions and recommendations we make to our clients on the solutions we build with them are way stronger than they would be if we had one homogeneous like-minded group of engineers on that team. We lean into that and we try to help all of our customers understand the power of diversity means better products being designed.
Now, many of our customers come to us. It’s been interesting. We have a few customers come to us and say, “We want to enter diverse team members for the team GAPs building. We want to enter diverse team members first.” It’s because they want to make sure that now they have a diverse team as possible building their solutions. I’m hoping that becomes viral and goes everywhere. In all product design, you should have a diverse team because if you’re going to have diverse people using it, it would be good if you had diverse people designing it.
There is a lot to unpack there. What struck me the way you explained this is that essentially, you build diversity in a meritocratic way rather than in an affirmative way, making it authentic. It’s because what happens is when people put people there because, “That person is of color. We have to put them up there whether they are capable or not to show that we are diverse.”
They put people out because they say this is not meritocratic and would backfire even. When you open the floodgate and you encourage people, you allow them to rise and essentially, you open up your talent pool for the opportunity and then you have a much bigger flow of people into these positions, which is fascinating.
I think what’s hard for leaders to understand, especially if you’re old school, which again I am. I think in leadership, we used to believe that the most talented and best people would be the ones raising their hands and asking for a promotion. That is absolutely not the case. It’s not that the people raising their hands aren’t talented and should get promoted. That’s not it, but there’s a large number of people who are as talented and capable and may even succeed more that aren’t raising their hands because they don’t believe that they’re going to be considered.
That’s the part where I say, “We have to make sure they know we want you to put your hand up.” Everybody goes through the process and we choose the right person and then it’s fantastic, but there are a lot of people that aren’t going to go, especially if you understand cultures in Latin America. There are a number of cultures that do not believe in what we in the US would say is bragging or being boastful or stating your opinions.
There are a lot of cultures that are like, “No. That’s not appropriate. I can’t do that.” Those are the ones that you got to go, “No. We want you to raise your hand. We don’t call that bragging. We want you to raise your hand because we think you’re going to be good at this.” You can’t view the world through our own culture’s lens. You have to start to put yourself in the other cultures and understand how they operate if you’re going to make your company as successful as possible.
I come from a culture where this was also the case, that pushing yourself forward is not appropriate. You have to wait for your opportunity or wait for someone to discover you. It may never happen because people don’t see you if you don’t show yourself. Maybe it’s connected to this topic. What do you consider is the secret of high-quality execution in this very mixed field of software outsourcing? You’ve got some great companies but a lot of mediocre companies. What do you see as the secret of execution here?
I think culture and values play a large part in that. If you buy into the culture, you buy into striving for greatness, first of all, but also investing in people. Part of being agile is you believe in the collective and the team’s success. You’re willing to sacrifice. If you and I are working on a team together, if you’ve got the highest priority tasks on this particular team, I’ll set mine aside and come help you because, as a team, we understand that team goals are most important.
Across our team, it’s been that and everyone wants to push for team success and the team means the client. We understand why people call us this, but internally, we never use the words outsourcing because we don’t believe anything’s been thrown over the fence to us. We believe we are part of customer success. We are teaming up with them. We are partnering with them. We’re a hybrid part of their organization and it’s that belief every day that if we fail, the customer fails and we cannot allow that to happen.
We will do everything we can to make sure that our customers are successful. That makes us successful and that’s been the difference. We don’t view client success as a task or something we do, so we can invoice people. We view it as, “They are relying on us or their business fails.” It’s not quite that dramatic, but that’s emotionally how we internalize it.
You’ll see teams rushing to the client saying, “We have these ideas. We can improve the process. We could move this work to this person because we have to get it.” It’s always we. “We have to get this released on time in order for us to make the revenue that you promised the board. Here’s what we have to do. That separates us from a large number of people that are viewed as work or hands-on keyboards. That’s not the way that we view things.
As the saying goes, “They don’t care what you know until they know that you care.” I’m wondering. By caring for your people, making those calls, how are you doing, and what can we do better for your employees, you foster this culture of them caring about the customer. Essentially, it comes full circle and the customers feel cared for and then they don’t see you as an outsourced resource. They see you as part of the team, making you very sticky with the organization.
I have a quick story on that. I was in Colombia. I spent at least a week every month in a Latin American country somewhere. We had a little all-hands gathering and there was a young man. He was probably late 30s who stood up and said, “Joyce, I want to tell you this story. We had rolled out special bonuses for all the employees in this country because their inflation was going through the roof and we didn’t want them to fill the financial plan of their inflation. We are giving him monthly bonuses to equalize like there was inflation.
He said, “Because of this job, my family has a family restaurant and I wouldn’t be able to have that without GAP.” I’m like, “I don’t completely understand.” He goes, “This bonus that you guys have given out has saved my family and my family’s business. I went to my mother, who day to day runs the family restaurant, and I told my mother, ‘We have to do this bonus for all of our employees.’” My mother said, “Absolutely not. Are you crazy? What are you thinking? No. We can’t do that. That’s too risky.”
He’s like, “No. These are the values that we’re going to live by. We’re going to do that for our employees and then we’re going to help them make it through this tough time. By this time, tears were coming down my eyes, but tears were coming down his face as well. He said, “We have to spread these values. This can make a difference in the lives of people.” That’s why I come to work every day. We’re going to build some amazing software and unbelievable. It’s going to do great things for the world, but being able to impact people’s lives on a one-on-one basis, that’s what your legacy is.
That is awesome that you can do that. We are over our normal time, but we’re going to run a little bit long here because I want to ask you one more question which is about this whole idea of remote working. You are all over the Americas. Surely, you cannot have everyone in your office or at least the different offices. This whole post-pandemic environment changes the concept of the in-person remote. I had a call with an entrepreneur who only has remote employees and doesn’t even have meetings. They communicate in writing. People take different approaches. What is your take on this whole remote transition and what are the risks of it?
I have a strong point of view on this, Steve. Prior to the pandemic in certain countries in Latin America, traffic is unbelievably bad, think New York City bad. You can only drive your car on certain days of the week. We have always had 2 to 3 days in the office for all employees and 2 to 3 days working from home. The working from home thing is never a question about, “Do we think our employees are productive from home?” Absolutely, they are. That’s not the thing.
I believe that if we allow people to work 100% remotely and never interact with their teammates, first of all, that’s a contract employee. That is not, in my view, a real employee. They’re somebody you pay to do some work. It’s hard to maintain your culture in that way. The other thing I focus on, especially in the US, everyone in every news report every day is like, “Remote or virtual learning has killed decades of learning in our students.” What all the articles are about right now, it was horrible to send all these students, whether they were little kids or college-aged kids. It was terrible for learning. We should never do that again. It doesn’t matter if there’s a pandemic. Put kids in a classroom.
I’m like, “Work is a learning environment every day. Just because we get paid for it doesn’t mean it’s still a learning environment to which you need trust, you need to create social bonds, and you have to have an engineering peer-to-peer kind of work. That does not work as well. I’ll debate any tech person. That does not work as well if people are always remote. I am a believer that project teams have to get together in person. It doesn’t have to be every day. It has never needed to be every day, but you have to come together.Working remotely doesn’t always work. Project teams have to get together in person. It doesn't have to be every day, but you have to come together. Click To Tweet
If not, we will have done a huge disservice to Generation Z and those that follow if we do not bring them and teach them the power of working together, at least on an occasional basis. That’s my viewpoint. We have got to get back in the office a little bit, work from home, and be highly productive, but you need both. If you’re going to be mentally healthy and learn as much as you can, I think that’s what we got to do.
You have your role models in the company and you want them to model the behaviors, the work ethic, the thinking, techniques, and approaches so that the people who are coming up see how to do this and then they can, by osmosis soak it up and perpetuate it, right?
Yes and as we do this now, which is not as frequent, but every time people are in the office for an education workshop or the team’s doing a brainstorming session, everyone walks away going, “This is a great day. I loved seeing everyone. I learned a ton.” I’m like, “Yeah, that’s why you occasionally have to go see people face to face.” We got to spread the word that having a bunch of isolated people that don’t know their teammates in a deeper way is not good. It’s not good for people, which is what I worry about most.
There’s some kind of intangible energy that people can project onto each other. On Zoom it’s much harder to transmit. Maybe some percentage of it can be transmitted, but that’s a different experience in person. You can touch people’s lives by being there and bringing your energy to them. That’s been a fascinating conversation, Joyce. Thank you for showing up in a big way on the show. If people would like to learn more about GAP. Maybe they want to be considered to become GAPster. They want to find out what to do or they want to be a client of yours. Where can they find you? Where can they find the company? Where should they go?
First of all, find out about the company and come to our website. I’ll give you the long way and the short way. The long way is www.GrowthAccelerationPartners.com, which is a very long name. The shorter one is www.WeAreGAP.com. That’s a little easier to type. It’s the one I like. For me, Joyce Durst, you can find me on LinkedIn. I’m there. My contact info is there. Please feel free to reach out to me and I’d be as fast as I can at getting back to you, but we would love to hear from you. We’d love to have much more of you come to figure out how to either be an employee or a client. I love to have that conversation.
Do check out Joyce Durst, the Founder and CEO of Growth Acceleration Partners Gap. If you’d like a custom business operating system, check out my website, which is StevePreda.com. There are plenty of resources and free book summaries as well. Thank you for reading and see you next time.