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Exit interview: Vaughan Rowsell steps down as CEO of Vend

Idealog got the story from the man with the moustache.  

Idealog: The news that you’re giving up the CEO position has come as a surprise to many. What’s the reasoning behind the decision?

Rowsell: It’s one of those evolutions of a high-growth tech start-up. The way I describe it is that I’m wearing many different hats and even though we’ve grown over the last six months, from just myself with all the hats, to a couple of hundred people all around the world. There were still a couple of hats that sat firmly on my head and one was the CEO role and other one was being the evangelist, the head of product and the visionary.

When you’re going through astronomical growth like we are, just the weight of the CEO role and the responsibilities. The CEO hat is really a full-time hat and now just felt like it was the right time for us to bring in somebody who’s a little but more of a seasoned CEO, and someone who has a lot more commercial focus, to free me up to focus on the product and the customer value proposition part of things, making sure that what we’re delivering to market is the promise that set six years ago, which was to absolutely transform retail and take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity – this huge seismic shift to the cloud. If you don’t have the right product you’re going to miss it. 

Was it fundamentally a workload decision? A case of you being stretched?

Yeah, it’s just being stretched. As I looked at it, I had two choices. Either I can bring someone new into the business who can take over the product/vision side of things and all the partnerships, or I bring in someone who can be more solid in the commercial side of things and really run the business. And I just felt like I couldn’t delegate out the vision side of things. That definitely sits with me and what I really need in someone who’s got that commercial skill-set. 

So the hunt is on now?

So we’ve got Alex [Fala] who is our FO. He’s been with me for just on a year now and he’s stepping into the role as acting CEO to free myself up to go out and find that global CE that we’re looking for; someone who’s got that been-there-done-that experience; who knows how to grow a business from that $20 million of revenue to over $100 million of revenue, and in quick order. Our aspirations are to do that in the next two to three years, so we want to have someone who has had at least one lap around the track.

Have you got a shortlist of potential candidates?

No. That was another reason for making the announcement. We want to go as far and wide as we can and see who’s out there. It’s going to be a global search. Ideally we want somebody to be based out of Auckland, but we’ll see who we can attract. But yeah, we’re pretty excited, we’re gonna go big and we want to make a lot of noise. We just partnered with Apple, we’ve partnered with Xero and we’ve partnered with PayPal, and we’ve got a few other partnerships we’ll be announcing later this this year. We’re well positioned to be the platform for retail. 

And so who wouldn’t want to come in and steer that? To grow from twenty million to a hundred plus million of revenue? It would be a once in a lifetime opportunity. 

Things have been going well for Vend, especially over the last year. Is there any fear that with this move you risk ‘killing the golden goose’ so to speak?

I see it the other way around. I see it as, instead of having one person who’s trying to do two jobs, we can have two people focusing 200% on the stuff that they’re good at. 

And I suppose the product side of things is where your heart is…

Oh yeah, absolutely. I founded the company, I built the first product and I have very strong vision for what we want to do in retail, which is definitely driven by products. We’ve got an amazing product today, be we’re only really getting started so I just want to make sure we don’t fall behind. We’ve had so many firsts. There are so many things that we’ve pioneered in this company. We were the first on iPad, we were the first cloud-based retail system, and there are a lot more firsts that we want to make sure Vend is associated with. So even though we’re in hyper growth and we want to sell as much product as we can, we also need to make sure that the product itself is getting better and better as well. 

Do the issues you had last year – such as the closing of the German office – have anything to do with this decision?

No, not all. That was over six months ago and that was just business, right? You try some stuff, it doesn’t work, so you pull back, so the focus of the last six months has been making sure we’ve got a really strong business and we’re going as fast as possible, but not too fast, and I guess that was one of the reasons behind my decision to do it now. The business is in great shape. If we want to attract a world-class global CEO, then we need to make sure that everything in the business is looking pretty good. I feel like we’ve done that. We’re in a great position to go out and see who we can find. 

Rowsell has blogged about the decision, reprinted here in full:

The biggest hiring decision I’ve made as the founder at Vend

Vaughan von Vend

“I founded Vend almost 6 years ago, and it’s amazing to look back on what has changed since then. I have grown a bit older and a lot greyer. It’s no longer just me, I have a couple of hundred amazing people around the globe on the team now. We have raised $49m in funding. Partnered with some amazing companies: Apple, Xero, PayPal among many others. Have incredible customers like Jurlique, The Harvard Shop, Kukri and 15,000 more. We have won a heap of awards along the way. We are NZ’s fastest growing tech company. That is pretty cool. Every year has been completely different from the last, you learn a truck load on the job in a fast growth start-up. It is some of the best fun you will ever have while overcoming some huge challenges that scare the crap out of you. You need to be a certain type of person who thrives on this stuff. I think they call it ‘crazy’.”

“Part of the deal of start-up CEO life is the daily trade-offs you have to make with many hats. You start on day one and you have ALL the hats. Then gradually (or rapidly) as you grow your business, you find more talented people who fit each hat better. A marketeer to market like a boss. You hire a head of sales and she runs revenue like you never could. Someone to run development and ship awesomeness like never before. A CFO to make the numbers work and so you don’t run out of cash. And so on and so on, until you have a bunch of people around you who are all smarter than you. I often describe myself as the dumbest person in the room when I am with my executive team.”

“As a company grows fast, things change. Over time the hats also get bigger, and you need different wisdom in the heads that fill them. As a hypothetical example you find that perfect CFO in the early days, and she is amazing at being a CFO of a 50 person company, but now you need to grow to 300 people and to IPO. You start enterprise sales so need enterprise experience with knowledge of global markets. Suddenly you have 3 support offices around the globe covering 4 languages which is different to a small support team all based in your home town. As your company rapidly grows, everything changes constantly, and the skills you need also change. People not only specialise in different roles but different stages of company development too. They do their tour doing what they love to do best. Everything grows bigger and one day the time is right. Their job is done and they hand back in their hat because, well, it doesn’t fit right anymore.”

“I’ve always admired people who know when their hat has grown and they acknowledge they no longer fit it.”

“At Vend I have continued to shuffle a few hats I passionately care about. The CEO hat, the founder hat, and product visionary hat but the CEO has to consider everyone’s hat fit, even their own. I realised I don’t have enough time to keep wearing all these hats, and so I should hand one on to someone else. I realised my tour with the CEO hat is done and I want to focus on the vision of the product. Both are fucking huge hats. But being CEO of a 200 odd person company growing fast has kept me away from the product vision, which is honestly what I love and why I started Vend.”

“Starting today I am looking for an experienced, commercially-focused Global CEO who has been-there-done-that with a company that has already gone from $20m to $100M in revenue. She or he knows the challenges that come next and can help me and the team overcome them without slowing down. I will focus on the product vision, evangelising the big changes in retail to come and making sure Vend is leading the industry with innovation. I will also still be on the board alongside Barry, Dave and Sam who are all excited about this evolution, as are our major investors. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to transform the retail industry.”

“I am super lucky to be able to make this change now. Alex Fala has been one of my trusted right hand people here at Vend heading Strategy and Finance. He has seen a thing or two at McKinsey, Les Mills and TradeMe in similar roles and I’m thrilled that he has taken me up on the offer to step in as acting CEO while I find a new Global CE.”

“There is a perfect head out there to fit the Global CEO hat. We want to find them. Someone who has experience in software or SaaS, growing it big globally. They need to be the unique fit for our culture of going hard because we don’t want to go home. They should email me at [email protected] and then we can chat over coffee.”

“I love the saying?—?‘Change is a constant’. Change is growth. Change is good. Saying it is one thing, but actually doing it is really something else :)”

“So we are 6 years in and we have done so much and the next 6 will be even more epic because of what we have already built and our ability to keep changing. It’s time to level up and continue to kick ass. Want to help? Inquire within.”

Rowsell’s post was originally published on 8degrees.

Jonathan has been a writer longer than he cares to remember. Specialising in technology, the arts, and the grand meaning of it all, in his spare time he enjoys reading, playing guitars, and adding to an already wildly overstocked t-shirt collection.

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