Chris Williams: One measure of a life well lived is your impact on the lives of others. David Risher has already been there, done that. And he’s working hard to do it again.
David has probably had at least a small impact on your life. And I’d wager this is the first time you’ve heard his name. If you’ve ever purchased something on Amazon, that wasn’t a book, you’ve experienced the result of David’s leadership.
As an avid reader and Comparative Literature major, David was drawn to Earth’s Biggest Bookstore. He joined Amazon when there were about 35 employees. His task was, ironically, to help in selling everything other than books. His leadership laid the foundation for Amazon to become the world’s largest e-commerce company. His impact was so great. His is the only easter egg on the site. A personal thank you page. Check the show notes for the link.
But that wasn’t nearly enough. Now David is taking his core passion to the world. As the co founder and CEO of Worldreader, David leads a nonprofit with a breathtaking goal, to enlist a billion readers in the world. Focused on the global south Worldreader is taking e reading technology and a deeply localized library to the world. It’s an amazing effort that has made a powerful impact and less than a decade of work. With so much more to do.
When I asked several leaders who I should interview several said I just had to talk to David. In our conversation We discuss David’s career, his perspective on leadership, and the joys and challenges of leading a nonprofit. And that’s what this is all about.
This is Leading Smart, the show about managing in the brainpower age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace.
I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.
In this episode, I talk with the co-founder of Worldreader. This is Episode 211 my conversation is David Risher.
CW: David Risher was fascinated with books as a child. He got a comparative literature degree from Princeton. His thesis was on Samuel Beckett. Yet he ended up being one of the most notable leaders in the world of online commerce. Like many, his journey into the world of tech followed an interesting path.
After Princeton, David went on to work for a consulting firm. Then on to the Harvard Business School. I asked David how in the world a comp lit major ended up at the nation’s premier business school.
David Risher: You know, There are a couple of decisions I made in my life where, at the time, it looks surprising and maybe random, but I can sort of look back and see the roots of them, you know. So going to business school, that was kind of a funny one, because I didn’t grow up thinking I was going to go to business school. But the job I took out of college was a job at a consulting firm. And truthfully, that was as much about paying back student debt, and learning about the world beyond sort of the world of comparative literature, the business world.
And I just over time, looked around, and just noticed that all the successful people at the firm had all gone to business school. Many of them had gone to Harvard. And Harvard had this amazing sort of characteristic, which was you didn’t actually have to take the GMAT. You know, you could apply just with your recommendations and your essays and so forth. And so my thought was, well, if I get into Harvard, that’s easy. I’ll go to Harvard. Then if I don’t, I’ll go take the GMAT. I’ll figure that kind of applied to some other places, but it really was sort of just put one foot in front of the others strategy, honestly. It was look at successful people and say that’s what they did. So maybe that’s a good idea for me to.
CW: This is something I see time and again, Harvard and Microsoft and Amazon and many smart companies don’t look for someone with a targeted resume. Harvard wasn’t screening for business undergraduates. Microsoft doesn’t only hire computer science majors. They’re more than willing to accept a comp lit major. They’re looking for smart people with a passion for learning and doing. Yet, that begs the question, how did David with no technical background, get to Microsoft?
DR: So when I was a kid, I was growing up in a single mom household. She, after she and my father split, decided that in order to create a small business, she had to buy a computer. It was just to sort of manage this business that she wanted to create and so she bought him Apple II+. And that was one of those things. she of course was thinking about it for herself, but of course was sitting there 24 hours a day. So when she wasn’t using it, you know, I would get myself out and I play Olympic decathlon you know i’d use what was it called? Screen Writer was that was that was the the word processor I had terrible handwriting as a kid by the way so just using Screen Writer I think bumped up my grades by you know a point or two just because the teachers could finally read it in high school. So I got into computers and like a lot of kids do not particularly social and I certainly wasn’t the kid you were going to pick to be on your sports team first but I got into computers. I literally I was also that kid who went to the Radio Shack and play with the TRS 80 and you know, sort of programmed using BASIC and Basic adventure game and just kind of played around.
So then fast forward, you know, my Microsoft interviews. They said, gosh, you know, how is it that you know, you’re a comparative literature major, how is it that you know something about computers and I said, well just sort of grew up with them. I wrote my thesis on a computer, a big old mainframe thing that Princeton had. So I was just familiar enough with with the, with, with the the technology, but somehow they, they managed to convince themselves that I have this sort of good blend of sort of left brain and right brain and the computer piece was kind of baked in.
I had been a believer that liberal arts education, critical thinking, you know, these are the things that really differentiate the folks because, you know, look, you can see that Google knows all the answers, you know, the answers are all out there somewhere, but it’s a question of who can actually you know, sort of find the signal for the noise and, and, and think critically, without just sort of accepting what’s been done before and so forth. So that’s, that’s always been, you know, a little bit how I kind of presented myself when I joined this consulting firm and they said, you know, what’s a comp lit major, doing applying a consulting firm, to present myself with Microsoft, and it’s because I actually believe it
CW: Yet many leaders, David included, face the challenge of leading deeply technical teams without the specific domain knowledge. At Microsoft, he led the Access team, a product that took the complex world of database systems to the masses. And at Amazon, the technical challenges were immense. Do you need to be technical to manage a technical project?
DR: It’s a great question. And I think the answer is, you don’t need the technical skills, per se. But you do need an engineer’s mindset, a problem solving mindset, a way to take complicated things and break them down into into segments and look at each piece, understand where the bottlenecks are, for example. And I think you need that because twofold. One, it just, you know, it’s very difficult to be comfortable in a technology world without a little bit of that mindset, you’re just going to bump into a lot of other people who share that mindset. And if you don’t have it, they’re gonna look at you like you’re an alien.
But the second is the problems that technology companies try to solve. do tend to be large and amorphous, confusing, and so forth. And so if you can’t break them down into segments, you might find yourself sort of stymied right from the beginning. So I do think that’s right.
I, you know, there was when I worked at the consulting firm is called the LEK partnership, I was given a project to try to figure out which product lines were profitable and which were not profitable at a consumer electronics company. And a colleague of mine who’s more experienced said, you know, what, we need to use a database for this, because we need to collect a lot of information, literally price, sort of, price volume information. And so they suggest a database, then we use FoxPro, funnily enough, and as I mentioned, that became a FoxBase Plus user as a result of that. So again, you know, the ability to use those tools, of course, is going to make you more credible in the technology space. But I actually don’t think that’s the necessary I think the necessary part is a curiosity and willingness to sort of be involved in that space, and then kind of a mindset that allows you to, to work in space effectively.
CW: David joined Microsoft out of business school. He started as an intern and before long became the leader of the project that would become Access.
DR: So I was recruited out of business. You know, Microsoft, I think fairly famous, they actually had a very well structured intern program. So between my first and second year of business school, I explored Microsoft as an intern. Explored meaning simply explore the Pacific Northwest, I’d really never been off the east coast, I didn’t really know anything about the rest of the country. So So I came out to Microsoft because as I said, I sort of loved computers as a kid and my recruiter of the person recruiting we said, you know, somehow, even as a comp lit major, even as a business school guy, somehow I think you’re gonna you’re gonna fit pretty well here. I joined the Access team as an intern at the time it was called Cirrus, just a codename. And, and it was actually going through a big reboot, if there had been a prior project called Omega which had sort of been a big failure actually, and so Cirrus was was rising out of the ashes, you know, trying to figure out, can we create a desktop database, a Windows desktop database? out of this sort of ash he called Sarah. So I came in as a product management intern, I rejoined the company a year later, full time again, in what was still called that this Cirrus group that later became access as just a junior Product Manager.
CW: I see. I see. So do you remember the first time you ever ended up having to lead people, to be a manager of people?
DR: You know, it’s so funny. So, you mentioned that you would ask me this question. And I thought a bit about it. And first, what I thought of, of course, was sort of the quantitative side, you know, when did I start to get direct reports? You know, I had an intern myself, you know, someone I was managing, and then a couple of other people on my teams from undergraduates. And then at a certain point, I was asked to be the Access 95 team lead, which all of a sudden went from, you know, five direct reports to, I don’t know, maybe a team of a couple hundred. And so my temptation was to sort of talk about that and so forth.
But when I really thought about it, I actually remembered a very specific meeting, when I was still I maybe had two direct reports, I had a boss who was very powerful person, a woman with a very, very strong personality. And she sort of wasn’t afraid to show that it was kind of part of her, you almost might say brand, she was up, she was a strong, strong person who’s going to be very direct with people. And truthfully, she could be a little bit nasty sometimes. But again, she sort of knew that about herself. But it was something that I think she were a little bit with a sort of badge of pride. So we’re in a meeting. And I have one of my direct reports a young woman was in that meeting with with my boss are the three of us and probably some other people as well. And I don’t remember the subject of the meeting, you know, some marketing meeting around around Access, but my direct report said something, which probably wasn’t the cleverest thing to say, and remember what my boss looked at her and said, “that was stupid.” She probably said something much harsher than that, but that was that that was it. And she was was quite a harsh thing to say right in the middle of the meeting with a bunch of people. That was a stupid idea.
And I turned to my boss and said, Please don’t talk to her that way. Please don’t talk to her that way. And that’s all I said. And the room got very quiet, because people didn’t talk back to my boss. And then we all kind of like stood up, you know, kind of adjusted ourselves and kind of moved on.
When I look back at that, and I think of that interaction, and of course, I ended up talking to my boss about it. She called me at her office, and she said, You know, I actually appreciate your saying that it was inappropriate. I was I was off base on that. And so thanks for calling me out on it. Let’s figure out how we can sort of deal with problems like that in the future. That’s actually I think, when I first really felt like a leader.
CW: I wish I could tell you I haven’t heard those stories before. They’re just so many interactions that people had in which at that time, Microsoft was had a lot of, how shall we say it sharp elbows, right there was a lot of that’s the stupidest effing thing I’ve ever heard and all that stuff that was going on.
DR: Yeah. When you organizations reflect their leaders to a certain extent, and Microsoft had a very sort of famously aggressive leader in Bill, you know, he called me the stupidest guy he ever met as well. So that’s, uh, that was sort of a thing. I don’t want to say some people can pull it off. I don’t think that’s exactly right. But I do think, you know, when you are the CEO of a company, maybe you get a little latitude, maybe that was sort of his shtick. But then as you sort of filter it down, people start to kind of parrot sort of that aggro thing. It just wasn’t helpful, just wasn’t helpful. And my boss was great, but you know, but she was no Bill Gates either.
CW: David did very well at Microsoft. He moved in just a couple of years to leading a major project and hundreds of people. He was clearly a rising star. And he was asked by Bill Gates to stay at Microsoft. So I wondered if he left Microsoft or did he go to Amazon?
DR: That’s a great way to frame it. I went to Amazon 100%, 100% I had no interest in leaving Microsoft. I thought Microsoft was the greatest place in the world. It was sort of where I learned a lot, you know, again, I I’ve worked at a consulting firm, I’ve been to business school, but that was small potatoes, compared to, to being at one of the most sort of interesting companies, you know, of the of the of the 90 So, no, I so I, I, I went to Amazon, really, because it was a bookstore and I was a book guy as a kid. And I was a technologist, sort of by training Microsoft, let’s say, these two things coming together, you know, plus, add the internet plus add Jeff Bezos equals How could I not?
CW: So you go to Amazon and nearly the first thing Jeff says is I want you to do everything except books.
DR: That’s right. That’s right.
CW: How did that happen?
DR: Well, yeah, you know, so Jeff, of course, had a pretty expansive vision of what Amazon could be from the earliest days. And he knew that in order to support the economics of building out all of these, what we call the time warehouses, now distribution centers, but at the time warehouses in order to support all of that infrastructure, plus the technical infrastructure, of course of the company. He couldn’t balance all that on top of just a bookstore.
As wonderful as books are and as wide sort of just as important a business as it was to the company. it simply wasn’t big enough to support all of the infrastructure requirements. So there just wasn’t a big enough market there. So so we right from the first and really this was part of his recruiting pitch to me is yes, of course, I do want you to run that bookstore. In fact, we expanded into out of print books and some other things right as I started, and that was, so we made good on his promise there, I thought I really need you to do is start a music store. And then we’ll need to start a video store. And then we’ll need to do some other things. Because if we don’t do that, we’re going to find ourselves in this very difficult position of having built out a lot of infrastructure, which is required just to be a good book seller, but not having a volume going through that that machine. And we’re going to tank.
CW: Amazon didn’t hire a lot of Microsoft employees. And one of the reasons they didn’t hire a lot of Microsoft employees was something we talked about a little earlier, which was, you know, the Microsoft employees tended to be sort of rough and tumble, take no prisoners kinds of people. And I’ve talked to a couple of recruiters and whatnot at Amazon who’ve said that that is sort of a cautionary note. Did you find the cultures dramatically different between the two companies?
DR: Yes and No, I mean, both of them, of course, were based on technology, and that’s a pretty strong kind of culture, you know, in itself. And in a sense, Amazon maybe had a bit of a stronger tech culture when I joined because it was such a small company, there were only about 35 professional employees, and most of them were engineers. So, so in that sense, of course, they were similar.
In another sense, though, they were quite different. And I do think part of it comes back to the sort of signals that leadership sent, you know, Bill, not only does he sort of have this kind of aggressive thing, because Jeff’s aggressive too, but Bill has a certain sensibility to him that he sort of famous for, but he was also very, very competitor focused. And, and, you know, people sort of know this, but but when you really look at how Microsoft was set up, and I would add Steve to this mix, as well, you kind of have to the two of them, really were kind of huge cultural bearers. You know, they were very motivated by, you know, a can we do better than the competition can we do better than the competition And I think that that’s not just a temperament thing was a strategy thing. You know, in the, the world of packaged software, once you get to 60, or 70% market share, the game is over, you know, you get to 100% market share effectively. And that’s the that’s the story of Word, of Excel, of you know, all these products. So, so it’s a, you know, pretty well understood phenomenon.
In the internet world, that’s not really the case. Of course, there are economies of scale and so forth. But really, the customer at the end of the day does have a lot of choices. And they really can wake up tomorrow and say, You know what, I’m gonna stop I’m gonna I’m gonna shop at Walmart today instead of Amazon. And the friction of doing so is really quite small or Barnes and Noble at the time of course, who we were very worried about so. So the ethos of Amazon and again, this sounds maybe a little trite because we’ve all heard interviews with Jeff Bezos talking about the importance of customer centricity. But there was an authenticity of that right from the beginning. This company must be built to be an amazing and exceptional customer experience, because if it is not, we will have no business our customers was simply just click on a different website tomorrow. That trickled down through the organization. Now, then when you add, I think, exactly as you’re saying, Chris, a bit of a sense from Amazon of Microsoft has a certain culture, and they have sort of a certain thing going on. And so we want to be our own thing. So we don’t just want to recreate that you’ll hire a bunch of people for that and kind of recreate that we want to build our own thing. I think that also, I don’t want to say exaggerated the differences, but it did allow the differences to flourish. Because it was it was a bit of a deliberate strategy, as you say.
CW: One element of Amazon’s culture that is often cited is their passion for reading and writing. There’s a strong bias against slide presentations and a love for the four to six page white paper. Most internal discussions are had via that mechanism. Meetings often begin with someone presenting such a document, the room pausing to read it, and only then discussion ensues. I wondered if that was a culture that David, such an avid reader, had a part in establishing?
DR: No, that developed after I left. But I will tell you that the seeds of that were were were planted right at the beginning. And I’ll give you a very specific example, when Jeff Bezos and I started talking about my joining the company. He said, you know, send me a resume. And I said, well don’t have a resume. I’ve been working in Microsoft for the last five years, but I guess I could create one. He said, you know, what? I’ll tell you what, just write me something, write me something. And so I wrote him a piece of email, you know, six or seven paragraphs about myself and about maybe some ideas that I had. And I found out subsequently, after I joined, that, that piece of email turned out to be quite important. Because Jeff said to other people, this guy can write, the guy can write.
So he from the beginning, you know, had this sense that writing was a good way to distinguish between people who were careful thinkers and people who are not. And his big criticism of PowerPoint is it allows you to sort of paper over virtually but paper over inconsistencies and put bullet points together that don’t really make any sense. And you sort of nod your way through them. And you realize, well, that wasn’t really actually really say very much of anything, but somehow it just cost me you know, an hour. Whereas it’s very difficult to do that with a four to six page memo, you just don’t have the same air cover.
CW: Amazon grew an astounding 26,000%, in the five years, David was there. That kind of growth requires or perhaps teaches management flexibility that few people ever experience.
Talk to me about about building leadership at scale.
There are several sort of inflection points that people have as they rise up being a leader. And the first one is obviously when you go from being an individual contributor to being a manager and you have to figure out what my role is. lationship with these people is and can I really go to lunch with them anymore and all those kinds of things that you have to figure out about that.
The next inflection point is when you start being the manager of managers. And you end up realizing that you have to manage by remote control. And so there’s a number of things that change, you have to pay more attention to what the culture of the organization is, because you can’t really control each thing that’s happening several layers down.
At Amazon, you went to building this organization, obviously, it’s scaled very quickly. How did you do that?
DR: Well, so in a way, I was lucky. And that is, it did grow very quickly. It grew quickly in part because the problem space we were trying to address was so large and itself was was was growing, right, internet commerce was growing very quickly, in part because of Amazon apart because just the Internet, and so and so, some of that, that growth in and of itself, I was on a sort of just holding off. I mean, let’s just be honest, I was just holding on for dear life trying to say, like, how can I, you know, hold on to this, this this wave is it so that it doesn’t, you know, it doesn’t crush me.
The thing you’re talking about this sort of multi level piece. That’s a big deal. You’re and you’re absolutely right, when you no longer feel like you know, all the people in the organization when the people in the organization report to people in the organization who report to you. And you have to be very careful then, right? Because then you have to sort of walk this funny line of at, on the one hand, I want to know sort of what everyone is doing kind of sore, right? Like, because I sort of, you know, detail guy and details matter and “retail is detail” is one of the things that sometimes I would say at Amazon, so I kind of want to do that. At the same time. I can’t, let’s be honest, and be if I try to do that, I will spend so much of my time distracted by small issues. There’s no way I’m going to have the capacity to focus on the biggest things.
And so for me, probably the biggest training I had to go through at that stage, the stage you’re referring to, is really focusing on my direct reports and letting them focus on their trip reports. It sounds so obvious, but not thinking of myself as managing 600 people thinking of myself as managing six people and really try to do a great job with them. And then letting them kind of do their job and managing their own teams, so forth.
CW: A huge portion of that, obviously, is helping them to understand what it means to be a leader. So do you feel like you’re a good groomer, builder of leaders?
DR: I’ll tell you something. So people told me that I was okay. So people told me that I was and that was a very, you know, nice thing to say kind thing to say everyone likes affirmation.
Some of it I think just had to do with with hiring good people. Just hiring great people that that gets you 80% of the way there. You know, Jim Collins who wrote Good to Great famously talks about having In the right people on the bus and so forth, and that’s true. And in fact, to your earlier point, some of the people that I hired were in fact, people who used to work for me at Microsoft. I brought some people from Microsoft over people that I thought were particularly impressive leaders and people who had really led teams and done great jobs, Christopher Pane being a good example of one of those people. So part of its just having great people.
The grooming part, I will tell you, I don’t know that I really focused on that at the time at the at the Amazon time. I think I just was who I was, truthfully, and and hoped, I guess to the extent I had a strategy, hope that if I was doing a good job leading them that would sort of rub off on them. And by extension, that would work. A lot of the deeper leadership lessons I’ve had to learn have actually been more recent outside of Amazon had been running Worldreader. And the reason for that is because Amazon, of course, it had a lot of other tools. Look a lot of things going for, you know, it had stock. So you so and it was was going up. So people could put up with all sorts of sloppiness. It had a massive rising tide, of course we were helping create that type of the tide was was was also rising around. It had people that had gone through this recruiting process that was sort of brutal, in its intensity, but by the time you got through it, those people are pretty great.
You go to a nonprofit, and I know I’m skipping here, but you don’t have a lot of the same tools. And so really a lot of the, I’d say sort of more advanced leaders, the lessons that I’ve had to learn have come more recently and an Amazon to a certain extent, even though people told me I was doing a good job grooming them and so forth. I honestly I thought a lot of it was just I hired some pretty great people, we had some pretty great problems to work on. And I probably exhibited some behaviors that were pretty positive myself that other people could sort of copy and modify for themselves and that I don’t want to say it took care of itself, but that probably accounts for for the majority of the way I was leading at the time.
CW: David helped Amazon grow from a $16 million business to over $4 billion. The company had finally turned a profit. But he never fancied himself as a businessman and hadn’t yet done what he thought he’d always do. As a kid, he always thought he’d be a university professor. So once again over Jeff Bezos, his objections, he left Amazon to teach.
He taught Business at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, including a course called “Doing business on the internet”, for which he was obviously well qualified. He was named Teacher of the Year. Still, after a few years, he and his wife had some wander lost a need to move on to the next big thing.
DR: When I was teaching, my wife and I at the same time sat down and said, you know, and my wife and I met at Microsoft, by the way, so so she too has that same sort of same mindset of kind of a planners mindset and thinking a couple steps ahead and so forth. So we said, gosh, you know, we we’ve come up with these plans for business units that are sort of multi-year plans that why don’t we come up with a multi-year plan for our family. And that plan, the thing that bubbled to the top of the list is let’s move overseas for at least a couple of years, at least for a year with our with our two daughters.
So we did that. While I was teaching, she was sort of doing some exploring, and then we took some exploratory trips, we we settled on Barcelona, so we moved to Barcelona for what we thought was going to be one year, that turned two years, three years, four years, you know, life happened. And I got on the board over there. I did some teaching in business school in Barcelona, and so on and so forth.
Then at year five, we said, okay, here’s time for the next crazy plan. Let’s spend a year traveling around the world. And so we did that. We did that with our daughters, we were their teachers. But we also had a second objective, which was, let’s sort of figure out what the next chapter looks like you know we’ve been in Barcelona for a while we’ve been learning Spanish, I learned some Catalan, I learned some guitar, we did the things that they’re amazing, amazing, but but they weren’t gonna be long term sort of life things they were sort of short term things.
So so what’s the next big chapter and and I had gotten very interested in in certain ideas around behavior change and maybe using what I learned in for profits in kind of a nonprofit context I didn’t really know but my mind was just sort of open to this. So fast forward to the end of the trip, 19 countries into it. We were at an orphanage in Guayaquil, Ecuador. I am standing at the edge of the orphanage as we’re walking out at the end of the day, and I am looking at a building with a big padlock on it. And I asked a woman who ran the orphanage, why is there a padlock on that building and what’s going on inside? And she said, Well, you know what, David, that’s our library. And I said go on. And she said, here’s the problem? books come but they come by boat. They take a long time to get here. By the time they get here. They’re out of date or they’re somebody else’s trash books they didn’t want in the first place. And so as a result, we’ve we’ve locked the place up. Because the girls, there’s a woman’s orphanage, the young woman’s orphans, the girls, young women are not interested in going there. And so I said, Well, that doesn’t sound very good. Can we take a look inside because again, remember, I was a library kid, I like these places. And she said, You know what? I think I’ve lost the key to that place.
And when she said that, and I looked over at my two daughters, each of whom, by the way, had a Kindle, because we’ve been reading as we traveled around the world. And I thought back at what I done at Amazon, including hiring Steve Kessel who went on to run Kindle, and I thought of the resources that we had as a family and all the skills that I developed over my Microsoft and Amazon times. And then it was about reading. I said, This is crazy. Come on, we got to do something about this. Let’s start it and start something that will help more kids read using digital technology. So that was the origin of Worldreader.
CW: Having experience in taking on enormous projects certainly helped David in setting the vision for Worldreader. I asked him to tell me about that vision, and why he thinks literacy is so important.
DR: Our goal is to get a billion people reading. And the reason for it is that reading is foundational to any human development indicator that you want to look at. There are no wealthy countries that are low literacy countries. And conversely, when you look at high literacy countries like Norway or Sweden, or Denmark or even the United States, you see very high literacy. Number one, number two health indicators are correlated with reading. You cannot be a healthy person if you’re not a reader, basically, in fact, a child born to a literate mother has a 50% greater chance of living past the age of five than a child born to an illiterate mother. So readings are correlated with health. It’s correlated with safety. Here’s a crazy statistic. There are companies that build prisons in the United States This is and when they build a prison, they decide when they’re looking at the size of the footprint. Another thing, they say, what’s the literacy rate and the community, the lower the literacy rate, the bigger the prison, so, and it’s and it’s an indicator of overall human development, just self actualization, and so far, so.
So reading aside from having personal passion about it, as I mentioned a couple times now, it turns out to be very important for kind of a healthy, vibrant society. And if we want people to solve, you know, the the problems of tomorrow, you know, that the next versions of climate change, or perhaps that will still be a problem tomorrow, the next versions of, you know, how do you send people to Mars, or maybe, you know, outside of our solar system, you know, those are going to be today’s readers. So, it’s both a personal passion of mine and an area where I have some experience building, you know, things.
So that’s, Worldreader, what we want to get billion people reading. We use technology, we use local content. We have 10s of thousands of stories that we’ve digitized from around the world because we’re working, you know, all over the world. We use local support. We have offices now all over the world and on and I could go on But that’s the that’s the basic, the basic idea.
CW: You obviously have, are not shy about tackling enormous goals, right? I mean, the guy who created part of the world’s largest retail store, obviously is not scared at the daunting task of how to get a billion people to read. But to be honest, it just blows me back in my chair, the concept of how you would go about doing that.
So obviously, you eat that elephant one bite at a time, but how do you? How do you break that up? How do you figure? What is the engineering mindset that convinces you that that’s not crazy stuff?
DR: I mean, I love the way you ask the question, because it implies that I had a master plan right from the beginning and I broke it up. The truth, of course, is yes, I had some ideas. I had some ideas, but then there’s also it’s been a journey of discovery. We’ve been at this for 10 years now. But I knew some things right? I knew that if you’re thinking in terms of a billion, technology has to play a role, right? technology gets less expensive over time, it gets more ubiquitous over time. So you’ve got, you’ve got wind at your back, number one.
Number two, I knew local publishing ecosystems, local publishers had to play a role, right? We’re not gonna write billions of books ourselves. That’s insane. And in fact, you know, public reading is, it’s global, but it’s also fairly local. What you’re reading about in Ghana, or in India, or in the Middle East is going to be different from what you read the United States. And so you have to have a relationship with local publishers, and convince them to be part of this journey. That’s another piece.
You know, Africa, there’s a proverb in many African countries. Kenya is probably the one that claims that the most that says, if you want to go fast you go alone, if you want to go far, you know, you go together. So right from the beginning, we had sort of a partner first mindset, this is not going to be about world leader becoming, you know, UNICEF for Save the Children or something like that even those are as large as they are, are still tiny, tiny compared to the problems they’re trying to solve. So we had to partner with other organizations. So we started partnering with school systems right from the beginning, we partner with library systems, we’re in every public library in Kenya 61 public libraries about 600,000 checkouts and our devices just over the first 12 months.
So if that makes any sense, it’s sort of a breaking it down, there’s a technology piece, there’s a content piece, there’s a partnership piece. And then, just like any other business, I mean, now you’re starting to hire people with certain skills, you’re starting to put people on the ground in different parts of the world, because you know, as a sort of product person that if you don’t have people who are pretty close to the people you’re trying to solve, you’re not going to solve the problem in the right way. And it’s a sort of a one foot in front of the other.
Last thing I’ll say is, and this is a sort of big difference in the nonprofit world, is you have to build some fundraising muscle as well. You know, in the for profit world. You have this sort of beautiful thing. If you have a business model that’s a kind of coherent model, where the more you do of whatever you’re doing, the more money you make. And that you plow back into R&D, that allows you to create, you know, version 2.0 of you know, of cup, or iPod, or computer or whatever. Whereas the nonprofit world, you can actually get yourself in a vicious cycle where the more you do the more money you have to raise the money you have to raise that limits you in a very particular way. So we build some muscle around fundraising as well. It’s always a challenge. That’s just the name of the game with nonprofits. And I can talk to you more about how we address some of those things. But at the end of the day, those are sort of the components that we realized right from the beginning, we have to start building out
CW: Given this enormous goal and some thoughts on how to attack it. How do you get the people on board? At a for profit business, the vision is vital, but it’s also supported by the economics. In a nonprofit where every dollar is fundraised is the vision the only tentpole upon which nearly everything else is draped?
DR: It is. It is. That that’s what that’s what sort of magnetically pulls people in and keeps them there. That and, and, and frankly, leadership, I mean, in other words, a sense that I’m going to learn from from, from maybe someone who’s got more skills than I, that were and when I say leadership, or maybe you’re thinking of sort of the, you know, one hero at the top, no, I’m talking about sort of almost a team feeling of like, we’re doing this thing together, we’re sort of leading the world and this no one had thought about, you know, getting a billion people reading using technology, Kindles and cell phones and Android tablets and stuff. No, this wasn’t really part of the, the sort of the thinking back in 2010 when we started so so that leadership, it’s, uh, it maybe I’m using the word in a little bit of a different way from, from from what’s obvious. It’s almost like we are a leader organization who are trying to sort of blaze a trail here and other people come behind. That’s very exciting for people to be part of.
CW: One of the things that I was about to ask in many ways you just answered which is that that a huge portion of handling an organization as distributed as yours is to build a leader. So you’ve got a leader in Kenya right there. I don’t know who that person is, but I’m sure there’s somebody who you look at as owning Kenya and owning Ghana and owning Ecuador and owning and and so being able to foster those people into feeling like they have a sense of ownership for the fate of their country and their, their universe that’s got to be very important, right?
DR: It’s critical. It’s critical and and and it’s hard because because you are doing it remotely. I mean, even before you know COVID-19 we were we were on Zoom or Skype or pick your favorite thing you know, a lot because we have to stay connected to sort of mothership but at the same time you have to have a certain amount of of autonomy and and build your own teams. Right so Joanne, who leads to Joanne’s now worked for us for I think nine years in Kenya. She was a former teacher herself. By the way, she had never done a job like this before, as I say, she was a teacher, but she’s assembled an incredible team over time. By the way, she’s a woman leading organization in Kenya, which is not super, super common, not incredibly uncommon, but not super, super common. And so that has its own challenges.
Ethel who’s a Ghanaian woman who runs our Ghana operation, same story, you know, she’s had to build a team herself, of Ghanaian. You know, of course, it’s very important that the people who are running these offices both represent their own country and then bring people the best and the brightest that they can find from their own country to be part of this mission so that they can, you know, take the whole country forward.
So, yeah, it’s it’s a sort of form of distributed leadership that that is certainly something I’d never done before. Even at Amazon, where we had teams all over and so forth. It’s still that there’s a level of distribution and sort of local autonomy that is that significantly greater for the reasons you just said.
CW: Do you worry about, um, clearly, you need to both localize the vision and make sure it stays true. How do you balance that?
DR: Yeah, sometimes we use this ugly word Glocal, which we just laugh, we’re just like, that’s just the worst word we’ve ever used. So we’re just not gonna use that word, but but this sort of global, local, local thing. Yeah. You know, one strength, I would say, that we have had is our North Star hasn’t shifted, you know, by an inch. You know, we are a reading focused organization, we are all about unlocking human potential using the power of reading. And and the tools we use are always technology, and partnership and the ones I just mentioned. So, in a sense, the way we have stayed… human beings drift. Let’s just sort of recognize that we drift we’re curious, we investigate and we as an organization, we’re always investigating new things. You know, we started using Kindle in the early days, we still use Kindle, but we built our own technology stack. Now we have cell phone based programs, but hundreds of thousands of people every month. We were now AWS sort of experts. We have a million rows of data every single day pumped into Redshift on AWS. So my point is, of course, we’re a learning organization that said, Our Northstar hasn’t drifted, you know, an inch and I think that, that helps keep the focus. It’s so and it’s so very important, particularly when you’re working across, you know, literally 13, 12 and a half time zones a day, you know, between here in Bangalore, with two and a half times as always, it’s very important to have a sort of singleness of vision.
CW: Do you find yourself having to go Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, that’s too far. You, you you drifted?
DR: Ah, you know what I tell you, I would say maybe, maybe if people criticize me, they might have to tell me that more than I tell them that if that makes any sense. Because I, I do like to explore new things. And that is I’m not tempted to explore things really outside of reading. But I do try to push the organization to say, you know, there is new technology and voice technology, how are we going to start incorporating that.
We can’t become transfixed on, you know, this is a Jeff Bezos thing. He talks about being single minded about strategy, but sort of flexible about details. And I’m quite flexible about details, let’s put it that way. and so so there’s there’s always a little push and pull, you know, people have sort of heard the religion of my like, let’s stay focused on reading. And sometimes they get to play that back to me and say, David, you know, you might be pushing us a little bit too far here a little bit too fast of the of the the central core.
CW: At Microsoft or Amazon, you have a lot of levers to assist you as a leader, there’s pay or stock or bonuses or other perks. How does motivation work in a nonprofit?
DR: I you know, I think it’s actually one of the hardest parts of running a nonprofit and it’s for the reasons you say of course, you know, we have your fewer tools, or at least let’s say fewer of the obvious tools, you know, the economic tools, you do have fewer of those.
The other thing that makes it hard and this this may be counterintuitive is, you know, of course, people are there because of the mission, of course, and that’s an, that’s a huge strength. However, however, remember that the goals of nonprofits tend to be at least a certain type of nonprofit, the ones, the one that were run, tend to be very ambitious, very big, you know, and therefore, and that’s actually a step further along this this path. You know, there’s a way of thinking of what nonprofit has done, which is that we are organizations that are tackling the world’s problems that have been left behind by the for profit world, and that governments for one reason or another, haven’t organized themselves to handle properly, because in a lot of ways, that sort of social sector problems, you know, should probably be handled by government, right? Education, environment, food security, health right, these are the sorts of things that governments, at least in theory are set up well to do well, but in practice, they leave all sorts of holes and they don’t tend to be very innovative and all sorts of things that we recognize about governments even very well functioning government.
So what does that mean? That means that nonprofits step in to solve some of the world’s biggest problems with some of the world’s most limited resources that can be daunting, that can be daunting. That can create burnout and frustration, and are we really making progress and so forth? So that then leads back to your question, how do you keep people motivated, you know, within them? Well, some of it, of course, is just rallying around the vision. Some of it probably to be honest, as a little kind of cult of personality. You know, we’re, we’re trying to pull together some of the best people in the world to solve this problem. And you’re part of that, that team, a very important word team come back to that in a minute. And then some of it is at a more tactical level is okay, we don’t have you know, money to play with as much but we can play with time. We can play with time.
So we, for example, at Worldreader next week, the this is where today’s August 7 when we’re recording this, you know, and we would close our office for a week in the in the summer, for a full week at the same time, all around the world. We have 60 people around the world different offices, everyone closes down. Why is that so important? It’s so important because it means that everybody can take a deep breath at the same time, you don’t come back to 1000 pieces of email that are unread. Whole company shuts down. We do it now. And then we could do it again in in around around the new year. We have a fairly generous vacation policy. That’s another way we play with. When we’re not in pandemic mode. We play a lot with travel, we allow people to move from office to office fairly easily, you know, within reason and so forth, but fairly easily. I myself last year, a little earlier this time last year, I was in India for a couple of months with my wife, actually, the two of us went over and worked in our India operation. We’ve also spent a lot of time in the UK, we have an office in Barcelona, we were in Kenya last year and so forth.
So so you start to use at a tactical level, the tools you’ve got, which tend to be time and travel for us tend to be time and location and we attract people who find that kind of excited to be part of our organization that allows them to move around, have a little bit more autonomy. Have a little more control over their personal time, even if they don’t maybe make nearly as much money as they could in the private sector.
CW: So let’s talk about the other side of the coin, which is, I’m assuming in an organization that’s got 60 people, not everybody’s hitting on all cylinders at all times. So talk about how do you do you do performance reviews? How does that stuff work?
DR: Yeah, in a way, it’s very similar to what you’re probably used to, at a company like Microsoft, we do annual performance reviews. We actually have job descriptions, which actually was a little bit new for me, I don’t know that I really have those back in the day, but we actually write them out for people. So people are pretty clear on how it is they’re being evaluated.
One of the attractive parts, I think about working in an organization like Worldreader, and of course, there are a lot of great nonprofits, but we’re maybe particularly focused on this is, to a certain extent, when we talk about the mechanics of the organization. we’ve modeled ourselves after Amazon and Microsoft, in other words, after well run companies, and so we do a lot of those things. And, you know, annual salary increases when we can afford, that performance reviews that gives you very clear, we talk a lot about our vision and how closely our vision and our values and how closely you know, you’re reflecting those, we do employee surveys. So really, I think a lot of the tools that you’d be very used to, you know, we’ve tried to apply it to the the nonprofit space.
I’ll tell you an interesting things that happens though. And people routinely write us and say, I’d like to volunteer. And you’d think in general, the answer that we would say is yes. But when we actually say is, that’s great. We’re going to interview and we’re going to make sure that this is a good fit. And and we’re going to tell you the way we operate and our expectations about how we operate and the professionalism you’re going to bring to the table and so forth. And we end up saying no to more more volunteers, than we say yes to just in the same way that when you interview people for a paid job, you probably do the same. Then the reason is we we want the culture to be of a professional culture and we want the culture to be full of people who do show up every day, ready to do their best. And frankly, just like any organization, sometimes we have to let people go. And that’s just just like any organization you’ve been part of to
CW: The words, just like any organization, or what I hear all the time. The themes of great leadership are far more alike than they are different. Whether it’s in the tech world, or education or any industry, whether it’s for profit or not, what builds great teams are largely the same: a great vision and consistent, thoughtful leadership.
DR: There are more commonalities than differences. And I, I feel like I have a little insight into that in the following way. In Worldreader, we have a technology team. We have a data team. We also have a communications team. We also have an a set of implementation teams that literally work in school systems, making sure that kids have ereader devices that they’re properly charged that they can use them in the classroom that the teachers know how to use them so far. And and the way we we manage those teams is almost identical. There’s no substantive difference between the way we would manage one team over the other.
CW: We then turned our attention to COVID. David and Worldreader had been managing remotely around the globe for a decade. So maybe he can help us understand the future. Is working remotely going to stick?
DR: Absolutely, there will be some things that are just different going forward, just different, not short term different but but sort of permanent different. And I think the reason for that is people will have become used to new behaviors and recognize that some of these new behaviors actually dominate some of the prior behavior. So for example, I was just at a conference last week, it was a conference of a couple hundred people. You know it had plenary speakers, it had breakouts sessions, it had some time for a kind of face breaker, you know, type stuff, you know, kind of person to person type thing. And it was all virtual. It was all virtual.
When you look back at it, and when I look back at it at the end of this five hour session, I thought to myself, gosh, that was a good solid B plus, you know, as a conference guy, you know, it wasn’t quite an eight, but it’s a good solid B plus. But it’s going to become an A minus, and then it’s going to become an A, and it’s going to be just fine. And by the way, I didn’t have to get on a plane and have to get a hotel. I didn’t have to eat bad food and have to do all those things. I didn’t have to lose three days of jetlag if it was across the country across the world. So the net pros not to say it will completely replace, but man, it’s a pretty good compliment. It’s a pretty good compliment and a pretty good substitute in some cases.
And so, so I think some of the same with school systems, look school systems, of course, for the next couple of years. It’s just going to be brutal. It’s just going to be brutal, you know, schools will open then they’ll close kids will get sick, and they’ll get better, teachers will get sick, some teachers will die, then it’ll be you know, I mean, my God, think of all the sort of shocks that are going to go through the system, you can’t go through something like that for a couple of years and end up on the other side with, Okay, back to normal? No, of course not. Of course not, you’re going to find a situation where, gosh, maybe it really does make sense if you’re, you know, a high school to do some stuff remotely. Or maybe if you’re a university, instead of having you know, 200 people in a classroom, maybe you can have sometimes 2000 people in a virtual classroom, and, and spread knowledge, you know, a lot better and maybe maybe a lot less expensively. So that is to say, there are absolutely some things that will that will be different.
Now. The last thing I’ll say on this is, you will sometimes maybe talk to people to say things like, you know, cities are dead, you know, everyone’s gonna move everywhere. These actually don’t believe that either. I think there are certain things that that that won’t change because they are sort of deep human behavior, things and humans. We are social creatures. We do like to be together. There is a certain magic and friction that happens when people bump into each other have a quick conversation that they never would have had digitally just because there’s no time or whatever it is. And and, and that is, that’s pretty magical as well. And so, so so I don’t have a crystal ball on this any better than anybody else. But But I will say that, yeah, except to say, you know, there are some things, conferences, education so forth that I think are changed permanently up. But I think when it comes to things like people wanting physically to be together periodically, you know, that’s gonna ask that that’ll persist.
Particularly. Last point. I think if you’re if you’re younger, I think one of the very interesting things that people are going to start to look at is how is this pandemic affecting say 25 year olds in a way that this is very different from 55 year olds, if you’re 25 man, you know, you’d want to be with people you maybe want to meet your husband or wife, you know, your your apartment is fairly small. So you want to get out, you know, your work is a whole sort of social thing beyond just sort of the physical. If you’re 45 or 50, you got your nice desk from Restoration Hardware, you may be a little further away, so they can It’s kind of a drag, you’ve got your social network and your all the rest. So you may feel more comfortable. And so I think that’s another way to kind of cut this over time is to look at how different sort of age groups will sort of react to kind of what happens the pandemic and then what happens afterwards how willing they are to kind of, quote unquote return to normal. I think that might be quite different. By ages.
CW: Worldreader certainly has set ambitious goals, but with the kind of leadership David and his team are providing, it’s clear they’re making great progress. The world will definitely be a better place thanks to their efforts.
I want to thank David for his time and his insights into not only what it takes to be a leader in the not for profit world, but also how to make the most of one’s time on the planet. I feel smarter and more optimistic just for having spent the time with him. I hope you do as well.
Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my website: CLWill.com.
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