Why the Entrepreneur Behind a Multimillion-Dollar Business Starts His Day With Comic Books
Joel Holland is the founder and chairman of subscription content platform Storyblocks. Here are his tricks for successful leadership.
In this series, Leader Board, we speak with CEOs, managers, founders and others who lead organizations to learn what makes them tick, what they look for in new hires and even where they eat lunch.
What’s the secret to success? For Joel Holland, the founder and executive chairman of subscription-based content provider Storyblocks, it's starting the day with comics. Most mornings, before eating breakfast, Holland likes to indulge in two espressos while reading Calvin and Hobbes.
“Something about reading it gets me into this creative mindset,” Holland tells Entrepreneur. “It makes me happy and it’s a good way to start the day on a good foot.”
In 2009, Holland found VideoBlocks, which he says was the first-ever subscription-based provider of stock video and audio. This year, the company rebranded itself as Storyblocks, expanding its stock content to cover video, audio and graphics.
Fast forward eight years and today, the company has nearly 100 employees and has seen more than 100 million downloads and 30 percent year-over-year growth, bringing in $26 million of subscription sales last year. While Holland started off as CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based company, in 2016, he made the decision to let go of the reigns and move to the role of executive chairman, where he says he's able to focus his energy on the long-term goals of the company.
“When you're building a company, there's so much going on that it's very easy to get trapped in the details,” says Holland, who now lives in Vail, Colo.
From the challenges he’s faced to his hiring tactics -- there’s much to learn from Holland’s entrepreneurial journey.
On the most important leadership traits:
“The most important trait is knowing how to enable your team and work with team members to design and agree upon goals, coming up with a plan together, blessing that plan and then stepping back. Too many leaders get in the way. You hired the right people to begin with, now you have to let them loose.
“A good leader helps employees hit their ‘flow state.’ A flow state is [finding] the balance of employees working on things that they're good at while setting challenging but attainable goals. If your employees are working on something that's too easy, they're going to get bored. If you have employees working on something too challenging, they're going to get frustrated [and] burn out.”
On leadership style:
“While I was CEO, I was in the office every day. And as [the company] grew, my leadership style evolved into just enabling people in the organization. And I realized I had hired myself out of a job and that I didn't need to be there on a day-to-day basis. In fact, I wanted to focus on -- and what I focus on now -- the bigger picture and where [the] company is going in the next three, five, 10 years.
“It was a total experiment to move across the country and out of the day to day because when I was in the area it was just too easy to get caught up in the daily things. When I'm out here in Vail, I prioritize very differently and I only get pulled into discussions and decisions that are more five-year facing.”
On habits that help him lead:
“I like to have two espressos in the morning, usually before I have breakfast. While I'm sipping my first espresso, I will do a little light reading. I love starting my day with Calvin and Hobbes because something about reading it gets me into this creative mindset. It makes me happy and it's a good way to start the day on a good foot.
“When you're building a company, there's so much going on that it's very easy to get trapped in the details. So one of the daily habits I really believe in is: the night before you go to bed or before you leave the office, set one big goal for the next day. Make it something challenging, a little hairy [and] that you're naturally going to want to procrastinate. Write [it] down and the next day, before you open any emails, take any phone calls [or] have any meetings, start working on that task. If you take on that hairy goal first, you get into it and then you feel good, and that sets the momentum for the rest of the day.”
“The biggest challenge that many leaders face and I definitely faced was managing short-term and long-term goals as a company. Sometimes, these two things pull against each other.
“We just [changed] our brand and that was a big decision because [it] is not going to have a very big short-term effect. In fact, it might have a little bit of a negative short-term effect as we get customers to realize the new brand and as we change all of our marketing and advertising. So, in the short term it could be negative but in the long term it's pushing us towards [the company] we're trying to build.”
On the toughest business decision:
“Before VideoBlocks [and Storyblocks], the company was called Footage Firm and it was a very different business -- we were selling stock video collections on DVD but there was no subscription involved. One day I realized the future is all digital downloads so we needed to get away from DVDs. Also, there [were] all of these hobbyists and enthusiasts starting to come into [the] space that needed a more affordable product like subscriptions.
“And up until that point, we tested everything. Every business decision we made with Footage Firm -- from pricing to selecting what type of product to have -- was like an A/B test. The decision to build and launch VideoBlocks was a leap of faith. There was no way to test a totally radical new business model that didn't exist and a subscription-based stock video supplier had never existed. The tough decision was trusting my gut and saying let’s do it. Luckily, it worked.”
On hiring new employees:
“One of the most important traits is self-confidence. When you have a self-confident employee, they tend to know what they're good at and they're willing to ask for help when they come across something they don't understand or are having trouble with. I've seen that with employees who, on their resume are very good, but don't have a lot of confidence [and] they're afraid to ask for help and afraid to fail. That doesn’t work out well.”
On recognizing employees:
“We use a program called YouEarnedit. It's a website where each employee has a login and every month you get a couple hundred points [to] give out to [other] employees. You can do it through Slack [or] directly through the website.
“So, I have 200 points every month that I can give out and choose carefully who to give them to. At the end of the month, you can use the points you receive as an employee to do fun things, like renaming conference rooms, getting food treats, picking lunches or getting a SWAG. It’s not just up to leadership to recognize -- I think it's really nice when your colleagues recognize you.”
“Once a year we do an annual retreat where we'll take the whole company usually to a resort. [It’s] a mixture of talking about the year ahead and what we're trying to accomplish, [and] also looking back on the year [and] some of the best things the company did accomplish. And then partying. It's an opportunity for all the different groups and divisions who don't normally get to play together to really have fun.
“We also give every team a budget for doing their own events, and that's a chance for them to go wherever they want, do whatever they want but hopefully grow closer as a team.”
On unique office rituals:
“Up until employee 50, we would have [a] new employee dress in a kigu outfit -- basically you dress like a stuffed animal. Then, [the employee] had to wear that outfit all day long and we would do a lunch where [they] would sit in the middle of the room, everyone would sit around [them] and we would ask a series of fun and irreverent questions, like, ‘What's your favorite curse word?’ Questions like that are interesting because it breaks the ice really quickly. If, at the end of day, wearing a unicorn costume and cursing in front of all your fellow employees doesn't make you comfortable, I don't know what will.”
On managing meetings:
“My approach at meetings is to be very intentional. I try not to have too many [meetings] because, especially if they're recurring meetings, I think people get a little apathetic. Whenever I schedule a meeting I try to make sure there's a very specific [objective] and by the end, make sure [to] have an answer or a next step.”
“I start the morning with [my] hardest task -- whether it's writing an article or making some phone calls that I've been dreading. I'll do that in the morning, and that sets off a nice tone. And then my days from that point are all over the place. I don't like monotony. By the time I get to the afternoon, it's a complete mixture of phone calls, meetings [and] various projects. It's different every day.”
On office setup:
“It is open office seating so everyone sits in the middle. I think having an open office definitely sends the right message that we're all in this together, but it can also be very counterproductive because it's noisy and people are always moving around. We designed it so there are breakout rooms all around the outside perimeter [for] when you need to get out of the bullpen. One is a Rocky Mountain room; [another] is designed like an Airstream with the RV couches and everything.”
“When I am at the office, I always eat with employees because it's a good opportunity to get to know the team better. Typically over lunch, you're not talking about work stuff, you're talking about kids, you're talking about new relationships. It's just a good time to bond.”
On a strong company culture:
“Number one: don't force anything. A lot of companies make the mistake of thinking you can design and manufacture culture then shove it down people's throats. Our culture happened very naturally by the types of people we hired.
“Up until employee 20, one of our investors said to me, 'Next time I visit, I want to see a list of your values on [the] wall. And I don’t want you to design them -- I want you to work with [the] company to come to them collaboratively.' And we did that. We had breakout groups, team meetings and we took a couple of months debating and hashing it out, [but] ended up coming up with five very specific values.
“The point is, you need a short list of values [that] every employee can remember. They need to be very real and everyone has to believe in them because [they] are very important in the hiring process. When you're bringing new team members on, the first thing you look at is this list of values to make sure they're a fit.”
On his biggest cultural win:
“Our biggest cultural win was coming to understand ourselves through [our] list of values. For example, number three in our values list is: we hire people who deserve to have egos but don't. That was powerful because when you look around, everyone [here] came from some incredible background, some great school, some incredible other company. The list of accomplishments goes on and on. But there is a total air of humility; nobody is egotistical. And it wasn’t really until we wrote [our values] down that we fully appreciated and understood [them].”
On cultural mistakes:
“The biggest cultural mistake has been ignoring the list of values and hiring someone who looked like an absolute rock star on paper. We've done this a couple of times where we've hired a couple of people who became toxic to the organization and we allowed them in because they had such a colorful past at other companies that we wanted to emulate. They might come from a big competitor or from a company that we really want to be like, and we overlooked our own value system thinking that they'd work out and they didn't. Luckily, you realize it and try to remedy the situation, but it's still damaging.”
On his role models:
“I tend to look at different leaders for different reasons. I look up to Warren Buffett because I think he's proof that you can do what you love and make a lot of money as a byproduct of success. But [when] you read about him, you realize he's not doing what he does for money -- he truly loves building great businesses.
“And then, someone like Bill Gates, who built an incredible organization and then switched over to help humanity. He's proof that you can do really great things in business and then make sure you're giving back to the world.”
On his favorite leadership books:
“One of the best books to understand company culture [and] hiring is Drive by Daniel Pink. The biggest point he makes is that the best employees are not just looking for the most money. Having a good company culture is so more than paying people the most amount of money.”
On where most leaders go wrong:
“I think most leaders go wrong [when] they have an inflated sense of self-worth. And the way that manifests is they become micro-managers. The analogy I like to use is: Some leaders mess up because they buy an incredible race car and then try to push it around the track, and that's silly. You get a great car then you let that car do what it was meant to do, which is soar. The best leaders seem to be more humble and realize they're hiring people that are better than themselves.”