7 Leadership Lessons from Brett Hurt, founder of Bazaarvoice

By Brett Hurt WG’99, founder of Bazaarvoice, and Nadine Kavanaugh, Associate Director at Wharton Entrepreneurship

On a recent early spring evening, Wharton Entrepreneurship hosted its annual Philadelphia Alumni Dinner, with Brett Hurt as the speaker. Brett is best known as the co-founder, former CEO, and current Vice Chairman of Bazaarvoice, the technology platform that powers most of the customer reviews that you see online; each month, more than 400 million people view and share reviews of around 20 million products in the Bazaarvoice network.

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Brett had what he calls a “transformational experience” at Wharton. This is where he “came out of his shell.” This is where he became an entrepreneur. And because of that, nearly every year he comes back to Wharton to give back, he’s served as an Entrepreneur in Residence, spoken in classes, engaged with students, and, more recently, backed a few Wharton graduates with he and his wife’s family office, Hurt Family Investments.

Brett also gave the entrepreneurial audience some concrete advice: seven lessons that he has learned as the co-founder and CEO of Bazaarvoice. We’re very happy to share his formula for success with you, in his own words:

7 Leadership Lessons from Brett Hurt:

1)      Change the world for the better.

“Changing the world one authentic conversation at a time”—that’s the mission statement at Bazaarvoice. When I started the company in 2005, there were only about three retailers in America that had customer reviews. Bazaarvoice literally translates to “voice of the marketplace,” and that’s what we wanted to provide, to give customers the best information about items they wanted to buy and companies the best data to help them increase sales, build customer loyalty and increase profits. In doing so, I think Bazaarvoice has changed the world for the better, and all of us who work there have been motivated by this larger purpose.

2)      As a leader, set the standard.

I believe that who I hire, who I choose to promote, and who I fire says everything about who I am as a leader. At Bazaarvoice, we did regular surveys on how leaders at every level (self included) were living the company’s core values, because I wanted to know how we were really doing at this. If you’re promoting brilliant jerks, if, as CEO, you’re not taking care of your people, it says a lot.

3)      Maintain objectivity.

This is a really difficult one for us hard-charging types. It is very easy, as an entrepreneur, to make everything in life about your business, and not be there for important family moments, not take vacations. I understand your passion and your dream and that it drives you. But if your nose is so close to the grindstone that it’s all you think about, and all you do is the business, you will lose objectivity. I’m very proud of the fact that my entire time as CEO of Bazaarvoice, I took five to six weeks of vacation per year. That was my way of maintaining objectivity. And every time I came back, I came back fresh, with lots of insight.

4)      Be capital efficient and set constraints.

At the beginning of Bazaarvoice, we set a gross margin target of 70%.  This was a hard constraint in the business informed by what publicly-traded SaaS businesses at scale looked like.  It forced us to make tradeoffs between developing new features and automating what we did manually – and to prove that the market would indeed support a worthy gross margin.  Today, as a public company, Bazaarvoice is around a 70% gross margin.  This didn’t happen by accident.  And we grew to a $100-million revenue run rate and went public only using around $12 million of investor capital.  We were a mostly customer-funded business, getting as much paid up-front as possible from our clients, which also made us more focused (because if they pay for the solution you know they are serious about it).

5)      Have a personality.

When you’re marketing something that is new to the world, a personality helps you stand out in the crowd. For example, our client summits were unique. We would have things like a mechanical bull, armadillo races, miniature donkeys transporting beer—this was at a remote spot outside of Austin, so we were maintaining the Austin culture—all fun and funny types of things that built our personality. People had the time of their life—and the clients loved it.

6)      Create a spirit of oneness.

There’s no role at a company that is greater or smaller. We’re just all spokes on a wheel. I truly believe this—I don’t see my role as CEO as any greater than that of any other employee. My role is just a role, and we all need to play them to the best of our abilities. Bazaarvoice was rated the number one place to work as a small company, then as a medium company, and then won that distinction again as a large company. It was the sense of all working together as “spokes on a wheel” that really made this happen.

7)      Nourish the soul of the company.

To me, there’s nothing more beautiful that you can do in a career than creating a new company and breathing a soul into it. As an entrepreneur, you have the chance to determine the shape and culture of a company, and more than that: its soul. Think of your company as a person, and ask yourself: what kind of person do I want this company to be?  For us, this led to the founding of the Bazaarvoice Foundation, our hiring process, the way we onboarded people (through our Scavenger Hunt), and many other techniques of nourishing the person, the company.

Brett Hurt Alumni Dinner 2014 3 croppedBio: Brett Hurt co-founded Bazaarvoice and served as CEO and President for seven and a half years. He continues to actively support Bazaarvoice as the Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors, and is also a seed-stage investor at Hurt Family Investments. Brett holds an MBA in High-Tech Entrepreneurship from Wharton. His blog is at http://lucky7.io/ and focuses mostly on entrepreneurship.