Interview with David K Williams
I’ve been active on social media for almost two years now, and one of the reasons I warmed to this way of being so much, is because of the way I have been able to connect with and “meet” so many inspirational people.
In the early days, I discovered Forbes as one of the many leadership media I follow, and of course it didn’t take me very long to come across David Williams of Fishbowl As a Forbes writer, David captured my imagination, because of his value driven approach to business. Not only that but his obvious success in the way he has set things up. One of the unique features of his company is how David and the senior team involve his employees. It is for this reason; I was delighted David agreed to be interviewed during this “Developing Employees” month here at the People Development Magazine.
The 7 Non-Negotiables—Respect, Belief, Trust, Loyalty, Commitment, Courage, and Gratitude—were developed by the team at Fishbowl as they built a successful company, learning from their mistakes and embracing their failures as opportunities to learn. When incorporated into an organization or adopted on a personal level these valuable principles will change lives.
It was absolutely inspiring to talk to David and here is his interview, which I just know will inspire you as much as me.
This month our theme is about “Developing Employees”. I have to say that one of the reasons your ethics resonated with me so strongly was the way you valued your team. Not only did you vest your faith in them verbally, your employees actually co-own your company “Fishbowl”. In that kind of environment, how do you approach the development of your team?
We are considered by our readers in Forbes and HBR, as well as our local business associates as Contrarians. We are strategic, but with a difference. We use the characteristics featured in our book The 7 Non-Negotiables as the impetus and the reward system for the advancement of our employees, and ultimately to give a stock options to our employees.
All of our employees are eligible for stock options if they can demonstrate in the previous 12 months that they have improved in the Fishbowl 7 Non-Negotiables. It’s not about their role or their output or how long they’ve been with the company.
The process works like this: They choose at least 2 of the Non-Negotiables, and while we are a flat organisation, a team leader will coach them through the learning process: An executive business partner will endorse their achievements. Once it’s been approved, then the final decision is referred to Mary Scott (Fishbowl’s President) and myself.
What really works, and is inspiring to witness is that the team leader is helping our employees to become better people through demonstrating the better behaviour. When people see the improvement in themselves and in return they are offered a stock option, they feel positive and appreciative about themselves.
Genuinely caring about them as human beings not simply as workers helps them to thrive in all aspects of their lives, to not only achieve great things in their careers but also in their personal lives, i.e., a better parent, or a community contributor, or a better sibling, daughter, etc. That’s what is most important to us all at Fishbowl.
At Fishbowl, we are all in the “people business”. The 7 Non-Negotiables are at the heart of what we do, and we developed them from an accumulation of 35 years in business. We had one chance to get it right. It truly works on many levels; we back their behaviour with compensation and stock options. Our employees aren’t scared out of their wits if the numbers don’t look right, or if they make a mistake, or if someone has a different opinion, these things are secondary. We achieve remarkable things every month by empowering individuals to govern themselves.
Has your approach been embraced by all your employees, and do you think the 7 Non-Negotiables are about to be adopted by other business owners?
When we speak with other business owners, often, they will say “This program wouldn’t work for me”. But many are really keen to try it out. Our attitude is even adopting one of the 7 Non-Negotiables can make a massive difference.
We have had very few of our people leave. Fishbowl is not for everyone, however, we seldom lose people, although when we do, we usually realise it’s for the best for everyone and we sincerely wish them well in their future endeavours.
For the most part, our people are happy and enjoy the work. We simply deploy the strategy and let them go; they prove to be autonomous and self-governing.
The way we work positively impacts on our employees’ families, friends and professional networks. Although we, of course, observe the legalities and use good practices when hiring, our employees reach out to their networks and families and recommend they come and work for us, and many of them do. One of these days, we are going to make a family tree. We would be a contender for that game of Kevin Bacon’s “6 Degrees of Separation”!
As a leader your own integrity shines through, values are clearly at the top of your agenda. Apart from getting their own house in order with regards their values, what is the next most important piece of advice you would give to other business leaders?
Give away as much away as you can. This means, for example, giving into the community with your time, good services, talents, or maybe money. It’s vital to have a foundation. Don’t wait until you get rich, start right away. Also, give away the company to the people, I mean this in two ways:
So many people build a business with an exit strategy. The company is just a cash cow while they own it. You want to build something lasting, so if new owners come in the foundation is so deep and strong; they can handle a transition and keep the employees intact, instead of losing so many people along the way. You must ask yourself if you are building the company for the long haul.
Secondly, are you giving away options in your company to the people invested in it, especially your employees? Aim to give 49% away, or even 10%, if that is what you can do right now. I have 100 owners and it’s so beautiful. Our employees work like owners rather than renters. They think of it as a home, they spend time, effort and they make it more beautiful.
I love the fact you started on your road to entrepreneurship at the age of 8, selling your newspaper round! Many of our readers will be seasoned entrepreneurs and some will just be starting off. As the world is becoming smaller, and more and more people are able to start-up businesses: What in your opinion can present day entrepreneurs do to stand out from the rest?
The same old rules which have been around forever. Put your people and customers first. I understand the economics and the need to make money. However, they have to make sure their behaviour is focussed on the people who are investing in them.
We don’t have to worry about the economics in Fishbowl, because our employees are compensated and rewarded on how well the company does; suddenly everyone wants to know what a cash flow looks like. We are transparent with the company finances, and this makes for a different energy. You don’t have to share everyone’s personal details, but you can share the majority of information. It was exciting to see employees coming to us with ideas to make things more effective and efficient. They became their own entrepreneurs. There is no anxiety or backbiting, they aren’t going to get whipped for anything, the culture won’t tolerate it, and everyone feels they have an entrepreneurial role. We will release a new product in July called Fishbowl Workforce. This product grew out of the employees brainstorming on how to help companies prosper and focus on productivity tools like automated timecard tracking.
You’ve had some heart wrenching times in your life and you have come through great adversity to be where you are now. What is the single most inspirational situation you have found yourself in and why?
We started in Fishbowl in 2004. There were 6 solid, honest people working there at the time. We didn’t pick each other to work with, but we committed to it and looked at the big picture. At that time the majority shareholder was ready to close the company, but he kept it going out of the goodness of his heart. In September 2010, the majority shareholder wanted to sell the company and needed to within the next 90 days. We needed to raise the money and fast. We were in the depths of the recession, banks weren’t lending, and people were picking up businesses for next to nothing. It was a tough economic time for everyone. We were all fighting for the lives of our companies. What was great about Fishbowl, was that it was so worth the fight and the hard work; so instead of feeling distraught, we all felt energized and willing to give it our all.
We did our best to keep everyone up to date. Eventually one bank came through at the last hour, with a loan. We didn’t realise it until it was nearly too late, but the bank came in 500k short of what we needed. We were already putting in as much as we could, and so had no other way to raise the shortfall. We gathered everyone together, and told them the bad news. What happened next was totally inspiring. Our employees immediately started to come up with ideas to make up the shortfall. They offered their credit cards, to mortgage their houses, liquidate their 401ks, and even skipping their pay this month. This was totally unexpected and without any suggestion at all. As if that wasn’t enough, they also came up with ideas and strategies to earn the shortfall.
We didn’t have to take any of their personal money, because that next month we sold 504k dollars more than we ever sold in a month before. It was the 500k needed to close the deal. It was amazing. I would say you should never underestimate the power of what a team can do and what they are prepared to do. I think I’m the one who needs to slay the dragon and carry the torch, but allowing your team to be part of the solution, is just so inspiring.
There’s another great ending to this story. The bank loaned us the funds to repay to them over 7 years. That wasn’t good enough for our team. They decided to pay it off in 6 months. A massive 6.5 years early! We did it too. It was a phenomenal time. It could have been the darkest of times, but it was the brightest of times!
Your commitment to Fishbowl is clear and your book the 7 Non-Negotiables of Winning” has been published. What is next for you?
We are in the people business; our business is being built to last and for our people today and for future generations. Our software is a big part of that. Now that we have a book, the 7 Non-Negotiables, we want to help other companies and show them how they can accomplish the same thing in their businesses. We’ve launched a new training division in our company and we are starting to train leaders online and on onsite. We have about 50 trainers around the world, in software. We are in the process of creating another team that focuses on helping people adopt the 7 Non-Negotiables. The place to go to find out more is www.7NNs.com We will publish new developments up there.
How can our readers find you, connect and benefit most from the expertise and insights you have to offer?
The best place is to connect via our website. Click here to find out more about me and the team at http://www.fishbowlinventory.com/vip/
Here at People Development Magazine, we think your innovative approach to developing employees is brilliant! Thank you David!
David K. Williams is the CEO of Fishbowl, a company in Utah that produces inventory management software called Fishbowl Inventory.
David’s book; The 7 Non-Negotiables of Winning: Tying Soft Traits to Hard Results, was published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. in hardback and electronic format on July 29, 2013. The book discusses lessons fromDavid’s experiences as a business leader, as well as some topics he has covered in his articles for other publications.
As well as working at Fishbowl, David is a regular contributor to Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and Inc. Magazines