Know thyself. Socrates said that. And in the business world, knowing thyself is a big deal. Because who you are shapes how you build your enterprise ‒‒ and building is the main task of any entrepreneur.
Chris Kuenne and John Danner said that last part, albeit with a lot more examples to back up what they mean. It’s the opening salvo of their new book, “Built for Growth: How Builder Personality Shapes Your Business, Your Team, and Your Ability to Win,” just published by the Harvard University Press. Kuenne will speak at the Princeton Tech Meetup this Wednesday, June 7, at 6:30 p.m. at Princeton Public Library. Cost: $5. Visit www.meetup.com/Princeton-Tech.
The book is an analytical look at the four main types of business builders as Kuenne and Danner came to understand them. There’s the driver (relentless, commercially driven, and highly focused), the explorer (curious, systems-driven, and dispassionate), the crusader (audacious, mission-inspired, and compassionate), and the captain (pragmatic, team-enabling, and direct).
Kuenne is an admitted driver. “To a fault,” he says. Drivers are problem solvers who want to commercialize ideas, solutions, and products, and they have a seemingly tireless ability to just keep pursuing their goals. The “fault” lies in that drivers can be autocratic and even narcissistic. And if there’s one classic flaw among drivers, it’s that they tend to think everyone who works for the company is as into the business and its growth as the driver himself.
Kuenne says he made that mistake back at Rosetta, the digital marketing firm that he started in 1998 and sold for $575 million in 2011. The company grew solidly through a combination of digital marketing savvy and strategic acquisitions. So solidly, he says, that the company that started out with a few people soon found itself employing 200, then 600, then 1,200.
“The essence of that Rosetta DNA got diluted,” Kuenne says. “I made the classic driver error of assuming that everyone was as motivated and as on-board with my vision, drive, and passion. At this point I should have been more of a captain.”
That, in essence, means that rather than trying to drive his employees, he should have tapped their own motivations, rather than his hope or assumption of what their motivations might be, he says. Now at his new company, Rosemark Smart Capital, the venture fund based at 90 Nassau Street, Kuenne says he has the opportunity to take what he has learned from his mistakes and be more selective about who he brings on board. With a smaller crew, he can find people with the drive and embed the company’s mission, values, and purpose early on.
One important point that Kuenne wants to get across in his book: There’s no one right type of builder to be. He says we get an endless earful of the power builders, the relentless drivers with dynamic personalities and a reputation for plowing through everyone and everything to build mega-businesses. Think Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg. We hear about leaders like this all the time. They’re bold, relentless, and able to capitalize on their endless stream of ideas.
But the truth is, Kuenne says, builders build best according to their personalities. Explorers like Brian O’Kelly of AppNexus built a $2 billion cloud-tech business that employs more than 1,000 people by addressing inefficiencies and finding solutions to ethereal questions. Crusaders like Jack Dorsey turned his fanciful idea of people sharing their lives in short online communications into Twitter. Captains like Margery Kraus eschewed the dictatorial undercurrents of business when she built APCO Worldwide as an offshoot of her work at the law firm of Arnold & Porter. APCO has since become the second-largest privately owned PR firm in the world, with annual revenues of more than $125 million and a workforce of 600-plus people.
The lesson here, of course, is: don’t get hung up on one builder personality being better than another, Kuenne says. A pizza chef and a pastry chef don’t make the same things, but they both make delicious food. And there is no one dominant builder type. All four are fairly evenly distributed across successful new businesses, he says.
“It’s important to know how your personality shapes the direction of the business,” Kuenne says. Knowing thyself, as Socrates urged, means understanding which type you are, why you are this type, and then how being that type shapes how you build your business. Your personality shapes your behaviors and the decisions you make. So be sure to listen to thyself as thou get to know thyself.
In writing the book, Kuenne (it rhymes with beanie) says he learned quite a lot about himself. Kuenne repeatedly calls himself fortunate for having chosen his parents well. Five generations of his family were college professors, including his late father, Robert Kuenne, an economics professor at Princeton University who devised an oligopoly theory to study competition in a structured market. “My father proved that it would be in everyone’s best interest to work in implicitly coordinated fashion, operating carefully to avoid throwing the system out of equilibrium,” he says.
At the same time, Kuenne also counts himself fortunate to have grown up with a best friend (whom he still has) whose father was James Burke. If you don’t know Burke by name, you know him by legacy. He was “the Tylenol CEO” who in 1982 introduced tamper-evident packaging in the wake of the poisoned Tylenol tragedy.
This combination fueled Kuenne’s creativity, curiosity, and thirst for learning, and also piqued his interest to solve problems. He earned his bachelor’s in history at Princeton, Class of 1985, and an MBA at the Harvard Business School, before setting out to work for Johnson & Johnson, which at the time was led by his friend’s father. The whole time, he says, “I was so very driven to apply my humanistic curiosity to commercial problems.”
His driver personality always stood out. In “Built for Growth,” Kuenne writes about family summer vacations on Lake Champlain, where as a seven-year-old in 1969 he got the idea of painting mussel shells he found along the shoreline and selling them as ashtrays. “I went up to Mrs. Teetor’s house,” Kuenne writes. “She smoked like a chimney. I pointed out the benefits of my painted shells: she would never have to worry about ash getting ground into her rug.” Then he approached Mrs. Colby, a longtime family friend who didn’t smoke. “My pitch to her was different. I suggested she needed ashtrays on her porch when she greets guests who smoked, while also subtly playing to our multi-generational family connection.”
Looking back, Kuenne realizes he was exhibiting the early signs of a “driver” personality type. “My purpose was to identify market needs and commercially exploit them as a form of personal validation.”
He also realized that he had utilized “personality insight” in his marketing approach. “My early customers, although of similar age and background, bought for two very different reasons.” That approach, first utilized by him at Johnson & Johnson, where he was working on the Sesame Street Vitamins brand, was then refined and patented at Kuenne’s own company, Rosetta.
And writing “Built for Growth” helped him zero in a little more on what made Rosetta the largest privately owned digital agency in the world. As a brand manager at Johnson & Johnson, Kuenne saw a huge divide between two ends of the marketing department. Literally. There was a long hallway separating those two sets of offices, Kuenne says. Market research was at one end and the marketers themselves were at the other. When he set out to found Rosetta, “shrinking that hallway” was the driver’s main drive.
Inspired by his parents, his friend’s family, and a love of literature born in early high school, Kuenne wanted to know what motivated people; how did they fuse their emotional feelings to their rational decisions? Merging the intuitive with the architecture of decision making ‒‒ how they came to their decisions and what actions they took as a result ‒‒ he says, is what propelled Rosetta into a company that grew past his ability to be a driver to all employees.
It was known as Personality-Based Clustering, and when Rosetta set to building websites and measuring customer engagement, the company found interactions 300 percent to 1,000 percent better than on a lot of other sites. Even in 2009, with the economy making its way deeper down the drain, Kuenne says, Rosetta turned a profit. In its first seven years, Rosetta became a $10 million company. Six years after that, it was a $250 million company.
Rosetta also grew by acquiring other firms until 2011, when Kuenne says he came to a crossroads. The next step would be to grow globally, and that meant either acquiring firms around the world and then learning their markets, or pairing up with a firm that has a global presence. After the company’s sale in 2011, Kuenne stayed on to make sure the transition went well until 2013, when he left to found Rosemark.
He also started teaching classes in entrepreneurship at Princeton’s Keller Center. There, in 2015, he met his eventual co-author John Danner, another entrepreneurship teacher at the center. The two had lunch and had been discussing Danner’s then newly released book “The Other ‘F’ Word” (it’s “failure, by the way), when the conversation got crackling about the possibilities of them writing a book together.
Kuenne says he went to Rosetta to help him with the logistics of research. A 100-question survey was completed by more than 450 respondents among a group of builder CEOs who had achieved at least $3 million in annual revenue and had been in business at least three years. Those surveys were supplemented by responses by members of the Young Presidents’ Organization, the Women Presidents’ Organization, and other professional groups. The data turned out to be gold, Kuenne says, and helped him and Danner categorize the four types of business builders.
While Kuenne says he and Danner want to wait and see how the information in “Built for Growth” gets across in the business world, he is sure that what he has learned (about himself and business builder types) is nowhere near the end. The book is the pattern and a look at why the pattern is what it is. And where that can go is anyone’s guess.
But it will definitely involve workshops and speeches for businesses that Kuenne and Danner have already been asked to coach. Venture capital and private equity firms want to know how best to support their portfolio company CEOs and likewise builders want to figure out how to find the financial backers that for them best.
“So much about life lies in the humanistic,” Kuenne says. “It’s that humanism that underpins the commercial.”