Mike Xenakis has enjoyed success with every organization he’s joined. He served for six years in the U.S. Air Force as a Captain and was an intelligence officer with the National Security Agency. His time at Clorox had him managing the marketing efforts for 10 product lines in the Armor All division. But it was his, 17 years with OpenTable where he learned the full growth cycle of a company. As an executive, he helped the company go public in 2009 and eventually sold to the Priceline Group in 2014. It’s this wealth of knowledge that he brings to Pondera and Compeat, as a board member. He expands on his experience by answering a few questions for us.
The topics covered consist of:
- How his career that has prepared him for his board positions
- Mike’s experience as a board member
- What is Product Day in the Serent Portfolio
- Advice for first-time CEOs and early stage founders
“There was this balancing act between knowing how our product fit into the market and building out the consumer side of the company.”
How did you get your start within the restaurant tech space?
I started in brand management with Clorox, which was my first experience with marketing and product management. I was living in the Bay area and it was the height of the dot-com era in ’98 to ’99 so I felt like I was missing out. I left Clorox and eventually joined OpenTable. I spent 17 years there.
Most of my time there, I was Senior Vice President of Product Management and I was also Managing Director of OpenTable’s European business. I learned a lot from selling our software to restaurant partners and by building a website and mobile apps to improve diners’ experiences. There was this balancing act between knowing how our product fit into the market and building out the consumer side of the company. It was great to experience the full growth cycle of a company from OpenTable going public in 2009 to it being sold to the Priceline Group in 2014.
What led you to be on Pondera and Compeat’s boards?
I first met the former CEO of Compeat through a mutual friend. We spoke multiple times about the restaurant tech industry and things I had learned over the years from being at OpenTable. He was facing some similar industry challenges I had dealt with and so we got to know each other well during this time. So, when I left OpenTable, he asked me to join Compeat’s board and because of my experience in product management combined with product and technology, so they asked me to join Pondera’s board. I often help these companies establish a product organization, which could mean creating some new processes or bringing in new software tools—anything I can do to help them work through product-oriented challenges. All of which are geared to help these companies grow. Seeing OpenTable’s growth has given me a unique point-of-view to advise on talent and how to grow a company.
With your background in product and technology, what types of challenges do you help a Serent portfolio companies solve as a board member?
Compeat had a CTO who was also responsible for product and product management. This is fairly common, but I’m a major advocate of breaking apart the engineering group from the product organization because a healthy tension between the leaders of these two groups leads to better products and services. This provides different opinions to ensure the best outcome. They brought in a VP of Product to separate those two departments, so I now work closely with both the head of product and technology.
Another challenge that faced Compeat, as well as Pondera, was their lack of UX/UI support. They needed to have someone responsible for UX/UI design, it’s an area that can play a critical role in SaaS businesses and software, not to mention its ability to establish products to wow the customer. It also helps differentiate their product from the competition. It’s an area that companies often wait to hire but there are so many benefits that I’m a huge proponent of making it a priority.
One of the programs we’ve develop for our portfolio is “Product Day.” Can you describe what it is and why it’s important for product management and development?
Product Day was designed to spend time and focus on what’s being sold—to define product roadmaps and have those debates to make sure the current roadmap aligns with the company’s long-term objectives and strategy. It’s a day, once a year, that’s meant for the product organization to present to the board in-depth looks into the current products. I helped Compeat and Pondera do their first Product Days and it’s so beneficial because it goes deep into what the product organization and the engineering organization look like. It dives into the strengths and weaknesses of a company and touches on investments that’ll need to be made for the future, assuring resources are aligned with the company’s vision for the new growth period. Because of this, it’s a very atypical board meeting. It’s an opportunity to discuss strategy and best practices to effectively run your business.
You’ve been a part of companies from the early stage, through going public and exiting. What advice do you have for founders or first-time CEOs through those stages of growth?
The people you bring on at different stages of the business are so important. It often takes a different person, a different skill set, to succeed during the startup phase than it does to succeed during the later stages as you scale the business and put formal structures in place. People who love early growth don’t always love formal processes. As a company matures, it has to think about succession planning so people you bring in a certain growth stage might not be a good fit at a later growth stage. One of the hardest parts of being a CEO at a high-growth company is knowing when to make the right personnel changes. It’s never an easy decision but the majority of CEOs say they regret not making personnel changes sooner. I suggest looking internally to fill open positions with the company, but don’t get locked into that. Don’t be afraid to hire outside of your company. Think deeply about the personnel you’re hiring and where you are in the stage of the company. It’s also important that you don’t let an exit cloud the day-to-day decision making of operating your business. When someone looks at your company for a potential acquisition, there’s a tendency to hold back on investments and change some decisions to generate a better earnings number. But that rarely works out. It’s best to focus on what makes the most sense for the business’ long-term success.
“The people you bring on at different stages of the business are so important. It often takes a different person, a different skill set, to succeed during the startup phase than it does to succeed during the later stages as you scale the business and put formal structures in place.”
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