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Interview with Tech Talk Speaker, Josiah Johnson

Next Wednesday, July 26th at 11:45, TAG will be having a Tech Talk Luncheon at the Faithlife Building Adjacent to Wild Buffalo on Holly Street. The talk will feature speaker Josiah Johnson from EY. He will talk about his startup story, acquisition adventures, and growth within his EY team. Ticket are $15 for members, $20 for non-members and $12 for students. The ticket also includes lunch and it will be a great afternoon where you can join your TAG Colleagues for a fresh look at Tech Entrepreneurship. Register here. We hope you will join us.

Last week, we got the chance to interview Josiah about his journey to EY, what inspires him, what he looks for when hiring and what he thinks is the greatest area of possibility for innovation and growth in our PNW region. Check out the interview below for a glimpse into what’s ahead for Wednesday.

Tell us about the history of your startup, founders, goals, etc.

Society Consulting (www.societyconsulting.com) was founded in 2008 to address the intersection of data, mobile and analytics.  The focus of the organization was to enable diverse and rich customer experiences through analytical insights.  In July of 2016, Society Consulting was acquired by Ernst and Young (EY) and is now part of their national Data and Analytics (DNA) service line.  The company was founded by Josiah Johnson (WWU Alumni), John Bergen (WWU Alumni), PJ Ohashi (WWU Alumni) and Chad Richeson (Microsoft Executive).

How did inspiration strike you with your startups? And now with EY?

This is my third startup and all where inspired by three things – People, building a culture that I could be proud of and a continuous gap in the market around data and analytics, specifically in the marketing and customer experience space.  One of the things that drew us to EY was their commitment to culture and their people (best places to work, etc), their fundamental belief that digital is in everything and once you define something, it is obsolete and their willingness to let our company influence a brand like EY.

Tell us about your VC, Angel, Bootstrap, Acquisition journey.

All of the organizations that I’ve helped start have been bootstrapped so I don’t have a lot of experience in raising capital, but I wouldn’t have done it any other way in a services firm.  We leveraged our service lines as a funding mechanism and we were lucky to land Microsoft as a client in 2008 which really helped us with stability and a way for us to grow our business.  At the same time, organic growth causes you to make a lot of ROI calculations on what you can or can’t invest in which can be frustrating.  The flip side, we maintained control of our own destiny and weren’t liable to outside investors or institutions, just ourselves.

How did WWU and Bellingham prep you for your successes today?

First and foremost, the network.  As mentioned in a previous question, I met several of the founders and many of my staff at WWU.  Also, a number of our early customers came through the WWU network.  I can’t stress enough how important it is to build your personal brand and your network.  When starting a company, it is what you are leveraging in recruiting, business development, and services (attorneys, IT, etc).  All of these things in some regard were rooted in our time in Bellingham/WWU.

What do you think is the greatest area of possibility for innovation and growth in our PNW region?

That’s really a tough question as I think there are multiple trends that the PNW is well positioned to capitalize on.  The most obvious is cloud computing.  You have three of the major cloud infrastructure companies in Microsoft (Azure), Amazon (AWS) and Google has announced it is building a campus to focus on the cloud here in Seattle.  The offshoot of that is that you will see a bunch of startups trying to leverage these capabilities and talent.  You also have research in Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, etc coming out of the University of Washington and Allen Institute for AI that will bring new ideas around cognitive and semi-cognitive learning that will accelerate our ability to build applications and services that can learn, react and respond at a 1:1 level.  All of these trends/ideas can be applied in news ways within our local industries such as space exploration, drone technology, retail, clean tech, etc.

Where do you find inspiration?

People.  The best part of my job is that I get paid to eat.  Meaning, I make it a goal to ask people to coffee, lunch, dinner, drinks, whatever it takes to get face time with people in order to learn what people are up to.  Its energizing to feel people’s passion for what they are working on.  For example, I was just in London on vacation and happened to have a friend from Microsoft that was there at the same time.  He had been attending a conference on Artificial Intelligence and it was fascinating to hear all the amazing things coming out of MS Research.  I would be remiss for not mentioning my family as something that inspires me.  Being a founder is not always (if ever) an easy job and the support of my family has always been an inspiration to me.

When you find yourself stuck what do you do to increase creativity?

Coming from the analytics space, I often relate back to optimization and its philosophy of “test and test often.”  Being stuck is more about your unwillingness to fail, it is an ego thing.  In my opinion, it is much better to get an idea out, test it, learn and continue to move forward.  I think this is something that is critical to success.  Many of times, when meeting with founders, they are so rigid in their ideas that they spend too much time trying to perfect something vs being agile and flexible in your ideas.  Its about progress, not perfection.  I think about a sculpture, it starts as this big block of concrete or some clay, but over time and with trial and error, it becomes something beautiful.  If all this fails, get a good bottle of wine, get together with friends and laugh.  At the end of the day, its all 1st world problems.

What’s the biggest thing you look for in hiring?

I look for a number of things – passion, integrity and are they “likeable.”  Passion is a word that is thrown around a lot, but what I mean when you are interviewing someone and ask them a question about what they do, do they light up?  Do you get jazzed about what they are saying or doing?  As a founder, everyone you hire is a representative of you and it is critical that you hire someone with integrity and you have trust that they will always represent the brand accordingly.  I’d much rather hire someone that is going to “do the right thing” vs make me more money.  Finally, you spend a lot of long hours with your coworkers and I am a strong believer that you work harder for people you like.  I always use the example of on a friday afternoon at 5pm you get a request from a coworker, if you have the added check of friendship, there’s no way you are going to say, “I’ll get to that on Monday.”  You want your friends to be successful so you get it done.

What’s the smartest move you feel that you have made so far?

Besides marry my wife and have my two amazing daughters?  I don’t think anything I’ve done has been “smart” in the true definition, I’ve been very fortunate in my life and career to have great people in my life.  I think the “smartest” thing I’ve done is recognize that importance as it is really hard to be successful on your own.  It is not easy building a company, being personally liable for payroll, writing checks back into the company, etc and having key folks to lift you up around you is critical to getting through those moments.

What’s the biggest mistake you feel that you have made so far?

Shit, too many to tell.  In my first company, my cofounder and I tried to really boot strap everything.  We did taxes ourselves, payroll, legal, etc.  We spent so much time doing things we weren’t good at or not passionate about, thinking we were saving money, that we didn’t calculate the value of time.  We starting out, I think a lot of founders/startups try to do as much as they can on the cheap (not necessarily a bad thing) that they get away from best use of time and their value to the company.  In this first company we did that and I think it was a key factor in its failure.  There’s a big difference between hard and fun, it just wasn’t fun.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out?

One of my favorite words is “amoebic.”  Being a form that can change its shape.  To be agile and flexible in your ideas is critical to the success for any entrepreneur. Over the course of Society’s history, we pivoted the company three times before we really hit our stride, including three brand changes.
What’s next?

I have this amazing opportunity at EY to really showcase its digital platform and one of the manifestations that I am helping build is its new flagship innovation center in Seattle.  It will come online at the end of the year and I hope it will be a great lighthouse for talent, research and development.  I’ve been also working with the Idea Institute here in Bellingham and part of WWU to help build a better bridge with industry and entrepreneurs in Seattle that I am very excited about.  I love getting together with students and young entrepreneurs to hear what they are working on or passionate about.  Eat more.