Did you know that each year more money ($190B) is spent on designing, building and maintaining websites than on all of digital advertising ($154B) combined? Zack Rosen certainly does. The 31 year-old serial entrepreneur is the co-founder and CEO of Pantheon, a website management platform for Drupal and WordPress that provides elastic hosting and cloud-based development tools to some of the best website teams in the world. Since founding Pantheon, Rosen has been on a mission to consolidate this hugely important, but highly fragmented industry.
Anyone and everyone these days has a website — in fact, it’s the single most important investment in digital marketing a company can make. And for what Rosen calls ‘mom and pop shops’, providers like Squarespace work fine. But, if you’re a professional marketer, your business lives and dies by not only the look and feel of your site, but also its performance and capabilities — everything from up time, user experience, mobile design, page load speed, accessibility and more. Platforms like WordPress and Drupal provide robust functionality via open-source plugins and are able to support massive ecosystems of developers, designers and vendors. The flexibility and extensibility of these platforms is exactly why they own a combined 65% of the CMS market. They’ve become the tool of choice for this generation’s professional website designers and developers and the de facto publishing systems for corporate sites.
But, WordPress and Drupal are actually quite incomplete for companies that want to build truly amazing websites. Development tools like version control, deployment systems, permissioning, tuning, scaling and security are all left to the website developer or owner to figure out. This is where Pantheon comes in. Their platform, free to developers and agencies, provides a comprehensive toolset and fast and scalable hosting, which ultimately allows users to reallocate crucial engineering resources from site and server configuration and maintenance.
At the end of the day, Pantheon’s vision is to take its industry into the modern era of Software as a Service and ultimately power a third of the world’s web traffic. Rosen and his team are on a mission to build a ‘heroic infrastructure’ — like the highways and dams built in the 1940s — but for the digital age.
Pretty lofty goal for a business that’s only been around since 2010, right?
Learning to Lead by Shadowing the Best
While Pantheon’s founding team pretty much wrote the book on enterprise Drupal development, deployment and hosting — they built sites for the likes of The Economist, NBC and Berkshire Hathaway — Rosen had no experience running a fast-growing startup, something he knew he would have to quickly change.
“The best way to learn is by seeking out help from those who have done it before,” says Rosen. “That’s the silver bullet. And the best case scenario is to have those experts and leaders on your Board working with your company day in and day out.”
Rosen says that’s what his Board is there for. “They have a sample size of dozens of companies they can draw from.” And to really leverage their advice he adds, “You have to be shameless about admitting that you might not always have the answer. Accept that it’s okay to ask someone for their help.”
And if you’re really looking for the most impact, you can’t just seek out the advice of one person. “Sure, you’ll get the one thing that works for them in a certain situation, but it might not be the right thing for you,” says Rosen. “You have to talk to multiple people, think about it deeply, and form an opinion about what fits.”
When Rosen needs to look outside his Board for advice, he’s gotten into the practice of shadowing his peers. Rosen has asked a handful of CEOs with companies a year to a year-and-a-half ahead of Pantheon if he can spend the day with them and their organizations.
“I literally ask, ‘Can I show up at your office and follow you around for the entire day?’ I’ve learned more in the days that I shadow fellow CEOs than through any other experience alone. It’s one thing to get advice, but it’s another to see that advice in action.”
As Rosen has learned from his peers, Board members, advisors and his own experience, he’s come to realize that his role changes to match the pace of growth at Pantheon.
“Every time the company doubles in size or revenue, my job radically changes” says Rosen. “You have no choice but to adapt quickly and be okay with being endlessly thrust into new situations. I am constantly learning and focused on accelerating my rate of improvement.”
Managing Uptime and Downtime
When Rosen isn’t building Pantheon or shadowing one of his peers, he’s usually spending time at his bike shop — Mission Bicycle. What started as a passion project has evolved into a full-fledged business, one that serves as a creative outlet.
“Mission Bicycle is a hobby project that got completely out of control. It’s a passion project, not just for me, but for the team that built the company. Our mission is to help our customers fall in love with cycling by building the most personal, reliable and remarkable city bicycles available. Nothing makes me happier than seeing someone riding one of our bikes. I thrive off of that, but I promise you there are easier ways to earn a living than starting a boutique manufacturer in San Francisco.”
And since Rosen has more than a full-time job running Pantheon, he views his position with Mission Bicycle as more of a Board member, which has helped him gain an entirely new perspective.
“Nick Mehta at Gainsight told me that sitting on someone else’s Board as a venture-backed CEO provides an invaluable perspective. My involvement with Mission has really helped with Pantheon. As a pseudo Board member, it’s impossible to be an operator. It’s really forced me to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. When you’re in the business, running it every day, it’s extremely hard to take that step back because you’re surrounded by it. Mission Bicycle has allowed me to think about and see things from different angles, and I apply that back to Pantheon.”
Although Mission Bicycle and Pantheon are incredibly different businesses — one a small manufacturer, the other a venture-backed tech startup — in the end, Rosen has learned that business is business. So whether it’s working towards his goal of powering a third of the world’s web traffic, or the best city bicycles, he says that all the challenges of management, people, the market, the product and the customers, from an abstract view, are the same.