Travis Steffen, author of Viral Hero, is a serial entrepreneur with 7 successful exits to his name. As a growth engineer, he specializes in building products that grow themselves.
Travis currently lives in Los Angeles, and serves as the CEO of GrowFlow – an industry-leading, venture-backed suite of software products for cannabis companies. He is also an investor, advisor, and/or partner in several startups and venture funds.
MANY STOPS ALONG THE JOURNEY
Travis Steffen did not begin as an entrepreneur. An Iowa native, he started out as an athlete – first as a member of the football team at the University of Northern Iowa, and then as an MMA fighter. He also began playing professional online poker in 2008, before authoring his first book, Peak Performance Poker.
It was around this same time that Travis began his fascination with entrepreneurship. After starting his first two businesses while attending grad school, Travis would go on to start over a dozen more – leading 7 of them to successful exits. In 2019, Travis published his second book, Viral Hero, which is available now wherever books are sold.
[Podcast Transcript Using Artificial Intelligence]
Umar Hameed 0:01
Are you ready to become awesomer? Hello everyone! My name is Umar Hameed, I’m your host on the No Limits Selling Podcast where industry leaders share their tips, strategies and advice on how you can become better, stronger, faster. Just before we get started, I’ve got a question for you, do you have a negative voice inside your head? We all do, right? I’m gonna help you remove that voice and under 30 days guaranteed, not only remove it, but transform it. So instead of the voice that sabotages you, there’s one that propels you to much higher levels of performance and success. There’s a link in the show notes, click on it to find out more. All right! Let’s get started.
Umar Hameed 0:41
Hello everyone! Today I have the pleasure of having Travis Steffen here with us today. He is the CEO of GrowFlow. Travis, welcome to the program.
Travis Steffen 0:51
Thanks for having me.
Umar Hameed 0:53
So it’s been like a really interesting journey for pot, and pot has so many other names like rope, because at the you know, at the start of this country, cannabis was used for making rope for sailors and you know, sailing vessels were like the the modern technology of moving around the world.
Travis Steffen 1:09
Sure, yeah. I’m honestly, cannabis and hemp, kind of oftentimes are one in the same from an optics perspective.
Umar Hameed 1:18
Travis Steffen 1:18
But from a regulatory perspective, they’re very different because one has psychoactive properties while the other does not.
Umar Hameed 1:23
So it’s kind of interesting how we have taken something that until recently was considered illegal, now, it’s legal pretty much everywhere. And so what would have been the hurdles? Because, when when did you start this business?
Travis Steffen 1:40
So I was not the founder of GrowFlow, actually I was an executive advisor for the two founders that went through an accelerator program that I was a mentor at. And, you know, I had been starting in selling technology companies in Silicon Valley in Los Angeles for the last 12 years or so now. And I had, I was fortunate enough to be able to work with these two founders. And they were just doing every single thing that they were advised to do. It was working, it was, you know, the company was growing, they were just it was their first tech company. So once it got to a certain element of scale and speed, they realized that they wanted to work on the product itself, and they didn’t want everything else that came with executive leadership, fundraising, management, culture, hiring, etc. So they kind of tapped me on the shoulder several times over several months, to convince me to come on but once I did, you know, it was a really great opportunity. I was not a cannabis person at all, I was not from the industry whatsoever, when I came in, and luckily, there were a number of industry veterans on board already. And I was able to educate myself quite a bit on on the industry and exactly how much the distribution of the plant was dramatically changing people’s lives, in many ways that just were not being widely reported as much as kind of the recreational, fun aspect of the product was. And that was the gap that we realized.
Umar Hameed 3:03
So let’s step back a little bit, and we’ll come back to the story, is the founders of this company, realize that, you know, “Hey, being CEO, and running a company and growing a company is different than what we have passion for,” all too often leaders hold on to that CEO title, way longer than they should, much to the demise of the company sometimes and certainly to their happiness.
Travis Steffen 3:26
Yeah, it’s it was a very rare circumstance, I had not seen it before where, you know, a Founder/CEO and a Co Founder, actually, were actively proactively seeking their own replacements when the company was healthy and growing, when the the opportunities really ripe. And they were just very self-aware in terms of their own interests and limitations and what the company could be. And, and they were able to realize that we will be the beneficiaries of more experienced leadership from a share price perspective, if we go and find that person, and make sure that the company can set that person up for success. And I was also very blessed to be able to bring a number of really solid executive leaders with me when I came on board that I had exited prior companies with and they were just how, thankfully, those relationships were such that I was able to pull them away from some of the opportunities that they were, they were going after.
Umar Hameed 4:25
That’s also interesting, because a lot of times what happens is companies tend to be in trouble. And this wasn’t the case here, obviously. And then the VC say, “Okay, you need a new CEO, and they bring in the team,” and then it creates this chasm between the new team versus the entrenched team, the legacy team. So when you guys came in, how did you win over the current executives to say, you know, “Hey, we’re here to help you grow,” what was that transition like?
Travis Steffen 4:50
It was a lot easier than you would think. Many of the folks that were leading the company at the time, were also very, very new to those seats. And after we were able to just interact for even a couple weeks, they were all 100% on board of all the ways that they would be able to develop and learn and, you know, their own interest in the company would appreciate and value much more rapidly by bringing in some some folks that had deeper relationships with capital partners that had more experience from scaling and rapid growth perspective, and so on and so forth. So it was actually a really symbiotic relationship very early it was, we were very fortunate because most of the time, this type of situation can be a pretty big mess.
Umar Hameed 5:36
So the kiss of death always is when you hear of two organizations coming together is like, “This is a match made in heaven, you know, we have the same set of values,” and you know, as soon as they say that, there’s no frickin’ way that’s going to happen. But I think it’s the intent and just showing up in a different way. A friend of mine, Sam Malhotra, business guy, was helping the governor in Maryland get elected. So when he got elected to say, “Hey, when you come on board and help me out,” so he took over Human Services. The secretary of Human Services, and this is where people that are social workers go in to help families in distress. And when he came in, and he introduced the legacy government folks to business practices from Harvard, they were like, “Oh, my God, thank God, this is like, so useful for us to kind of follow our mission and help more people,” so coming in with the right intentions, and a new set of tools is important. So you work with companies providing them guidance to actually come into the marketplace, right? That’s what your business does?
Travis Steffen 6:39
So we actually work with a lot of larger companies in the industry, we work we try to focus a little further upstream, we found if we work with smaller brand new companies, too often, they actually will not have the time or bandwidth to be able to use the vast majority of the solutions that we have, because they’re wanting to man operations. So we typically try to focus a little bit further downstream. And, and we go for, you know, mid market folks, enterprise folks like the large multi-state operators, the vertically integrated operations, where they actually have a staff that can benefit the most like we want to create the most value we can. And we just found that that too often, the smaller operators, you know, they’re much more price sensitive, were not the cheapest solution out there. And they would benefit more from just a very bare bones, check the boxes to be minimally compliant and that’s it. And then as soon as they start to see a little bit success, as soon as they start to realize, “Okay, we want to actually grow this business, instead of it just being a boutique, mom-and-pop forever,” that’s when they typically come to us.
Umar Hameed 7:46
And it’s also good on your part in terms of knowing exactly who you want to serve and how you want to serve, because it’s so easy for companies to go, “Well, you know, we can also help them here and we can also do this,” as soon as you start helping everybody, you’re helping nobody so staying in your lane and being the best you can be in that space is critically important. So how do you guys ensure that you are relevant to your constituents? That you have integrity on what you do? And then you have focus on what you’re really great at? How do you? A, do you think those three things are important? And if they are, how do you maintain that throughout your organization?
Travis Steffen 8:25
Yeah, let’s, let’s take them one at a time, actually, because they’re, they’re actually very different questions. So one of them I heard, so can you repeat those three things, I’ll take the first one.
Umar Hameed 8:34
Okay, so one is basically let’s go with integrity first, like your…
Travis Steffen 8:39
Umar Hameed 8:39
…values who you are, how do you…
Travis Steffen 8:40
Umar Hameed 8:40
…make sure all the employees at all levels can follow that so it’s not just kind of…
Travis Steffen 8:47
Umar Hameed 8:47
Travis Steffen 8:49
Peter Drucker once said that, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” And a lot of people know the line, most people don’t actually put it into practice, what we found is, it’s not an important thing, it’s the only thing, really, in terms of organizational development. Especially after you get past like five or six people, I mean, we’re about 90 people today, but after you get past, you know that as soon as you have your first manager, and it’s not just a founding team of people who are all generalists, culture has to be very deliberate. So a lot of people will hang core values on the wall, and that’s where they’ll sit. And most of the time, their culture is implicit. It’s just assumed, like, “Yeah, this is what we say it is. But this is what it actually is.” So we kind of really made an intentional push from day one, we’re going to clearly define our core values. We’re going to repeat them on every single call, we’re going to make staffing decisions, hiring, firing strategic decisions, we’re going to make, you know, large capital deployment decisions when we’re, when we’re actually making investments into the business from what we’ve raised. All of that is based specifically on those and then we communicate in what ways those are, are actually being carried out. And then we really (Garbled) and basically say, “All right on everything team call we have, we’re going to highlight core value wins of the week, we’re also going to flag core value risks of the week and surface, those make it okay to talk about them. So if it becomes a really clear part of the culture, you know, our team members will inevitably adopt those.”
Umar Hameed 10:18
Brilliant. So also, when you capture those things, you can’t just story because having values on the wall tend to be dead. And when you can tell a story, let me tell you about this person, they did this and then when you get new onboarding, it’s like, what does this mean is like, “Well, let me tell you about something recently,” and it makes it real and alive. And they get the spirit of the law as opposed to just the text of the law.
Travis Steffen 10:43
Right, right. Yeah, honestly, it’s. So we had, we had to do, you know, a couple of things early on, when we first came on, there was no predefined culture, there’s no predefined core value, or mission statement or anything like that. So basically, what the company had, we came in with very strong product market fit. And that’s it glimpse of solid fundamentals. As an organization, we had to install those, which was a perfect situation, because we actually knew very little about the industry when we came in. But we knew a lot about how to build successful businesses. So it was kind of a match made in heaven in that way. So from a mission standpoint, we basically said we want to be from day one, after serving our customers and why they came back to us all the time. We basically said, “We want to be the most helpful company in cannabis,” period. So anytime we have a strategic decision that we have to make, or there’s a debate on what tactic to go after, you know, we’ll frame the discussion and say, “What would the most helpful company in cannabis do?” And nine times out of 10, the answer is clear. (Garbled) when we actually just asked that question.
Umar Hameed 11:46
Just by asking that question, which is brilliant.
Travis Steffen 11:49
Travis Steffen 11:49
Umar Hameed 11:51
Travis Steffen 11:52
You get, you get caught up in what would make the most money for the business or questions like that, and it’s, they’re not the same. So we basically just will operate it with the thesis that, you know, if you treat the customer well, and you, you actually try to help, and you create solutions to drive customer outcomes, we then treat our revenue as a byproduct of that, rather than the other way around.
Umar Hameed 12:15
I think in the Southwest Airlines with the Founder they’re one of the things was, you know, “How can we make this a really, really low price airline that gets people there on time, every time?” And certainly the customers say, you know, “Hey, we want food on these planes,” and when people would bring it up to him and say, “Okay, how will this help us lower the cost?” And the answer was, “It doesn’t.” And so I think that question of, “How can we be more helpful or will this make us more helpful this thing you’re suggesting?” And if the answer is, “Kinda,” no, that’s not it. So the second word I used was relevance, how do you stay relevant to your constituents? Because…
Travis Steffen 12:59
Yeah. That’s a good question.
Umar Hameed 13:01
…and how you need to show up, needs to adapt. So how do you keep a finger on the pulse?
Travis Steffen 13:06
Honestly, so we had to adopt. So one of our core values is we actually borrowed from Amazon, and it’s a deep customer obsession. So all of our product managers, for example, and focus on our new market entry team. And then all of our customer experience teams from support or success or activation, and our sales team, they all have really clearly defined motions on talking to customers, and how those conversations should happen in a way, so we’re not like leading the witness. We want to ask questions…
Umar Hameed 13:38
Travis Steffen 13:38
…in a very specific way, and let them kind of reveal what they want to us in the language that that they want to use. So we don’t want to nudge them in a direction, we want to just get as go on a fact-finding mission. And the relevancy really also then comes over top of that, because we can let the customer decide what we do and and we could probably see some success that way. But if Henry Ford would have asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. So what we try to do is drill down, instead of asking them for what the solution should be, it’s what outcome do you want to drive? What is the result that you want, hear from whatever it is that you’re proposing? And then we’ll go ahead and get together as a team and say, “What’s the best possible way that we can create this outcome for them? And then we’ll just keep them in the process the whole time and present solutions to them. But you know, being able to actually exercise, the muscles of innovation that actually are servant focused, like we want to help drive those core outcomes has been kind of what the magic is that.
Umar Hameed 14:44
Did this kind of thought process, kind of, did you bring that inject that into the company or did it develop once you got there? Because just a couple of things you mentioned one was, you know, leading questions so we actually get at what’s really there. Most companies, we know what they want, and we will ask these questions so the questions are leading on either accidentally or on purpose. And then the other one was, “Dear customer, what’s the outcome that you want?” Get your customer to think about it, exactly what that is. And oftentimes, it’s not just more sales, it’s like, what’s the outcome is like, “Oh, this is what we want.” So did you bring that in or did you adapt it when you got there and kind of figure stuff out?
Travis Steffen 15:22
A little bit of both. Honestly, it’s a process that has to evolve as you scale. So it’s something that if you would ask every Founder who reads blog posts or anything like that, it’s something that most like in the know, Founders know, is important but it’s a completely different animal to actually use it every day. So for example, one of the tools that we brought in, one of my favorite books, when it comes to this sort of thing is, Lean Customer Development by Cindy Alvarez, part of the Lean Series. And it’s a very quick read, it’s very specific and actionable, and just shows, okay, “Here’s the magic of not asking leading questions, here’s the magic of what this can do for you,” and just provides a very clear framework. Now our product team and some of our other teams have had to iterate on that, just based on our needs, but it really did get us started. But…it wasn’t
Umar Hameed 16:14
Travis Steffen 16:15
…(Garbled) thing. To be honest with you, really what it does come back to culture, you know, because it’s one of those things that has to really be in the DNA of the company to not go into data, looking for validation of your opinions, and rather forming opinions based on on the data that you’re getting. It’s really, really easy…
Umar Hameed 16:32
And this is not…
Travis Steffen 16:33
…to get mixed up.
Umar Hameed 16:34
I mean, we’re hardwired. I mean, you’ve got friends, and many times when friends ask you for advice, they know the answer they’re looking for. And if you don’t give them what they’re looking for, they’re like, “Ah, nevermind, Travis, I’m gonna go to somebody else to validate the answer that I want,” so we’re kind of hardwired to do that. So one of the things I find is that a lot of the values and mission and vision for companies, I guess, maybe I’m being like a drama queen here, but 80% of them are bullshit with companies where it’s like, we took a survey, or our consultants said, and we got down to this. And when you ask employees, “Do we actually live up to that?” And the answer is, “Oh, no, we don’t do that,” this is what really happens here. They open door policy that the unwritten messages never come through that door. So bravo for bringing in the new culture, and then making the effort to keep it alive. So one of the things that leaders have the ability to do, is to see further into the future than hourly workers, for the most part. So how do you ensure that you’re seeing far enough into the future and still keeping an open mind? Because if you just look at what’s happening right now, you can get lost, but you need to kind of say, “Okay, I’m thinking in three years, we need to be here, A, are you doing that? And B, how do you connect the bridge from what’s happening day to day to where you think this is going and also don’t get caught up in getting blinders on?” So complicated question, how about it?
Travis Steffen 18:02
Yeah. And honestly, the the prior statement that you made is kind of related to this. So like, if we were looking at it from a human resources perspective, for example, like we do monthly surveys with our team. And we basically say, you know, “The survey topics might be things like diversity and inclusion, wellness, benefits, engagement, like all sorts of different topics, and that cadence repeats every six months,” but what we do is all those surveys are anonymized, we find patterns, stick responses of where are we failing, we’ll select some of the top three things, we’ll create initiatives around them, we’ll communicate them, and we’ll continue to communicate their progress, so that our team knows, “Hey, these are being worked on, it’s not gonna be perfect on day one. But this is, you know, we’re putting attention here. And then the next six months, we’re gonna run that survey again, and see if we’ve made progress.” And by and large we have, so that one piece is another…
Umar Hameed 18:08
Travis Steffen 18:16
…piece of that culture, but it’s also kind of future focused, like you said, we want to work in the direction of something knowing that it won’t happen overnight. Now, from a macro level, from a strategic perspective, you know, basically what we did is we created a three year vision and said, “Alright, 3 years down the road, this is where we want to be and we got as specific as we possibly could.” And then we aligned our quarterly goals around kind of a step by step approach to that particular reality. And by and large, like, all these predictions, all these projections are going to be some degree of wrong, I think it was statistician, his name was EP box, had a really great quote here. And he basically said all models are wrong, but some are useful. And so based on for for us, yeah, this, this particular projection, it’s got to be wrong, but it’s useful in steering the ship, because by making a decision to do one thing, we’re consciously also opting out of all of these other ways of doing things, all these other things that we could do with that time. So that has to be like a very clear and present strategic decision every time it happens. It’s a, it can be very simple to comprehend. But it’s not easy to implement. It’s a daily practice.
Umar Hameed 20:13
Brilliant. So how do you keep yourself on track? Because you know, being at the top, you’re juggling a lot of balls, how do you make sure you live up to those three things, integrity, relevance and stay focused on what you need to do, so how do you manage that?
Travis Steffen 20:30
Couple things, I mean, first and foremost, like, I’ll go back to the Jhansi, Maxwell, five levels of leadership. Position is number one, obviously, you know, I’m grateful to have the position I have with the position itself is is meaningless. Second level is permission, like the people I’m leading need to trust me enough and give me implicit permission to lead them to be, you know, they need to say, “Alright, I’m giving you permission to be led by,” and that’s something that’s earned, you know, they need to be able to trust. Third is production, like I need to show them results of what I’m asking them to do is actually leading them in the direction that all of us want to go together. And, you know, fourth, I need to make them better, that fourth level is people development, I need to make them better, and bring them in the direction of where they want to go long term, even after growth low. And then that last one, Pinnacle is empowering new leaders to step in, and, and take ownership. All of those things are equally important. And when combined, like it creates that sort of, you know, reality, but realistically, the the answer that doesn’t get talked about a lot that’s really, really important is your effectiveness as a CEO or a Founder, whatever seat you’re in, is that is directly proportionate to your ability to manage your own psychology.
Umar Hameed 21:50
Travis Steffen 21:51
Without question, there is no more I mean, a lot of there are VCs that have been on record saying, “Starting and scaling a company is like eating glass every day, for years,” it is one of the more high pressure situations that you’re going to be in high stakes, high pace, oftentimes high stress. And if you don’t act proactively, to craft your life around self-care, you burn the candle at both ends, you’re also, yes, you’re a leader, you’re a visionary, etc. but you’re also a mammal, like you have limitations, your brain will suffer, you’re going to make emotional decisions. And if you don’t regularly practice some sort of balance and self care, your organization will suffer, you might not see it people might, might not bring it to you because they’re afraid, you know, but it exists, and it’s directly proportionate to the success of the organization.
Umar Hameed 22:43
Brilliant. The last question I have for you, Travis, and I’m gonna frame this up to ask you is, one of the things that really intrigues me are mind hacks, like little shortcuts that allow you to get great results so I’ll give you an example of one. I was coaching the salesperson and they were trying to describe what, what they do to a customer. And they were like, did it pretty badly. And I know this CEO is very articulate, very passionate, I said, “Okay, do me a favor, put on chips mask and now tell me what you do?” and instantly, this guy’s articulate, passionate and concise on what they do, so the answers were always there. And just this concept of mass allowed him to articulate instantly. I didn’t coach him on anything other than that, do you have a mind hack that you use that lets you show up in a more powerful way whether it’s leadership, self leadership that our listeners might find interesting?
Travis Steffen 23:36
So yes, and no, I wouldn’t call it a hack. It’s more engineering, you know, and I use that term because, you know, there are there’s a lot of, of smoke and mirrors around the term growth hacker, right?
Umar Hameed 23:50
Travis Steffen 23:51
That’s a bet the most scalable path to high growth is growth that is systematically engineered into the DNA of a company.
Umar Hameed 23:57
Travis Steffen 23:58
So that’s kind of how I’ve tried to treat it. So one of the things that is important to so here’s, for example, this is my day today, in like…
Umar Hameed 24:07
Travis Steffen 24:08
…a physical notebook,
Umar Hameed 24:09
Travis Steffen 24:09
every single thing that I have to do everyday that takes time. It’s not just things that I have to remember, it’s not a to do list, anything that takes time is on the list. It’s rank ordered. It’s batched. And the order is strategically placed so that I’m staggering, cognitively challenging tasks, with tasks that also need to be completed during my day to be a human but don’t take brainpower, right? Because what oftentimes, if we just act on instinct, we will be compelled or the gurus the time management gurus out there will say, “Okay, get all the hardest, most important things done first,” I actually disagree with all of them. And I can see exactly what they’re doing when they’re teaching this. They’re building solutions to sell people in books, without question. This is now this is a system, I’ve never taught anybody this. This is just for me, I’ve developed with over 12 years, I’m the only one that use it, use it because it’s for my brain. But the reason that this is important is because, if you’re in an environment that’s so high-paced every day, the first thing that’s going to happen is you’re gonna burn out. And you’re going to burn out by two, three o’clock in the afternoon, maybe earlier, if you’re up and focusing on just cognitively challenging stuff. But if you can strategically fit the puzzle pieces of your day more tightly together, and in a strategic way to periodically give your brain breaks, while still remaining productive, it’s almost like interval training for your mind.
Umar Hameed 25:40
And what comes up for me is is like a survey between courses in the meal, where it just got,
Travis Steffen 25:47
Umar Hameed 25:49
So it could be a task that needs doing, but it takes you away from the heavy mental stuff. It’s almost like a relief, and then you come back to something else.
Travis Steffen 25:56
Now here’s here’s to illustrate the power behind that. Like the productivity you get from just that one thing is pretty astounding, and a way to illustrate that not to toot my own horn, but over the last 10 years, sorry for my alarm, that’s another hack I have, I have an alarm every two hours reminding me to eat, because I will forget.
Umar Hameed 26:16
Travis Steffen 26:17
But the way to illustrate the impact that, that sort of thing can have like, I’m not, I don’t come from money, I didn’t I don’t have a business degree, I learned all this stuff by doing over the course of several years, but in a decade, I’ve been able to start scale and sell seven companies. Right now I’m running…
Umar Hameed 26:36
Travis Steffen 26:36
…line with with almost 100 people, we’ve raised 10 million in capital, we’ve raised almost 100 million for other projects in the past. I’ve got a real estate portfolio that I manage on the side, I’ve written two books with three more that are in draft form. There’s another company that I founded that’s doing really well with a different CEO, like there’s so much stuff that happened in that span professionally. And then personally I’ve run a bunch of ultra marathons, I’ve competed in bodybuilding competitions, I’ve done all of these crazy things. And I still have the same 24 hours in a day that anybody else has. And I still have time for a personal life, I still have time for social life, I still get nine hours of sleep every night, I’m not I’m cutting myself off from work every day at five o’clock. Like I don’t burn the candle at both ends like all these like Gary Vee, just you, work yourself to the bone wake up at four. I wake up at seven, I go to bed at 9:30,
Umar Hameed 27:30
Travis Steffen 27:32
you know, it’s not, it’s not how hard you work, you’re there’s a better way that most people don’t understand. There’s just a way to order the things during your day and a way to present them to yourself that allows you to squeeze you know a week out of the day.
Umar Hameed 27:49
Brilliant Travis, you are engineering your life. I love it. It was a pleasure meeting you. Thank you so much for being on the program.
Umar Hameed 27:57
Umar Hameed 28:03
If you enjoyed this episode, please go to iTunes and leave a five-star rating. And if you’re looking for more tools, go to my website at nolimitsselling.com. I’ve got a free mind training course there, that’s going to teach you some insights from the world of neuro-linguistic programming and that is the fastest way to get better results.