Episode 140: Benefits Of Hands-Off Leadership With David Wachs
It is quite easy for an entrepreneur to be too involved in their day-to-day operations. However, there is immense power to be harnessed in embracing hands-off leadership. Brett Gilliland is here with David Wachs, Founder and CEO of Handwrytten, who talks about growing a team by putting a healthy space between you and your people. He explains how getting away from a huge chunk of your business encourages employees to become more resourceful, innovative, and accountable. David also discusses how to shut down unnecessary external noise, mostly caused by digital communication, and give more time for meditative thinking. Watch this episode as well as check out our business coaching program to help you become more hands-off.
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I’m excited to have our guest and to introduce him. His name is David Wachs. David is a serial entrepreneur. I don’t want to limit him to his role as the Founder and CEO of Handwrytten. We will talk more about Handwrytten here in a little bit. Before we get into what he is doing, let’s go back a little bit. David also founded a company called Cellit, which was a mobile marketing platform and mobile agency. Under David’s leadership, Cellit became a leading player in the mobile marketing space and invented the concept of mobile customer relationship management, which is quite a cool thing.
Cellit developed one of the most robust and widely used mobile marketing platforms in the world, delivering millions of SMS and MMS messages to consumers daily. David sold Cellit to HelloWorld in January 2012. He went on to stay there with the company for a couple of years, which we’ll probably get into during our visit. Without further ado, let me welcome, David. Thank you for coming to the show.
Thank you for having me. It’s an honor to be on your show.
I’m excited about what you’ve done in the past, and I’m also geeking out about what you’re doing with Handwrytten. Unlike many of our guests, you and I live and work in the greater Phoenix area, so I could come to your location or the shop. I could come to your office, shop, or location and see Handwrytten in action. I’d love for you to give a little context about what Handwrytten is and what you’re doing there because it is super fascinating.
In my prior life at Cellit, we were doing all this text messaging stuff. I was stuck with Cellit for two years. I was thinking, “What could I do next? I’m certainly too young to retire.” I’ll never retire. If I retire, that’d be a huge mistake. I was thinking, “What could I do next?” I realized I was part of the problem because everybody was getting 1,000 text messages a month and 134 emails in Slack, Teams, Twitter, and all these other forms of communication. Maybe not Teams, but the rest of it. Teams was not around yet.
I realized people are overwhelmed by the noise of digital communication. At the same time, when I walk around the offices of my employees, if they had received a handwritten note from somebody, it was on display on their bookshelf or it was on their desk, or maybe they brought it home and stuck it to their refrigerator. I thought there must be a way to scale handwritten outreach. That’s where Handwrytten came from. It was from my own thought, “This would be a cool service where I could type in a note, have it handwritten, include a gift card to Starbucks or something, and then have it mailed in the next business day.” That’s what we do.
We have 175 in our facility here. We lease some both domestically and internationally as well. We do 20,000 notes on a busy day around here. It’s interesting that it’s fully vertically integrated. We start with plastic sheets and electronic components and turn that into robots. We then take blank paper and have a digital press that prints it into the card stock. We feed that card stock into the robots to write it out.
It’s interesting. It scratches all my geeky itches as far as programming and building robots. I’m starting a side project with my kids. I’m building a robot for them and maybe starting a YouTube show about it. It’s a fun business, and it seems to be pretty much universally applicable. If somebody says, “Who are your clients?” It’s anybody that wants to communicate with a customer.
I feel like most people are fatigued by electronic communication or receiving it. They understand that their recipients are fatigued by it as well. It will either not get read. It will get read and discounted. That means you could send the most personal thing to somebody but they’ll think it was written by ChatGPT or something like that versus a handwritten note, which they feel is unscalable. The investment of time that people spend writing handwritten notes is what makes people’s eyebrows raise. Forcing yourself to turn off your computer and step away from your phone or whatever to write a handwritten note is the valuable part, not the $5 Starbucks gift card inside.
You said it was interesting. The geeky side of you loves being there. I’ll say the geeky side of me loved touring your facility. It was cool to see the robots in action and super impressive to see how human-like was the outcome. The handwritten cards that I got to see were incredible. Hats off to you and the team for making something like that work. I wish everybody could come and see it in action. Since they can’t, they can live through my eyes a little bit. It was impressive to see.
Let’s focus on the lessons that you learned both as you grew Cellit, exited, and then stayed on there for a couple of years and then started up in this business and scaled it to the point that you have. There are lots of good entrepreneurial journey leadership lessons in there. We want to mine a few of those with the time that we have together. Let’s talk about what it was like to go from the boss at Cellit to being in an acquired company and presumably having somebody that you report to. Let’s talk about what that’s like in that transition and anything you may have learned in that process.
When I started Cellit, it was a one-guy shop. It was me in the corner of a bedroom, programming with a two-liter bottle of Diet Mountain Dew next to me. It was a classic startup thing for a solid year and a half to two years. I moved back to Chicago and slowly, over the next 4 to 6 years, built up a team. By the end of it, we had about 25 people, so it was something.
The greatest gift of that experience was training and building leaders. For instance, I was on a phone call with a client of ours. Their CTO used to be one of my programmers. When he started at Cellit, he was a very shy, quiet guy. We turned him into a leader. There were another two people on the account management side that I was very proud to see what they went off and did. They turned from little inexperienced women straight out of school to very capable, eloquent leaders in account management in this industry. That was cool, but I didn’t have any perspective on it. When you run a company for eight years or whatever it was, you forget how other people do it.
I realized when I joined HelloWorld, which is the company that acquired us, that it was probably a little too hands-on. I saw how Matt Wise, the CEO of HelloWorld, handle things. There are extremes on both sides. You don’t want to be completely hands-off either, but you want to give enough space. Your role as a CEO and a leader is not to provide the answers. It’s to coach your team and direct your teams so they can find the answers. I fall into the trap of trying to find all the answers myself too much of the time as opposed to engaging the team to come up with their solutions. I’m still guilty of that, but at least I’m aware of it.Business leaders must not be completely hands-off from their team. They just need to give people enough space so they can find the answers themselves. Click To Tweet
You’re not here because you’re perfect at it. You’re here because you have some insights and some experience to share. Let’s talk about the times that you have found success. Maybe even before we get to success, let’s talk about things you have done to practice getting better at that. I want people to go from where they are to a very capable and confident CEO, team builder, leader, and developer, but it’s not one step. There are lots of stuff that goes into becoming that. What has helped you when you’ve done that? What has helped you to do it right?
Quite frankly, one of the biggest things that did it for me at Cellit, and to a lesser degree because I’ve gotten two hands-on again, was a year before we sold Cellit. I was living in Chicago for several years. I was sick of the rain, the cold, and everything. I picked up and moved to Marina del Rey, California. It was pretty much unbeknownst to my team. I let them all know I’d be working part-time in California.
Creating that physical separation created the mental separation of the team to where they felt more autonomous. I’m not saying always pick up and go somewhere else to another state, but maybe as a leader, you should do 1 or 2 work from home days or something like that to create that separation where the team has to figure out their own answers. Sometimes, it’s too easy to run into your office with every single question. If you’re not as available, it forces them to be a little bit more autonomous.
I can’t remember the book. I’d lie if I said I read the book. I listened to the Blinkist on the book of coaching, which is like a crib notes on this coaching book. They said you should walk into your team’s offices and have some open-ended questions like, “What’s on your mind today? Is there anything else on your mind?” These are very open questions to get them thinking about the challenges they’re facing in the workplace, and then try to see if you can help them develop strategies on their own. You could also say, “What do you think the answer to that is? What would you do next here?” Try to call the answer out of them. I’ve been doing that a lot more than I used to.
I’ll give you a parable. I’m still a little bit in the weeds on some programming of the robots. I’ve given up pretty much everything else. Much like Michael Gerber says in E-Myth, you shouldn’t be the pie baker. You should be managing pie bakers and determining where you’re going to expand to bake more pies or whatever. I still like baking the pies of some of this programming, which I do and I shouldn’t. I’m turning that over finally.
I was on vacation in Puerto Vallarta. I brought a little programming down to do on the side. It wasn’t a big deal, but I was doing that. Our friends flew down to Puerto Vallarta, but the difference between us and them is we flew down on American Airlines and they flew down in a private jet. The reason they flew down in a private jet is he is a CEO, too, but he is much more hands-off. He is hands-on but hands-off. He’s better at empowering his team to do stuff, so he’s not the single point of failure and the bottleneck. Whether he knows it or not, I’m trying to learn a lot from him as far as to not be that single point of failure and not be that bottleneck. It is because of that that he’s flying around in private jets and I’m flying coach.
That’s a great parable. I like it. You’re onto something really big. I love the practical suggestions you gave. In my role, any value I bring to this show is asking you good questions and then summarizing good stuff that I heard. What I heard you say is if we want to build something meaningful as in in-scale or impact, then we have to figure out how to get out of the day-to-day so it can grow beyond what our two arms can keep around.
I heard two good practical things that you would suggest or you’ve learned. One is some physical separation. You’re less accessible to the team. They have to think through it more. The other one was getting good at asking thoughtful questions that invite them to engage in a new way. They’re not coming to you for answers, but you’re asking them questions about how they think, what solutions they’ve found, and what’s on their mind. It is all of those good questions that you’ve modeled. I love all of that. Tell me a little bit more unless you have something else on that topic. Do you have anything else on that one?
I’m not going to lie. I’m not the best manager in the world. If there’s an area I could grow in, it would be that. I’m hotheaded and a know-it-all, which a lot of entrepreneurs are. I’m also very introspective. As I’m aging and trying to reinvent myself, leadership and becoming a less reactive leader is first and foremost something I’m working on.
For somebody who thinks he’s hotheaded and has all the answers, it takes a lot of humility and self-awareness to describe some of what you described. This isn’t about perfection. This is about a journey. You’re squarely on that path and you have some great experiences to share. Let’s get back to some of that experience. You have a column in Inc Magazine, right?
Mayne Inc Online. I don’t know what you can call it anymore. Is it Stepping Out of the Day to Day?
It’s Stepping Away from the Day to Day.
We’ve talked about that a little bit already. Are there other tips or ideas that you have to share about how to step away from the day-to-day?
One is being very cognizant of the distractions in life. One of the biggest life hacks I’ve done is turning off all the little circle notifications on apps on my phone, all those 1s and 10,000s that appear on every stupid app. I still have the one for my email, but it’s a meaningless number having 5,000 unread emails. The rest of them, I’ve tried to turn off because all that stuff gives me anxiety.
I also try to, on a daily basis, block out time to get work done and to focus and not get interrupted. Every day, my calendar is blocked out from 9:00 AM to 10:00 AM because I need time to collect my thoughts in the morning. Like most people, I’ve got my Calendly link and everything else. If I don’t block out time for myself, my Calendly is going to be booked because nobody stops to think, “They’ve got no availability on Tuesday except this fifteen minutes, so I’m going to take that.” I try to put in placeholders that allow me to breathe, eat lunch, and turn it all off. Blocking out quiet time is certainly important.
Outside of stepping away, I try to do stuff like meditating. I had an article written about me for Inc Magazine also, but the actual print pub. It was about my experience with hypnotism and ways that can improve my leadership, specifically being reactive. I’ve used hypnotism in other parts of my life, so I tried to bring it into my business life. To each their own, but those are the techniques I use.
Whatever the actual technique, let’s talk about the principles that you outlined. I see principles when people share their examples. One of them is getting focus time. The first one you shared was to eliminate more of the noise and more distractors with the little life hack of those little notification bubbles and numbers. I love that you brought that up. It is simple things that can give our brains a break and let us focus on some other things that are more important. Shutting off some of the noise or the external signals is great. There is also that principle of making time for focus or for thinking.
I like both sides. The business side is where you have, in your calendar, a block of time that’s for you to focus on that day. You didn’t share if the meditation happens outside of that. On the personal side, how do we make sure we’re centered, we’re clear, and we’ve got the noise out? How do we know exactly what we want to do and who we want to be? There is a lot of intentionality at that time.
You’ve built in focus time and ways to be intentional. There are so many ways and it helps with meditation. Depending on your personal religious beliefs and practices, there’s a good meditative morning routine and end-of-day stuff that people do with journaling. I love that you’ve tried some hypnotism and whatever you can do to get clear and cut out the noise. Those are very practical and great tips. Thank you for sharing those.
You said you were up to about 25 team members at Cellit. I know, at one point, when we spoke, you were in the 35-40 range or something like that of team members. You’ve grown Handwrytten larger to a number of people. I know that that leadership lesson begins to become important as the numbers grow. Talk to us for a minute about the importance of being able to build that next level of leadership to be able to take on more people.
We have about 40 people. I’ve always prided myself on a flat organization. When new employees come into your office asking which direction to stuff an envelope, whether you want the front of the card in the front of the envelope or the front of the card in the back, I got bigger fish to fry. There needs to be somebody in between us. It is having a strong middle layer. I’m not saying multilayers all the way up, but it is having at least one layer separating you from the masses.
It has taken many revisions, but I have been fortunate to build a strong leadership team. Like many people, we institute EOS to keep our management team on track. I believe many of the managers then use EOS down the path to managing their team meetings and all of that. Having that many people report to one person is impossible. At the same time, in doing that, I do believe in a little bit of what I call management by walking around. It is every morning, I’ll walk around and say good morning to everybody. I’ll chit-chat a little bit so everybody feels heard.
I’m proud that I have very few people directly under me. I’ve got five people or so, which is manageable. That’s been a good lesson. Also, there is hiring up a bit. We hired a new director of program software development. It’s so nice to have somebody in place where I no longer have to write programs on my Puerto Vallarta vacation. Pretty much across the board, we’ve upgraded our staff.
At first, when I was hiring, I was hiring a bunch of excited kids straight out of college. This time, I see a very big benefit of having some experience and then also an even bigger benefit of emotional maturity. I don’t even know at this point if it’s emotional maturity or if it’s a generational thing. The generation coming out of school is difficult to work with for me, so I like having a more seasoned workforce. I feel like they have a better work ethic. They don’t have this, “Every day at the job isn’t 100% life fulfilling. Therefore, I’m to quit,” or, “I’m here today, but tomorrow, I’ll be somewhere else.” It is this total lack of commitment.
I feel like when I bring people in and we invest in you, we take several months to get up to speed on pretty much any job, and then you quit because you’re not feeling it one day. It’s tough. We’ve been investing a lot in better people, more mature people. We do a lot of testing when we bring people in around their cultural fit. In addition to their technical fit, can they do the job? We also do, “Are they the right person?” We’re listening for cues as far as how long they’ve held their last jobs. We don’t even interview anybody if they’ve changed jobs every seven months or anything like that.
Those are the things we’ve done. I’m not going to lie. We had a ton of turnover in 2022. We had a 50% turnover in 2022, which is very detrimental to an organization. It’s decimating, culturally. From a sales perspective, it derails your sales. You have momentum in your CRM system where you could pick up sales, but it doesn’t work so great.
This 2023, we had our quarterly meeting about it. I feel like a lot of those concerns are gone. I feel like we have a very strong team pretty much across the organization. I’m not giving you a succinct answer here and I apologize. It’s about building a middle layer, entrusting that middle layer to grow their teams, and then also ensuring that when you hire people, you are not looking for overly cheap young talents. You’re looking to make the right investments so that you have the appropriate level of emotional maturity if nothing else.
We can probably take the generational comments out of it and focus on emotional maturity. There are some younger people who have the emotional maturity you’re talking about.
One of my favorite employees around here is 28 years old and he acts like a 50-year-old. He is incredible. He’s a leader.
Life experience typically brings that emotional experience. That’s why that emotional maturity, we often find in maybe the previous generation. I love your points. You can’t possibly go to 40 people without having some other leadership team. You’ve learned that. It doesn’t mean that because you have five direct reports, the other people are unimportant to you. You’re getting around. You’re staying connected with the management by walking around.
You’ve learned a lot and shared some great tips about how to make sure that the people coming in to fill all those important seats are the people who are going to stay committed, be great team players, and do all the things beyond being able to do a job. We want to know where the commitment is. We want them to get along with everybody and be additive to the culture and environment we’re creating. I love it.
I love that you have a system. This is the other thing that I wanted to draw out as we wrap up. You have a system for keeping everybody organized, focused, and aligned. You mentioned EOS. It’s a popular system. We have our Elite Business Growth method. There are other systems. Whatever system you use, let’s have a way and a rhythm around that way that leaders stay connected, coordinate well, and align resources.
As you grow, that’s out of necessity that you got to have some way of organizing all the planning and execution for the long-term and short-term. In the transition from being the business owner who has 10 or 12 direct reports to leading 20, 30, or 40 people, you got a management layer that requires that kind of structure and that meeting rhythm for everybody to stay aligned.
To your point, when we rolled out our management system, I said, “This management system is not perfect, but at least it’s a system. We need something, even if it’s not perfect, to grab onto.” It’s been good from that perspective. It improved communication and kept everybody’s eye on the ball with a scorecard approach. It’s very important to make sure your management team feels engaged. They could feel, “What are they doing? Does this CEO know what they’re up to?” and all this stuff. I try to make sure that my team knows I’m intimately involved. I might not be acting on it, but I’m intimately aware of what’s going on.
That’s very good. If people want to learn more about Handwrytten, your business or they want to connect with you on social or check out your column on Inc, what is the best way for people to connect with you or learn more?
I’d probably say email me at David@Handwrytten.com. I am on Twitter @DavidBWachs and then on LinkedIn. I’m not a Facebooker or anything like that, but certainly, feel free to email me. I’m always happy to answer questions. If you’re interested in using Handwrytten, you can visit our website and either request free samples, which are always good, or sign up. Use the code DAVESENTME when you sign up and you’ll get a couple of bucks for a few cards on me. Give that a shot if you can.
That’s awesome. Thank you for being our guest and sharing so many great insights from your own entrepreneurial and leadership journey. I appreciate you being here.
Thank you. Thanks for doing what you do.
Everyone, please share and like. Do all those things so that we can help as many seven-figure business owners as possible learn from lessons like the ones that were shared by David. We love having you here with us. We look forward to having you here next time.
About David Wachs
A serial entrepreneur, David’s latest venture, Handwrytten, is bringing back the lost art of letter writing through scalable, robot-based solutions that write your notes in pen. Developed as a platform, Handwrytten lets you send notes from your CRM system, such as Salesforce, the web site, apps, or through custom integration. Used by major meal boxes, eCommerce giants, nonprofits and professionals, Handwrytten is changing the way brands and people connect.
Prior to his current initiatives, David founded Cellit, a mobile marketing platform and mobile agency. Under Davids leadership, Cellit became a leading player in the mobile marketing space and invented the concept of mobile customer relationship management (Mobile CRM). Cellit developed one of the most robust and widely used mobile marketing platforms in the world, delivering millions of SMS and MMS messages to consumers daily. Cellit was sold to HelloWord (f/k/a ePrize) in January of 2012.
David is also a frequent speaker on marketing technology and has presented for the Direct Marketing Association, South By Southwest, Advertising Research Foundation, and the National Restaurant Association. David has been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, USA TODAY, Variety, Washington Post and many more.
Both Handwrytten and Cellit were on Inc. Magazines Inc 500 list of fastest growing companies. David now also writes for Inc. Magazine with his column Stepping Away from the Day to Day.
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