Updated: Feb 26, 2019
This episode features Brian Frank, former VP of Global Sales Operations at LinkedIn and advisor for DocuSign, BlueJeans and Reali.
Brian Frank has over 20 years of experience in helping build, scale and operate sales teams for leading companies around the world. He was the VP of Global Sales Operation at LinkedIn, where he made the organization more productive and successful and helped grown its annual revenue by 50 folds, from 75 million in 2008 to over 3.5 billion in 2018.
Brian shared his career transition from a lawyer to a tech sales leader and unique perspectives on how to develop leadership during this episode.
Highlight 1: Three steps to become a leader at work
Highlight 2: Learn to accept your mistake
Watch the full episode:
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Wenli Zhou: Welcome to Robin.ly Leadership Talk. Robin.ly is an online video content platform which will help researchers and engineers to develop a better understanding about leadership, entrepreneurship as well as business insight. We aim to help you to become the next generation of leaders and entrepreneurs. In this episode, we have Brian Frank. Thank you so much for joining us.
Brian Frank: Thank you. I am excited to be here.
Wenli Zhou: I think we can start from the beginning a little bit. Maybe you can tell us where you grew up, how you grew up, and how did you get into law?
Brian Frank: That’s right. I was born in Los Angeles. Both of my parents were hippies in 60s. And I think they still need probably a lot of ideas about social impact, how to really make a difference. And as a young child, I decided that I wanted to be a lawyer. I don’t know why I decided that, maybe they encouraged me to do that, but that was what I chose. And later on, I decided that I wanted to be an environmental lawyer. I grew up in California, mostly in Los Angeles, but then I lived in Santa Cruz, California all through high school.
Wenli Zhou: Did you surf?
Brian Frank: I was more of a skateboarder kid. Surfing - I tried, it was very cold in the water in Santa Cruz. I was one of those like I think as skater kids.
Wenli Zhou: Interesting. So what triggered you to do the transaction from law to sales?
Brian Frank: I grow up thinking I wanted to be an environmental lawyer. And I went to law school, got a job - practicing environmental law, working for the firm and I realized: While I liked it all around. The technology was exploding. It was 1995, I was living in Silicon Valley. And it just didn't feel like it was as exciting as what was happening in the technology community. And so I decided to leave my job in the firm and go in house. I got recruited away to be one of the first attorneys at a technology company called Ariba. Many of you people watching today may not remember Ariba, some of you will. But in 1999, Ariba was a very hot company, it was one of the symbols of the .com bubble. And at the top of the peak, I think the market cap was $30 billion, and then the market blew up, it went into free fall like everyone else. But unlike a lot of other companies that traders went out of business. Ariba survived. And I ended up spending 10 years there, and then went from law to started exploring other things. I was always curious about business, I wanted to learn more about what is the rest of the organization doing and had a great mentor who helped me move first from law into finance, and I became a regional CFO. And then that same mentor - one day he said to me: You know, I wish I had a tour of duty in sales. I wish I'd had that experience to know what it's like to be a salesperson. And I had the opportunity to go start up a little sales organization inside of Ariba, called Contract Management Solutions, and I did so. I took that first job, I left my CFO job and became a salesperson. So that's basically was my initial transition from law to finance, and then to sales.
Wenli Zhou: That's great. So as a salesperson, you were kind of late to the game.
Brian Frank: I was, yes.
Wenli Zhou: Was there any difficulties during the transition?
Brian Frank: Well, I always say that LinkedIn saved my sales career. Here's the reason why: So once, I was selling contract management solutions. Those are tools to help manage the contracting process for corporations. This was a very early time. Now the product actually - the area is a lot more established. There’re a lot larger companies selling these products. But back then, in 2006, 2007, it was very unknown. And we had to really penetrate this new market. Since I had been a lawyer, I was a subject matter expert, selling into myself in many ways. And I thought it would be easy, but I started making cold calls every day. I would make them twice a day at 10 o'clock, and four o'clock in the afternoon. And it was horrible. It was just terrible. People would hang up the phone on me, they were very rude. And I did it for several months. And I was about to quit, because it just seemed like the wrong thing. And that's when I rediscovered LinkedIn. Once I started realizing that it was also great for sales. It was an amazing lead database for salespeople. So I started sending out a hundred of connection requests a day to anyone with “Lawyer” in their title. And of course, I was probably suspended from LinkedIn. True story, but I got my access back. And it was some of those early connections that turned into a couple of deals that actually closed and ended up saving my sales career. And so that was really the secret for me at going from someone who didn't know anything about sales to someone who actually had to do that, build business prospect. It was LinkedIn, I really ended up saving my sales career. And then several years later, when LinkedIn called to bring me in to build their sales organization, I knew it was the right fit for me.
Wenli Zhou: So you used the title of lawyer as the leverage to make connections on LinkedIn? I am sure there’re plenty of other things like practicing law, also helped your later career.
Brian Frank: It was interesting when you have many careers over a period of time. I believe that the first career you have is probably the one thing that you really master in your life. And part of it is because you can spend a lot of time doing it, because you can really invest in learning the details of what it was. And so as a lawyer, I would say, that was like my highest level of competency. I was really good at working with contracts and negotiating contracts. And that skill certainly helped me a lot in finance, because there's knowledge there that helps me a lot, and sales on the other end. And as an executive, I think understanding how the process works, understanding risk, and legal risk in particular, is a very valuable asset. So I always say that's my base, believe it or not, legal is my base. And I figured (how to) build things around the base, but it's an important thing. Whether you're an engineer or a finance person or a salesperson, whatever you do first, become great at it, because you'll be able to build out of that for your career.
Wenli Zhou: The reason why I asked about this is that my dad used to be a lawyer before he went into business. And he’s always telling me how important it was that his mastering in the law site and now he's not making any mistakes on those important issues.
Brian Frank: It's a very valuable thing. And I would encourage anybody who wants to go into law, even as a foundational knowledge set to do it.
Wenli Zhou: As you mentioned that, you joined LinkedIn in 2008. We know that at this moment, LinkedIn is the organization for profiles and sourcing and business sales. How was LinkedIn back then to 2008?
Brian Frank: A lot different. It was still pretty early days. There was other competitive products. Anyone remembers Plaxo? The millennials in the room do not remember Plaxo. It was already an established business. I think when I started, we had about 16 million people on LinkedIn, which was enough for me to actually be successful in sales.
Wenli Zhou: Yeah, 2008 was the year that LinkedIn truly went global like opened the office in London, and established the Spanish website.
Brian Frank: That's right. Yeah, we sort of were just growing. I think the business was still pretty early on in terms of the monetization, it was very early, I think we had revenues of roughly 75 million, a lot of it from ads, mostly from ads. And in the organization, I was selling in those 15 people in sales. So it was a tiny little team in organization. And people didn't know the brand nearly as well. Almost nobody understood the monetization potential of LinkedIn. Even now, I think people still are confused about how LinkedIn makes money.
Wenli Zhou: So in your blog that you wrote on LinkedIn, you said that LinkedIn was the job that changed your life forever. What part of it that changed your life forever?
Brian Frank: Well actually working at LinkedIn for 10 years was incredibly transformative to me personally and professionally. As a sales person and a leader and executive, I grew, and I really learned a new set of skills as well as how to interact with people in a better way. But I actually feel like the more important transformation was the personal transformation, where for the first time, I realized a lot of the mistakes I've been making in my career. But up until that point, I had no idea that I was actually doing them. And my eyes were opened to a new way of thinking about business, a new way of working with people, a new way of being a better father and a husband and a friend. I feel like I'm a different human than I was 10 years.
Wenli Zhou: Can you give us an example? What kind of mistakes that you were making?
Brian Frank: Yeah. The biggest one was, I really just wasn't aware. And I think it goes back to law moment. So when you're a lawyer, you get paid to win, and you get paid to fight. No one wants to hire a lawyer who's gentle and kindly collaborative. You go out there and hire lawyers, you are looking for someone who's gonna take it to the other side. And so some of that coming from law ended up probably rubbing off into business. As a leader, and just as someone who operate people. And I think that people would sort of, maybe just shrug their shoulders and roll their eyes and let me move on. But it was more of a hindrance than a help. And I never realized it. I never realized that I was being overly aggressive. I never realized that I was being stubborn. I never realized that I wasn't listening to others. And I had this in my mindset that once I had made up my mind about what the right answer was, it had to be right. That was one of the biggest failings I had.
And one of the big moment came early on in 2008, when I was at LinkedIn, I was having a disagreement with a lawyer who worked at LinkedIn. This is way back when. And I don't even remember what it was about, honestly, do not remember what it was about. But I went to my boss, Mike. And I sat down and I said: Mike, this lawyer, he's an idiot, because anyone who disagrees with me is an idiot. And so he goes: I see. And I said, we have to figure out a way of working around this person. And Mike said: No, we're not going to do that. Instead, I want you to assume that he's right, and you're wrong. And I said, how could that be? That's not possible. I just told you, this is why he's wrong and I'm right. And Mike says: You're not listening to me. I'm telling you, you need to just stop always believing that you're right. And even though you do believe clearly you are right, just let it go. Let it go and allow this other person to win. And I was fortunate that I was at a right time in my life where I was willing to accept that advice. If someone had said that to me, probably five years earlier, I would have been (thinking that person as an) idiot, right? But now I actually had such respect for Mike and I was at a point where I was willing to change, I said: Okay, I'm gonna do what you say, I'm just going to go ahead and assume that I'm wrong. I remember getting a little post-it and I wrote “Forgive” on it, and I put it on my monitor in my cubicle. And I went back and I said: Okay, you're right, whatever you want to do.
Like I said, I don't remember what it was about, nothing happened. It didn't mean anything. But something happened to me, that was incredible, which was I realized that I had been holding on to this burden of being right all the time, that I was always trying to win, or once I made up my mind of being right, it was like to the death. Everything had to always happen. And letting that go with such a burden off my shoulders was like a big weight was lifted off my back, because the burden of being right is very heavy. And so I found that ever since that day, I like being wrong. And in fact, I welcome the moments where my mind says this, but someone else wants to do this. And I just let them have their way and agree to what they want.
Wenli Zhou: The willingness to change.
Brian Frank: The willingness to accept someone else's position versus my own, and just let it happen. And willingness to assume that maybe I'm not right, that maybe they are. That makes you a better leader, it makes you a better person to work with, and it makes you happier.
Wenli Zhou: To sum up, what would you describe your leadership style, with everything you told us?
Brian Frank: I would generally describe myself as a compassionate leader. I think of leadership sort of having three elements at this point. The first is, I believe, it's about service. Your job as a leader is to help others and to sort of put the effort into basically, doing the things that make their job better. So just like you think of service being great service at a hotel, when someone really goes above and beyond to do something great. To me, that's what leadership is too in many ways. It's about taking your employees, taking people work for you, and making it the absolute best you possibly can be.
Second, I think it's about inspiration. Leaders need to find a way to tap into their true self, and be able to find this connection with others that inspires them. And whether it's the mission of the company, or whether it's the operating values and culture that you have as a professional, finding that inspiration is key.
And then the last piece that's critical to leadership is communication. So being able to say the right thing in the right way at the right time to the right audience, is the most important thing. And I know this is directed towards technology professionals who are thinking about leadership. And if there was one word of advice I would give to you, it'll be: Focus on great communication. And when I say great communication, I'm not talking about like, being effective, and good and clear. I'm talking about like, wow-class amazing. Think about the one speaker you know, think about the person, when they talk, you stop, and you listen. Who inspires you, who is clear, but also touches something inside of you. That's the type of communication that you need to aspire to have 100% of the time. That's the top of the bar of what great communication is. And that will change your trajectory within a company, the way people perceive you, and ultimately make you a better leader.
Wenli Zhou: Thank you for sharing this. During your years in LinkedIn, 10 years, what are some of the milestones that you'd like to share with us?
Brian Frank: I think hitting a billion dollars was pretty amazing. To go from $75 million to billion dollars revenue was super amazing. Probably, my first promotion to vice president was pretty exciting. LinkedIn is a company that's very title deflated. I ran an organization of 1300 people, which is bigger than most companies. And I was a Senior Director for a long time. So it's deflated. So when I was promoted to Vice President, the bar was very high. At the time, there were 11 Vice Presidents in the whole company. And very, very few of them are now on the executive staff. So that was a big career milestone for me. I think, from a business perspective, the acquisition by Microsoft was an amazing milestone. A lot of people thought of it as a negative. And when I first heard of it, I was concerned about it. But I've since sort of really had an epiphany and a complete 180 on that. Now, I believe it was the best thing that LinkedIn possibly could have done, is to combine with Microsoft, which makes both companies stronger. I think the most important thing to me was the people, their connections and the relationships that I gained, that I was able to influence during that period of time.
Wenli Zhou: Yeah, as a leader you influenced a lot of people outside and inside LinkedIn. So what are some of the suggestions that you can give to engineers or individual contributors that to get promoted and have a successful career path?
Brian Frank: A lot of people asked me that question. And I always have an answer I give oftentimes, and this is the answer I used to give, a program called the new college graduate program at LinkedIn, where we bring in students from all across the world, and they would like sort of become the base of our business and grow. And so they always want to know like, what do I need to do to be successful to grow my career. The first one is, be great at your job. That one probably seems very obvious, because that's what you do every day. That's what they're paying you to do, right? To be great at your job. And you would assume that if I am great at my job, that's how I get promoted? Well, it turns out, there's more. Being great at your job is the basics. So if you are not achieving greatness in what you do, the rest of it is less important. It's not that you shouldn't be doing the rest of it, but like that should be the basics of everything that you do. What is being great at you job do? Well, I think you've got a little bit like playing basketball. You can sit there, and you can practice free throws. And then you can make one and you can say: I made a free throw, I'm ready. But that's what the beginner does. What the expert does is, they practice until they can't miss a free throw, until every single one they take goes in. So you want to be great at your job to basically not just make it to the point where you can't miss. That's what greatness is in your job.
The second thing that you need to do is build relationships. This is one that's I think, awkward for a lot of engineers, for a lot of people who, believe it or not, like me, are a little bit introverted. It's really weird for me to think out that I want to go out there and connect with strangers, or even in the company to like, walk out and just say hello to somebody. It's in my mind, I'm saying: They don't want to talk to me, or they think I have an agenda, or that I'm going to walk in there, and I'm wasting their time. And in the thought of doing it just sounds non-desirable. But here's the truth: Number one, the people that you're reaching out to don't feel that way. They actually want to talk to you, senior people and your colleagues want to connect with you. And if you do it, actually it's not nearly as bad as you think. Secondly, it's really important because people give opportunities to people that they know. That's how we are. You could be a great, great, great performer. But if nobody knows who you are, no one's really had the opportunity to connect with you and get to know you better, and you haven't had career discussions with people, then you're missing the opportunity that what other people will have. So you got to get out there and do it. I know it's horrible. But things like this platform, a great example of a way to connect with others. And LinkedIn is a great example of a tool to do that. Well, but start your own company, go and talk to someone from a different department, talk to someone else, learn about their career, ask them questions. It's not that bad, it really isn't that bad. And it's worth the time. So invest a third of your time doing that. That’s the third.
And the last piece is the most difficult piece, the last piece of being successful is the one it probably is going to separate most people. Because if you're a really hard worker, and you're competent, you can be great at your job. If you have the willingness to try, you can go out there and connect with others and build relationships. But the last one requires you to be strategic. And what does that mean, being strategic? It's kind of a weird word. A lot of people don't even (think they’re) smart. It's unclear. And I don't know if there's an official, there probably is an official definition in the dictionary. But my definition is making high quality, prioritized business decisions. That's basically where you're making a call, which is going to have a high impact as well as a high probability of success, right? Because if I have a big dream, but it can never be achieved, that's not strategic. If I want to achieve something very low, but it doesn't matter, that's not strategic. Strategic is, I can actually pull it off and it matters. How do you do this, as a practical matter, when you're a junior person, you go to your boss, and you say: Hey, what's your biggest challenge? What are you working on? And the boss will say: Well, it's this and that. Then go away, think about it, and think about the answer. What would you do if you were in their shoes and have to solve this problem? Make that determination and make that strategic determination: I would do XYZ, because it's the biggest impact, and it's the most likelihood of success. And then go back and tell the boss: Here's what I think we should do. And by the way, I'm more than happy to help and implement the solution to solve this problem. Because you know what you're doing when you do that? It means you are ready for your next job.
Wenli Zhou: You have been an entrepreneur before you founded your own company called Juniper Residential Fund?
Brian Frank: Yes.
Wenli Zhou: What was the part that you like being an entrepreneur?
Brian Frank: I love startups and entrepreneurship. I mean, to be clear, for Ariba, when I started at Ariba, that was a startup, we had about 250 people, and even LinkedIn had 250 people. And both at a Ariba and at LinkedIn, I took small teams and launched new businesses. At Ariba, I did the contract management solutions, I told you about it. And at LinkedIn, I actually launched our sales solutions business, which today is a multi-million dollar business selling a tool called Sales Navigator. So I love the startup feel. And I do a lot of advising to startups that are out there, and help them grow things. And I love the entrepreneurial spirit that basically comes through.
My own entrepreneurial effort was a real estate investment fund. And it was all done right at the end of 2009, right after the financial crisis happened from 2008. And we decided it was the right time to go in there and buy houses. Looking back in retrospect, it was an obvious thing, right? And in fact, we wish we had bought 1000 houses, we ended up buying like 16 houses or something over that period of time. But the hardest thing to get was money. No one wanted to lend us money. No one wanted to give us money. And it was like, everyone was very afraid. And so you have to - whatever entrepreneurial situation you’re in, overcoming the obstacles and finding ways around it, still be able to do your business is the key.
Wenli Zhou: Speaking of obstacles, you know that in our community, we have lots of great startups that were built by tech-oriented entrepreneurs. So as a sales expert, what kind of suggestions can you give them at the beginning stage? How do they sell the product?
Brian Frank: It's a great question. Well, first of all, you have to understand your go-to-market strategy, right? And start with, really understanding what is the available market? How does your product fit into that market? And how do you think the likelihood is actually selling into that market is. In fact, if you haven't done that as part of your business plan, you're probably too soon to launch your product, in my opinion. So you should spend some time in cycles, figuring that out in the first place.
Generally, products break into two groups. There's B2B, which is selling to businesses, and there's B2C, which is like to consumers. And you know, these days, there're variations of those things. There's certainly channel sales, and then there's government. And then there's kind of hybrid models. LinkedIn, for example, is kind of a hybrid model. We sell to consumers, like all of us in this room are members, right? And you can buy a premium product. Using LinkedIn means that you are the product, many of the free sites, that's the truth. Don't forget that if you're using a website, and you think it's free, that means you're the product. And then there's the B2B channel. And one of the things I've always found is that no matter what side you're on, the grass always looks greener. If you're a slinging consumer, you go like: It's so much easier with B2B, just like go call and talk to sales people, and businesses isn’t that so much. And when you're an enterprise, you're like: Oh god, the consumer people, they just wake out of bed in the morning, money comes rolling in through marketing. So it always seems easier, no matter what side you're on. If it's a consumer business - I'm not as knowledgeable about consumer businesses, as I am about B2B sales - it's all about your cost of acquisition, right? So if you have a low CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost), then it's good. If it's high, then you better have a high selling price. But it's tough to sell expensive stuff to consumers. Consumers don't spend a lot of money relative to what businesses spend for the same thing. So not many consumers are going to spend $10,000 for software. $1999? Sure, a month maybe. $10,000? Probably not, whereas businesses will. And so you have to really understand what's your market? Where's the addressable market? Where's it at? Once you decide where you're at, then it's about figuring out what the strategy is, and going after.
Wenli Zhou: After a startup figures out their market fit, they're so excited and ready to sell. What's the next step?
Brian Frank: If it’s to consumer, then they're going to have to figure out how are they going to basically get it to market. And their options are going to be sell it directly, or sell through channel? That's basically what you got. There's a huge marketing investment for a consumer sales business, you have to figure out how to drive value through that. And that needs to be built into your model. The B2B model is a little more traditional, a little simpler. B2B is a very human driven effort. And the cost of acquisition in B2B sales is usually people, and it's making people making calls, people sending emails, people doing events, people running a lot of things that help drive interest and awareness, and ultimately buying decision in your business. To be very practical, if I was a startup person running a small B2B software company, or internet company, selling into the sales or HR technology space, I would start with LinkedIn.
Wenli Zhou: Is there any startup that you think is really nailing the market perspective?
Brian Frank: The sales perspective? There's a company called Intercom. The woman who runs it is the Chief Revenue Officer. And she's a former LinkedIn Sales Executive. And she's really built a real machine in terms of mid-market sales. And it's all about people and efficiency and activities. There're two types of sales that you have to focus on in an enterprise. First is what we call acquisition, that's bring dollars in. And then the second, which is arguably, equally or sometimes even more important, is what we call renewal. Because you can't keep your customers once you brought him in and upsell them to continue to grow the base, most of the market economics in your business plan are probably not going to work.
Most of the new startup businesses are focused on what we will call the land-and-expand model, and they’re subscription based. So they're looking to get a foot in the door with a small footprint somewhere, either through consumer or direct sales. And then beyond that, they're trying to grow that footprint over time. That's the expand part. But landing is hard, and expanding is hard.
Wenli Zhou: You have been an advisor to many companies like DocuSign and BlueJeans Network, what are some of the things that you value the most, before you decide to join the company?
Brian Frank: A couple things. Number one, I want to feel very connected to the business both from the people who work there, as well as to the actual idea behind the business. So I was very involved to DocuSign for many, many years. Getting back to 2006 is my relationship with DocuSign. So it was many years like that. At BlueJeans, I just believed in the product so much. I saw what happened. And at LinkedIn, with the usage of video conferencing, and it just was like a big eye opening to me about like, how video conferencing will change the future. By the way, it's very interesting. Since I've left LinkedIn – I’ve been gone for about five months. I've been almost in zero video conference calls. It's all audio calls. And it's so weird. It's like I went from like the future back into the past. And it's so odd to do it. But because at LinkedIn, everyone does video conference all the time. It's a constant thing. So too weird being on these audio calls again, but I've gotten used to it, quickly fallen back in.
And then a great example is the company that I've been advising for the last several years. It's a company called Reali. This is an amazing company. I mean, I'm so passionate about this. So here's the quick story. Remember I had this real estate investment fund? Juniper Investment Fund. But back in 2008, I also had another side hustle, another business I started. It was called 5000fixed. So it was a real estate website. And basically, as I was a lawyer, I was actually also a real estate broker. I went and got my broker's license in California. And then I started this website called 5000fixed, where I was basically telling anyone who wanted to buy a house that I would buy the house for them, I would take $5,000 as my commission. And then whatever else I got back, I would give back to them as a rebate, right? So say, for example, like it's a million dollars for a house. As an agent, you're going to get 3% - $30,000. I would take $5,000 for myself, because that was the worth of my service. And I would give the buyer $25,000, which is a no brainer, because everyone wants $25,000. And because the effort that I put in to actually help either house was actually very low. It's very easy, there's nothing else. It took me a couple days to do the work. So I started doing this, I did that business for several people. And it was kind of something I did on the side, because it brought me extra money, and to see if it was fun. But right at that time, I got the job at LinkedIn. And I was like: Oh my god, I can't do the job at LinkedIn and do 5000fixed and do Juniper Residential. I had to shut something down. So I shut down 5000fixed. It was like I can't do it anymore, so I turned off the website
A couple of years ago, I was watching TV and on it came a commercial that said: Why are you spending so much for your real estate agents? Buy with us and we will rebate the commission back to you. And I was like: Honey, that's my idea. That's the way I thought of. So I found them on LinkedIn. It's this company called Reali, and I reached out to the CEO. He's a great guy, we connected. And they hired me to be an advisor for their business. And they're basically doing the same idea I had back in 2008, which is they rebate money back to buyers and sellers. They keep a small transaction fee and the rest of the money goes back to you, the buyer or seller, which is really how it should be, because - no offense to my friends in the real estate industry - because I know there're a lot of great agents. But the value that we pay for most transactions in the California market does not equal to the amount that's actually getting paid.
Wenli Zhou: Must be a deja vu experience talking to the CEO of Reali like: Hey, that was my idea.
Brian Frank: Yes, we're very connected like this. So anyway, that's why it's funny advising them. But I believe in them, and I think their executive team is fantastic.
Wenli Zhou: So personal connections is one of the things that you value the most.
Brian Frank: Just liking the people, liking the executives who run it. It is an important thing if you're going to be working with them and advising them, and then believing in the business. If it's a business that you think might make it, but you're not really sure it's like: Do I really want to become the official advisor and spend time with their executive time?
Wenli Zhou: Well, that was my last question. Thank you so much.
Brian Frank: Thank you. It's been a great pleasure to be here today and I appreciate it.