Kerri Davis is the CEO of Fortress, an end-to-end operations platform for the property management industry.
“Tech startup founder” is a title I never thought I would carry. The path to getting here is a unique one, starting with the fact that I’m an accountant and an attorney by education and that I spent three years working for and with the United States Army. The most interesting part is that my time in the military and my role as a founder have a lot in common—most specifically in terms of responsibility.
There’s a sense of responsibility to the team and the customer as well as to a common goal. There’s also an understanding that not taking these duties seriously enough could have huge consequences. Here’s a more detailed look at how responsibility has played out in my role as CEO/founder.
The Responsibility To Build And Maintain The Right Team
Very early in my career, I realized that the teams I worked with drastically impacted my ability to achieve goals, enjoy my job and, ultimately, create success. My time as an accountant and an attorney in the military took this to a whole new level for me.
The U.S. Army builds some of the strongest teams in the world, and I’ll never forget being at Fort Knox, doing pushups until I almost passed out while yelling, “Teamwork is key.” I was surrounded by individuals focused on the same goal and willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to advance that goal. The right team is key, and it can accomplish anything. The right team can scale, adapt and execute, and it can do it better and faster than the competition.
At the same time, the wrong person on the team can negatively impact the execution, scalability and focus on the goal to devastating effects. If one person stops doing pushups, the whole platoon has to do 50 more. If one person in the line doesn’t believe in the mission and doesn’t execute their responsibilities, then the entire line can go down.
The right team creates incredible success, and the wrong people on the team can create devastation. This fact is extremely heightened when you are working on a small startup. Building and maintaining the perfect team is one of the most important responsibilities I carry as a leader of a technology company.
When building our team, I constantly focus on these two missions.
1. Recruiting and supporting the right people, guiding them to understand the importance of teamwork while ensuring they feel safe, secure and a part of the overall goal.
2. Rewarding my high achievers by not burdening them with the underachievers, the mediocre performers or those who just don’t execute.
Building and maintaining the team’s integrity is a huge responsibility because it’s where the very foundation of success begins.
The Responsibility To Treat Customers As Partners
The U.S. Army “provides the ground forces that protect the United States.” Its customers are, quite literally, everyone. Whether they are home or serving in other countries, they must be aligned with the people they serve and protect.
One of the most impactful military focuses I had the privilege of experiencing through multiple leaders is the “hearts and minds” philosophy. This practice required team members to remember that the way to create success and achieve goals was through treating everyone they engaged with with respect, dignity, appreciation, patience and kindness. When practiced correctly, it ensured that military teams became a part of the society in which they served rather than an external provider.
When a company chooses your SaaS product for its tech stack, it relies on you to contribute to a portion of its success. When that SaaS product is a massive, necessary enterprise-level product, the reliance is compounded. SaaS customers need solutions that work, but they want solutions that will grow and evolve with their needs.
Just as it was my role in the military to stay aligned with a broader mission (winning the hearts and minds of the people we served), it’s my job as a tech founder to keep my team united toward this same goal. When you see your clients as partners in your success, treating them with the energy that will create long-term wins for both you and them becomes much easier.
While we are constantly iterating on our product and focusing on what our industry will look/feel/behave like in the future, we balance this with the needs of our customers today. We explain the decisions we make and clearly discuss what to prioritize, viewing our customers as collaborators in our decision-making process. We also obtain their buy-in for those features over the less impactful “nice-to-haves.” The result is a product that sets us up for long-term success, a team excited to build the next feature and customers who support the bigger picture.
The Appreciation For The Sense Of Responsibility
It’s no shock that we can learn from the practices of the U.S. military, but reflecting on how much I carried from one experience to the next brings a lot of perspective to my sense of responsibility. It is with deep appreciation for these experiences that shaped my life and for those who have served our country (including Drill Sgt. Bryant, who pushed me to always do one more pushup) that I share these thoughts.