As part of my series about “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Leigh Fatzinger. He oversees overall strategy, marketing, and product vision at Turbine Labs. He founded the company in 2014 to address a simple yet widespread issue among senior-level decision-makers and teams: accessing accurate information is too difficult. Leigh is a serial entrepreneur in the big data and social media space, having previously founded Prosodic, a predictive analytics firm, and Nology Media, a social media management firm. He serves on the board of trustees of the John Austin Cheley Foundation.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
If you were to combine a news junkie and an entrepreneur into a single human form, that would best describe me. I’m fortunate to come to work every day focusing on two passions of mine: information and innovation. I started Turbine Labs in 2014 as a consultant and a single customer-trying to help executives and politicians make better sense of their worlds. Today we employ almost 40 people and have not taken on any venture capital. In 2020, we launched The Neutral, a news site that will change how people discover, read, and share their news.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
In most cases, founders have a different level of intensity than people who come into the company through a traditional “resume” process. Early in our existence, we hired a number of people who were (and still are) very bright, but early in their careers. I used to have the attitude that I could outwork or “out-hustle” (hat tip Gary Vee), anyone who was younger than me. With that kind of mentality at the top, some people will try to keep up with that intensity to “please the boss”. But unless the incentives are well-aligned, burnout can set in. Sometimes people breakthrough, but that is the exception. I now believe that intensity is inherent, and it’s difficult to force or incentivize through negative reinforcement.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Books are such a critical part of my life, it’s hard to know where to begin. However, the children’s book Ferdinand by Maurano Leaf is one of the best examples I’ve ever come across in literature about staying true to yourself. A copy of that book was given to me in 1974. It sits in my nightstand drawer even today. The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester is a book I return to frequently, about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. A reminder that no project is too big or too bold, and that if you stick to your goal, the resources you need to reach it will find their way to you. I also love The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It is an incredible parable about the journey of life and allowing yourself to go where the winds take you.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
When I started Turbine Labs, I had just sold a business, so my rules were pretty simple: build a company that has happy customers buying from it and happy people working for it. Everything else, including our products, came after that. In seven years, there have been times when some of our customers haven’t been happy, and times when some of our people haven’t been happy. But by having two such seemingly “simple” principles, it makes it easier to regain focus on what’s really important. Now that we’re more clear on our direction, I feel comfortable adding a third purpose: to forever change how people receive and use the information they need to make sense of their world.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Yes. Nearly every decision I make, I make as though my two sons are in the room watching me, knowing ultimately how I would envision the men they may grow up to become. That doesn’t mean that I avoid tough decisions. Those are a part of having a business. But when I make decisions with the possibility they are watching, things like honesty, character, and principle, generally stay intact.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family-related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Turbine Labs started tracking the Covid-19 pandemic in January, so we had a fairly good idea of how the crisis was unfolding. We sent all of our employees into remote working on March 12, so I feel like we were slightly ahead of the curve in order to protect the health of our team. The biggest challenge I’ve personally experienced so far is what I consider a “lost year” of education for almost everyone who’s K-12. Going from the structure and routine of school to a remote learning environment is a dramatic shift for most kids. In that sense, I wish I had more time away from my business to spend with them in their daily learning.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic?
We are fortunate in that most of our work at Turbine Labs and The Neutral can be done remotely. But that doesn’t mean it’s not challenging. Part of our competitive advantage has been the collaboration processes we’d set up and continually worked to improve. That generally required most of us to be in a single office. Prior to the pandemic we had a tradition of having each employee switch desks every 30 days — and you couldn’t sit in the same seat, or next to the same person, for more than a month. This enabled our engineering team to understand the needs of the production team, the HR team to interface with the account managers, etc. Mixing things up like that had a direct impact on our product and service experience. Doing those kinds of things is harder in a Zoom driven, remote working environment. I also miss whiteboards.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We’re two months into remote working and we’re still learning. Some of our ideas now seem cliche. We’ve done the virtual Happy Hours and cooking classes, workout sessions, which we still work to maintain, but I think most people simply want to have interaction with their colleagues in a physical setting. Absent of that happening, we are definitely seeing more one-on-one meetings, both employee/manager, as well as peer-to-peer.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
For the most part, it’s very important to compartmentalize what is going on outside in the world from what is going on inside of your world. The terrifying thing about pandemics is that they don’t impact everyone. And while there are segments of the population that are more proportionally impacted (minorities, elderly), the disease does not inform us exactly who will contract the disease. That causes plenty of anxiety. It’s also important to limit your news consumption and obtain it from reputable sources. Personally, I only read the daily briefing published by Turbine Labs, and then I go about working on things I can control.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time, the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
The opportunities beyond Covid-19 are limitless. Almost every facet of the economy is going to change and will be different from the way it is today. You can see some of the innovations already in companies that normally make ball caps at mobile phone cases retool to make masks and other PPE in a matter of days or weeks. How we travel, how we socialize, how we dine, how we create memories — all of these things are going to change. Any shared product or service will have to be rebuilt from the ground up — from a vacation rental to a grocery cart.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act, or live?
On September 10, 2001, anyone without an airline ticket could go through a basic security checkpoint and walk to an airport gate to meet a friend or family member. When air travel reopened after 9/11, every aspect of how people met their loved ones changed — including walking to a gate without a boarding pass. That change became permanent — and remains that way nearly 20 years later. The same will hold true in the coming years. Public places and shared services will be redesigned to accommodate social distancing and “low touch” interaction.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We are fortunate in that better information is a critical asset both during the pandemic and after. So interest in our business is healthy in comparison to what other companies may be experiencing. However, we don’t have a crystal ball. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the next 6–12 months. So we have already made substantial bets based on what we believe maps more appropriately to the new environment in terms of access to our platform and pricing. At the same time, we made an even bigger bet to launch a brand new news site, powered by the AI-technology in Turbine Labs. It’s called The Neutral, and we think it has the potential to change how people discover, consume, and talk about the news.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Tiger Woods once said, “I don’t practice the shots I don’t want to take.” He doesn’t spend any time practicing in sand traps or near water. I would encourage others not to practice the shots they don’t want to take. See the destination, but be flexible with the path it takes to get there.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Every human being has two kinds of days: A certain number of days where there’s a 100% chance you’ll live to the next day. And just one day where there’s a 0% chance that you’ll live to the next day. It’s the same for every human life. Make the most of your 100% days.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Subscribe to The Neutral at www.theneutral.com.
To follow the company that powers The Neutral and helps C-level executives and policymakers better understand their world, visit www.turbinelabs.com
My Twitter handle is @lfatzinger