Qualtrics and the importance of insights: an interview with Ryan Smith

gradireland talks to Ryan Smith, the founder of Qualtrics, one of the world’s fastest growing technology companies, about his company opening their European headquarters in Dublin. Ryan also talks about the importance of ‘trajectory’, the significance of ‘betting on yourself’ and the difference between ‘confidence’ and ‘competence’. 

Ryan Smith, Qualtrics CEO

Ryan Smith, Qualtrics CEO

“Tomorrow is a big day for me,” says Qualtrics CEO and founder Ryan Smith, on the eve of the official opening of the company’s new office, off Leeson Street in Dublin. “It’s also a huge day for Qualtrics. This is our first international operation and we’re super excited about this,” says the obviously enthused 34 year old.

The following day (27th September), with An Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton in attendance, Qualtrics officially opened its European Headquarters. With 50 jobs imminent and another 100 in the pipeline, Qualtrics wants to move fast to grow its presence in Europe. Having literally built the business from the basement of his father’s house, Ryan is in the mood to seize the rapid growth of his company and roll it out across Europe and further afield. “We’ve nailed it,” he says of his global leading online research platform, “now it’s time to scale it.”

Qualtrics’ spacious, relaxed new premises has space for 50 immediate hires and as Dermot Costello, who spearheads the Irish operation, explains;  they’re looking to recruit aggressively for the right sort of people. “We’re looking for graduates and jobseekers with motivation, ambition and a desire to learn. We’re looking to expand considerably as the opportunities are there.” As a company, Qualtrics experienced triple digit growth in 2012 and has more than doubled its workforce in the past year.

Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith alongside An Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the opening of Qualtrics European HQ in Dublin on October 2nd.

Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith alongside An Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the opening of Qualtrics European HQ in Dublin on October 2nd.

When gradireland visits Qualtrics, Ryan Smith and fellow founder Stuart Orgill are relaxed as they talk about using Ireland as a European springboard for the further expansion of the Qualtrics platform. “Listen, Dublin is easy. Coming to Ireland is easy. Honestly, New York sometimes feels more foreign,” says Ryan. “It took us three weeks to move from initial discussions about making a move to Ireland to actually deciding to make that move. It’s a business friendly environment. People might ask me about the level of tax which Qualtrics will pay in Ireland. To that I say, I don’t have a tax-problem, I have a people problem and I know I can find the people in Ireland to help solve that problem and continue to expand the business.”

What is Qualtrics?

Qualtrics started in Provo, Utah as the brainchild of Scott Smith, Ryan’s father, a college professor who developed the idea of a system which would make it easier for academics to conduct research themselves. Along with Ryan, and later with Ryan’s brother Jared, they began to develop the product initially with the sole target of recruiting 250 Business Schools throughout the US. “That was the number we aimed for, and it was hard work to get it. But we weren’t attracting the interest from the corporate world in the early days so we focused on the academic world.” The genesis of Qualtrics was slow, but Ryan was determined to keep the business growing only at the rate at which it could pay for itself, ‘bootstrapping’ as it’s known. “You have to eat what you kill, earn your money, use it to develop your business and the people that can help you grow your business.” One of the people instrumental in the continued growth of the company was Stuart Orgill, a college friend of Ryan’s, who eschewed a $60,000 a year job to take a plunge with Qualtrics, for $8,000 a year. “I made the move because I felt that I could be looking my whole life for an opportunity as good as this one and I wanted to be in on it from the start, to be a founder of something,” Stuart tells gradireland. “Stuart bet on himself,” says Ryan, “he saw what this could be and he went for it.” The self-sufficiency which Qualtrics built itself with in those early days, as the product slowly, sometimes tortuously, acquired customers, is something which both Ryan and Scott feel equipped them with skills which they may not otherwise have known they had.

“We never sat there thinking about what we could do if we had this and we had that, we did what we could with what we had. We found these gears which we never knew we had. It was an experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything,” adds Ryan.

By 2006, Qualtrics had established itself on a firm footing and had moved out of the basement, growing steadily over the following years, for instance landing 1000 new customers between 2009-2010. “That was when our business really began to grow, because we had put the platform in place for it to click. We had nailed it.” With the success and growth of Qualtrics, which has shown high double digit or triple digit growth year on year, there was huge interest from investors but it was only last year that Qualtrics announced their first investment deal, with Accel Partners and Sequoia, for a massive $70 million.

With over 5,000 organisations signed up, in addition to 96 of America’s top 100 Business Schools, the future for Qualtrics is secure. But simple security and stability is never something that Ryan Smith would seem to be happy with. He is hungry for pushing Qualtrics further, reaching out across to world to those who need to research their audiences or customers. Because that’s what Qualtrics does. “Research is often thought of as an academic exercise. But research is essentially the gathering of insights. So who needs insights? Everybody needs insights. The most important data is the data that you don’t have, so what we’re finding is that there are insight seekers everywhere, in any company. Qualtrics is not just for researchers, it’s for anyone who needs insights. We’ve noticed the demand for our services grow throughout the downturn because companies needed to start caring what their customers think. Ultimately Qualtrics helps companies be right, data is at the centre of everything and it’s affordable. It’s getting easier too, mobile and social media have made reaching out to audiences and customers so much more straightforward,” he says. Qualtrics has also just announced the launch of an employee assessment tool, Qualtrics 360.

Qualtrics & people

For graduates looking at the Qualtrics story, Ryan has words of encouragement. “I was that graduate, looking for my opportunity, trying to find out what it was I wanted to do. Graduates are the lifeblood of Qualtrics. One of the things that we create within Qualtrics is an experience for graduates that is entrepreneurial. Some companies, actually a lot of companies, don’t provide that experience. It’s important for entrepreneurs to be with a company with a high trajectory, that’s going places fast and in which you will be given the opportunity learn at a pace well beyond your years. We give graduates those opportunities. Like with Stuart, we want people to feel that they can go and create new ideas, new products within Qualtrics and really take ownership of them.”

So what can graduate employees expect at Qualtrics? “Opportunities,” says Stuart Orgill. “Look at this space here and the leaders we’re going to need to grow the business in Europe. With technology companies, you can ride a wave and when there is rapid growth like we’re experiencing you can really grow with the company.” And what’s the most important thing to have on your CV? “Trajectory,” Stuart adds. “That you’re growing and you’re moving forward. That your best years are in front of you and not behind you. We’re not hiring people to come in here to do the job they’re hired for; we’re looking for them to scale up.”

Qualtrics employs a system of ‘radical transparency’;  a ‘glass ceiling’ and ‘glass bottom’ methodology of total accountability and transparency which Ryan Smith says helps people do their jobs better, because it provides them with all the information. There are no job titles in Qualtrics apart from CEO. Ryan explains: “When you came in here today, you saw us finishing our weekly company ‘all hands’ meeting. We changed this to Thursday instead of Friday so the Dublin office could plug into it with me and Stuart here.  This meeting allows everyone in the company to explain what’s happening in their area and what they’re doing, and we do it all in 30 minutes. Everyone needs to have all the information in order to work better, if they don’t have that then how good can they really be? We’re hiring people for their brains and what they can do for us. If they have all the information on what’s going on within the organisation, then they can focus externally on the problems we face. What we’re trying to do is create a meritocracy, people who are good working with other people who are good,” he explains.

He also highlights difference between people who are ‘confident’ and those who are ‘competent.’ The founders of Qualtrics say it’s easy to find the ‘confident’ people, but what about the ‘competent’ ones who excel at getting things done? “We’re looking for competence, those ‘silent assassins’ who excel at getting things done, who can hold the whole organisation together. It’s easier to find those people with transparency. These people are brilliant at what they do and they just need an opportunity. We want to reward on the basis of what people are getting done. So at Qualtrics, people don’t feel left behind once they can perform.”

Smith was named as one of Forbes Magazine’s top CEO’s under 35 last year, Qualtrics most named one of ‘America’s Most Promising Companies’, but he’s showing no signs of slowing down. “We’ve had our frustrations, plenty of them. Sitting in that basement, no money, no clients, wanting to grow but not being able to. I can stand here and open the office and people can say how Qualtrics just ‘exploded’ and grew. Well it didn’t happen that way. We worked damn hard. The evolution of Qualtrics has to change for the better with every single hire. Every move we make needs to be better. We’re just getting started. I want to create so much more with Qualtrics. We’re going full speed now, pedal to the metal.”

For more information on Qualtrics and what they’re offering, visit their careers website www.qcareers.ie . Click here for  advice from gradireland on preparing applications.

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