Joshua Feast is CEO of Cogito, which makes software that analyzes phone conversations and provides real-time guidance to help service employees better engage and connect with customers. As Joshua says below, Cogito essentially helps people be “more charming in conversation.” He is certainly a great representative of his company in that regard.
Not surprisingly, he is one of the few CEOs who asked me for feedback after the interview. He wondered if he said anything similar to or different from other CEOs. My answer? He has a more sophisticated, systematic approach to the CEO job than most I have encountered. You can tell he’s thought a lot about running a company and how to approach it. Here’s his story.
You have a great story. You are a New Zealand native who got a scholarship to come here for entrepreneurship. I have to ask: What did you expect to find when you got here and then what did you end up finding?
Joshua: Like many but not all, I’m a deliberate entrepreneur. I grew up hearing about it around the dinner table, because both my father and uncle were entrepreneurs. It did not seem like such an unnatural act for me as it does for some people. So I was a deliberate entrepreneur, but I wasn’t one who tried to do it in high school! I decided to get an engineering degree and work in industry for about six years around the world doing technology, and then I got an MBA. So I prepared for it for a relatively long time. I was very lucky to be in New Zealand and to be the first recipient of a program to send one aspiring entrepreneur to study in the U.S., under the Fulbright umbrella.
What happened was that I came expecting to be educated in entrepreneurship and technology and management. What I didn’t expect was to meet my wife and start a company. I got what I thought I would get, but then I got a lot more than that! Cogito was founded directly from ideas that I encountered at MIT when I came to study. It was a very direct relationship between forming that company and the opportunity I got to come to the U.S.
Both my wife and my father pursued Ph.D.s in engineering, so I know a bit about the academic world. It’s often challenging to get academics to participate in a for-profit venture and make it work successfully. Obviously you’ve been able to do that. Do you have any advice on how to approach that problem, taking a great invention and trying to commercialize it?
Joshua: I think it’s a real interesting problem as you point out. At the stage when I got involved there had been about eight years of academic research into the question of how you can quantify human behavior and then use that quantification to understand psychological state. There had already been a lot of thought work and experimental work, but there was nothing resembling a technology. There were studies and ideas and signposts, all of which took a long time to develop and were incredibly valuable. But I think it’s the wrong picture to think we were somehow spinning out a technology we were going to commercialize. I have a suspicion that it’s like that in most cases. The academic world is principally concerned with the realm of ideas that build on other ideas. A company is concerned with driving outcomes into the world.
We had the problem when we started that many “deep technology” companies have: It will take three to four years and millions of dollars to build it. There’s no guarantee of success. That’s before you even start to commercialize it. It’s impossible to get private money. People will say, “Well it’s a science project and I don’t want to invest in a science project.” Which completely makes sense.
So that’s a real chicken and egg problem. I’m sure you will agree Joel: I characterize all company formation as trying to solve some sort of chicken and egg problem. In our case the chicken and egg were that we had great scientific signposts, but we had to actually build a technology. There was no guarantee of success there. The only reason we were able to get started was that we got funding from DARPA. They’re an incredible engine for the U.S. economy and for tech worldwide. They are one of the few organizations that can take the risk of going from scientific idea to applied technology. We have benefited from that engine in a big way. It took about four years to solve the chicken and egg problem. Then we had the problem of how to commercialize it. It’s more business-oriented and quite fun. So that’s the story.
When you became the CEO, was there ever a question about bringing in an outside CEO? Did you always want to be the CEO personally?
Joshua: I did not consider not performing the role. In my case I was trained in management and I knew how to develop software. So I had the background, but I didn’t have all the experience. By the same token, you are balancing the experience you don’t have with the fact that you know the organization very well. Something I’ve noticed in the growth/investing world is there’s sometimes a bias towards founder/CEOs. It’s easier to raise money if you are a founder/CEO. Maybe it’s because there are so many high-profile founder/CEOs that have built software companies. I think the company benefits from having me as a founder. I like to think I do a good job as well. All being equal, I had the interest in being the CEO, and I think it’s been good for the company for me to stay in the role.
What surprised you about the CEO role vs. your previous management experience?
Joshua: The biggest surprise and learning to me was that the job is about what the CEO thinks should be done. In every other role there’s a set of directions that are set by someone else. With the CEO, you have a lot of people around, including the board, advisors, and other smart people in the company. But to a surprising degree it comes down to what the CEO thinks is the right thing to do from his or her lens. So many times when you start you might ask an advisor, “What do you think we should do?” The advisor comes back with, “What do you want to do?” It’s an odd experience. That was my first surprise.
Yes, you can do anything you want to do as a CEO, which is both liberating and terrifying at the same time. Building on that, how do you find you spend your time?
Joshua: I bucket my time in two ways. The first is management. I spend about a day and a half per week in meetings. I meet with all my direct reports and engage with the management team. The rest of the time I do projects: I pick one or two issues I want to improve about the company. I try and go deep on them, figure out the problem and potential solution, and assign someone to it. Then I move on and rotate back again.
You were educated with an eye towards being an entrepreneur, which is different than many people. What would you change about your education now that you’ve been in the world as a CEO building a company? What do you wish you had done earlier?
Joshua: It’s a balance. There’s a difference between being a founder and a CEO. They come together but are different jobs. Founders who get involved in the early stages have a challenge: You must get the right amount of education so you know enough to have a chance of success and then make sure you are in a position to take the initial leap and the initial risk. That’s the emotional mountain, and some people cannot get over that. Few are able to do it, because they don’t trust themselves enough and can’t step off into the void. The problem is if you leave it too long, your skills might be too valuable in the labor market, so the opportunity cost starts to seem too high. You might come back to it later in life when you have capital.
I left starting a company to when I just turned 30. This was relatively late given what some people do. If I had not jumped when I jumped, if I had gone to work for a big company for three or four years, I may never have jumped. Education can help a lot, but in founding a company it can hurt if you don’t take the leap you need to make.
In being a CEO though the education is really helpful.
If a CEO came to you and said teach me one important concept you’ve learned, what would you tell them?
Joshua: I would say learn to distinguish between interest and intent. Everybody is going to be interested in what you are doing. You have to know who is serious and who’s going to follow through. You have to learn what those signals look like.
What size is your business?
Joshua: Currently about 70 employees and we’re hiring about a person a week.
Do you get involved in the hiring process for every employee? I would say 98 percent of them.
What does your operating rhythm look like?
Joshua: We do a weekly all company stand-up for 30 minutes. We can all still get together in one room. Generally I have a topic I talk about for five to seven minutes. Then we go around the room and the different people running groups talk about what they’re up to that week. This is an important part of the cadence for our organization. We also do relatively extensive management meetings once a month. Then we do a variety of one-on-ones/direct reports. We’re also in fluid contact throughout the week as well.
If a new employee starts and asks what you do, how do you explain the job of the CEO?
Joshua: It depends on how the question is asked. Often they ask what I do all day. I explain how I spend time on management and projects. I want them to know that I might do a project that relates to them. If I’m trying to answer it more generically, I would say I focus on ensuring that we have the right strategy, people, and execution.
At 50+ people is where CEOs start to lose touch with what everyone is doing all the time. Do you have any methods to get feedback from the bottom of the organization?
Joshua: Yes, I do informal coffees all over the organization pretty regularly. We use collaboration tools, so the internal company chat is also good for me to see transparently what’s going on in the organization. The other really important thing is my open door policy. People know they can reach in to talk to me about all sorts of things, which I find very useful.
Have you had the challenge yet where silos develop in the organization? People can get very focused on what their job is without understanding the larger picture of what you are trying to accomplish as a company.
Joshua: Yes, of course. We’re at the point where we’re quite proactive about culture. Culture is an interesting question of how you enforce different behaviors in an organization. In our organization, we emphasize collaboration with diverse perspectives. What made us successful initially is how we approached technical problems. We got people from different backgrounds, such as data scientists, psychologists, business people, etc., in a room to work on problems together. So our number one cultural item is the ability to collaborate across functions. For example, there may be someone who is smart but doesn’t know your area but may have something to contribute. We are always enforcing that and talk about it a lot. We have after work social events. We have teams who have collaborative meetings. Even at our stage we certainly we can see silos trying to develop and want to try to get ahead of it proactively.
It’s whack-a-mole. What does Cogito do exactly?
Joshua: Cogito helps people be more charming in conversation. We are able to measure how well conversations between humans are going. Then, using software we coach people as they are speaking in how they can end up having a better conversation. We are applying this to large-scale customer service and enterprise. A lot of our customers are health insurers, because they are striving to improve customer service. But we are fundamentally a horizontal company.
That’s very interesting. Have you applied this to management interactions?
Joshua: In the future we’ll be doing more with work collaboration. Right now we’re involved in the interface between service professionals and customers. We’ve applied technology in the lab to improve meetings and to help make sure that some people aren’t more dominant than others. That’s very experimental and something we’ve not commercialized yet.