My motto with my kids and with my hundreds of students over the years was “mistakes are made for learning.” As a young person, I was very afraid of failure and it charted a course of being an introverted and very insecure child. As a senior in high school, I had a teacher that had a way of debunking my feeling of self-doubt by simply reminding me of my worth as a beautiful human being. It was the sincerity in her eyes and her tone of voice that made me feel important — the simple but hard-earned words of praise and her belief that I was destined to make a difference in the world. This helped give me the passion to inspire others, because it demonstrated to me that one teacher or individual can make a difference in a person’s life.
And here I am, my son’s “employee” surrounded by a precious cache of the most amazing people. Each day they lift me up. Each day my heart sings to see my son growing into his potential. He has given me this unique opportunity not just to provide a service for Terakeet, but also to execute on his and Pat’s vision to create a happy place to work.
I recently interviewed Mac Cummings, the co-founder and CEO of Terakeet, who also happens to be my son:
Martha: Hi honey – can I call you honey?
Mac: Whatever you want Mom.
So let’s get right into it? OK?
I think one of the things people think is that you are born as a leader who is comfortable talking in front of others. But when you were little, you were very shy. In fact, you were pretty shy all up through high school until you really started excelling in Model United Nations. What would you say to someone looking to be a leader, but fearful they weren’t born with the ability to lead?
I would say, “What do you have to lose?” You get good at things through repetition and trial and error. We’ve tried to create an environment here where people have a unique ability to lead in any role they are in and are able to do so in a number of different ways.
A large percentage of our executive team was once a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 20-something kid who came to Terakeet without having spoken in front of large groups and without having led large numbers of people into battle. My advice would be, “You were hired here because you’re smart and you have all of the tools to lead this company into the future– so what are you waiting for?”
I was lucky enough to substitute teach you back when you were in elementary school and you were good back then, but your teachers would complain to me that you were not easy and could be a pain in the neck. I also remember hounding you in college when I found out you weren’t going to your classes. I was worried you were going to flunk out! Now you’re the teacher, teaching a TKU course at Terakeet that nearly everyone at the company has taken. What is it like being on the other side?
Ah, I remember that. I was a goofy, creative kid, and my mind often wandered outside of the classroom. I don’t think that’s atypical of a lot of people who end up in my role. By the time we started our company at Cornell, I pretty much had stopped going to class and was just taking the tests. I actually got a couple of my professors to act as early advisors to the company. And I did graduate, so you can’t be too upset.
I remember after the first TKU class I taught, I was reading through the feedback and someone gave me a 1 out of 5. I said to myself, “If one person thinks this class is bad, then I’ve got to change it. It’s not good enough.” So, I’ve tried to improve it and make myself a better teacher. I’ve also realized that teaching is more effective when it’s interactive. This “semester” I will be teaching my first “Carnegie in Action” course targeted to different departments.
I love sharing the things I’ve learned with others. It was something Pat and I so desperately needed when we started and didn’t have. It cost us years of unforced errors and mistakes.
One of my first projects at Terakeet was to decorate your beautiful office. I think people would be interested to know why you moved out of it. It has to be one of the best offices in all of Syracuse!
I’m done with the office. About four years ago, I came back from a great meeting and my endorphins were flying high. It was just a wonderful back-and-forth and we solved a major problem. I took out a pen and sticky note and wrote “CONSTANT ENGAGEMENT” and stuck it to my computer.
About two years went by and I was sitting at my desk, by myself, in my quiet office and I looked down at the note. Then I looked around at the brick walls, the big windows, and I literally started thinking about how many people had sat in the office I was in. I thought about how many different businesses had occupied our building over the years and I wondered where they were now. I sat there and thought about it for a second, got up from my desk, and have not sat back in that chair in over two years. I need to be in the action, on the battlefield, there to support and lead people. At some point in the near future, it’s imperative that I’m around everyone at the company. Moving away from multiple local office buildings and getting everyone under the same roof is the next big issue the sticky note has me tackling.
One of the things people were curious about as I prepped for this interview was your attraction to risk. I remember sitting in my lounge chair on a family vacation when you were 5 and you accidentally climbed past the regular diving board up to the high dive. I watched as you just walked off from 2 or 3 stories up– my heart nearly stopped! It seems like you’ve never been scared to risk it all. How do you balance that with all of the coworkers who rely on you now? Do you worry about taking a risk and failing?
I wouldn’t actually say that I am attracted to risk. Risk assumes that you have something to risk in the first place. When we started this, I remember coming to you and borrowing $60 so I could get my car insurance on my 1992 NX2000 Nissan reinstated. So, in essence, when we started this, and for many years after, we had less than nothing. So what were we really risking? Once we became more successful and Terakeet was growing, the risk was that we would go back to or below $0. By then we had a formula, which was essentially:
- Build a great product that is always getting better.
- Understand the market and have the vision to see where it would go next.
- Work hard.
- Scale to more customers and better people.
- As you grow, focus more and do less dilutive side projects.
So, in my mind, we’re not in here taking a “risk” every day, we are executing on a vision based on a formula that has worked for us for many years. As for balancing that with all the coworkers who rely on us now, I think they are here because they trust our product, our people, and where we are going. The real risk is staying the same. In other words, not innovating. Not working hard. Resting on our laurels. The common denominator here is change.
That makes a lot of sense! OK, last question I promise. When you were in 8th grade, I found a note to yourself that I saved and still have. You said that by the time you were 25, you were going to have founded a multi-million dollar business and, interestingly, it was a list of people who you were going to help. You’re fairly private about the charities and causes that you choose to give back to, but maybe you could share a bit about the causes you care about. Lastly, how have you seen yourself change from the 25-year-old Mac to the 37-(almost 38!)-year-old Mac? I’m your mom, I’m allowed to ask that right?
I think I can answer both questions at once, because they are pretty tied together for me. Early in my life and career, it was all about me. I was focused on my own success and what was good for one person (me). I was disillusioned into thinking that was the way business worked. As we became more successful in the early 2000s, I recognized somewhere along the way that what really moved me and got me going was working alongside and inspiring other people.
Around that same time, I started getting involved in causes I care about. We have a saying in our family that “charity begins at home,” so I always want to make sure first and foremost that family is safe and taken care of. It was around that time that I also started getting involved politically. It is easy to sit back and pontificate about how the world should be or who should be in power. It is an entirely different and more difficult thing to put yourself in a position to affect it in some way. It is important for me to use my position and our platform to affect outcomes that can change lives and my passion for that will only grow.
In that same time frame, when I moved out of the way and stopped micromanaging certain people, I realized that they were way better than me at setting their own personal goals and expectations and that the people around me actually inspire me. That was the time that we really started building something. We went from 15 to 30 people pretty quickly and before we knew it, we had over 100 people. It was like magic, and I thought all we had to do was to keep doing the same things. What I failed to realize is that it is a very different leap once you get over 150 people; you face a different set of challenges. The leadership needs to experience that same metamorphosis and the infrastructure of the business needs to fundamentally change to support scale. That is what 2016 will have proven to be about as we enter this next big phase of growth.
Lastly, I want to say, Mom, that you coming here has been a wonderful thing for me and for Terakeet. I think that you add to our culture here and that you contribute in a big way to making this a special place to work. I know many people here feel the same way, so I just want to thank you for doing this interview with me, and thank you for the special opportunity to get to work with you every day.