Ideas are a dime a dozen. The greatest products and companies rarely got that way based on the uniqueness of ideas.
Pete Wheelan has dedicated his career to leading mission-driven, high-growth companies focused on helping individuals live up to their full potential. Before joining InsideTrack, he served as COO and Chief Revenue Officer at Blurb, a groundbreaking leader in unleashing creative expression through self-published books. Prior to Blurb, Pete held the position of SVP of strategic marketing and business development for Lonely Planet, once the world’s largest independent publisher of travel content. Pete was also the co-founder and CEO of AdventureSeek, an online portal for adventure travel that was purchased by Unexplored Travel Network. He was also a strategy consultant with The Boston Consulting Group.
Pete holds a Bachelor of Arts from Dartmouth College, a Master of Business Administration from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and a Juris Doctor from Northwestern University School of Law.
Travel and the outdoors are huge passions for Pete and his family. On weekends, they ski, run, hike, and mountain bike. Also on weekends, Pete is on the sidelines watching his two sons play soccer, lacrosse, or baseball. Pete also enjoys mentoring a variety of early-stage startups and entrepreneurs, particularly through work he does with the Telluride Venture Accelerator.
Where did the idea for your most recent business-related project come from?
Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time focused on talent — how to attract, engage, and retain the best, most passionate people out there. As our business grew more complex (and, by its nature, multi-locational in terms of clients, offices, and employees), it became an increasingly important strategic issue. The flow of ideas came from just turning on the radar and really scanning what’s out there: reviewing the formal research (e.g., whitepapers, books), viewing TED Talks on engaged workplaces, doing a bit of benchmarking, and talking to a lot of people — both inside and outside of our company — about what they value in jobs and workplaces.
What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?
There are almost no two days that ever look the same, and that’s what I think makes me productive and keeps me fresh. I believe in fully integrating work and life — the latter can’t be something that just happens after 5:30 p.m. each day or on the weekends. Being a great father and husband who is also healthy and happy is as important to me as being a great CEO, and that requires both flexibility and creativity any given day or week.
I suppose one common denominator is that I’m an early riser (5 a.m.), either to get some exercise (if the rest of the day won’t allow it), or to do my best “quiet work.” Another is that I spend at least five to 10 minutes each day — roughly an hour on a weekly basis — just prioritizing. What must I get done today? What isn’t urgent today but really important to start chipping away at? What are the personal things I need to do today to carve out time for?
How do you bring ideas to life?
Ideas are a dime a dozen. The greatest products and companies rarely got that way based on the uniqueness of ideas. To me, it’s all in the execution — ideas x execution = innovation. I tend to see companies and teams focusing too much on the ideas (like ideation, gathering feedback, and brainstorming) and too little time on the execution. To me, the best way to get going on execution is to set a 90-day timeframe and develop a plan to achieve the most possible progress you can make in the frame you developed. Then, assess the next 90 days. How can we clearly frame the issue or opportunity? What hypothesis or prototype can we develop and test? How can/will we measure success at Day 90, and how can we ensure that we learn from any failure at Day 90? It’s remarkable what can happen when you think that way.
What’s one trend that really excites you?
To me, the trends toward more creative/collaborative/playful workplaces, and workplace flexibility, in general, are the most exciting. The old “sit in an office building from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.” approach really isn’t suited to leveraging all the breakthroughs in communication and mobility that have occurred over the last 15 years.
Asking great workers and thinkers to take that approach — and to be responsible for off-hours engagement via all the technology that is available — is creating mass burnout and potentially keeping a variety of great minds from being able to maximize their talents and contribute to the economy. One example is parents of young families: They shouldn’t need to be sidelined, or going out of their minds, for that portion of their careers.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive?
I’ve begun to “time box” almost everything I do into 50-minute sprints. For me, it started with back issues (as in, don’t stay sitting any longer than that), but it’s supported by research showing that both your brain and your eyes also need breaks at about that interval as well. Most importantly, I find that it drives completion very effectively, and it’s a great antidote to “perfection.” Remember, back in college, how that adrenaline rush and subsequent focus kicked in, somehow allowing you to finally crank out that term paper the night before it was due? The same concept applies here when you see you have just five minutes left to complete something (like finishing that email or preparing for that presentation).
What was the worst job you ever had, and what did you learn from it?
At the tail end of my freshman year in college, I had an emergency appendectomy. A few weeks later, I was able to work, but couldn’t do anything heavily manual (I had been used to caddying and valet parking), so I signed up with a temp firm. It was awful in every sense of the word. I didn’t like the lack of continuity and ownership, and most of the things I was asked to do lacked any element of intellectual engagement whatsoever. But I learned a lot: 1) I never wanted to wind up with one of those kinds of “jobs” once I got out of school; 2) I still needed to do those jobs well if that’s what I was getting paid to do; and 3) I actually still met and engaged with some really interesting people, some of whom really took me under their wings and offered a lot of lessons about life. I particularly remember sweeping a factory floor with two guys who kept calling me “the Ivy kid” — referring to the fact that I was attending Dartmouth!
If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
Honestly, not much. I read a great book recently called “Roadmap” by the guys at Roadtrip Nation. I think the inclination for a lot of people would be to somehow answer this question in a way that goes back and straightens out and/or eliminates all the detours and false starts in one’s career and life. Guess what? You don’t get to actually do that; that’s what life is all about. Some of the roughest patches in my life (both personal and professional) directly relate to my most significant educational or appreciative moments. So, maybe I’d go back and be even more open to — and even proactively embrace — false starts, detours, and possible dead ends.
What is the one thing you do repeatedly and recommend others do as well?
For about the last 10 to 12 years, I’ve taken time at the beginning of each year to create a personal plan. I use a framework based on Jim Loehr’s book, “The Power of Full Engagement.” Per what I said above, you can’t truly “plan” your life, but you can regularly recalibrate your “compass” (i.e., your values, priorities, etc.) and establish goals that you want to achieve. And writing it all down really matters.
What is one strategy you’ve implemented that has helped your business grow?
It’s an oldie but goody: We’re listening more — truly listening. We’re listening to the clients we serve, the prospects we don’t yet serve, the partners with whom we’re working, and, ultimately, the students with whom we work. If you listen closely, and have the processes in place to be able to actually execute on the themes and feedback (see above), that’s when you see growth.
What is one failure you had, and how did you overcome it?
I experienced the entire cycle of the dot-com boom and bust in living color. I built a company (AdventureSeek, a portal for adventure travel), sold it in an all-stock deal, and joined the executive team of the acquirer just months before everything imploded in 2001. Ultimately, I helped shut down that company (I think I literally may have been the last one to lock the door there!).
Every part of that cycle was unbelievably rich with learning, but the biggest lesson was that, at the end of the day, if you work hard and act with tremendous integrity at all times, you never really have anything to lose. The words of praise I got from my original investors — all of whom lost nearly their entire investments — were mind-blowing to me, and have been tremendously liberating over the subsequent years of my career as I’ve taken on projects, initiatives, or jobs that involve significant risk.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Hmm, not sure I really have one. But someone needs to really crack — in a totally simple way — this whole password thing that has gotten out of control.
What is the best $100 you recently spent?
I’m a pretty simple guy and don’t buy much that isn’t an experience of some kind. Two weekends ago, I spent $100 (well, a bit more) taking my 10 year old and two of his buddies on a road trip to Gold Country in the Sierras. And this past weekend, my wife and I went out on a totally relaxing and enjoyable date. That is all money well spent.
What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?
Zoom (audio/video/screen sharing) and Basecamp are my heroes these days. They have been remarkably effective in helping us to operate efficiently from multiple locations and to embrace the “work flex” concept I mentioned above — simple, effective, and easy to use.
What is one book you recommend our community read, and why?
See two book references above (“Roadmap” and “The Power of Full Engagement”). I’d also add Daniel Pink’s “Drive” — a super simple yet powerful framework of what makes people tick.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
Honestly, I don’t spend a lot of time combing blogs or following celebrity business leaders. That said, two that I do seem to commonly find value from are Jeff Weiner at LinkedIn, who seems to have great insight on organizational behavior and effectiveness, and Richard Branson, founder of Virgin. I love Branson’s simple “take risks, have fun, and get shit done” approach.
Article originally published in IdeaMensch, August 2015.