A Simple Formula for Success: Execution Over IQ
Kim Perell is never far from the ocean. An avid traveler, Perell has been to more than 70 countries, finding inspiration in the great blue.
“I just feel the power,” she says. “It’s a reminder of how life is full of amazing opportunity.”
Born to entrepreneurial parents, Perell grew up listening to discussions about growth strategies and smart budget cuts at the family dinner table in Portland, Oregon. Now the 40-year-old serial entrepreneur shares a home in San Diego with her husband and their 3-year-old fraternal twins, yet a new tropical getaway is always on the horizon.
As enviable as her adventures look on paper, Perell’s life wasn’t always cushioned. Her father, a real estate developer, took a strict no-BS stance on life, often telling her: “Eight hours? That’s a half-day. Go back to work.” She spent hours visiting his job sites and appointing Meyers-Briggs labels to staff files with her mother, an organizational behavioral consultant. Witnessing the stressful and financially uncertain roller coaster of business taught Perell resilience, passion and a strong work ethic.
“It was their purpose as opposed to a job because they owned it and ran it,” Perell says. “They lived it and breathed it. If you’re doing it because you love it, eight hours turns into 16 very fast.”
Armed with experience, Perell has been building and navigating her way through the highly competitive digital startup industry, most recently as CEO of digital marketing firm Amobee, valued at an estimated $100 million. Now she’s ready to share the blueprint of more than a decade of experience with other entrepreneurs in her upcoming book The Execution Factor, through McGraw-Hill.
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In some ways, Perell was groomed for the entrepreneurial life. Taught to create her own opportunities, she collected aluminum cans from neighbors to recycle for spending money. Interested in horseback riding, she cleaned stables for seven hours in exchange for a one-hour lesson. She worked at a pizza shop and sold men’s suits to fund a car at 16. As a full-time student at Pepperdine, she worked two jobs at an investment bank and a direct marketing company.
“You can’t put a price on experience. I love being an entrepreneur. I love ideas. But you have to be realistic and you have to live.”
She found failure just as quickly as success. A fresh-faced college graduate, she eagerly joined the dot-com boom as director of marketing and sales for internet startup Xdrive Technology, a Dropbox forerunner. Despite her lack of experience, Perell acquired 10 million members and generated more than $9 million in advertising revenue to become the only division in the company making money. But like so many others in the dot-com bubble, Xdrive fueled its rapid growth at the expense of cash flow and profitability. Over the next two years, the company plummeted, and by 2001, Perell was firing dozens of her friends before being laid off herself.
“That was probably the worst thing that ever happened to me, but looking back, it created such an incredible opportunity,” Perell says.
Less than a year later, Perell was launching her first startup, Frontline Direct, a performance marketing company, from the kitchen table of her in-laws’ home in Hawaii. She funded it with the remaining $10,000 in her bank account and any available credit card balances. Still reeling from the devastating rise and fall of Xdrive, Perell was determined not to repeat the company’s mistakes. She and her husband worked tirelessly to stay in contact with clients on the East Coast. Their hard work paid off, bringing in nearly double revenue year after year, reaching $100 million by 2010 with 380 customers and 74 employees.
“If I didn’t believe or wasn’t passionate about it, I just wouldn’t do it,” Perell says. “It wouldn’t be worth the day.”
But growth doesn’t come without a cost. Perell’s parents divorced when she was a teenager. Just as she learned from her experience with Xdrive, she also learned from watching how the stress of entrepreneurship strains relationships.
“I prioritized my business and then my personal life, making sure I had adequate time and finances to support both of those needs and be successful.” she says. “You can’t put a price on experience. I love being an entrepreneur. I love ideas. But you have to be realistic and you have to live.”
In 2008 Frontline merged with a Europe-based marketing firm in a $30 million deal to become Adconion Direct, with Perell named CEO. She brought the same simple lessons she learned all those years ago: Focus on the bottom line and be cautious about taking outside funding. Adconion saw a 70 percent year-on-year increase due to ad sales.
In 2014 Amobee, a unit of Asian telecom behemoth Singtel, bought Adconion Direct for $235 million, and Perell once again took the lead as CEO, charged with building one of the largest independent marketing companies in the world. With 20 offices around the globe and 550 employees under her in the heart of Silicon Valley, she sticks to a simple formula: execution over IQ.
“You could be a great visionary, but if you don’t pair vision with action, it’s just your head in the clouds,” she says.
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Perell is the kind of person you instantly like and respect. She’s both blunt and charismatic, confident and gracious, direct and kind. She knows what she wants, but she doesn’t trample on others to get there—certainly a redeeming leadership quality. But you don’t become the CEO of a massively successful company without making some difficult decisions.
Perell’s friends have a running joke: Who makes the annual audit list? Not unlike a financial audit or holiday nice and naughty list, she sits down to analyze which relationships are improving her life and which ones are dragging her down.
“If I didn’t believe or wasn’t passionate about it, I just wouldn’t do it. It wouldn’t be worth the day.”
“It’s very intentional,” Perell says. “At some point you have to make decisions. If it’s not pushing you forward, it’s holding you back.
“I can only handle so much bandwidth and noise. Having really meaningful relationships is so key to success, so why add unmeaningful or shallow conversations?”
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In 2005 Frontline Direct’s entire client and internal database was erased accidentally. Unable to afford a backup server, the data was unrecoverable. Perell remembers standing in an Ikea, considering where to run away and hide from the problem. Rather than cowering, she took action, reaching out to each client, explaining the situation individually, and working together to rebuild the database. Not a single client left the company.
“High IQ doesn’t always equal success,” Perell says. “It takes much more than a good idea to be successful, and I think I’m living proof of that.”
It’s the same honesty and integrity that has made Perell a savvy angel investor to more than 70 startups, 12 of which have since been acquired by some of the largest Fortune 500 companies. As a leader and investor, she’s learned a lot about people. Namely that they don’t like to be told what to do. She doesn’t care how her team gets from goal to execution, as long as they achieve the desired outcome.
“I believe in collective thought,” she says. “I like input. I don’t think it’s my way or the highway because I love having a lot of intelligent individuals around the table who all have different points of view. As a leader, that has made me more open to accepting new ideas.”