When Business is Battle: Inside the Boardrooms of the CEOs that Survived the Storm
This episode features two CEOs who successfully navigated challenges in their companies. Ariel Cohen, CEO of Navan, shares his journey of starting a travel company that aimed to simplify the process of booking and managing travel expenses for organizations. Despite rapid growth, Navan lost their entire revenue within two days due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The episode covers topics such as managing employees, adapting to changing customer needs, utilizing AI and analytics in travel booking, transitioning to a new UI, challenges faced as a public company, balancing external expectations and aggressive goals, lessons learned from adversity, and making tough decisions as a CEO.
Character is crucial for effective collaboration
It is important to like talking to the people on your team for effective collaboration.
Navigating through crisis moments
Many companies go through crisis moments, and it is crucial for CEOs to be realistic about the situation.
Adapting to changing customer needs
The CEO navigated through the pandemic by adapting to changing customer needs and developing new strategies.
Utilizing AI and analytics in travel booking
The company is using generative AI to personalize customer support and analytics, with plans to release a matching feature soon.
Transitioning to a new UI and continuous learning
The team's ability to adjust and adapt is crucial for success during transitions.
Balancing internal plans with external reporting
Being a public company has led to setting realistic external expectations while internally pushing for more aggressive goals.
Lessons learned from adversity
The speaker emphasized the importance of having a strong board and involving others in decision-making during tough times.
Making tough decisions as a CEO
Finding a balance between loyalty and making necessary changes is crucial for a CEO.
- Navigating Challenges in a Travel Company
- Managing Employees and Cultural Conflicts
- Adapting to Changing Customer Needs
- Utilizing AI and Analytics in Travel Booking
- Transitioning to a New UI and Continuous Learning
- Challenges Faced as a Public Company
- Balancing External Expectations and Aggressive Goals
- Lessons Learned from Adversity
- Making Tough Decisions as a CEO
Managing Employees and Cultural Conflicts
06:56 - 13:20
- The company faced challenges during the pandemic, including negative press and layoffs conducted over Zoom.
- The founder experienced a period of depression but eventually started managing the company effectively.
- The company had rapid growth in 2019, hiring many employees, but faced difficulties managing them during times of crisis.
- Different types of employees were hired, some committed to the mission and others focused on personal gain.
- The founder would rehire some employees who have shown resilience and dedication to the company.
- The company now has a hiring formula based on drive, openness, qualification, and character.
Adapting to Changing Customer Needs
12:51 - 19:23
- Character is defined as someone you would want to spend time with and have a beer with.
- It is important to like talking to the people on your team for effective collaboration.
- Many companies go through crisis moments, and it is crucial for CEOs to be realistic about the situation.
- The CEO of the company believed that travel would come back despite skepticism from investors and others.
- The CEO faced additional challenges during the COVID period, including cultural conflicts within the company.
- Despite zero revenue and limited cash, the company expanded its product line by building an expense product.
- The decision to continue selling during COVID without implementing price changes helped retain major enterprise customers.
- The CEO navigated through the pandemic by adapting to changing customer needs and developing new strategies.
Utilizing AI and Analytics in Travel Booking
19:04 - 25:53
- The CEO became interested in COVID at the beginning of the pandemic and read extensively about it.
- It was clear to the CEO that the pandemic would last for two years, despite some people thinking it would be shorter.
- The company learned how to manage itself during waves of COVID and became more resilient.
- The CEO's CTO built a machine learning model for predicting the spread of COVID, which eventually became accurate.
- Generative AI is seen as a potential solution for improving user interfaces in travel booking.
- People prefer calling travel agents because they provide personalized recommendations based on limited options.
- The company is using generative AI to personalize customer support and analytics, with plans to release a matching feature soon.
Transitioning to a New UI and Continuous Learning
25:26 - 31:50
- The company made moves to open AI and analytics to save support time and money.
- They plan to release a hybrid UI that will gradually transition users to the new system.
- People need time to adjust to new technology, but the use case for the new UI is clear.
- Booking a flight requires a significant amount of infrastructure, which makes connecting it to AI powerful.
- The CEO acknowledges the need for continuous learning and adjustment in the tech industry.
- The team's ability to adjust and adapt is crucial for success during transitions.
- The company had an emergency meeting to address challenges related to their latest release.
- There is discussion about how AI models may affect human travel agents in the company.
Challenges Faced as a Public Company
31:30 - 37:46
- The CEO discusses how they have managed the challenges and changes faced by their company in recent years, including financial changes, cultural changes, and personnel changes.
- They reflect on their own journey as a CEO and founder, realizing that even successful CEOs face adversity and challenges.
- The CEO is driven by challenges and seeks them out when faced with stress and difficulty.
- They have changed the way they lead their teams, finding a balance between keeping employees happy and having conviction as a leader.
- A concrete example is given of an acquisition where the security team integration was initially slow but eventually made to ensure internal security.
- Being a public company has led to setting realistic external expectations while internally pushing for more aggressive goals.
- The CEO reflects on the challenge of balancing internal plans with external reporting.
Balancing External Expectations and Aggressive Goals
37:17 - 43:33
- Many companies have been conservative with their external expectations due to the macro economy.
- Internally, companies may miss or just meet their internal plans and want to do more.
- Externally, they may report earnings that exceed expectations, leading to stock price increases.
- However, despite these successes, there is a need to push for even higher goals and not settle for mediocrity.
- Going public has advantages such as access to capital markets and the ability to provide fair compensation through stock options.
- Having a predictable business is crucial when it comes to investor relations and meeting expectations.
- Recurring revenue models are preferred in software companies going public.
- The founder started the company in 2009 during the financial crisis but believed in the potential of cloud computing.
- Fundraising during that time was challenging due to uncertainty in the financial industry.
- Andreessen Horowitz was one of the first venture funds willing to invest despite the difficult circumstances.
- There were some periods where Okta missed their numbers consecutively, but overall they have had tremendous success.
Lessons Learned from Adversity
43:09 - 48:52
- The speaker experienced a period of missed targets and rough times in the early days of their company, including a security issue and an acquisition that could have been handled better.
- The speaker mentioned that raising money and energizing people in the early stages of a company can create hype and excitement, but there are also expectations for revenue and customers.
- The speaker emphasized the importance of having a strong board and changed their approach from collaborative to assertive leadership during tough times, which increased confidence in their leadership.
- Internally, the speaker initially had a mindset of being able to do everything themselves as CEO, but realized it was important to involve others, share information, and give context to help pull the company out of challenges.
- This shift in mindset towards transparency, collaboration, and involving the team had positive effects on the company's culture and problem-solving abilities.
- The speaker acknowledged the importance of having the right executive team around them throughout different phases of Okta's growth.
Making Tough Decisions as a CEO
48:31 - 52:24
- The speaker discusses how their decision-making process changed when they became a CEO, becoming slower and more circumspect.
- As a CEO, the speaker had to make decisions without someone above them to overrule or guide them.
- The speaker experienced difficulty in making tough decisions that would break loyalty to employees who helped the company through tough times.
- In hindsight, the speaker realizes they should have made those tough decisions faster.
- The speaker shares two mistakes they made with new leaders: advising them to go too slow in making changes before an IPO, which ended up hurting the company later, and being too permissive and allowing leaders to make mistakes.
- Finding a balance between loyalty and making necessary changes is crucial for a CEO.