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Entrepreneur Spotlight

October 31, 2016

Entrepreneur Spotlight

October 31, 2016

This interview with Austin McChord, C.E.O. of Datto, a data protection company, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant and published by the New York Times.

Q. What were your early years like?

A. I grew up in Newtown, Conn., and had a relatively typical suburban childhood. At a very early age, I was always fascinated by how things work, and I got really excited about taking things apart. When I was younger and people asked me what I wanted to do, I told them I wanted to be an inventor.

I didn’t really get introduced to technology and computers until around third grade, and it happened basically because I had horrible handwriting. I was also very stubborn and hated handwriting practice. So my parents and the school decided, why don’t we get him a computer and he can type?

So they dug up some ancient computer and set it in the corner of the classroom, and instead of writing my work, I would type it. But I got very bored with doing schoolwork and quickly started to learn how to program. So while they thought I was doing my work, I was actually writing games to play during class.

And in high school?

I joined the technology club, and we were responsible for the TV station that was broadcast to the town. It was basically just scrolling text, and I suggested we do something more interesting with it.

I wanted to shoot sports and produce live TV. They didn’t have any of the equipment we needed, so I started reading about it. Then I went to the dump and I got old television sets and things like that, and figured out how to repair them and build out all the pieces we needed.

By the time that I graduated high school, we were basically doing every single home game live. I loved the rush that it had to happen, even though there were probably not many people watching at home.

What was driving you to do that?

It was immensely focusing. In middle school I was a mediocre student. My parents had me tested and they were told I had A.D.D. They decided that they didn’t want to medicate me.

Even now, finding focus is something that’s really hard. I sort of prepare for these brief moments of intense focus when I can get so much done. I’m not the type of person who does a lot of deep planning. I prefer to run into the fire, and I’ll figure it out with whatever I have.

It turns out that the job of C.E.O. reinforces A.D.D. Having it is almost an advantage, because when I’m in my office somebody is coming in every two minutes.

How have your parents influenced your leadership style?

They helped inspire a good work ethic. If there were things I wanted, they just said you can work to get them. They weren’t going to hand it out. And at Datto now, you don’t get recognized until things are done.

That’s probably different than a lot of other businesses out there. There is this trend, especially with millennials, where everything is awesome all the time. At Datto, very few things are awesome, and it takes exceptional achievement to receive an honest pat on the back.

What were some early leadership lessons for you?

I went through a phase when the business was growing faster than many of my managers — who were my friends — could build their skill sets. That’s painful and frustrating to see this person who’s all in, and is pushing as hard as they can, but the water is rising faster than they can swim and they’re drowning.

I thought the answer was to hire people with a ton of experience in this area. But that ended up creating a big problem for us, because they basically just copied the patterns that they had seen before and tried to enforce them on our company. That created a culture clash.

I basically learned a lesson the hard way. Now when we think about hiring, we look for the skills, but we’re also open to the idea that they have never done it before, and that they can learn how to build the job in a way that fits who we are.

But you’re a first-time C.E.O. of a fast-growing company. How have you stayed a step ahead of what the company needed?

By seeking out great advice and knowing when to ask for help. I know the signs and symptoms of when people are drowning — people just stop communicating, and they become more and more insular. So every month, I ask myself: Am I drowning?

What else do you look for when you’re hiring?

There are basic components of whether they have the skills, are they smart enough, do they have the horsepower to get the job done. And I ask them a lot about how they would think about doing different parts of their job.

You can learn a lot just by asking some of the softball questions like: “What do you do outside of work? What gets you excited? What are the things that you do that make you not want to come to work on a given day, and what are the reasons that make you wish you could get to work sooner?” The content of their answers matters less than the style and energy of how they respond.

What advice do you give to new college grads?

The biggest piece of advice I offer to people is to just do it. The best way to make your dreams not come true is to constantly talk to people about them and ask for advice about them. Actions speak louder than words, and no one else is going to do it for you.

I never went to any entrepreneurship conference or met a lot of other start-up C.E.O.s or did any of that. We didn’t realize we were successful early on because we didn’t know anybody else. We were just trying to make payroll and chase the ball forward.

It wasn’t really until we had climbed the mountain to some degree and got a $100 million offer, which I turned down, that we said to ourselves, “I guess we built something here.” We just had an intense focus on doing.