Focusing on Your People is the Heart of Leadership with Kurt Donnell at Freestar

People are essential to every business that is growing fast. The heart of leadership is focusing on your people. Your product or service is essential, but scaling quickly requires people to feel like you care about them. Today’s guest is Kurt Donnell, CEO at Freestar. Inc Magazine ranked Freestar #1 on the 2019 Inc 5000 list. They were also ranked 36 in the 2020 list. Freestar works with businesses to build brand awareness, establish marketing campaigns, and increase revenue based upon content promotion. Kurt shares his journey and why he believes the heart of leadership is so important. Discover how Kurt sees the heart of leadership in today’s interview.

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Target Audience: Kurt Donnell is the President & CEO at Freestar. Freestar engineers cutting-edge monetization solutions for websites and apps. By combining industry-leading technology, data, and massive scale, we enable the busy site and app owners to seamlessly maximize revenue while freeing themselves of the hassles of ad operations. Publishers, e-commerce sites, and app developers then have more time to do what they do best: create content.

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Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

Kurt Donnell
Investing in the right team more than anything, you can have the best product in the world. But if you don’t have people that are gonna be out there, sort of doing the right thing, telling the right story and ultimately taking care of your customers, it doesn’t really matter. I sort of believe that if you take care of your employees and take your customers, a lot of the things will take care of itself. And so we’ve invested in really bringing together through industry experts from all the sort of different disciplines of advertising technology, a lot of people that have been in the publishing side of things and just have an incredible group of people that are so smart, are working, caring and pushes forward every single day. And I genuinely believe that the people side of things is underrated sometimes in the tech business, for sure, technology has to be incredible, unless you have wonderful people that are out there, sort of working hard with the clients to make sure it’s implemented well and being used. And doing in our case, all the yield management all of the thing with the technology tools, you know how much more help. So we sort of joke that Phil Zappa was lying that we’re a customer service company that happens to do ad tech, and you’re….

Intro [1:04]
Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the one and only place where you will get insight from the founders and the CEOs, the fastest-growing privately held companies. I am the host. My name is Gene Hammett. I help leaders and their teams navigate the defining moments of their growth. Are you ready to grow?

Gene Hammett [1:21]
More people the most important piece to you growing your company and it’s scaling beyond where you are today? Why do I say that? Well, if you’re a one-person company, then maybe you still got to, to work on your marketing and sales or product-market fit. But if you have 10 people 20,50,100,200,300,500, it’s your people that will do all the heavy lifting to scale your company, you, as the leader of this company, are responsible for creating an environment for them to play at their highest level for them to feel empowered, to feel really connected to the work. If you do that, well. The company will grow beyond where it is today. Because of any challenge that they meet, they’ll be able to navigate around it. Your core team is very important to your success. Today, we’re going to look at creating leadership that is people-focused. We have the CEO and president of Freestar. Freestar was on the show before they were number one in 2019. They were also 36 or so in 2020 on the Inc list. But what we talked about today is a little mixture of how do you invest in your people the right way? What does that look like? It’s not ping pong tables and beanbag chairs, or even free food. But actually, what does it look like? We talk about some of the details behind that we look at the values of a company that’s growing really fast, and why they’re so important. And how do you actually celebrate those that are embodying those baggers? All of this inside this episode with a little bonus, we talked about some of the key ways to create a connection with remote employees. Because a lot of companies are still working in remote environments. All that is in today’s episode with Kurt Donnell, and he’s the CEO of Freestar. Now, here’s the interview now.

Gene Hammett [3:04]
Kurt, how are you?

Kurt Donnell [3:06]
Hello, Gene, how you doing today?

Gene Hammett [3:08]
I am fantastic. excited to have a podcast interview with another co-founder, President, all of these people we put on to the Inc, that come from the ink list on Growth Think Tank. So happy to have you here.

Kurt Donnell [3:20]
Thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Gene Hammett [3:22]
Kurt, we’ve already had David on the show before, and remember, we had a great interview you guys were number one on the Inc list in 2019. Number 36 on the list in 2020. We’re going to talk about fast-growth companies. But I’d love for you to tell us a little bit about Freestar in the category that you’re in. So tell us more.

Kurt Donnell [3:41]
Yeah, sure. So we operate in a sort of an interesting spot in the digital media space where we essentially work with publishers to help them optimize their revenue, we sort of taking care of all the advertising side of things that they can focus on the content piece and the audience development piece. So we started about five years ago, helping publishers optimize revenue with what’s called programmatic advertising where there’s a real-time auction that happens for the ads that you see on the internet. And we do that 10 to 15 billion times a month on behalf of our 400 Publishing clients.

Gene Hammett [4:12]
Well, we see the ads all the time, you probably already know that you’re in the background. Is that kind of fair to say?

Kurt Donnell [4:18]
It is yes, we are a very interesting little niche in the middle there where we kind of act as an extension of the team. So you would never know that somebody else is running this. It’s just as if you went to you know, or something like that. The ads are showing up whether it was their team doing it or it’s somebody like JC Penney, calm who we work with or barstool sports comm we work with we take care of all of those ads on their behalf and run all the auctions collect all the payments and some take all of the hassles out of it for them so they can focus on the things that mess that which is the content side.

Gene Hammett [4:50]
Perfect. Kurt, you’re on the show to talk about how we could learn from you in creating a fast-growth company. We’ve already established that you guys were growing fast. What do you think the core of your leadership and culture strategy has been to allow you to grow so fast?

Kurt Donnell [5:07]
Sure, I think it’s really investing in the right team more than anything, you can have the best product in the world. But if you don’t have people that are gonna be out there, sort of doing the right thing, telling the right story, and ultimately taking care of your customers, it doesn’t really matter. I sort of believing that if you take care of your employees and take care of customers, a lot of the other things will take care of themselves. And so we’ve invested in really bringing together a group of true industry experts from all the sort of different disciplines of advertising technology, a lot of people that have been in the publishing side of things and just have an incredible group of people that are so smart and hardworking and caring and pushing us forward every single day. And I genuinely believe that the people side of things is underrated. Sometimes in the tech business, of course, your technology has to be incredible, unless you have wonderful people that are out there, sort of working hard with their clients to make sure it’s implemented well, and being used and, and doing in our case, all the deal management, all the things with the technology tools, you don’t have much of a company. So we sort of joke that deal is apple line, that we’re a customer service company that happens to do ad tech, and we really kind of believe that.

Commercial [6:13]
Hold on for a second. Kurt said something very interesting, take care of your people, and they will take care of your customers, you’ve probably heard this before. But here’s the reality of this phrase, a lot of leaders are focused on other things than their people, they’re focused on maybe their sales campaigns or their marketing, or maybe even the product, they’re focused on the work. But that’s not what it says to take care of your customers focus on the people, because here’s the thing, all the people that are out there on the frontlines, your business, they’re the ones that are smiling and taking care of all of the issues with your customers. So you want to make sure they’re feeling taken care of, how do you do that? Well, there’s a lot of the details inside interviews like this on the podcast, but I’m just going to put a spotlight on this for a moment. Because if you take care of your people, they will take care of your customers. Just remember that back to Kurt.

Gene Hammett [7:06]
Yeah, it’s interesting, you bring that up, because Zappos, you know, got a huge purchase price from Amazon years ago. And a lot of people didn’t understand why, but really because they were buying the culture there, and what was really going on, when you take that same approach, what have you, what would we see strategically inside your company to let you know, you’re investing in your employees?

Kurt Donnell [7:28]
Yeah, I think it’s been interesting this year, I mean, a lot of companies obviously have the ping pong tables, and all those things in the office, that isn’t culture, you know, those are things that are just amenities, it’s what you’re really doing, to help really make your employees better people and better human beings. And that’s something that we’ve talked about, and then a completely virtual world, you have to do it differently. You know, we’ve historically had offsites, where we fly the whole company in, and unfortunately, haven’t been able to do those this year. But we did carry through things like our speaker series that we would do, that are offsites, we’re now doing once or twice a month here remotely, and we get to hear from interesting entrepreneurs or wellness instructors or, you know, guided meditation for the team, and we try to invest in people in their personal growth journey.

Kurt Donnell [8:14]
So they can, you know, continue to be fulfilled, in we’re very transparent in the company to I think that’s wildly important so that people know that you trust them, you know, if it’s an instance of should we share something or not, we always err on the side of sharing a little bit more and trusting people to be the adults that will use that information very effectively. And so we’re a very open culture, some of the things we’ve done and just sort of the cultural side of things, obviously, it’s been a very interesting year this year for a host of reasons. But obviously, a lot of the equality inclusion things. We’ve done sort of a virtual documentary club, kind of like a book club of documentaries, where we’ve watched things as a team, they’ve gotten together and discussed a range of topics from race, mental health, to transgender issues, and kind of across the board. And so I think it’s the little things where you lean into employees and kind of show that you want them to be great human beings, that kind of translates and helps them grow.

Gene Hammett [9:08]
I know some companies probably resist doing this, because it seems really touchy-feely, to be a better human being. Why do you feel like that’s so important for the culture of the company?

Kurt Donnell [9:19]
You know, I was I started my career as a lawyer at large law firms. And I realized pretty quickly, that was not my calling in life. But I realized throughout that I was very much a cog in the wheelman, there was gonna be a new class of summer surgery. So we’ll come in the next year. And the model there was you would start with depending on the size of the firm, a dozen people or 20 people, 50 people, and they would know that only one or two people out of that class would make it to be a partner. And it’s a little bit disheartening. When you see the model as we know it, we’re just going to burn a bunch of people out and let them sort of meander away versus leaning in and helping them grow. And so I kind of had that sort of cog in a wheel mentality, and I hated it because I really felt like well, there were people that certainly invested in you the model itself was not invested in helping you grow and become a better person or career. And just over time, I realized that people that I loved working for because they were great bosses, mentors were people that really leaned in and cared. And so really tried to bring that I guess with me as I’ve gone through my career and had the chance to sort of lean into other people and show them that I can’t. And a lot of people don’t do that.

Kurt Donnell [10:21]
One of the first things I did when I came into the company was sort of interview every single employee and sat down. And it was kind of amazing how many people like we’ve done this before. And it was such an obvious thing to me that I want to get to know the people that I had the chance to work with, and lead, but so many people don’t take the time to do it. And so I think it’s just that human connection, it’s going to then give you credibility within the next time that maybe you have to have a tough discussion about something or you make a tough strategic decision for the company, they’re going to believe you because they know you as a person. And so I think that leaning in on the human side is just vital for long term success.

Gene Hammett [10:53]
Kurt, it’s interesting, you talked about, you know, interviewing people in the beginning, what would it look like now, if we looked at a typical week, how much time you’re spending, with your employees doing the things that we would call like, caring for them and, and coaching them and listening to them?

Kurt Donnell [11:09]
You know, it’s never as much as I would like, things have been obviously increasingly busy. When I started, we were, you know, 30 ish employees and our 70 ish employees. So it gets more difficult, but I will say that every single new employee and make sure that I still, you know, pay him a couple weeks in and chat with them for 15 minutes to kind of understand the background, where they’re coming from. I also believe, exit interviews, every company does them, I think it’s a pretty terrible time to find out what you should be doing as a company, I think you should do kind of entrance interviews about, you know, three or four weeks in when people have gotten a lay of the land, but not maybe yet kind of assimilated into any good, bad or otherwise habits of the new company and start kind of a fresh point of view, I think can get some really great insights from folks. So like the weighing in and kind of meet them as people, but also they could meet tremendous feedback about, you know, why are we doing it this way, or this is how I used to do it. And it’s led to just some sort of interesting conversations and ideas along the way.

Gene Hammett [12:05]
Let’s get specific with that these interesting interviews, you said two to three weeks in what is something you’ve learned from talking to someone who was that new into the company that has been able to make an impact across the company?

Kurt Donnell [12:20]
There have been things of like, just asking questions of maybe why is this group structured this way, or things about sort of communication things of feels like this company uses slack way more than other things. And I had a different experience where we slack for this thing and email for this thing, just little tidbits like that. Questions about sort of communication, in general, certainly popped up. But also things about, like, you know, were really helpful if I would have been able to dive in to do XYZ, in my first couple weeks it was a little more hands-off, it was all the different types of learners, some people are great to sort of visual learners, some people are better reading it, some people need to be doing it. And it’s been interesting to kind of find that out. And it’s helped us craft onboarding a little bit better, for instance, and somebody was like, Yeah, I was reading all the compliments, but I really wanted to be in there working on things. And so it’s helped us just sort of growing to match the different personalities are going to be coming into the company in general.

Gene Hammett [13:15]
One area we haven’t touched on Kurt is the values of the company. A lot of companies in the Inc 5000 the interviews I’ve had here on the show have talked about the importance of living the values day in and day out, managing to lead, even exiting employees. How are you guys living by the values there at Freestar?

Kurt Donnell [13:34]
Sure, I was very lucky to come into an organization that adds real values they had done what I think most startups did make a bunch of values that sounded great, they stuck them on the wall. And they’re wise enough, a couple of years into realizing that they’re kind of BS, and nobody could repeat them if you ask them. And they kind of went, I think to the whole company and said, you know what your values really be. And the first of which is the publisher first. The second is we not mean the third is above and beyond. You know, I love those the way our business model works, it’s a revenue share. So we only win when our partners are winning. And so we’re very aligned. And so if anything we do we have to be publisher first in that and have that mentality across the board. And I’ve seen that just play out time and time again, where it really is a value that helps answer decisions or answer questions for people and make better decisions of Should I cut this corner? Should I do XYZ?

Kurt Donnell [14:22]
No, is that publisher first and if it’s not, then that’s not something we do as a company. Next is we not mean we really firmly believe that we’re sort of all in this together and it’s not my trash on the floor, your trash on the floor, it’s our trash and floor. We only get better sort of together. We talk a lot about getting 1% better each week and that comes from the collective group while weaving in and helping there. Then the last is above and beyond. And it’s really that in anything we do we want to be the absolute best we can possibly do and they thought things are just on the wall. Shortly after I started we kind of started celebrating them in our all-hands I think actually my first all-hands I tossed the slide in there and asked the team to give examples of that. So every month, we have sort of somebody that exemplifies our values and our living values, sort of award winners. And it’s nice to keep that drumbeat going, where it’s not just something on the wall, it really is part of the culture. And I think it’s sort of sets the tone across the board. When people talk about that, we’ve actually seen it now come back in some of our NPS scores, which I think is pretty interesting to hear him. So recite it back to you, that was a very proud moment, for me. And probably our HR team as well.

Commercial [15:28]
Hold on for a second here, Kurt just talked about giving awards out to people who exemplify the values of the company, have you ever thought about recognizing the people that are living by the values that you hold dear, that you want to see more of an organization will, one thing that you can do is to give them awards, like Kurt talked about, another thing you can do is just allow for inside your meetings, for people to recognize others that are living by the values, little micro-moments, maybe it’s stories, maybe it’s just a thank you a moment of gratitude, but letting other people know from a peer level to other peers, who is living by the values, when you’ve talked about it consistently, you have a better chance to have that as a part of the core structure of the DNA of your company. So that’s one way that you can do that. If you are looking for other ways, make sure you check out more content here on the podcast back to the interview.

Gene Hammett [16:20]
I’ve seen a lot of clients that are celebrating this. I’m just kind of curious, are you guys giving physical awards? Is it monetary awards? How What do those awards look like for values?

Kurt Donnell [16:30]
Yeah, for a while, it was sort of a list of a number of people that were exemplifying the values with stories, we’ve actually switched to being sort of one living value award winner every month, we have a free star swag store where you get any number of branded items. So the winners each month gets some points to the store, we then go pick up some new gear, we have pretty nice items in there. So that’s what I’ve been doing this year and mix that up over time. But that’s the current price.

Gene Hammett [16:55]
Is that recognized by their peers? Or is it something that comes from the leadership team?

Kurt Donnell [17:01]
It’s a combination, we take nominations kind of across the board from tends to be a little bit more of a management team. But anybody is welcome to toss that out. I got actually black this week from somebody that just was explaining a wonderful situation and experience they’ve had with another team member on a different team and just wanted to make sure that they were getting the recognition that was due. So it really is kind of across the board.

Gene Hammett [17:22]
Kurt is there anything that you do differently across the feet Freestar culture that we could learn from, as you’ve created this, this fast growth engine that we haven’t already talked about today.

Kurt Donnell [17:33]
It cuts transparency as much as you possibly can. And really giving people that trust where they know that you’re telling them everything you can and then there are moments when you don’t tell them something, they’re going to know that there’s a reason for that because it really is confidential, it’s an HR matter or something like that, you got to build the level of trust that is vital. The other piece, I would say is in this crazy COVID time where everybody’s remote, you got to lean in harder and harder and harder on culture, you’re not going to get the inherent moments where you have people interacting in the hallway get to create the opportunities for that, despite being remote, we still did a summer retreat, we’ve got another virtual retreat coming up here. In a couple of weeks, we’re putting together cross-functional teams to work on some interesting problems together and do sort of a hackathon of sorts, and then also do some fun activities. And you got to create the space for both of those, you know, we saw the virtual happy hour scheduled every pretty much every week now. And it’s some combination of playing virtual games, sometimes it’s documentary discussions, but really leaning in and trying to create those cultural moments, virtually takes a lot of intentionalities. And so I would encourage everybody to do that.

Gene Hammett [18:42]
So, Kurt, I didn’t expect us to go into this virtual kind of conversation as much. But I want to give you one more chance to go deeper. A lot of people put resistance back and just say, Well, you know what, in a virtual world that we’re working in, it’s just harder. It just is what it is, but they’re not actually making the effort. So what would you say to leaders around creating the kind of connection necessary in this new virtual work environment that we have?

Kurt Donnell [19:05]
Don’t be lazy. you accomplish just about anything you want to put your mind to it. There’s been a bunch of interesting companies that have popped up to facilitate things online if it’s not something you think you and your team can handle. It also is incredibly simple. You know, let the company know we’re going to talk about XYZ documentary next week. Don’t make it mandatory, but we get half the company showing up sometimes to talk about some interesting issues. And it’s just being intentional about creating the opportunity for people to do it. I think it’d be really impressed and surprised by the level of enthusiasm people have for this stuff and how much it means, Franklin, we a leader show up and are vulnerable and talk about the donations you’ve had in your life and various things. Again, it goes back to that sort of trust in the human element of things, I think is just so vital.

Gene Hammett [19:50]
Because you’ve shared a lot of insights and wisdom around leadership and culture here. Thanks for being on the podcast.

Kurt Donnell [19:56]
Absolutely. Thanks so much for having me Gene, appreciate that.

Gene Hammett [19:58]
Well, this wraps up another Episode here with another leader talking about the importance of people. And when you lead a team and you want to grow fast, you want to make sure that you’re putting the right emphasis in and not being lazy. And really focusing on how to grow those people by investing them wisely. If you’re the kind of leader that wants to be a visionary leader, the best thing you can do is invest in your people. If you have any questions about that, we have a lot of free content on the website. Just go to You can find the new series it’s coming out called optimize your time if you want to improve that. Make sure you check out all of the interviews around that. When you think about growth, and you think about culture, and leadership, go to Growth Think Tank, as always lead with courage. We’ll see you next time.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.


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