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North Star Leaders Podcast

Zack Rosen

Season 1 Episode 4 31 Oct 2023

Transcript

Zachary Rosen:

Value systems are so important because it's a way of aligning on like, "Okay. Who are the type of people that we're looking to bring onto this team? And then who are the people who get... Anyone... Any promotion or the kind of leadership and exemplars you want in your organization?" You really want to be leaders of the value system, where you can tie back to and explain to people how values aren't just words, but they're lived and used day-to-day in people's work and how they interact with people and how they lead teams.

Lindsay Pedersen:

hat only your business can bring. And as a leader, it's your job to deliver. But where do you focus? Where do you direct your time, your team, your budget, and your emotional energy? We are learning this together on the North Star Leaders podcast. I'll be talking to purpose-driven leaders about the choices they make to create audacious economic value while also realizing their distinctive purpose. I'm Lindsay Peterson, brand strategist, author of Forging an Ironclad brand, and host of the North Star Leaders podcast. Let's get to it.

Today, I am so delighted to be joined by my guest, Zach Rosen. Zach is the Co-founder and CEO of Pantheon Platforms, which is a leading website operations platform. He's also a co-founder and board director for California YIMBY. Zach, welcome to the show.

Zachary Rosen:

Thank you for having me.

Lindsay Pedersen:

So good to be here with you. So, to start us off, Zach, what is your favorite thing about what you do?

Zachary Rosen:

So, really, there's nothing better in a career, I think, than getting to wake up in the morning and plug in with a group of people who you have a huge amount of respect and admiration and really close friendship with, and get to work on the things that you think are really important. And then in entrepreneurial world, having the autonomy to pick the problems that you get to work on and align an organization and the resources and then to over time make progress on those things, it's beyond enjoyment and it's like a fulfillment. Same kind of thing in family life, like having kids and raising them. There's this fulfillment that comes out of that that's hard to describe. Having that in your career, I think, is to me, the ultimate prize of building a career, is to get that feeling.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I love your distinction between enjoying it and being fulfilled by it. Because it's wonderful to enjoy your work, it's wonderful to enjoy the people that you go home to, but to feel that deeper sense of satisfaction and fuel is, yeah, you put it so well. With Pantheon, what would you say is the North Star? As the CEO of Pantheon, what is the idea or phrase or principle that you and your team hold so dear that it guides your decisions?

Zachary Rosen:

I'll give a little context. We built the whole company around helping to innovate and protect the Open Web and a lot of people... Well, almost everyone, I'm sure, listening knows what the open web is, but they don't have the words for it. So, we live a world where we take it for granted, that all of our media experiences, a lot of them are, but not all of our media experiences are really owned and operated by a couple of technology platforms, specifically the Apple App store, the Instagram, Meta universe of products. The way things typically go in industry is without a lot of hard work, pushing the other direction as things consolidate. Anyone can get up in the morning and create something mostly on its merits. If it's a good idea or good song or media or company or product, there's this amazing kind of freedom and flexibility you have to then scale that really across the entire globe.

And the rise of the internet as I was young, but I remember a world where that just simply wasn't true, where if you wanted to reach the globe, good luck, go buy your own satellite network or access to a satellite network and go through a few gatekeepers. We live in a very different context today, but one thing we take for granted is that we do have that freedom and flexibility. There is a specific set of technologies that's called the Open Web, that's not owned by any one company or government, that's literally a set of standards. And the reason that we have that is those products and technologies, you have to be a total nerd like me to really watch this stuff in real time. Those technologies and products are really good, we can deliver really good experiences across all of these different channels on owned experiences.

The reason we started the company is to make sure that that continues, that there's a lot of innovation and there are really good products that allow people to own and run their own websites and own digital experiences that they themselves and their organizations can control. It is a balance of power. The better those owned experiences are and the healthier the ecosystem is around them, the more we're going to live in that world. And the moment those experiences can't keep pace, we're going to end up very quickly in a world where everything is mediated through these very controlled platforms. That is the mission of the company that we have and that we're building. And the tangible thing that, and the really difficult thing is deliver on that by building and scaling a product and a set of services that creates a ton of value for the teams that are adopting it.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah. Well, you use the word 'freedom', and I really am hearing from you how Pantheon is something that you want to live in a world where there's a Pantheon because of what it means for freedom and the ecosystem and for everybody to have that. Earlier, when you were describing your favorite thing about what you do, you used the word 'autonomy', like, the autonomy to choose and to have this agency to have the life that you want to have, the career that you want. It's just interesting because it's like, there's this higher order value, vibe for both of those. I don't know if that's accidental, or if who you are is... Well, what do you think is who you are? So, you're an autonomy, you really value autonomy and freedom. Is it a coincidence that I just heard that in some of the values from Pantheon.

Zachary Rosen:

I am bitten by this entrepreneurial bug that's definitely clear in who I am. And I think if you want, as I do, the work that I do, I get up in the morning and I go to work and get fulfillment from that work to be this creation process where you have an idea, you then deliver it. And it actually works and makes impact, and that's where you get fulfillment. Then having autonomy, freedom, flexibility to do that is critical. You cannot be successful as an entrepreneur if you don't have that. And part of this, and again, I'm a nerd, but I remember the time when if you wanted to innovate in software, for consumers, your only choice was to build products for the Microsoft ecosystem, because they had a complete monopoly, 90% market share for computers. And then if your product worked, if you were actually successful, they would crush you.

Because, "Great, you build the business now on our ecosystem. Thanks. We're going to take that." I knew at that time, as a teenager, I was probably going to end up building software products, I was programming and went to school for computer science. I knew that was a path that I was on. And as a teenager, and that struck me as wrong. We're not going to be able to... Not just for the entrepreneurs and people building the products, but for everyone. If computing is going to get exponentially more important to our lives, it's just wrong that one organization, one company that's unaccountable, literally gets to control all of the creativity happening around this really shared resource that we all need.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah. When you think about the Pantheon customer, what does Pantheon represent to the customer? What does it mean, or what do you intend to mean?

Zachary Rosen:

The essence that we're trying to get to, it has this thread of creativity, but it's really about the autonomy and velocity and unencumbered nature of the teams that are using it. The value that we're unlocking for our customers is one where, and this is literally how it works, if you're building these owned experiences, these websites, these digital experiences that you own, it's a team. You got a designer, you have a developer, you have an agency, there's IT, there's marketing, you have all these stakeholders, plus who cares about your website? It's literally, everyone in your organization, every customer that you have caress about your website, from the intern to the CEO, to the... It is your brand, it is your help desk, it is a core part of your customer experience. So,

That gets incredibly complex very quickly. The problem is if you don't have a workflow, if you don't have a methodology for iterating that experience, that's really high velocity that people trust. Then you get the case that, frankly, most website teams are in today where they're just stuck, where the website's not changing, the backlog of things is growing, all the stakeholders are getting increasingly frustrated, and the people on the team just feel more and more embattled and retreat to their silos and do their little function, but they are not able to collaborate and make progress as a team.

So, the core thing that we struck on in the whole idea of the product was to deliver an out-of-the-box workflow that no one had admit, it was trusted and guaranteed and just an extension of using the product and the software that unlocks the ability for these digital teams to get that cadence and that confidence, which ultimately, is how they're going to drive growth and impact.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah. It struck me when, earlier, you used the word 'frictionless'. There's this friction and stuckness in the organizations that are in this position. And I've shared this with you before, but a lot of the times, because I work with marketing leaders a lot, and when they hear from somebody, "We've got to redo our website." Or, "We have to make a massive change to our website." The look of dread on their face. The look of anything but that. And it is that cumbersome, soul crushing friction of the process. It strikes me as that's the problem you're solving, is... At the product level, it's creating a product that doesn't present that, but instead, unlocks their growth. And at the emotional level, I'm thinking of their dread. That's the emotional problem you're solving is the dread of facing that. And instead, it's how empowering it is to have this well-oiled system that empowers everybody involved. Not just one team. Not just one person.

Zachary Rosen:

Totally. We joke about this, but I think it's true. The two most horrifying words in marketing are website relaunch.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah. Yeah, exactly.

Zachary Rosen:

So, why do we all know this and we're stuck here? And the reason we're stuck here is the model's wrong. And we're not dumb. We have a software company that care a lot about the software. It's really above and beyond the software. The whole approach is wrong. And the problem with the website relaunch approach is you're tying this huge brand, messaging, storytelling initiative, which on its own, needs to be broken up into pieces and derust. Two, this waterfall, super high stakes, incredibly difficult and complex technology re-platforming initiative.

So, you've this multiplication of risk and friction, which is crazy, which 2023 is. We know that's not how you do it. And so, we all know this, but what's been missing is what's the alternative. And I think it's on us as leading product vendors and us as the agencies we work with and the analysts in the space, I feel a guilt around this as an industry that we have not successfully yet provided people the alternative path. As an industry, we're setting them up for this pain. And the pain is... We all... Careers, and this is work, but no one wants to go to work working on a tier project they know is destined to not succeed. That is pretty soul crushing. And I really think it's incumbent on us to get people out of that mess, help lead people out of that mess.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah. Something I know about Pantheon is that people at Pantheon love Pantheon, so there's this very strong feeling of affinity for the company as employees, but also as customers. What's the interaction between this North Star we've been talking about and the culture of Pantheon?

Zachary Rosen:

Yeah. Value systems are come around a really critical tool in how you build organizations, because culture is an outcome, culture is a thing you want out of this because it defines and bounds your work and the teams. But I don't think you can reverse engineer culture. I think people bring their culture with them to jobs. Value systems are so important because it's a way of aligning on like, "Okay. Who are the type of people that we're looking to bring on this team? And then who are the people who get... Anyone, any promotion or the leadership and exemplars you want in your organization?" You really want to be leaders of the value system, where you can tie back to and explain to people how values aren't just words, but they're lived and used day-to-day in people's work and how they interact with people and how they lead teams. That to me, is the big lever. One of the values that we look for, we talk about passion. We also talk about this giving [inaudible 00:15:09]

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah.

Zachary Rosen:

Looking for people who want to be on a team where other people around them truly care about what they're doing, and are engaged. These things are always two edged swords. That also means it can feel like an Italian family sometimes, loud, people have opinions. It can slow things down, honestly. When people have real deep passionate about things, you really have to work through them. Mind you, and I've taught this, but I totally agree with this, we can't talk about the downsides of values systems, because you're not using them.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Oh, that is... I love that. Say more about that. I love this.

Zachary Rosen:

Yeah. This is Chris Moody is that much. I'm like, "Oh man, Chris, you're brilliant." He's on our board. But yeah. So, the way I'd put this is, the people who would really enjoy working at Netflix, Netflix is a very clear value system. The whole thing is like we're the Yankees. We're going to pay really well and have really high expectations. And if you have one bad season, we're done. And if you want to work on a team with that ethos, you're going to love it. And there's people out there looking for that in their careers, I know them. And there are maybe a lot of people who are like, that is not the environment they want to work in. That's not a good or bad thing. That is just like a, "Hey, this is who we are." It needs to be a choice.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah.

Zachary Rosen:

People need to be able to say, "I'm going to spend 40 plus hours a week with a group of people and really get to know them and rely on them." And it's going to be a very enmeshed in them in this work. It needs to be the kind of team and the kind of value system, and ultimately, the culture I want to be a part of. Getting that alignment is a key thing. You have found people who care a lot about the work that they're doing. And an extension, another value that we have is being just customer focused, customers first is the mentality. We have those two things where you're like, how people are very customer-centric. They get fulfillment when we're impacting customers' lives. And they care a lot about the work that they're doing. And you put those things together, that we've succeeded in finding people who can't take it personally. And both what are we doing at a highest level, but also down to is this customer successful? Are we failing them in some way and we need to get on it?

Lindsay Pedersen:

I haven't really thought of it in quite this way that what you're describing with culture, culture is the output, that you can have values codified and explicit that will help you to get as close as one can to something like culture, but that... It's a decision-making filter just like brand is when it comes to more of the customer promise. And so, a value that doesn't force trade-offs, where you can't talk about the disadvantages of it, means that it's not a very useful decision-making filter. If there isn't a trade-off, and I say the same thing about brands. Sometimes you might've heard me say this when we were working together. I hear that we want to be about integrity or authenticity, but that's not a decision making filter. Maybe in some industries, it actually does stand out to have that. But everybody wants to have integrity and everybody wants to have authenticity. It's not a very sharp filter. And therefore, it lacks a lot of utility from the standpoint of driving decisions. It's neat to think of that as two sides of the same coin when it comes to culture.

Zachary Rosen:

I totally agree.

Lindsay Pedersen:

So, you are a leader in various domains. You are the CEO of Pantheon, you're a father, you're a community leader. What's the intersection of your North Star in all of these roles, the thing that you care about most? Do you have a different kind of North Star in each of your roles, or do they overlap? Is it the same principle governing all, or do they shift?

Zachary Rosen:

Yeah. My personal motivation is impact. Me and the team I'm on, are we really driving an outcome that matters? But I think impact can come... You need to be specific about what you mean. So, the story which I don't know if I can tie this together in a neat framework, but in building companies in San Francisco and California, in the software industry, which has had huge success, since I've been a part of it, the last 10, 15 years has been... It really is like Lawrence and the Renaissance. There's this transformation happening of our economy and these software companies, 40% of whom are Bay Area centric, or fully, a third in San Francisco, have just transformed not just how industries operate, but literally, how we all do our jobs. That's a trend that will continue. We're probably on the early edge of that trend. So, having a job, building a software company in San Francisco, California, it doesn't take long to figure out that we're not going to solve all the problems that we see, and we're not going to make all the impact we want purely through just software.

Obvious example of this is a housing crisis we have in California. My personal story on that, early in my career is a different life, but owned a bicycle manufacturer. I moved to San Francisco. You could have a job making $10 an hour at the time, $15 an hour manufacturing, this is 2010, and make it. you could rent an apartment for $500 a month. There was a life available for 20 somethings who weren't just had white collar software jobs to come to San Francisco and build a career. And then what happened is that went away. And owning this bicycle manufacturer, those are employees. These are our team members who were working the retail jobs, literally fabricating our products in San Francisco. And all of our communities... I remember, happening very quickly over two or three years where the numbers just didn't work anymore, and then people were trying to commute from an hour and a half away or had to move to a different city or the social fabric of the city got crushed by this housing crisis.

Honestly, I just got very upset by that. It was watching this slow motion train wreck. And if you dig even two centimeters, you'll realize software's not going to solve this problem. The problem is we have under-built by 3 million homes in California. And the reason we've done that is that we have probably the nation's worst set of housing policies. San Francisco, I would argue, has the worst set of housing policies of any city in the country, effectively. It takes like three years to get a permit to build a house even if you get approved. For me, it was this process of asking a lot of questions about, "Look, we can have a lot of success, make a lot of impact building software, but that doesn't translate into a better world and life in our community. What's the point?" And we might, in the software world, might win. But if that means everyone else loses, that's totally broken. That set me personally down this path of how do we grapple with this.

And then I felt that, I still do, that because the software ecosystem in San Francisco and California, literally, this train wreck between, frankly, a exploding economy and horrible housing policies has created this social train wreck. It is to the point now in California, many cities where you can't hire teachers, where is the teacher going to live? So, I feel that the software industry and the people in this ecosystem actually have a special responsibility to help solve it. We didn't create the policies, they predate us. But if this train wreck of the economy exploding and the policies in the books creates this outcome, we do have a special responsibility to help be part of the solution. But then that led me down the path of, well, how would we do that? Well, we would help change the policies.

I am very lucky to get to partner early with Brian Hanlin and another friend of my net, Brian's team, Melissa, and that whole team is stupendous. They have passed 18 by 20 bills this session to help solve the housing crisis. They legalized a whole set of housing, missing middle housing, ADUs and duplexes, and lot splits, across the state with these really seminal bills. They were the first real... A large state to pass pretty transformative housing bills. We have a long way to go, but we are making real progress getting under these what were originally felt like really intractable policy issues. And we can actually see the path. We can debate whether, how many years it's going to be, two to three years or five years or maybe 10 years, but we can see how we're actually going to solve this policy problem. We're on track that you got.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Thank you for sharing that. And thank you for the work that you and your colleagues are doing with California YIMBY. Implicitly, I can see the overlap between just as you were describing that, and as you were describing the problem that Pantheon is solving, there is some Venn diagram overlap in removing roadblocks, removing a unnecessary friction. And it also lights you up when you're talking about it. I can see that, which also fuels you to be a leader in both realms. So, thank you for sharing. Thank you for this whole conversation. I'm going to move us to rapid fire questions. These are just-

Zachary Rosen:

Yeah, let's do it.

Lindsay Pedersen:

... five, one word answer, questions. Here we go. Okay. So, what's your favorite dessert?

Zachary Rosen:

Boston cream pie.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Boston cream pie?

Zachary Rosen:

Yeah.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah.

Zachary Rosen:

Since I was six, probably.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Oh, awesome. I haven't had that in decades. I'm going to go have some.

Okay. What was your last splurge purchase?

Zachary Rosen:

A recent Mueller load 75, which fits three kids, and goes a Benny Hill in San Francisco.

Lindsay Pedersen:

No kidding.

Zachary Rosen:

It's an e-Bike. Yeah.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Wow. You're going to get a lot of use out of that in your hilly city.

Zachary Rosen:

Yeah. Yeah.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Would you rather be an Olympic gold medalist or an astronaut?

Zachary Rosen:

Oh, wow. I'm probably closer to a nerdy astronaut, but I would deal with the athlete.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Right on.

Zachary Rosen:

Yeah.

Lindsay Pedersen:

I can see it. Are you an introvert, or an extrovert?

Zachary Rosen:

I'm actually, secretly an extrovert. I'm just a very nerdy extrovert. I'm a socially awkward extrovert.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Secretly an extrovert.

Zachary Rosen:

Yeah.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Okay. I love that. What is the book that you have most recommended to people?

Zachary Rosen:

Can I have two?

Lindsay Pedersen:

You got it.

Zachary Rosen:

So, business book, there's this super boring Toyota Production System. It's the most boring title. It has the most boring cover. It's like this brown, generic '80s book cover. It's like 80 pages. And it's written by, really, the inventor of the lean production system, which is really the progenitor of the Agile methodology. There's a direct connection between those two things. And it's utterly brilliant. Originally, Japanese. It's written like a piece of art. It's crafted. And that was my favorite business book of all time.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Wow.

Zachary Rosen:

And this is called the Toyota Production System.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Okay. Wow.

Zachary Rosen:

I'm going to butcher the name. Taiichi Ohno.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Taiichi Ohno. Okay.

Zachary Rosen:

I've read this book like four times.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Wow.

Zachary Rosen:

That's a great book. It's a philosophy book. Is that what it really is. It's like a business philosophy book. I also realized there's a lot of biographies. And this has now become a big... It's Oppenheimer movie, but you should definitely read American Prometheus. It's the best biography... Probably my favorite biography.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Really, this has been the case for much longer than the movie's been in the zeitgeist.

Zachary Rosen:

It was two authors wrote it over 25 years. It's a long book, but it's just an unbelievable story.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Okay. American Prometheus?

Zachary Rosen:

American Prometheus, yeah. Is the base of the Oppenheimer movie.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Yeah. Okay. Oh, two books that Zach recommends. I definitely am going to read. Well, this has been so fun for me. Thank you so much for being part of this. Where can people find out more about you online and follow you and all of that?

Zachary Rosen:

I'm actually way more active on LinkedIn than Twitter. I found Twitter just to me in too much of a brawl, but you can follow me on LinkedIn.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Okay, perfect. Thank you so much for joining me. Thank you.

Zachary Rosen:

Thanks, Lindsay.

Lindsay Pedersen:

Thanks for listening to this episode of North Star Leaders. Make sure you don't miss an episode by subscribing on your favorite podcast app. For show notes, transcripts and newsletter signup, visit: ironcladcloneeight.com. Please join us again for another episode of North Star Leaders.

Lindsay speaking

About Lindsay

Lindsay Pedersen is a bestselling author and brand strategist with a scientific, growth-oriented approach to brand building. She has advised companies from burgeoning startups to national corporations, including Zulily, Starbucks, T-Mobile, Coinstar, and IMDb.

Her background as a P&L owner at Clorox fostered in Lindsay a deep appreciation for the executive’s charge: increasing the company’s value. There, she led mature, billion-dollar businesses and newly-launched categories, from Clorox Bleach to Armor All to Brita. In each case, she was solely responsible for increasing the business’s value.

Thanks to this executive perspective, Lindsay demands that brands be hard-working, disciplined and rigorous in growing a business. Her brand strategies are tested in the crucible of her proprietary Ironclad Method. Lindsay arms leaders with an empowering understanding of brand, and an ironclad brand strategy to guide choices as they grow.