You Gotta Have _ _ _ _ _
Forget the degree, the keynote gigs, the IPO, the tech credentials. In Brett Hurt's opinion, none of it matters if you don't have heart. The Bazaarvoice CEO demands passion from those around him, and he's on a mission to transform the way companies run.
By Renee Hopkins
Photos by Brent Humphreys
Brett Hurt doesn't do things halfway.
As an undergraduate at McCombs, he started an online multiuser game called Renegade Outpost—that’s still going strong—during his freshman year. He worked full time at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) during his junior and senior years, while carrying a full load of classes. After graduation he went to work at Deloitte & Touche, where he lobbied to become the first systems analyst in firm history to be sent to business school, a privilege previously reserved for business analysts. He holds patent No. 7,050,989 for an “electronic commerce personalized content delivery system and method of operation.” He started programming when he was 7 years old and had started five businesses by the time he turned 35.
In a world where just about every college applicant, job interviewee, politician and executive coach can crow on at length about their “passion for…[fill in the blank],” Hurt, now 39, clearly doesn’t take passion lightly.
“If you’re truly passionate about something, you will naturally read and obsess and study it,” says Hurt, BBA ’94. “You’ll spend time at the conferences that people go to about that topic, read all the books about that topic, read the magazine articles, the news articles about that topic. Go seek out the experts. Develop a personal board of advisors about that topic. Be unafraid in asking anybody for help about whatever it is you’re passionate about.”
As co-founder and CEO of Austin-based technology firm Bazaarvoice, Hurt is actively creating a culture where passion is a prerequisite for performance.
Tapping Into a Desire to Help
Hurt’s most recent venture, Bazaarvoice, which he co-founded with Brant Barton in 2005, was initially positioned as a software product that would drive sales online by allowing customers to add product reviews to any website. Previously only a few sites, such as Amazon, had reviews. Hurt says, “It did drive sales. Social commerce—reviews—are the number-one thing you can add to a website to drive sales.”
But Hurt also discovered that a big part of Bazaarvoice’s success was about the reviews’ ability to “breathe life and personality into the site. It’s no longer a two-dimensional medium of just a browser and very cold, impersonal technology. Instead, customers can speak to each other. We’ve done a lot of surveys on finding out why people engage, why they’re willing to write reviews online. We found the number- one reason people write reviews or have a conversation online about a product or service, is altruism.”
Even better, apparently, is altruism driven by passion. Hurt cited a recent example—one gentleman who spent an hour and a half, after writing one review on the Cabela’s website, writing answers to questions others had asked. “People might say, ‘Ah, you know, he had so much time on his hands,’ ” says Hurt. “But the guy was a passionate hunter. It would be the same thing as him sitting across from his buddy over dinner, spending an hour answering his questions on hunting gear.”
With a long client list that includes Macy’s, Microsoft, Costco and Best Buy, Bazaarvoice has risen to be a leader in the fast-moving world of e-commerce. What’s more, the company has been named the best place to work in Austin for four consecutive years by the Austin Business Journal. For Hurt, that honor is no reason to rest on his laurels. As his official bio states, he has a long-term aspiration to write a book with the working title, “How to Make Your Company Suck Less,” seeking to learn from other successful leaders.
Culture is Critical
“The pointed question I ask other CEOs is, ‘What is the number-one thing you’ve done culturally that has driven your performance?’ with the key emphasis on the latter part of that question. You cut through a lot of the fluffy stuff if you ask in the context of performance,” he explains.
For Hurt, culture is critical because it drives performance. How you hire, fire, train, assess—these are all part of how a large-scale, high-impact company competes and wins. “At the end of the day it’s the people who are going to make the company successful. Who’s going to create those products, defend when competition enters your space?” Hurt asks.
Every company says people are important, but few actually spend time on it, according to Hurt. At Bazaarvoice, when the executive team meets quarterly in a two-day offsite to discuss strategy, 20 to 25 percent of their time is spent debating culture.
“A lot of our best cultural features—like the fact that we have a vacation policy that’s based entirely on trust, with no accrual and no limit—have come out of those very fierce debates,” Hurt says. “And it’s much harder to debate culture than it is to debate about what is our next product.”
Out of these cultural debates have come such Bazaarvoice innovations as the Cultural Ambassadors Program, where employees travel to learn from other top-rated companies, such as the Container Store, Salesforce.com, Zappos and Rackspace. “When we come back from those trips, we debate what we learned and adopt some of it,” he says.
Hurt adds that on those Cultural Ambassadors trips Bazaarvoice employees “teach a bit, too.” But make no mistake, Hurt is justifiably proud of the Bazaarvoice way. He feels duty-bound, he says, to pass along information on “some very basic things we’ve done at Bazaarvoice that I didn’t do at the other four businesses I started, things I wish I had known about.”
The most critical of these, he says, are cultural issues—how important a company’s culture is to its performance and how important it is to hire employees who will fit within the culture. What he’s learned has led him to shape the Bazaarvoice hiring process into an in-depth, on-the-job simulation. The hiring process is “the most important thing that we do culturally and is very, very different from how most companies hire,” Hurt says.
Not surprisingly, whatever else it may accomplish, the Bazaarvoice hiring process seems ideal for identifying passion for working there on the part of the candidates and passion for hiring that candidate on the part of the internal interviewers.
“We want to see if they’ll go for it,” Hurt says of his hiring process. “I’m a true believer that you do not know if you’re passionate until you’re tested in the moment and that’s what proves it. You can think you’re passionate about anything, but until you are tested you don’t really know.”
The thread of passionate pursuit of a goal reaches back a couple of generations in Brett Hurt’s life.
“My dad was a fisherman and an entrepreneur—he invented the first halogen fishing light,” says Hurt. “He fished three days out of the week, and he would get ridiculed by some snotty people about being a fisherman. But he loved it, and he didn’t care what the hell they thought. He thought they were idiots. He was actually incredibly intelligent, and he just knew what he loved in life.”
It was Hurt’s grandfather who passed his passion for learning on to Hurt. “My grandfather was completely the opposite from my dad. He was completely academic. He loved what he did too, though, and he was phenomenal at it. He taught the most advanced mathematics classes at UT for 35 years. He grilled me on math from the time I was a little kid. So I got that from my grandfather, and I got that from my dad—you’ve got to live your passion.”
The soft-spoken Hurt is even willing to wear his passion. Last November at the Texas Venture Labs Venture Expo, Hurt strode into the auditorium sporting a 1970s-esque mustache. Tom Meredith, a Bazaarvoice director and the former Dell chief financial officer who interviewed Hurt on stage, couldn’t resist poking a little fun. Hurt smiled and noted that there were more than a few Magnum P.I. lookalikes at Bazaarvoice that month, all demonstrating their support for “Movember,” a prostate cancer awareness campaign.
There’s no question that passion has served Brett Hurt well. He attributes much of his business success to it.
“I’m very lucky in that I’ve been essentially a technologist or a programmer since age 7. And that sounds good now, but it really was not an easy way to grow up in Texas. The only reason it stuck is because I loved it. And I still love it. And I love how it’s changing the world. I love how there’s so many curve balls. It’s such a fast-moving industry, it keeps me on my toes. It’s hard to get bored.”
But despite his longstanding interest in technology, Hurt didn’t feel ready to start his own business when he left McCombs with a BBA in 1994. After his stint at Andersen Consulting during his junior and senior years, Hurt worked for Deloitte & Touche after graduating. He felt he needed to learn more about business before venturing out on his own.
By the time he got into Wharton for his MBA, he was ready. During his last semester of grad school, he launched Coremetrics, now a leading provider of software that helps online retailers track activity on their sites.
“We created a killer app for dot-com businesses because we measured everything,” Hurt told the Venture Expo audience last fall. He left Coremetrics in 2005 to start Bazaarvoice.
Named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2009, Hurt has followed the thread of passion throughout his career, learning more about business and about what he likes. He also discovered that being good at something isn’t enough.
“I find it to be a real tragedy when people are in a career that they’re not really passionate about, because that’s no way to live life,” Hurt says. “If you find yourself in an industry where you’re not naturally trying to study it and be the best at it, then you’re probably in the wrong industry and you need to have a fierce conversation with yourself.”
This Applies to Everyone—Especially Students
“Don’t just follow the script of school and exactly what you’re going to learn in classes,” Hurt says. “There could be an aspiring young student at UT who says, ‘I’m going to change the world in biotech’ or ‘I’m going to change the world in nanotech.’ And man, if they feel that way, then they better just start studying it like there’s no tomorrow. And a beautiful thing happens—if you do that for year after year after year, then eventually the student becomes the teacher.
“What I’m trying to say,” Hurt continues, “is that you should always approach the world as if you have more to learn. There’ll be some students at UT today who feel like they’re really cool because they’re at UT. And they shouldn’t feel any better than anybody else about that. They should feel kind of embarrassed if they’re not pursuing their passions with 100 percent zest. Because someone at another school, which may not have the same reputation, may go on to lead that entire industry just because they’re so passionate about it.
“The ultimate manifestation of passion is that you genuinely become the guru of that space. People can see that in you. There’s a light in you that they see—they see that this person’s really having the time of their life.”
That’s the kind of light you see in Brett Hurt—a man pursuing his career as passionately as his father and grandfather did before him.