Position: Chief operating officer at Xceedium, a Herndon security software company.
Mordecai Rosen was working at a computer center in college when a co-worker left to start his own consulting company. Rosen joined, and became the senior architecture and developer as the company grew to 120 people before it was sold. That stirred a passion for start-ups, where he helped grow a series of early-stage tech companies and co-founded his own company incubator. After building up a company called NetSec that was eventually sold to MCI, he took time off before joining Xceedium, where he will help lead its operations.
You have grown a series of companies successfully. What are some leadership lessons you’ve taken away from those experiences?
The key is finding people you trust who are highly passionate and then run as hard as you can. In early-stage companies, when you hit a bump in the road, change course and keep running. We find incredibly capable people with high passion — the same passion we have — and we build something we’re proud of.
What is the key to getting the right people?
Part of the way we’ve solved that is we collect people. When we joined Xceedium, we brought the gentleman who ran commercial sales for NetSec and the guy who founded NetSec to run federal government work for us. If you’ve had success over a number of years and you find that set of people that you really achieve excellence with, you collect them. That’s our process. It may not work for everyone, but it works for us. Have we made mistakes? Sure.
What have you learned from those mistakes?
The thing you learn pretty quickly is to make your mistakes really fast. Hire slow but fire fast. If it’s just not working, it’s not working. Validating that over 12 to 18 months, is not a good idea. If you find someone who is not a good fit, admit it and move on. That’s better for everyone, the company and the person. No one is happy when they’re unsuccessful. Everyone wants to be the hero of their own story. It’s true for the people you keep and the people you don’t keep.
What were your biggest leadership challenges in the tech sector?
Finding that balance of working collaboratively with a bunch of really smart people. How do you manage them and be unbelievably productive and creative? You have to figure out how to get 30 people who all think they’re right to push in one direction and take the best of all of them.
How did you do that?
Very early on, you have to paint the end of the picture. They have to know where they’re going and then you have to get them to buy into that while being as productive as they can. But it starts with the end of the story. Engineers want to know where they’re going. You have to share the ultimate vision with them. This is true for most management, but it’s especially true with managing tech companies. There are a thousand decisions every day that even if you were an unbelievable micromanager, you can never wind up uncovering because everyone makes a hundred decisions a day. And every decision is important. If they know where you’re trying to get to and why, all of those decisions will be right. If they don’t know, it’s a crapshoot. They may, they may not.
What are some leadership lessons you took away from creating your own incubator?
My key lesson was don’t create an incubator five months before a huge technology bust. That actually turned out to be a very interesting experience. We found a bunch of good companies, but when you’re in the venture business, one thing you find out pretty quickly is that you have to kiss a lot of frogs. Back in those days during the Internet boom, everyone was starting a company. If your uncle had bicycles in his garage, he’d start BicyclesInMyGarage.com. We talked to hundreds of those guys. During this process, I remember sitting down with my colleague and saying, “I think I must be stupid because I can’t figure out how any of these guys are going to make any money.” And it turned out, neither could anyone else, which is why the Internet bust happened and a lot of people lost their shirts. In that process, what you learn as an investor is you have to be very innovative, see upcoming trends, but also invest in companies that you think will be successful. You can’t jump on the bubble bandwagon. We’ve seen that a bunch of times.
Your father was a Holocaust survivor. How has his experience shaped you?
I grew up around a lot of those folks. These people were people to be respected. They endured things that a lot of us have a hard time picturing in our heads. They still got up every day, treated their kids well, worked hard. They found some way to find joy in life, even though it was a hard life for them. I wake up every day and I’m happy to come to work. I always choose the glass to be half-full even in the face of enormous obstacles and maintain perseverance.
What books are you reading?
I’m reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. My 14-year-old son had to read it for school. I thought I would read it with him.
— Interview with Vanessa Small