The Goal Guy
Doug Walner has spent the past few years leading a local tech startup to raise millions in capital and reach a global audience. He also helped Nola Brewing find firmer financial ground, even in the midst of the pandemic. He says the secret to success in any industry can be found with SOLID planning and a little help from the right technology.
Doug Walner is used to splitting his time — both between coasts and between industries. Walner has built a bicoastal career running, and mostly growing, businesses in California and Louisiana and is currently involved with two very different local enterprises, serving as CEO of Align — a New Orleans tech startup founded in 2012 that uses a proprietary suite of software tools to help thousands of teams in over 72 countries achieve their goals — and as the owner and executive chairman of NOLA Brewing, which on its founding in 2008 was the only operating craft brewery in New Orleans.
“How I got here, I don’t know,” he said laughing. “I’m in two very different businesses. I like to say I spend 100% of my time on the Align business, and I spend 98% of my time at night on the brewery business, so it’s a night job. I don’t sleep that well anyway, so that’s a good thing.”
Walner’s more than two and a half decades in the tech industry began with a company called Ex Machina in New York, one of the first wireless communications companies.
“It was cutting edge at the time in that it was sending out alpha-numeric text to alpha-numeric pagers,” he explained, “which ultimately became SMS messaging.”
Other highlights included work for a company out of California to help build Southwest Airlines live TV product and a position as co-CEO of Stamps.com, where he helped tackle unique issues in the company’s early days that came with printing what is considered U.S. legal tender.
Whatever he does and wherever he does it, however, Walner’s passion is the same: helping companies create a collective vision and then combine technology and capital to develop the plans and strategies to realize that vision.
Recently he sat down at NOLA Brewing and shared his advice for companies in all stages of business, including the one thing he’s shocked most budding entrepreneurs don’t have but should.
Most entrepreneurs seem to stick to one industry, but not you. How did you get involved with such different companies?
When I came here, I got involved with The Idea Village. I was an Executive in Residence for two years. I then got infused into the business community post-Katrina, which is how I met the founder of NOLA Brewing, Kirk Coco. Subsequent to the end of the program, I came in as a minority investor here and eventually ended up taking over the company.
With Align, I also knew of Amith Nagarajan — one of the company’s two founders — through The Idea Village. They were looking for someone to run the business, and he asked me if I knew anybody that would be good. I think he was looking for somebody a little younger, but I was like, ‘Hey, I’m not doing anything, and I know the space.’ What appealed to me most is the business process that Align promotes. The technology focuses on the alignment of the organization, and that’s how I implemented a lot of the structure and processes of my businesses.
You’ve said Align is goal management software. What is that exactly?
There’s this new category called work management, it’s very encompassing, it’s project management, performance management, culture and HR software. It’s a big category, and inside that is another category called goal management. All those others are for working IN your business, and I like to think of goal management as working ON your business.
What kinds of questions should entrepreneurs be asking themselves as they’re working ON their business?
Where do I want to be in 20 years? What’s my plan? Do I want to exit? Do I want to grow this to be a business that provides for me and my family? You have to ask those four essential questions. So then how do we get there? How do we set our priorities? It’s okay to stop thinking about chasing fires on a daily basis and dedicate time to working on your business.
There’s a lot of focus at Align on the four foundational pillars of success, which are planning, execution, communication and culture. And you have to have all four. Then you gotta take bite-sized chunks and break that down. If you want to here at the end of the year, what do you want to get done in Q1? This is about getting alignment between your goals and your quarterly priorities and getting alignment from those priorities all the way down to every employee in your organization. If everybody’s hitting their goals, then everything is aligned, and the company is going to hit its goals. You have to have good cadences and rhythms in meetings, pull those goals into the meetings, pull that data into the meetings, to make sure you’re being efficient in your meetings.
What does Align’s software do?
The software itself holds people accountable for doing what they signed up to do. And these priorities should be on the employees’ scorecard if you’re going to try to measure somebody’s success. Instead of these subjective reviews at the end of the year, this is objective. Each quarter we assigned you these priorities, you either did or you didn’t meet these goals, the data’s there, and now we can measure you. We call it continuous performance management, and it’s for companies of all sizes.
With both Align and NOLA Brewing, you were not a founder but came in with a focus on solving business problems using technology. Within these companies, what are some of the problems you found, and how did you solve them?
With Align, I had to build the company. Align was a side project for the two founders, and it had one employee in it, and it had revenues, but there was no company. So, it was really like we had to create a startup for the first year and a half.
The first thing we had to do was raise capital. We raised a little more than $2.2 million to build the company. We had to build a development team in-house, and we’re having good success right now — we had 54% year-over-year growth.
With NOLA Brewing, it had been here for a while. They had different challenges when I got here. Great people, great product, great brand, great market presence, but what it didn’t have was a great balance sheet. I provided an infusion of capital, thereby solving a lot of the balance sheet issues. But some of that was just done by smart decisions. For instance, we were spending too much on leasing the kegs, so we just bought our own because now we had the capital to do that. We worked on various aspects of the business, cleaned up a lot of stuff.
Working with these two very different businesses, what kinds of similarities do you see?
They are very different, and this [NOLA Brewing] is a tough business, this is a highly regulated sales model. We don’t control our sales. It’s a three-tiered distribution system. We sell to the distributor, but by law, we are not allowed to sell to the end customers. It’s very strange, it’s not anything like software, where we’re selling directly to consumers, there’s nothing between me and the end customer, and we’re not regulated. From that perspective, they’re very, very different. What’s similar are the basic business facts, which really gets you to Align and what we do at Align. Every business needs to plan, and every business needs to set priorities, and every business needs to have process and structure and communications and all this stuff. I actually use Align here at the brewery.
Do you find many people are still intimidated by technology in business, and how do you help them get past that?
I think they are, and I think they are not just intimidated, they are inundated by it now. That’s the other problem that they’re having, choosing which applications you really need. I think that a lot of businesses haven’t dealt with a lot of technology, and that’s what I love about what we do, we’re not just selling to tech companies, we’re selling to all kinds of businesses. We spend time with the customers to make sure they are trained on the software, and they understand how to use it.
We tell them not to take on too much, because in addition to the software, they’re changing how they do processes internally, and sometimes you get friction inside an organization when you do that. That friction can be a death knell for us, so we try to roll it out in chunks, you know, let’s deal with changing your communications, let’s focus on that first. Once we get them communicating better, we can talk about how you set your priorities for the next quarter, and we can go from there.
When someone is starting a business, or in the early scaling-up stages, what should they be focusing on?
Simple: Who’s your customer? It all starts with the customer. Who is the customer, what are they trying to do? Then, if this is the product that we need to deliver, what does that mean in terms of all the other aspects? You have to go to each department and look at, say, ‘What does the marketing and messaging have to be? What is the sales strategy going to be? There’s a lot that goes into that. But I think a customer-centric organization is going to win all day long. If you’re not satisfying that customer, what are you doing this for?
Here’s one thing I would tell startups specifically: When I worked at The Idea Village, everyone came in with an idea and some people came in with a plan, but no one came in with a pro forma. I don’t imagine how you can even start a business if you haven’t figured out a three-to five-year pro forma. A pro forma is going to tell you how you grow this company from a financial perspective, and more than just figuring out the financial viability of the business, what it does for an entrepreneur is it helps them paint the vision of the business. You have to work through so many issues, you have to think about in month 48, how many employees am I going to need? And you start to build this image of what your company looks like. What’s my rent going to be? If I have that many employees, how much square footage do I need? Now I start to envision what my space is going to look like. And you constantly work on your pro forma, you’re updating it, you’re tweaking it, you’re getting your actuals, it’s helping you think about the business. It’s an exercise in visualization that I think every entrepreneur should do.
But you shouldn’t just visualize things, right?
I think the No. 1 thing you need in business is the ability to get shit done, have an execution orientation. You can talk about doing things, and you can put PowerPoints together about doing things, but you gotta go do things.
You don’t always have the best plan, but any plan is good, and you figure it out, you solve for it, make it better along the way.
For startups that’s really important, that they just go do it.
Switching gears to the NOLA Brewing side, just how bad was COVID-19 for small breweries?
It was terrible. People don’t understand the intricacies of a craft brewery business model. It breaks down to retail and wholesale. You’re sitting in the retail space right now, where we sell our highest-profit product. We make beer in the back and sell it here for six bucks for a 16-ounce glass. In the wholesale business you have two halves. The keg business is higher margin.
What COVID did to craft breweries is it killed the most profitable part of our wholesale business, the keg business to restaurants and bars. When you go to the convenience stores and groceries, that’s your lowest margin product, and that was the one that was selling. And people say, “Well, everybody was drinking like crazy during COVID!” but we were also in a massive recession, and people weren’t buying $9 six-packs, they were buying Bud Light, Natty Light. We were shut down here on the retail side for many, many months, so we couldn’t even do that. And layer on to that the mask requirement, and the vaccination requirement, that kept more customers away.
So business was off, and our restaurant and bar customers are dealing with this too. Their behaviors have changed, how they order product and stock product. At any time, they could be asked to shut down again and they know that, so their buying behavior has changed dramatically.
What do you see in the near horizon, in terms of tech, that business owners should be aware of, good and bad?
I think one of the more interesting things is AI [artificial intelligence]. I think AI is really going to change software products, and how people use software. I can see Align incorporating AI. I think we’ll be able to garner insights from all the data in our system and make recommendations to customers about their past goals and how they can set better goals going forward. I think that will lead to better and smarter products for owners.
I think the biggest thing business owners need to be careful of is the risk associated with personal privacy information. With every business doing online marketing, social media marketing, taking customer names and taking customer information, companies are taking on a lot more risk. Cyber liability insurance is going to be a big part of every company’s future. I think a lot of mainstream businesses underestimate that privacy issue, and they need to protect themselves.