Our Kind of CEO
Fireside Chat with Colin Day, Chairman and Founder of iCIMS and new Senior Advisor to SGEP
Colin Day is the Founder and Chairman of iCIMS, the leading HR Cloud Platform for Recruiting. Founded in 2000, Colin guided iCIMS as they steadily grew to over 4,000 customers, 1,000 employees, and $250M+ in ARR.
Susquehanna was lucky enough to be chosen as iCIMS’ partner in late 2011 after eight years of “boot-strapped growth.” When SGEP was evaluating whether to invest in iCIMS, the management team was inexperienced: It was the first job or company that the CEO (Colin), the VP of Sales, and the VP of Marketing had ever been in.
Despite his inexperience, Colin showed us from our very first meeting with him that he was “our kind of CEO,” and had the traits of what we call a “super-learner.”
5 Traits of a “Super-Learner”
- Wonder and interest – a passion to discover new things
- Adaptive thinking – the ability not to get stuck in any specific area or way
- Patience – with investors and employees and customers
- Humility – being humble about what you know and what you don’t know
- Reflecting on mistakes – recognizing and analyzing mistakes to fix them and make things better
The partnership with iCIMS has provided the ideal case study for the Susquehanna investment model – where flexible capital plus steady and persistent growth leads to billion-dollar-plus value creation for all of us.
More recently, Colin and iCIMS’ angel investor decided to sell a controlling interest in the company to Vista Equity Partners, and Colin has since stepped down as CEO. He remains the Chairman of the company’s board and Susquehanna is still a shareholder in iCIMS. Colin has also taken on the new role of Senior Advisor to SGEP.
We sat down with Colin to discuss the entire scope of his career with iCIMS. We talked about everything from his first days in the dot.com boom and bust, to the lessons he’s learned growing a business through tough economic times, to his ultimate decision to sell off majority ownership in his company and to step back from its day-to-day operations.
Amir Goldman (SGE): Tell us your origin story. How did you become a founder?
Colin Day: I always say I kind of fell into it backwards. I went to Cornell. I got a psychology degree. I ended up joining an IT recruiting and staffing firm called Comrise in New Jersey. I went down to D.C., where I grew up, and opened up an office down there. It was my first time running a P&L at 22 years old. I didn’t have a clue. The opportunity, literally, was just staring me in the face. Every day I was logging into Comrise’s information management system that had been built by the company to manage all the job openings and all the applicants we were looking at. I had a crazy idea, around 23 years old – could we make a go out of this? I went to Comrise’s founder, George Liou, and gave him a pitch. I told him ‘hey, I think we can create something here.’
|It was my first time running a P&L at 22 years old. I didn’t have a clue.”|
Amir Goldman: You started iCIMS right around the Dot-Com Bust, then survived (and thrived) through the 07-08 recession. We’re in something that is clearly of equal or greater magnitude to both of those things. What lessons did you learn?
Colin Day: Lots. That’s probably where a lot of the grey hair came from as well. There were some commonalities. They all require this incredible, rapid decision-making process. You’ve got to move fast. With very little data you’ve got to try to estimate how bad this is going to hit you. Are you going to go into a total hiring freeze? Are you going into layoffs? So, you’ve got sort of macro, high-level things that you’re dealing with, but also recognizing at the micro-level, your staff is about to go into chaos. You’ve got to realize you’ve got to create rules of the road for your customers. Are we going to give concessions? What concessions are we going to give? What are our asks going to be for those concessions? Close the office fast, maybe close down your hiring fast, but make sure that your employees know how to deal in this chaos with your customers very rapidly.
Number two – just rely on your customer base – I mean just double down. Really lean in hard on taking care of the customers – relying on the customers, try to get the up-sell, the cross-sell to kind of hold it together while we wait for the macro-economic prospect side of it to come back together.
Third – it’s an unbelievable time to clean up all the crap in your business. In some respect, you’re going faster and you’re fighting fires, but in other respects, the business is slowing down a bit. We would always go in and say, what were some of the protocols or processes or bureaucracy that we had in place in the past that we’ve just got to throw out the window right now and deal with the customer immediately, and then walk out of it and say we probably should have just done that from the get-go. Why wait for a crisis? The customers respond better with this much simpler process management.
|It’s an unbelievable time to clean up all the crap in your business.”|
Amir Goldman: In 2011, you start to look for an outside investor. You could have funded the flip from profitability to growth with your own money – why didn’t you do that?
Colin Day: You are right, we didn’t have to raise capital. We were in this very unique position not to have to, but I think between looking at the potential of a good liquidity event, but also feeling like we’re in this very pivotal moment right now – I mean the number of SMB companies that get to about $25-$30 million and then just kind of stall out is incredible. It just happens all over the industry. We sort of knew something’s got to change. We thought we needed a catalyst for that change, and a partner coming in from the outside helping us look at the business could be that.
|We thought we needed a catalyst for that change, and a partner coming in from the outside helping us look at the business could be that.”|
Amir Goldman: As you were choosing a financial partner, what was it you were looking for?
Colin Day: We ran a really formal process. We hired Raymond James. We thought they knew the most about our industry. I won’t lie to you, we’d never heard of Susquehanna, beyond maybe the river. You guys weren’t on the early list. Raymond James did a really great job educating us about you guys, this flexible capital model. It just resonated more and more with us – this is what we want. We want to maintain control. We want to bring in a patient partner – who is not going to drive any sort of unnatural five-year acts. It lined up well and then obviously personalities meshed from there.
|We want to maintain control. We want to bring in a patient partner.”|
Amir Goldman: If you sat down and ranked what a CEO does, where do you think a CEO should be spending his or her time?
Colin Day: I’ve found in the outer years it became like 80 percent vision and mission – do we know where we’re going and do all 500, 1,000 of our employees know exactly where we’re going and how they tie into it? I was amazed at how much of my job became that – repeating the party line over and over and over in almost any scenario.
The second element, which I actually got fascinated by, I thought it tied into the psychology degree, was organizational design and development and your leadership team, and probably more importantly, your leadership team underneath your leadership team. A layer beneath – take a look at it and say, what is the quality of leaders that my leaders are bringing in? If it’s not extraordinary, then ask yourself if you’ve got a good leader. If they can’t bring in someone extraordinary, then they’re probably not a good leader themselves.
To boil it down, those two things became my job – own the vision and mission and talk about it all the time, and then demand excellence in the organizational structure and chart.
|What is the quality of leaders that my leaders are bringing in?”|
Amir Goldman: How did the timing come for this last exit to Vista? How do you think about the right time to sell a business?
Colin Day: We did three of these events. We did one with you guys in 2011. We did a follow-up about four years later with you, and then ultimately Vista, and we timed them for just what we thought were key milestones – we think the company’s worth, about $100 million, about $500 million, over a billion – these are probably good moments for the two key owners, myself and George, and the executive leadership team to be able to take some chips off the table.
I will say, towards the end, and I’m not going to lie, it’s a 20-year grueling battle that we were under. It was a long hard run. I knew I personally was getting tired. I think this is something not enough CEOs talk about – the impact of burnout and getting tired and the toll that some of this can take on a life, and I was feeling it in a major way.
Amir Goldman: You’re now a Senior Advisor at Susquehanna, any thoughts on what this role is going to look like?
Colin Day: What I’m most intrigued by and really wanting to help with is working with other CEOs. If there are any experiences that we’ve been through, we can share. This is all about patterns and pattern matching and I know we all go through exactly the same things. I’m really hoping to just give back an ear and be able to chat with people on the same ride about our experiences and the transformations we’ve made.
|I’m really hoping to just give back an ear and be able to chat with people on the same ride.”|