Michael Litt: Why the 100th Employee Changes Everything

Understanding when to insert yourself as a leader and when to trust your team to take it over the finish line.

Michael Litt is the Co-Founder and CEO of Vidyard, an online video platform that helps businesses like SalesForce and Marketo unlock the power of video. Michael is also an accomplished TEDx speaker and has been named one of Canada’s Top 40 Under 40. As Vidyard’s current CEO, Michael strives to build a team of fantastic developers and evangelists that are dedicated to the company mission.

In this episode, Michael Litt reminds us of how important it is to exercise our minds so we can execute our mission and our values as leaders. Listen to this episode (or read the transcript below) to learn how leadership changes as your business grows and the importance of communication and structure to keep tasks on track.  

1 Who was your very first boss? 

When I turned 14, I became responsible for all my own purchases including everything from home goods to toothpaste, so I had to get a job fairly young. My very first job was at a pharmacy, and I worked for a pharmacist that treated me like absolute garbage. I would literally sit in the bathroom and cry because I felt like I was being treated so poorly.  I learned a lot because of it and ultimately learned about the importance of treating your employees with empathy and compassion and it ended up being a really great learning experience. 

2 When was the first time you led a team? 

It was probably at the last internship I had at the University of Waterloo. The Silicon Valley-based company ultimately ended up laying off a huge portion of the company and retaining my role because they needed someone to continue to do the work, so I went from reporting to a manager to reporting to the SVP and suddenly, I was managing major projects. I was still just an intern, but it was a phenomenal learning experience because my responsibilities virtually increased overnight, and it really helped me understand the value of transparency and leadership.

3 When did you realize you had to spend more time managing people versus doing the work yourself?

The way to scale your efforts in a modern team is ultimately through amplifying your efforts through a team and that requires management. The first real management job I took on was a sales manager position with Vidyard and from there I had hired someone to help with outreach because I was calling over 100 prospects a day and then I became an account executive and I worked more on closing the calls. Not long after, another person became an account executive, and I realized the whole process needed some form of management because my contributions were getting in the way, and we really needed to scale and that’s the first time that I realized what being a leader was really about. 

When we were at around 100 employees, I began to hire an executive team and I realized that was out of my depth and my passion for the work and my passion for what we were doing wasn’t going to help me scale as a leader and that’s when I really began to take my management skills seriously. 

4 How did hiring an executive team go for you? 

A gentleman in the K tech ecosystem system named Dan Sherman told me that at 100 employees, your company is very different than it was at 10, 20, 30, 40, or 50, because the hundredth person that joins your company expects to be joining an established company with established processes from onboarding to hierarchy leadership to the way your strategy is communicated.

One of the hardest things for me was dealing with my ego and coming to the realization that I couldn’t keep being involved in everything or be part of every story. There was some conflict between me and some of the new leaders who wanted to have the freedom to execute on their own terms and I wasn’t necessarily as open as I should have been to embracing their ideas and experience so I had to mature really quickly and start removing myself from that process. Eventually, I removed myself completely from that process and entrusted my team but unfortunately, it didn’t work, and I had to reinsert myself so I could understand what was going wrong and ultimately make a few hard decisions. 

There is always some sense of push and pull to figure out where you as a leader or manager need to insert yourself to optimize the process and help someone avoid the mistakes that you’ve made while also giving them the freedom they need to go out on their own and make the improvements that your company needs. 

5 Can you walk us through the process of mobilizing at Vidyard? 

We basically started to communicate openly with our team as soon as the pandemic started and let them know that we were keeping an eye on the situation. I had been on holidays with my wife and returned to the office and we made the decision to work from home the following day on Wednesday March 16th and then we never went back and have been working remotely ever since.

Interestingly enough we’re a business in the video communication world. We have a number of products, but one of them is a Chrome extension that allows you to either record your screen or record a video from your webcam and send it to someone you know. Presently, we’re sitting on zoom calls all the time in synchronous meetings but there has to be an asynchronous component and without the ability to quickly give somebody information in person the idea of sending them a video became really valuable and that became a growth opportunity for us. Our team basically realigned behind the mission of helping organizations succeed through video and our team rallied behind it and it soon became a testament to our culture. 

6 Can you tell the story of how you first came up with your culture framework? 

Our company was at about 50 people, and we were starting to experience this tension between trying to achieve scale and feeling like we were being unproductive, and I was on a family holiday in Mexico and the very first night we got there I went to the buffet, and there was this big plate of steak tartar and I tried it and it ended up being a very bad idea. It made me very sick, and I ended up spending the rest of the week in my hotel room dealing with a horrible stomach bug and I found myself thinking a lot about work and I ended up writing this document called The Guardianism that spelled out our values, our vision, our and our culture.

At the end of the day, what helps a company perform during a crisis is having a unified purpose and ideally, employees join the company for the purpose. So our purpose and our mission is to help organizations succeed and communicate with video and if you’re interested in that, you should come and work in video.

The other factor is the glue, and the glue is your culture, the people, the experiences they have, and the brand value that sits with them and I felt like that glue was lacking so the document I created became the glue. When I got back, I went to the office and read the document to everybody and asked them to sign it if they agreed and to this day, anyone who joins the company signs the document and it acts as a commitment to the values and the culture at Vidyard. 

7 What takes up most of your time? 

Broadly speaking, my role is to make sure that we have the best people working to solve the biggest problems, and ensuring that we have the money, financing and model to support that initiative. If I break that down, I spend a lot of my time on outside or external communications like podcasts, customer interactions, and partner interactions because CEOs are in high demand and that’s where I love to spend my time. Say I spend 30 to 40 hours a week doing that stuff, the other 30 to 40 is spent ensuring we’ve got an awesome team that is aligned from the top down that can go and achieve results and ultimately get the most out of our market opportunity. 

8 Who is Tyler Vincent and how does he relate to Vidyard? 

We have this thing called Vidyardlore. And, as you probably know, and have experienced, things happen in your company’s trajectory that are amazing and are examples of the human spirit in its absolute best form, and over time the story gets told, and it becomes more and more heroic and amazing, and the story of Tyler Vincent is really simple.

TV had just taken on a management role and TV had to make the final deployment to review the code and press the button, and his internet went down, and everybody had been rallying so hard behind this thing, only to be let down at the last minute. They had been up all night and he had been supporting them and around 2am, he ended up going to the local Tim Hortons and sat in his car outside using the Wi-Fi to push the new site to production and the funny thing about this story is he started streaming the process on Periscope. The whole team had been up for so long working on this and they tuned in to this process of him sitting at Tim Hortons and locals were cheering him on hanging around his car and then eventually he thought he was going to get kicked out so he kept eating cream cheese bagels and this concept of getting it done is what became captured in our culture. 

9 Do you have any advice for managers or leaders that are looking to get better at their craft? 

There’s a difference between leading and managing. Leading is inspiring and driving purpose, management is ensuring the accountability to go and achieve those results. In order to drive those results, you have to invest in yourself and find good coaches and peers to help you know what your strengths are but more importantly, where you’re weak so you can develop the frameworks and processes to improve in those areas. 

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