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November 13, 2019 · 19 min read

Interview with Jason Burns, CEO and founder of Kortivity

Ledge sits down with Jason Burns, CEO and founder of Kortivity, about his journey to starting Kortivity after being frustrated with the lack of transparency and accountability in the recruiting industry.

Jason Burns

CEO and Founder of Kortivity

Jason has held a variety of technology, product, and operations leadership roles managing teams of up to 150 employees across multiple continents. He started his career embedded with a startup within Northrup Grumman building data visualization software for the Department of Defense, concentrated in counter-drug and counter-insurgency programs within South and Central America. In 2001, Jason moved to Phoenix to join a startup in the eLearning space that was acquired in 2004 by Thomson Corporation. Jason stayed through the transition and then moved to Austin, Texas in 2006 where he began working with a variety of early stage companies bringing new products and companies to life.

In 2012, frustrated with the lack of transparency and accountability in the recruiting industry, Jason engaged his personal and professional network of recruiters and began the early discovery of what is the KORTIVITY recruitment platform today. Most recently in 2019, KORTIVITY has launched KORTLY, a personalized recruitment software that allows anyone to nurture their network, hire from their network, and grow their company with the best talent – making every hire your best hire.

Read transcript

Ledge: Good to have you on.

Jason: Thanks, David. Good to be with you.

Ledge: If you don’t mind, would you just give a little introduction of yourself and your work. Where you came from, where you’re going.

Jason: I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing now for 20 years, breathing life into products and companies. Early started out with the Department of Defense, working for Northrop Grumman. Working in intelligence and gathering data. Pattern analysis and visualization.

Moved my way more to early stage companies. Found a lot more variety there and more control to help affect the outcome.

Then, five years ago on a dare I started Kortivity which we help recruitment firms build relationships to unlock their potential. We’ve grown that over the last five years to a profitable, stable company.

Ledge: Fantastic. That journey, we talked a little bit off mike about the love of working with startups, and the ebbs and flows of that. Maybe wanting to be the leader and not getting to be.

I looked at your background, rising up through the ranks there. Just going, “Oh, to hell with it. I guess I need to be the boss.” Is that accurate? That’s how I read it.

Jason: Yeah. It’s actually an interesting story there. After Thomson Corporation acquired KnowledgeNet, who I was a part of, we had more of a reverse acquisition where our leadership and our platform took over for Thompson.

I remember sitting down with the interim COO, his name was Chris Dragon, a really good guy. He was talking me through seats on the bus, and I was really wanting to lead up the technology division that time. Of course I wasn’t ready at that point in my career, but I didn’t know that.

He was really good as a mentor to lead me through where I needed to be and where I needed to go, but that’s pretty rare in my experience. I’m really proud of myself in helping pay that forward. That mentorship.

Most companies that I’ve been part of, it’s really about, hey, how can we move this the direction that the board or the CEO and the founder wants to go? A lot of times that can change shape on a day-to-day basis – ebb and flow with their personality and their feeling of the moment and what they’re trying to chase.

That was really my frustration in the last three or four companies I was a part of. As I told you off-mike, I really wasn’t looking to start a company and be a CEO, but felt so frustrated with the general direction and lack of control at that level that opportunity presented itself and here we are.

Ledge: I don’t know. What was the difference between those seats; being a technology leader under somebody else with different other mandates, and now having to sit in the CEO seat?

I’ve talked to a lot of technology founders who have found themselves in that place, and it’s sometimes liberating and sometimes sort of overwhelming even, just to have to be in charge of all the things and take your eyes off the technology a little bit.

Does that happen to you?

Jason: Absolutely. It’s a lonely place being the CEO and the founder, because at the end of the day, the buck stops with you. Your job is to make everyone else successful, primarily. But at a small company – which we are and I’ve always been a part of – you’re very hands-on in every part of business. It is constant multitasking, context shifts, and figuring out what you can delegate and what you should delegate.

Someone once told me this rule – the $10,000 an hour rule. If you’re a founder, your time is worth $10,000 per hour. So if you wouldn’t pay someone $10,000 per hour to do it, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. You should find someone else to do it more appropriately.

Ledge: So, what are some examples of those things that, as you have gone through the founder journey, that you’re delegating a lot then? There’s not a lot that’s worth $10,000 an hour.

Jason: You’ve got to be big picture, right? Just little things on the debt side, to customer migrations. Those are gnarly. I’ve done them my entire life. You could have took an intern out of University of Texas and taught him over a summer how to do it and be autonomous.

So just taking the time to train someone and get them in so that they can scale behind you. Even things like travel. Using virtual assistants and things like that to handle some of those day-to-day things that can really free you up.

Ledge: Absolutely. It’s interesting. You use the word ‘autonomous’, not ‘solo’. I’m curious how you think about that because those are kind of different things.

Jason: In my perspective as a leader, my job is to get you to think as a business owner and to make decisions in alignment with our core values and the rules of the road that we give you.

For us at Kortivity it’s, everyone is empowered. Most important is our customers, and then our employees, and then our investors and backers. That all kind of takes care of itself if we take care of the customers, and we want every employee to ensure that they’re empowered to take care of the customer.

To be able to make those decisions and do right and be autonomous, and not having to be the spoke in every decision and every transaction and every process really helps you scale.

I’ve seen that done poorly. I’ve worked for a company where the CEO was micromanaging every aspect of every senior leader. It was not a really great environment. It was a little bit toxic culture, and it didn’t provide the opportunity for the business to fully grow and take into account the experience and background of each individual leader and incorporate that into the business.

I think autonomy is important in the sense that they need to feel ownership and accountability to it, and my job as a leader is to support you to be successful.

Ledge: We’ve all probably experienced micromanagement. I’m curious. Where does that stuff come from, do you think?

You’re in the CEO seat, and I imagine there are… I have been in it too. There are all kinds of draws. You feel pulled. It’s like, “Oh, I know how to do that better,” or, “I could get in there and do that.” You have to really dismiss yourself from the desire to be involved and do those things.

So, where does micromanagement come from? If you have that urge, how do you push it back? How do you train yourself to get away from doing that when you have been operationalized for so long?

Jason: I say this is not my first rodeo, right? I’m in my forties and I’ve worked at a lot of different companies – a variety of size, a variety of leaders. I think experiencing that and not enjoying it is the best reminder for me to let go. You always have the urge – I can do it better, faster. But at the end of the day, if you don’t trust the people you’ve put into those positions, why do you have them there?

That’s always been something for me that, at every stage of my career and every team – whether it’s been a small team as a tech lead, or even a department as the CTO of a company – I implicitly trust everyone until you give me a reason not to trust you, and then I have to let you go because you can’t rebuild that trust back.

I tend to provide a lot of lead way in that way and trust, especially early and see… I like stretching people too and let them grow into roles and see what they can do. A lot of times, they come out of different backgrounds, different experience than you do, and that’s something that you should really try to incorporate into your culture.

Ledge: Do you experience that…] Go ahead.

I was wondering if you experienced that, what you just said, as diversity. Coming from different places and backgrounds. Diversity is a hot topic in the tech industry now. I’m curious how you think about it.

To me, it wasn’t such a hot topic as much as that in the leadership and team building literature you would always think about, hey, I want to build a team of people that are complementary or different or have different experiences. But now that diversity and inclusion is a hot topic, how do you think about that in a small company?

Jason: It’s something you have to purposely do. You can’t outsource that to a recruiting firm or even your HR team, just to go find – I’m doing air quotes here, you can’t see me – ‘diverse’ candidates. It’s something you have to purposely do.

I’m reminded of a company I saw on 60 Minutes when I was growing up. My dad would always watch 60 Minutes, and we’d eat our candy our bars on Sunday night so he could have the quiet time to watch 60 Minutes. By virtue of the TV being on at that time, we were watching it.

There was a company that and all they did was bring together diverse… Not just diversity from ethnicity, but just backgrounds. You’d have someone that does marketing, and then someone that’s like a welder, put them all into a room and try to solve a problem. I forget the name of the company, but they went on to build some of the most revolutionary products and ideas. It was more of a think tank.

But they were purposeful in who they brought in and invited. I think that’s important too. You need to be building relationships and always, especially as a CEO of a company, thinking about where are the weaknesses and where are some areas that you can specifically target to build those relationships to maybe eventually even part-time help out your company? It doesn’t always have to be a full-time role.

Ledge: Yeah. I mean, how do you recognize the holes if you don’t even know that they’re there? That’s probably an experience thing as well. You start to realize…

Jason: That’s where what I’ve experienced in working with a lot of younger entrepreneurs, they don’t have the experience to know what they don’t know.

It’s kind of like raising teenagers, I imagine. They know everything but all of a sudden, like Mark Twain said, my parents got pretty wise between those three years of 19 to 22. Eventually they wise up and realize; there’s a lot of things we don’t know, we need a lot of help. It really takes a village.

Ledge: Absolutely. I know your product is in a space of enabling really excellent recruiter relationships I guess with candidates and companies.

Talk about that. It sounds like you probably built a mental framework that then informed your company and your product to bring that forth. The ethos of what you’re doing with the product.

Jason: No one likes third party recruiters. I’m obviously not a recruiter by trade, and in my experiences in working and building teams and companies there’s a lot of hiring that goes on. I’ve worked with a lot of third party recruiters.

There’s one in particular, his name is Mark, and he always built relationships. He was like the Mafia. I couldn’t get a meeting with him unless someone he knew vouched for me either as a client or a candidate.

That’s really been my guiding light in building this company. Is, how can we get back to the relationship being the centerpoint, and building and providing value to those relationships? Everything else kind of takes care of itself if you do that first.

Ledge: How do you do that from a product standpoint?

Jason: We encourage our customers to provide something of value. So, rather than talking to the candidate and saying, “Hey, David, you’ve never heard of Kortivity but you should come and join us as our VP of Sales. We’re the best thing since sliced bread.”

That’s not very credible to ask you to make a super stressful decision, maybe uproot your family, if you’ve never even heard of the company.

Instead, our customers talk to candidates a little bit differently and say, “Hey, David. Have you ever heard of Kortivity? Nor should you have necessarily, but they are a company you should put on your radar. I’d like to invite you to my network and you’ll receive periodic updates directly from Jason Burns, our CEO, maybe once every seven or eight weeks. You’ll get to know the company a little bit better before you make any kind of decision. We’re not looking for someone like you to head up their sales team today, but in Q1 2020 they would be. So let’s get you plugged into the network and start receiving those updates and seeing if it’s a good cultural fit over the long term.”

Ledge: Sure. Does the candidate interact at all, or is it sort of a broadcast kind of model?

Jason: No, no. Absolutely. They subscribe. Each update they can comment, like, provide 360 degree feedback, refer a friend. All those types of things.

Really that stems from when I was consulting. I built a consulting a company here in Austin. I would date founders first. I’d give away my time for free to get to know them a little bit and see if it’s someone that I wanted to work with because I was at a stage of my career I wanted to be picky in who I chose to work with, as well as get to know them a little bit on my time. Maybe a few hours a week here or there to see if I could help them.

Every single case that I did that either led to, “I can’t help you, we don’t get along.” Or, “Hey, maybe it makes sense for me to do a tour of duty here for six or eight months and help you out with these specific things.”

So a lot about trying to figure out how you can help and serve others. I think that’s an important distinction to make when you’re talking to recruiters.

For example, on LinkedIn, everyone probably gets an In message from a recruiter – and it’s all about me. I call it the show up and throw up. Let me show up and throw up all over you, everything about me and everything that I’m doing, everything that I need you to do for me. Every now and again I’ll get an InMail that says, “Hey, I just want to get to know you.” Or I won’t even get that, they’ll just make an introduction that they think is helpful. Like, “Hey, you know I know Craig. Craig, you should know Jason. I don’t need to be involved, but I’m just here to try to help.”

Those are the people that I purposely try to engage with now to understand what they’re doing differently. So we can incorporate not only to our products but also our ecosystem of customers.

Ledge: You make a good point. The show up and throw up – particularly online – that everybody has experienced I think has made a lot us – well not me, I do this anyway. But a lot of folks are even skeptical of the person who says, “No, no. Literally. I just want to have a conversation and network with you. You seem interesting and we might have some stuff in common.”

Ubiquitous connection seems to have pulled us back a little bit from the trust factor that my time is worth spending because everybody can ask for anything.

I’m interested. How do you tell the difference between the people that are reaching out for genuine purposes and some of the people that use that as a tactic? That happens to me all the time. You don’t really want to network with me. You want to sell me something. I can tell because I was in the sales seat a long time.

How do you find the authenticity with that connection factor being so high now?

Jason: Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to detect and weed out the 99% because literally as soon as you connect with someone with LinkedIn, I can get it down to a clock. Within five minutes you have an autoresponder usually that’s not even personalized anymore with their message. Hey, we’re looking for offshore development partners. We do X, Y, Z. We do… We’re a virtual assistant. Whatever it is they’re trying to sell you, that’s their first InMail to you. So that’s pretty easy to weed out and I’ll ignore those.

They’ll keep emailing me and following me up or InMailing me, I still ignore them because the way they started the relationship was off-putting to me.

Now, if someone says, “Hey, I just want to get to know you,” I’ll engage them a little bit depending on if they’re local or not, or if I know someone that they know. If we have someone or someone in common, I might go meet with them for coffee and see if there’s some way I can help them. Again, that’s just part of my attitude of trying to pay it forward and try to help others the best I can.

One of the things that I think that is important in building those relationships is being open-minded and not close-minded, and saying yes to those opportunities more than no because you never know what might happen. Maybe you get invited to the Masters by some person you didn’t know. It could happen, right?

Ledge: Right. Yeah. It would have been good this year.

Jason: No doubt.

Ledge: That’s awesome. I think there’s this pull for – I think of it as budgeting too – investing in your future connections and network, and just that nature of service. Particularly a lot of our audience is going to be consulting or hourly billing type of mentality. You really have to think about, hey, how do I want to invest in networking and service and these long term developmental relationship because not getting paid for that right now. You need to budget that into your schedule.

Do you think about it intensively like that? Or have you ever made a plan intentionally about it? Or just kind of a more organic experience?

Jason: Certainly when I first moved to Austin it was much more intentional planning because I knew no one. But now, 12 years later, it’s much more organic and opportunistic.

I look at it… If you’ve ever heard the story of water and bamboo by the ancient Chinese. A good friend John taught me this.

The ancient Chinese would water bamboo basically every day Year 1, Year 2, Year 3. By Year 3, the farmer’s family is thinking he’s crazy because nothing is happening to the bamboo. It’s just a big dirt pile. Finally after Year 4 and Year 5, the bamboo will spring up 60 ft in 10 days.

The whole point is that, during those first five years it was building it’s root system to sustain that type of growth. If you’ve ever tried to kill a bamboo, you can’t. You literally have to pour gasoline on it and light it on fire, and even then you’re probably not going to kill it all.

The point of that is that your network is really those roots. If you nurture your network and build that root system, it takes time and you have to have patience and have that open mindset. Eventually what happens is opportunities start to chase you – not just professionally, even personally – versus you having to chase every opportunity. I’m sure you’ve experienced that as a sales person too.

Ledge: Absolutely. I’m a professional networker. Which comes full circle to exactly what you said. New city, build new companies, having lots of coffee and all those things. We just seem to have been able to virtualize now so I can meet with anybody anywhere. That’s a lot of fun. I still drink just as much coffee but maybe save on the bill a little bit.

Great insights. I love that about the networking.

Real quick before we wrap up. Please give the pitch about the company. Talk about the product, who the ideal customers are. I want to make sure if anybody is listening that they could be aware of what you’re building and potentially bring you some business or other relationships.

Jason: Would love to do that. I think the most important thing for your audience though is to think about how they can find a true partner as a more career advisor. A lot of us have financial advisors for our 401(k)s but we don’t have the equivalent for our careers. That’s really what we’re trying to help our customers become. Is, be a better partner especially for your audience.

I know it’s a little bit different in tech than other industries. We tend to move around a lot, especially your audience being the consulting side. Having a good partner like that can help with that and be open to talking to recruiters that truly are after helping you and not just about the transaction of how you can help them, I think is probably the biggest thing that people can take away.

Ledge: Well, we appreciate that.

Jason: They are out there. They are totally out there. You have to stumble across them.

Ledge: I will tell you that we do care a lot about that and we spend a lot of time on relationships, and it has paid off. I appreciate that.

You know, sometimes like you said, you have to plant those seeds. It absolutely makes a lot of sense. Yet, every time we invest in those relationships, they come back many years later. There are people that I’m working with at Gun that came from my network at other jobs. And, “Hey, what are you doing now? I’m doing this cool thing, and you were a great developer. You should check this out.” I think that that’s been really valuable as we grew the company out on our side. But thanks for noticing.

Jason: Absolutely. It’s about the relationships. Again, as we move forward, I think generally the connectedness that we all have now it’s so easy to get those in-person connections on LinkedIn, email even text message now and obviously the robocalls that we all get from the IRS saying we owe extra taxes.

But finding those individuals that truly are trying to genuinely help you and build those longer term relationships, I think it does a lot of different things. Not just, like I said, professionally but personally and for your community. Not just community as in development but your local communities as well for you in Nashville and me in Austin. I think it’s super important.

Ledge: Absolutely. Where do folks find you online to do that?

Jason: You can follow me on Twitter; jsonburns. Or you can follow me on LinkedIn. Or you can go to our website and sign up for our blog –

Ledge: With a K.

Jason: With a K.

Ledge: Awesome. Thanks, Jason. It’s great spending time with you. Thanks for coming on.

Jason: You as well. Take care. Thanks.

David is a Managing Partner at Add1Zero where his team provides lead-to-close sales execution for tech-enabled B2B services companies ready to leap from 6 to 7 digits of revenue. He is also a co-host of the Leaders of B2B podcast. When David isn’t working, he spends time with his five kids and frequently travels between Dallas and Nashville to keep his interstate marriage alive.