Saturday, October 18, 2014

Rod Drury finds business fun and interesting, even when the Xero share price has dropped and his net worth has declined by hundreds of millions.

Michele Hewiston for The New Zealand Times writes: On Monday Rod Drury, the technology entrepreneur and chief executive of Xero, the small business accounting software company, was sounding very chipper. He always does, no great surprise there. There was that little matter of his company's shares having dropped seven cents overnight, he said cheerfully, but was he worried? Was he, hell. He doesn't worry or panic and he is almost always cheerful and optimistic, as you'd expect from somebody who regards, and markets, his software as "beautiful". You don't often hear the words "accounting software" and "beautiful" in the same sentence but he is out to change the world. What am I talking about? He has already changed the world! "We have just transformed the accounting industry, you know!" he said. "People wear T-shirts now! They get excited about accounting!"
He does get excited about some unlikely things. Why is the profile picture on his Twitter account of him wielding a large axe? "Oh, that was just such a great photo. It's a Finnish splitting axe. It's a whole new technology for axes.

I just mentioned it on Twitter and one of our investors sent me one." Why did he want a Finnish splitting axe? "I didn't want a Finnish splitting axe. I just thought it was cool."

Not so cool, you might think, would be going to bed and waking up the next morning to find himself - probably, he said he didn't bother doing the calculation - hundreds of millions of dollars poorer. But not really, of course, he said, because it's all on paper and so it isn't real. Still isn't it terrifying to wake up in the morning and find yourself hundreds of millions poorer, even on paper? "No. That's just fun. And it's interesting." Fun! Interesting! The very rich are very strange. He mentioned meeting Richard Branson, who I have also met and who, I said, is a very strange chap. "Yeah. Yeah. They're all strange cats," he said. Is he? "I don't think so. I think I'm pretty real. I've got my feet on the ground. I don't take it too seriously. I think it's all kind of full of humour and fun. Yeah. Yeah. Even though this week probably hasn't been our best week, it's all just part of the process. It's just the work it creates when you've got somebody who doesn't really understand what's going on throwing stupid stuff out there and then the phone calls start coming in."
That didn't sound like a lot of fun, or humour. He was talking about a chap I mentioned hearing on the radio who had said that there were questions about whether Xero could cut it in the United States and whether they should be there at all. What a fool of a man. He gave him a little slap. He was from Wellington, so what could he know?
"We've explained exactly what we're doing ad nauseam and then you have these people say things like: 'You should just pack up and go home.' And it's like: 'What?' Global domination! But slowly. That's the catch cry. To go out there and build not just a great New Zealand company but a great global company is just f***en awesome!"
To anyone who doubts him, he just says: "What?" And goes on his stubborn way. Stubborn was my word. He said: "I'm not stubborn to the point of stupidity. I'm not blindly doing what I want to do. I've logically thought it out and we make changes to strategy every two minutes."
He shared his "favourite saying". It is: "It's not the big that eat the small; it's the fast that eat the slow."
Is he a strange cat? He doesn't talk like any chief executive I've met, which is to say that most don't say f***, rather a lot, at least not to journalists. His second favourite saying is that economical: "What?", intended to convey either incredulity at stupidity, or vast excitement. He is not a flash talker but he is a fast talker. He loves talking and that he now does it for a living, really, is a sort of triumph in itself because he was a terrible stutterer, until cured of it in his late 20s. He lives, famously, for the head of a global company, in Hawkes Bay and had come to Auckland to give a talk for International Stuttering Awareness Day, among other appointments, so we could meet for an interview on the Thursday. He wanted to meet at a cafe near his Auckland office so that he could have his favourite scrambled eggs. I said I'd shout him breakfast. He didn't demur. When the photographer arrived, he asked if he'd like a coffee. That was a very kind offer, the photographer told him later: "When Michele was paying!" That was a bit of humour. I grumbled about rich people and he said, not for the first time, that he was poor. "I've got a mortgage!" He and his wife, who used to be a dentist and now stays at home - he wouldn't tell me her name because "she's private"; but as her name, Anna, has been in plenty of other interviews, I have no idea why he refused to tell me - have a nice but not lavish lifestyle. There is the nice, but "not stupid" townhouse in Havelock North and a very nice beach house 20 minutes away. I thought he had, oh, anywhere between $120 million and some other stupid amount of money but he said he's sunk it all into Xero.
He had sent an email changing the interview time because he'd had to change flights. "Regions getting screwed." Didn't he have a private plane? "Why would you have a private plane? Planes come up here all the time." He might hanker after one, for showing off purposes. "Why would you do that? I'm not a show-off. I'm not a shower-offer."
He has some silly cars and a very silly watch, the biggest I've ever seen. He said that it's his "sales watch" and he got it before the days of internet networking when, if you were a bloke turning up at conferences: "You can only have some nice shoes and a nice watch if you're trying to do deals. If you turn up with a Swatch or a Mickey Mouse [watch], say, they won't take you seriously." His is a Breitling and involves an enormous number of mysterious gadgets and symbols. What are all of those things? "I don't know how it works. I don't even know how computers work, to be honest. I don't know how they get stuff on screens. I can write programmes. I've got no idea, actually, of the physics of how they work. It's just magic to me."
I was trying to figure out how the inside of his head works, but it's still mostly magic to me. He likes, I think, to say unexpected things and to do things you wouldn't expect a chief executive to do. It's his image. He's a socialist. He must be because, he said: "Well, I think we're all socialists in New Zealand. We all want free education and really good hospitals ... and a prosperous society." He voted for John Key's lot. That well-known socialist. "Yeah. He is. Clearly!" I asked what schools his kids go to (they have two girls and a boy) and he said the local schools so perhaps he's a bit funny about the local school, for the boy, being the private school, Hereworth. They don't get any pocket money, he said, the miserable bugger, but they do all have iPads and the nice beach house. He worries about spoiling them.
He said: "I think of myself more as a skateboarder. As I'm walking around, I'm mentally skateboarding everything." He showed me a video on his phone. It was of him skateboarding at a conference. "We did a massive conference in Sydney. 1330 accountants. 24,000 square metres of polished concrete. That's all I saw. What! It was fantastic. So I skated all around. I got told off by the building manager." We watched the video. I wondered who had filmed it. "One of the video guys gave me a pole to race around on. It's kind of hard to fit two on a skateboard." That was a really stupid question. I tried to think of an intelligent one, about skateboarding. What was his best trick? "Not falling off. My self-preservation circuit is really well-defined."
He likes an interview to be fun, to a point. He got his coffee in a takeaway cup. Was that in case he wanted to make a quick getaway? "You might be boring. I think I can hear my mother calling."
The photographer asked him to sit on some stairs for his picture and he said he didn't sit on stairs. He didn't give an explanation, but it can't have been that he was worried about ruining a good suit because he wasn't wearing one. He was wearing what he always wears, "the uniform": jeans and a shirt and no tie, a jacket and pointy shoes. He gets the shirts at 3Wisemen: "Three for a hundy." I muttered, again, something rude about miserable rich people and he said, possibly affronted, that they were very nice shirts.
I asked what he wasn't good at because he is good at everything including, but not exhaustively: slapping people on Twitter, PR, surfing, skateboarding, ironing shirts. "I spend all my time ironing shirts. If someone could invent a shirt that doesn't require an iron ... " He is very good at making scones. "I make the best!" He is good at cooking, of course, and cooks when he's at home. I asked what he cooks and he gave me a withering look: "Well, everything." I was asking boring questions. I was supposed to be asking about global domination, but there was really no need for me to. He says he doesn't enjoy his high profile and had never sought it, particularly, but another thing he is very good at is having one - and giving every appearance of enjoying it.
He gets into spats on Twitter - including one with Dotcom, which he now refuses to talk about - and he says people accuse him of being arrogant and of having a thin skin. He isn't, and doesn't, he said, not that he cares. "It's like water off a duck's back." But he does whack back, so why, if he doesn't care? "Why wouldn't I? It doesn't mean you can't defend yourself ... I think once you know me, I'm just a guy."
He claims he'd prefer to be the "silent number two" in a company, but he does like a bit of humour.
He's not a show-off, but that's not the same as being capable of showing off to get noticed. The skateboarding stunt at the conference was his idea of just a guy having bloody good fun, but it was also good for getting attention for his "anti-corporate brand". A private jet would just be boring. And how many other skateboarding bosses were at that conference? Exactly the same number who would cheerfully turn up for an interview the week their company was the lead item on the radio news for less than cheerful reasons.