Dave Grow first started his entrepreneurial journey back in 2007. While in college at BYU in Salt Lake City, he founded FamilyPulse, a platform to enable families to easily create websites that fostered collaboration among extended family. Following this venture, he moved to Bain Consulting, a top management consulting firm, where Grow leveraged his strategic problem-solving skills to assist major corporations, gaining firsthand insights into the challenges that Lucid would later aim to address. Today, Dave is the CEO of Lucid Software, the leader in visual collaboration software. His initial encounter with Lucid, during a meeting with co-founders Ben Dilts and Karl Sun, was a moment of serendipity, fueled by his personal interactions with existing software.
“I had desperately needed something like Lucid at Bain where I worked with a large aerospace company on how to redesign their engineering and manufacturing process for helicopters. Over many months, I painstakingly mapped that out in Powerpoint! When I saw Lucidchart for the first time, I thought about the countless hours it could have saved me.”
Grow was instantly sold on Lucid’s vision and embraced the opportunity to bring cloud-based visual collaboration to workers worldwide.
At the time, Grow was determined to get into Harvard to pursue an MBA. He told Dilts and Sun that he would give Lucid 6 months after which he would focus on his studies. As fate would have it, Grow did not get into Harvard, which in retrospect looks a lot like a lucky break.
“It was a pretty painful blow, but I was also deeply relieved. Things were heating up at Lucid and I didn’t want to leave because I had fallen in love with the startup experience, but also believed if you get into Harvard – you go.”
When Grow joined the Lucid team, he was the only employee not focused on engineering. “I basically started building out every other business and operations function. Over the years, I’ve worn a variety of hats across marketing, operations, product, customer success, sales, and more in building the business to what it is today.”
Over a decade later and now in the CEO role, Grow is gleaming with pride for the value the company delivers to its users. “Today, we have over 1,000 employees who are focused on helping our more than 60 million users see and build the future through the power of visual collaboration.”
Differentiate to disrupt and understand user pain points
For Grow, it’s critical to be intellectually honest about what true differentiation the product brings to the market, and whether it’s sufficient to disrupt established players. “I think we often have a tendency to underestimate some of the reasons and ways that incumbents like Microsoft Visio have stayed in place for so long.”
According to Grow, having a modestly better product or slightly better price point is rarely sufficient to take significant share from an incumbent – it takes a step order change in value to reach beyond some early adopters.
Learning from Lucid’s journey, founders seeking to enter a market with already established players should be prepared for some pain. Even if the current market landscape looks ripe for disruption, the road to stardom won’t be easy. “I remember many years ago personally selling Lucid’s first two large enterprise deals whereas, up until that point, we had primarily been selling via a self-service model to much smaller customers.”
To land these enterprise customers, the company had to jump through multiple hoops such as establishing their first MSA legal agreement as opposed to simply redoing their online terms of service. They had to develop and implement policies that seemed ahead of time for a small startup, and ultimately had to think long and hard about how to effect change management in a large enterprise organization.
“This took significant time and effort – and pain. However, without the willingness to invest in new uncharted areas, Lucid would have never taken the leap into enterprise.”
Look for what doesn’t exist
When Lucid was founded, Microsoft Visio was already an established category leader. So what were the main differentiators that Lucid brought that disrupted the market?
Dilts originally founded Lucid because he was working at a job where he was constantly passing complex diagrams back and forth between teams; emailing countless versions back and forth was arduous and inefficient. Upon looking for collaborative diagramming software and quickly realizing it didn’t exist, Dilts, being the creative engineer that he is, started developing his own solution. From the very early days, Lucidchart, a web-based diagramming application, was different from competitors like Visio because it was a cloud-based app that would work from any device on any operating system.
“This focus alone was huge because, at the time, Visio could only be used on a PC. In addition, Lucidchart was specifically designed for ease of use so anyone could begin using it immediately. This ease of use eliminated the tedious and difficult learning process involved with other applications.”
The other major differentiator was the application’s collaborative build, allowing for multiple people to work on the same diagrams simultaneously, eliminating the versioning problem that Dilts was experiencing. “We have now added two more products, Lucidspark which is a virtual whiteboard, and Lucidscale which is a cloud visualization solution, and all of these tenets remain the same in all three. But on top of these, we’ve spent the last decade building automation and data capabilities that connect data to visuals, making our documents intelligent and adaptable.”
Want to scale fast? Focus on the people and emphasize teamwork over ego
From the very beginning, the company had an unwavering focus on hiring the best people it could find. And at times, that philosophy has been tested – especially during sudden growth spurts. Hiring is continuous and can be a long and arduous process.
“Hiring well requires patience and discipline, but I’ve learned that patience has incredible benefits over time. Great people want to work with great people, and if you never lower the bar in hiring, that nucleus of great people has a magnetic pull for others.”
For Grow, along with hiring great people, ensuring that the team lives and embodies the company’s core values is critical. When a founder hires and develops the right people, and provides them with the right culture and environment, magic happens. “A truly great team will figure out the product strategy, or the GTM operational issues, or whatever the biggest challenge or opportunity is for the business. Focus on people and culture. It will make or break the journey.”
Building a strong company culture begins with establishing core values that reflect the company’s mission and vision and leading by example. Hiring people that align with these values and are passionate about the mission is absolutely the most critical part. “One of our core values is ‘teamwork over ego’.” Grow says these values are visible in how team members support each other during good and bad times.
“The support our people have shown each other throughout the course of the company’s history is a testament to me of just how effective our hiring process is, and it’s why we focus so much on emphasizing our values during the hiring process. “
Grow’s time at Lucid has taught him about the need for constant reinvention as a leader in a rapidly scaling company. What is required with a team of ten employees is different than a team of 100, and especially different with a team of over 1,000. “I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors and team members who have helped me take the next step at each phase.”
In the earlier days of Lucid, Grow and Sun spoke with a number of CEOs and leaders who were a few steps ahead of the company to ask them what the young company’s leadership should be thinking about.
The answers were almost unanimous: focus on people and culture. “I remember thinking that I was hoping for more concrete advice about product strategy, GTM operations, and so on. And yet, over the years, the focus on people and culture is truly what matters.”
Grow says that one of the most common topics early-stage founders want to discuss is go-to-market (GTM), and specifically, product-led growth. Grow enjoys helping them think through what GTM strategies are likely the best fit for their product, ideal customer profile, and more because there’s certainly no one-size-fits-all strategy. However, it all comes down to remembering the importance of the golden rule.
“One of the common areas of advice I focus on is the advice where I’ve received the most value from: people, culture, and hiring. I share my experience on how to really establish and operationalize a great culture, how to never settle when it comes to hiring, and more.”
Communicate early and openly
Communicating openly and often by acknowledging the current issue or opportunity and focusing on areas one can control – like mission, strategy, and execution – is key for someone who is in the front row. For Grow, one of the most important jobs of a leader is to be a great storyteller. “When speaking with your teams, aim to bring key messages, ideas, and concepts to life and connect them to the company’s mission. Be prepared to tell the same story, over and over again, because it’s hard to over-communicate the key messages, but it’s very easy to think that one time is sufficient.”
Grow emphasizes the importance of empathy and often speaks to his employees about giving others the benefit of the doubt because we often may lack the context of why a certain decision is made – and this is even more the case in a rapidly scaling company. “Employees can develop that empathy by getting outside their own role and team by showing curiosity in other parts of the business. By developing relationships with colleagues in other departments and roles, it’ll help you understand what’s working and how the business can improve.”
How and when to release new products: patience is virtue and the user knows best
For almost a decade, Lucid had focused on its main product, Lucidchart. In the past few years, Lucid went beyond Lucidchart, releasing a number of new products. The timing of product launches can be tricky, however. Grow has thought deeply about this, wanting to ensure that whichever product they release to users and customers is best-in-class.
For example, Lucidspark was conceived out of the need for solutions to replicate in-person collaboration that escalated during the height of the pandemic. It was clear that companies who transitioned to remote work during the pandemic needed to solve for virtual collaboration in order to continue working with the same efficiency and efficacy that they had while working in the office, while also still providing avenues for maximizing creativity within a virtual setting. While teams were able to utilize Lucidchart for this use case, the company saw an opportunity to create a purpose-built solution that could better address the need.
“There was clearly a need for teams to have a dedicated experience for brainstorming and ideation. At the time we believed by implementing our intelligent diagramming technology to a dedicated whiteboard solution, we could help distributed teams to more seamlessly move between idea generation and action planning. Within six months, we launched Lucidspark.”
The experience of creating this dedicated product then led the company to release a third product dedicated to cloud visualization, Lucidscale. It would build on additional functionality that allowed for filtering, saved views, and many more enhancements to better see and understand cloud infrastructures. From the beginning, Lucid navigated the careful balance of ease of use and power of the product.
“For years, when I would run surveys with our customers and ask them for one word to describe Lucid, the common response would invariably be ‘easy’. In other words, ease of use is absolutely critical to our value proposition and our mission of having every knowledge worker adopt visual collaboration.”
“Whether it’s for intelligent diagramming, brainstorming, or cloud visualization, using one of our dedicated experiences can help teams align quicker and work efficiently.”
Having these purpose-built experiences enables Lucid to provide that ease of use while delivering on the use cases required at each step of the workflow – from idea to reality.