Bruce Lee said, “Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself. Do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.” And Napoleon Hill said, “Think twice before you speak because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.”
I’m so excited about today’s guest, Ryan Smith. He is the CEO and co-founder of Qualtrics, one of the leading platforms that help gather and analyze data from customers and employees to use for market research — which he started out of his father’s basement with his brother and his father.
In this episode, we discuss why you should stop chasing money, how to balance priorities in the pursuit of success, how hitting rock bottom in a new country all by himself transformed Ryan’s life forever, the most underrated skill to have in life right now, and how he became the owner of the Utah Jazz NBA team, and so much more.
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Ryan Smith is the CEO and co-founder of Qualtrics, one of the leading platforms that help gather and analyze data from customers and employees to use for market research, which he started out of a basement with his brother and father. He was included in Fortune’s “40 under 40” in 2016. Qualtrics was acquired for $8 Billion in 2019 and in 2020, he became the owner of the Utah Jazz NBA team. Ryan is also a philanthropist and co-founder of the 5 For the Fight, which is a global campaign to gather funds for cancer research by donating $5.
At the age of 17, Ryan moved to South Korea to teach English. It was here he reached rock bottom and had some tough decisions to make about where his path was going. It was also during this time that he decided to spend two years in Mexico as a missionary. Ryan credits these two years in Mexico as the birth of knowledge for his 20-year journey with Qualtrics.
In Mexico, Ryan had to operate successfully without everything being spelled out, and often due to language barriers felt like nothing was ever going right. Ryan was constantly challenged to level up because leaving before his time was up wasn’t an option.
This is a fascinating conversation with Ryan, so let’s jump right in!
It’s not every day you have the opportunity to speak to a billionaire, so I was curious to know what’s been harder for Ryan in his journey from his dad’s basement to now — scaling a business from zero to $1 million, $1 million to $10 million, $10 million to $100 million, or $100 million to a billion dollars.
“If I look at a company that’s gone from zero to $1 million, and then gone from a $100 million to $500 million — the company is like a band in the basement in high school [that compared to] the time they hit it big has only one person that’s the same. There’s a lot of people I know that are phenomenal, as Peter Thiel says the ‘zero to one phase,’ [but] maybe those aren’t the right people for [the] $100 million to $1 billion phase. I feel so incredibly blessed to have been there from the zero to the billion phase, but it took 20 years, and you’ve got to hold 20 years together.” – Ryan Smith
I love Ryan’s honesty saying that he probably wanted to quit 20 times too, but being able to build a company with his dad and brother gave extra special significance to success. After all, if you’re going to succeed, who do you want to do it with? A clear answer for Ryan is family.
That’s not to say working with family doesn’t come with its own unique set of challenges. Statistically speaking, the odds aren’t in your favor.
“I recruited my brother from Google, and we did not get along for the first year. We got to the point where I was like, ‘Is this the right thing?’ But then I [realized], ‘Whoa, this guy is the best co-founder in the world — he has to love me! He has to come back to work. He’s not going to quit me.’” – Ryan Smith
Ryan believes the nature of family relationships allowed them to dive deeper into problems and go past the usual pain thresholds that exist with colleagues — and that led to greater iterations of their product with better solutions because of their ability to push each other further as siblings.
Having accumulated great wealth, Ryan remains grounded by putting his family and faith first. Ryan credits having balance in his life to his wife Ashley who calls him out on not being present quickly. Ryan has an interesting observation about why some people handle wealth, happiness, and fulfillment better than others.
“The ones that I admire the most are the ones who have [made money] over time. It’s really hard when someone has a life-changing moment — you see this in sports where you go from college and then boom — that’s hard. I did not come on that journey. It’s been little by little, and then you wake up in a different spot. That’s a little bit easier to get acclimated than someone who gets it all at once.” – Ryan Smith
When the big tech booms were happening in the Bay area, people became millionaires overnight. One of the best rules Ryan heard shared with people working at Google or Facebook was: Don’t do anything for a year.
“That’s pretty good advice. If you’ve liked something, write it down, and if you like it a year later, and then go do it. There’s a quote that I’ve always tried to live by, ‘Don’t use the people to help you get money — use the money to help the people.’” – Ryan Smith
Ryan gives an example about living this quote and seeing young families working for him paying off their houses and cars — which felt far more impactful than Qualtrics hitting another business milestone.
It seems every time I connect with someone who’s accumulated wealth, I always hear the same thing: “Give back as much as possible.” Not only that, but they tell me the more they give back, the more the money keeps coming to them. Because I know Ryan is heavily involved in multiple philanthropic projects, I’m curious if his generosity developed from having money or if his parents taught him.
“It wasn’t something that I was raised [with]. I was probably 18 years old [when I decided to give.] … I went to Seoul, Korea [with two friends] to teach English and it didn’t go the way I planned. [They] came home [early and] my dad’s like, ‘Hey, you’re up to no good anyway, if you’re over there by yourself and hit rock bottom, it’s probably a good thing.’ I met a couple of guys in the subway, and these are actually the type of people I want to be like, these are people who were having fun, and they were happy and witty. They were responsible and successful, and I decided, ‘I want to be like them.’ And that’s when I decided, ‘I’m going to go do a church mission.’ … I got called to Mexico City.” – Ryan Smith
As Ryan explains, Korea forced him to grow up quickly and decide what kind of life he wanted to live. Had he never been through the challenges he faced in Korea, he may never have made the life-changing decision to spend two years in Mexico serving as a missionary.
Imagine moving to a country where you don’t speak the language, they speak little English, and you’re trying to teach people. After two years of serving, Ryan changed his whole outlook, going from a high school dropout to wanting to get a college degree. At college, he started Qualtrics, met his wife, and his whole world changed. Even though he wasn’t making much in his twenties, his time in Mexico made him evaluate — why would he stop giving just because he was successful? Ryan decided then and there that sticking to the tithing principle of 10% meant his giving wouldn’t ever be tied to the amount of money being given.
“There’s a lot of different philosophies, and I’m never one to tell people how to live. I think everyone needs to go on their own path. There are some observations and learnings I’ve taken on my path. Number one is, ‘How do you know you’re going to be at that [level financially]?’ You may never get there. Many friends have never gotten there, and they are never giving back. Second, I think it makes you better on the path, and it’s much more habitual. We are creatures of habit. For me personally, I would struggle if I had to go develop the muscle later.” – Ryan Smith
Everyone’s got to go on their personal journey to discover what they deem is right for them. Ryan does suggest sacrificing to the point where it hurts a little — because if it doesn’t hurt you, then it’s not a sacrifice.
Ryan believes sacrifice becomes a good litmus test and that if you’re too comfortable all the time, you can lose your drive to achieve the next milestone. There’s always a level of uncomfortableness that we continue to put ourselves in that makes us grow.
When Ryan lived in South Korea and taught English, he was trying to survive and was forced to figure out his own problems. Things didn’t always work out the first time, forcing Ryan to innovate.
“What really clicked was that for the first time, [if I] have an idea, it’s on [me] and only [me] to execute it. If it fails, [I have to] go do it again [or try] a different idea. I had to put my own brain and ideas to work and get feedback [on] an idea — even [just figuring out how to] get people to class. There was a huge building where people lived, and you’d go down to the basement and there were a hundred mailboxes. I thought, ‘I bet if I put my number in a note in every mailbox someone would call.’ It seems so obvious but no one was doing it.” – Ryan Smith
Ryan’s innovative problem-solving saw 13 people phone him the first day. Not only did he secure clients, but he reduced the travel time to see people, meaning he had extra time to teach another person in the building. Years later, he’s able to draw a parallel to the beginning of Qualtrics.
“We started Qualtrics by targeting academics, which is not a great market. Academic professors have no money, but these people have to go get published, and we were selling software where they get feedback and they get data to publish. We [thought, ‘This] is perfect.’ We [started with] the top of the university, ‘Hey, we have something that all your professors can use.’ [We thought it] was a no-brainer — but no one bought it.” – Ryan Smith
Qualtrics’ product was perfect for the academic institutions, but nobody wanted to make the decision to try something new — not the dean, not the business school, not even the head of marketing. Eventually, they managed to sign one professor, Angela Lee at the Kellogg School of Management. Then, three years later, they were back at the university with a list of all the institutions now using their product. This time, they left with the entire school signed up.
“Our thesis and our model was right, but the way to get there was three years off.” – Ryan Smith
Now, they have 700,000 academics a year that are graduating and are trained on the Qualtrics platform.
“It started out with an idea that was directionally right, but the execution had to be different, and it’s no different than putting the flyers in the box.” – Ryan Smith
What a powerful story about knowing the value of your product. Even when department heads are not prepared to take a chance, all it took in the end, was a $500 sale to one professor who then became their raving fan and a crucial testimonial. What a powerful reminder for us to keep persevering no matter what doors may close on our journey to fulfill our mission.
Guys, this is a powerful interview with Ryan Smith, and it is packed with so much value and words of wisdom from him. Listen to the full episode for more, and don’t forget to share it with someone who needs to hear it.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge Ryan for being so down to earth. He’s pulled himself through different challenging scenarios to overcome adversity and transform his life’s trajectory, and he continues to give back in a big way — I think that’s really inspiring. Ryan’s a great role model for what’s possible as a great father, a great husband, and a great man of service as well.
If you want to make a difference in someone’s life today, you can also start your own campaign in the fight against cancer. Visit the 5 For the Fight page for more details and start your own campaign.
I like to end each episode with my guest’s definition of greatness, and Ryan’s really asks us to stay true to ourselves:
“I think too many people believe that someone else’s definition is what your greatness should be. Don’t let anyone else ever determine what your success is, because you have your reasons for doing things.” – Ryan Smith
If you enjoyed this conversation, please make sure to spread the message of greatness and make an impact on someone’s life today. It would be great if you could also tag me, @lewishowes, on Instagram with a screenshot of this episode and your greatest takeaways from it. Ryan is available on Twitter to message and follow, @RyanQualtrics.
I want to leave you with this quote from Albert Einstein who said, “Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.” I believe that’s what this life is all about. The more valuable you become for other people, the more successful you become in return.
I want to remind you all — if no one has told you lately, you are loved, you are worthy, and you matter! I’m so grateful for you. Do you know what time it is? It’s time to go out there and do something great.