GC, SVP and Head of Corporate Development Louis Willacy’s holistic approach to multi-department leadership at Tagged.
By Kara Lawton
Silicon Valley might be the perfect grown-up place for a kid whose love of computers and gadgets motivated him to save money so that he could be among the first to get a Casio touchscreen calculator watch. It has proved to be such for Louis Willacy, who joined San Francisco-based Tagged as General Counsel, Senior Vice President of Legal and Head of Corporate Development in 2005, when the social discovery startup was part of an Internet incubator.
Then came News Corp.’s $580-million acquisition of MySpace and a surge of interest in social networking companies. The incubator shut down everything except Tagged, which Willacy has helped grow from less than $1 million to in excess of $60 million in annual revenue and from 20 to more than 200 employees.
During the journey to becoming one of America’s Most Promising Companies (2012) according to Forbes, Willacy led the acquisition of five tech companies and the development of their values, mission statement and vision. He has counseled Tagged through $12 million in venture capital financing, an online privacy class-action lawsuit and multiple patent infringement lawsuits.
“I think it’s important to always be thinking about wearing different hats,” Willacy said. “How is what I’m doing going to impact the company from various perspectives?” It’s a question that reveals a holistic approach that’s central to his multifaceted role.
Everything Is Connected
Willacy assumed Head of Finance and Facilities responsibilities in 2006, and those of Head of People Operations from 2007 to 2011 and 2012 on. Whether meeting with potential investors, structuring contracts or implementing employee initiatives, he’s conscientious about the impact that any one activity might have on other areas of the company.
“I think it’s important to really recognize and always view anything that’s going on with the lens of an attorney,” Willacy said. “There are legal issues related to virtually every aspect of running a company.”
The fact that both of Willacy’s parents were lawyers means seeing through an attorney’s lens comes quite naturally to him, much like his decision to study law. After graduating from Wesleyan University and Columbia University School of Law, he worked as a Corporate Associate at Dewey Ballantine in Los Angeles and New York. There he learned the value of perfectionism from Robert Smith, a Partner who taught Willacy how crucial it is to get things right.
“What I’ve come to learn is that it’s an ideal and something to strive for, and unless you strive for being perfect—say, error free—then you’re probably going to wind up with an unacceptable level of errors,” he said. Of course, Willacy expects people to make some mistakes. Consistently striving for perfection just makes it easier to focus, work quickly and deliver a superb work product whenever time might be an issue.
And when you’re helping lead a tech-driven Silicon Valley startup with 300 million-plus members worldwide, time is inherently always an issue.
The Intersection of Technology & Law
How do you prepare your team and company for success in a landscape where technology changes faster than the law? For Willacy, it’s a matter of personal interest and foresight.
“In third-grade computer class, I started learning how to program in Basic, so I was a computer geek from then on,” he said.
A deep-rooted, spellbinding fascination comes through when Willacy discusses intellectual property and the Constitution, historical media and current issues such as social networking, facial recognition, online rental listings, car-sharing apps, drones; anyone listening could easily mistake it for a TEDx Talk.
“Until today, [civilian drone technology was] science fiction. And it’s become science nonfiction,” he said.
In practical terms, the first thing Willacy does is think through the implications of any technological advance; then he shares that information with the relevant people.
“Even if it’s not yet there, you kind of have to sense based on where tech is today that certain advancements will be made in the near future.”
Smart calculations help address some of the new legal issues faced by a social discovery company that wants to enable anyone “to instantly connect with interesting new people anytime, anywhere.” With that vision in mind, Willacy’s focus for people operations is on hiring smart individuals and creating the right culture for them.
Fostering Love & Belonging
When Willacy spearheaded the development of the company values and mission “to help everyone feel love and belonging,” he helped lay the foundation for Tagged to win the San Francisco Business Times’ Top 10 Best Places to Work honors.
The startup holds its own in the perks department, which would prompt most non-Silicon Valley employees to gleefully cast their “Best Places” vote for Tagged. But the secret to happy and productive employees isn’t just unlimited vacation and sick leave, monthly massages, healthy catered lunches and dinners, free gym memberships, a nap room, Ping-Pong tournaments and Furry Friend Fridays.
One of Willacy’s key initiatives is the Pulse, a twice-yearly engagement survey given to all Tagged employees. Feedback from the January 2013 Pulse alerted management that many people, and particularly those in engineering, felt their career paths to be uncertain. The leadership team acknowledged that they had never made an effort to illustrate career progression at Tagged, so they developed an initiative to communicate career paths for the Engineering Department. It rolled out in January, giving employees clarity about what different titles mean and how to qualify for promotions.
“We pay a lot of attention to the experience that people have,” Willacy said. “Even in the field of people operations, it behooves you to take a holistic approach where you make sure that Tagged is right for the people you’re bringing in.”
He wants to ensure the company culture is being guarded and reinforced throughout the organization, from its Talent Acquisition and Marketing teams to what employees see and how the facilities are used. At Tagged, employees work in an open-office configuration with the executive team out in the same unpartitioned space—a design that’s intended to support communication, collaboration and accessibility.
“You’ll see people throughout the company, whether they’re fresh out of college or whether they’re 10-year experienced Coding Engineers, just walk up to leaders of our company and approach them and ask questions or give feedback fearlessly,” Willacy said. “You know that if our Chief Executive Officer was in a corner office with perhaps a secretary outside, those moments probably wouldn’t happen.”
In line with his holistic style that espouses both risk-taking and work-life balance, Willacy nurtures the same courage he promotes at Tagged in his own family. His 8-year-old daughter plays in piano recitals, performing in front of large audiences, and his 6-year-old son recently competed in his first chess tournament.
“In those moments, I feel like one of my greatest accomplishments has been instilling some of the right things into my children that have given them the confidence to take on different challenges,” said Willacy, the awe in his voice eclipsing any fascination with the law or technology.
Kara Lawton is a freelance writer based in Boston, Massachusetts.
Louis's Key Partners:Davis & Gilbert LLP (Privacy/Regulatory matters) | BraunHagey & Borden LLP (Litigation counsel) | Perkins Coie LLP
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