Going Against the Flow: Mike Sharkey, CEO and Co-Founder of Autopilot

Mike Sharkey is the CEO and co-founder of Autopilot, the easy and visual software for automating customer journeys, where he leads a team driven to help marketers harness the power of automation and build better relationships.
12/30/2015 06:23 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Mike Sharkey is the CEO and co-founder of Autopilot, the easy and visual software for automating customer journeys, where he leads a team driven to help marketers harness the power of automation and build better relationships. Prior to founding Autopilot, Mike helped build two other successful companies in Australia, Stayz, which was acquired by FairFax Digital in 2006 and again by HomeAway for $225M in 2013, and Sharkey Media, a digital marketing agency.

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Mike Sharkey

What does entrepreneurship mean to you, and what underlying characteristics do you see in successful entrepreneurs?

Mike: I've never labeled myself an entrepreneur because I think it's a title you earn. Elon Musk is an entrepreneur, Steve Jobs is an entrepreneur and Taylor Swift is an entrepreneur. To me all three share two similar traits: focus and persistence.

I try to practice focus and persistence in everything I do. Do less and do it better. Be 10x more persistent at achieving a goal. Great entrepreneurs can shape shift the people and world around them to stay focused and persistent of their goals.

True entrepreneurship is really about solving a hard problem and changing the way people do something for the better. Focus and persistence appear to me to be the key ingredients of success.

What are you most proud of in your professional career? If you could do something over in your life, what would it be?

Mike: When I was younger there never seemed to be enough time to do all of things I wanted to do. I wanted to be a pilot, host a radio show, become a better surfer and complete one of the 100 ideas I had for startups. As I've grown older I've realized more or less ideas and ambitions are worthless unless you have the discipline to pick one of those things, focus on it and be the best at it. If I had time back to do something over, it would be to focus sooner.

The thing I'm most proud of in my career is discovering focus. It's a discipline I will be refining and practicing my entire life but it's one I believe can give you the ability to truly do something remarkable.

Tell us about an instance where you had to go against the flow to realize your goal.

Mike: There have been many times in my life and career I've had to go against the flow to realize a goal. To me, you aren't really practicing persistence if you aren't occasionally going against the flow.

A recent time that stands out to me is before we pivoted Autopilot about a year ago. We had taken the business in a direction where we were trying to do too many things and needed to focus on what we did best. It wasn't readily apparent at the time that this was the best decision to make, but it was my belief we could be the first company (like Zendesk did with Customer Service Software) to simplify marketing automation and help distribute it to a large horizontal market of SMBs with a trial-to-buy online business model that didn't require large sales teams and complicated sales processes.

As a result of this decision I had to make many of our sales processes redundant, convince customers to switch to a product with 90% less features (features I believed they didn't need), buy time to radically change the product and business model, and then convince our board I hadn't gone completely crazy. It was an incredibly difficult time and a time when your persistence skill (as I mentioned earlier) can take a beating. But sometimes you need to trust your gut and focus on where the market and opportunity is going.

I'm pleased to say this was a very rewarding decision - it has turned our company into the fastest growing marketing automation software in the space, adding 10,000 users in 9 months.

Which businesses would benefit form automated marketing?

Mike: Only 4% of companies in general use software to automate their marketing - which is a crazy statistic if you think about the fact that almost all technology enterprises do automated marketing. We did a survey earlier in the year which showed that those who kept in touch with their contacts every 2-4 weeks using marketing automation generated twice as many leads as those who didn't. The proof is in the numbers - nurturing customers with regular emails and messages is a critical way for businesses to build better relationships and scale their growth. Fortunately, the tools to do automated lead nurturing effectively are more accessible and affordable for small businesses today.

What drives you? How do you measure success for yourself?

Mike: A leading indicator of success at Autopilot is our NPS (Net Promoter Score). NPS is based on asking customers a single question: How likely is it that you would recommend Autopilot? If they're happy, they'll likely recommend us and help grow our business.

In my life, my leading indicator could be thought of as PHS (Personal Happiness Score). Am I happy doing what I'm doing right now? Does this feel right? By staying focused and persisting with this goal, will I have a meaningful impact on the problem I'm trying to solve?

I ultimately refuse to do things I'm not truly in love with, and for me, Autopilot is a product of passion and something I honestly love working on each and every day. Happy customers who are using us to grow their business are also some of my biggest motivators.

So my measurement of success is plain and simple. Am I happy?

LinkedIn style - If you were to give advice to your 22 year old self, what would it be?

Mike: Pick one thing and be the best at it. When I was younger I was being average at a lot of things. That's OK when you're younger but I've found finding focus and simplifying my goals have made me more ambitious, more successful and happier.

Follow Mike Sharkey at @michaelsharkey, and check out the other interviews in Going Against the Flow series at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/charu-sharma/ and join the movement to empower 1 million female entrepreneurs at goagainsttheflow.com.