‘Becoming a Unicorn Is Really Just the Beginning’ Leadership Lessons From Tech CEO Godard Abel

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I’m on a mission to meet and pick the brains of some of the most successful and innovative leaders in business. On this episode of The CEO Series, we went to the headquarters of G2 in Chicago, a software marketplace and review platform that has raised $257 million at a valuation of over a billion dollars, which makes them a unicorn.

Godard Abel, G2’s co-founder and CEO, sat down with me to share his perspective and philosophy on leadership — what it takes to manage the health of the business, engagement of employees, expectations of stakeholders and so much more.

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Abel previously built cloud CPQ pioneers BigMachines (which was acquired by Oracle) and SteelBrick (which was acquired by Salesforce) so his insights are invaluable to anyone hoping to launch and go big. Below are some highlights from our conversation, which have been edited for length and clarity. Watch the full video above.

The realities of achieving a unicorn status

“It was an amazing milestone. We had an amazing party. I loved becoming a unicorn. But then you wake up the next day, and you’re committed to giving at least three times that back to your investors. We raised $157 million that first round, so really we have to give them about $500 million back. So it’s a big commitment as a founder and CEO. It’s really the beginning of your next journey that hopefully ends with a successful public offering that gives those investors at least three times their money back — hopefully much more. But it’s many years of work to get to that next peak. It feels great, but it’s also a commitment to getting to that next peak.”

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His entrepreneurial beginnings

“My first business was in high school. I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was called Ultimate Car Care and I started with my best friend at the time, Joe. His dad had a nice red Corvette. We had prom coming up, so we took a picture in nice tuxedos in front of this Corvette. We wanted to do detailing for fancy cars, so we used the photo to make fliers with our phone number on it and that’s how we launched. I was born in Germany into a family of entrepreneurs. My father took over a family business from my grandfather who I always admired. My grandfather started the company in Germany in 1947, two years after WWII. He did it in the industrial part of Northwest Germany, which had gotten bombed to rubble. And I always think about that when I am facing struggles. I think wow, it’s nothing like those struggles.”

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What drives him

“I think almost all entrepreneurs go through failure. Usually, you struggle for years. For almost every successful entrepreneur I meet, it comes down to this: don’t quit, keep going. And that also applies after you’ve begun to find success. We talk about our ‘peak culture’ at G2. I do think we’re meant as humans to be climbing peaks. And so in that sense, I never want to stop climbing. I’ve had good breaks and I probably could retire and just sit on the beach. But I don’t believe I would feel gratified. And frankly, I don’t think any human would. I think we’re meant to strive, we’re meant to climb, we’re meant to have a purpose. And I think entrepreneurship really gives that to me.”

Check out more profiles of innovative and impactful leaders by visiting The CEO Series archives.