Recent Interview With The Wall Street Journal:
WSJ: You started off as a cellist, majoring in music at McGill University. How did you get into the business world?
Green: I said to myself, ‘If I haven’t made it big by the time I’m 24, I’m going to quit and do something else.’ I knew tons of talented musicians who were playing in hotel lobbies and bar mitzvahs, and I did not want to do that. I wanted to be a rock star. So I went to UCLA business school at 24.
WSJ: What was your goal?
Green: I wanted to go into the music industry before business school, but the best job I could find was as an intern at RCA Canada. Then, in the first week of school, I got a summer job offer from Salomon Brothers for $1,000 a week. How amazing is that? What that taught me was marketing and positioning — that if you reposition something, suddenly someone sees so much more value.
WSJ: Describe your path after B-school.
Green: I went to New York and worked for a couple startups. None of those companies really worked. I interviewed at a bunch of large companies and joined Walt Disney. I helped build up its international film distribution, opening 20 offices across Europe and Asia in five years. It was fantastic – like being at a startup with unlimited funds.
After I opened the European offices, my boss let me open offices in Asia. I asked to run the Japan office, which was losing money. I turned an $8 million loss into an $8 million profit in the first few months just by reorganizing the office. In Japan, they don’t like breaking rules, and I sort of love breaking rules. I consolidated advertising buying and let some people go. When I finished, I asked for another job. They didn’t have one and my contract was up, so I left with nowhere to go.
WSJ: This was 1997. What did you do next?
Green: During my time at Disney, I met and became friends with John Lasseter, founder of Pixar – and through him, ended up meeting Steve Jobs. He was looking to hire someone at Pixar to liaise with Disney. Jobs interviewed me at his house in Palo Alto.
WSJ: What was the interview like?
Green: There was a very awkward moment when he said, ‘You know, James, I really love these new things called DVDs and I want to show you how amazing Pixar movies look on them.’ So he took me into his bedroom to show me, and I was thinking, ‘Okay, now I’m in Steve Jobs’ bedroom watching a DVD with him. Awkward.’
WSJ: Did you get the job?
Green: He offered me a job then and there, and I said ‘No.’ Pixar had a distribution deal with Disney, and he wanted someone to manage their relationship. I felt it was a no-win job. So he offered me another job, doing new business development and marketing for Pixar. But after I started, he slowly but surely moved me back to the liaison position, and I started messing up. I was there for three or four months. I resigned before Steve could fire me, basically.
WSJ: So then you got into the turnaround business?
Green: By then, the internet was taking off. I started an online ad server with some Australians I met through my girlfriend. We launched Sabela Media, a competitor to DoubleClick, in 1998, and sold it in 2000 for $75 million. The investors were happy with the results and hired me to turn around three companies after that.
Turnarounds are some of the hardest things you ever have to do. In each, I had to lay off people and reposition the company. All of them were sold. I ended up doing this for 10 years, and I got really burned out. So I went sailing for a year [from 2010 to 2011].
WSJ: How do you lay off workers?
Green: The easiest is when it’s got nothing to do with them. Say, ‘You’re fantastic, but here’s how the company is doing, and we’ll have to let some people go.’ Ask how they want to handle it: Do they want to say they resigned? Do they want to keep their email address for awhile so they can look for a job? It’s tougher when they’re no good. I avoid talking about their lack of performance, and try to focus on the future while being as gentle as humanly possible.
WSJ: But you don’t think staffing turnover is always a bad thing. Why?
Green: You need different kinds of people at different stages of a company’s growth. In the beginning, you just need a finance person who can be a bookkeeper. As you get bigger, you need someone who can manage cash flow, and as you get even bigger, someone who can raise capital. Sometimes your No. 1 becomes your No. 2 because you hire people above them.
WSJ: How do you demote someone without creating resentment?
Green: Try not to position it as a demotion. Give them a raise, tell them what a good job they’re doing. At Magnetic, I’ve hired a new chief revenue officer, VP of data and chief technology officer – and all these positions have people under them who are still with the company in No. 2 roles. Be open and honest. It’s hard to hurt people when there are no surprises.
WSJ: You’ve told employees that getting attached to a company can backfire. Why?
Green: I tell them not to get attached, because companies have no feelings or loyalty. The only reason a company exists is to make money. When you start having some emotional connection, you make irrational decisions. What you need to focus on is what you need, and what the company can do for you.