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Posted: October 01, 2011

GENxyz Top Five: Christian Vanek

He might be better known for what he doesn't believe in as a leader than what he does

Maria Martin


He might be better known for what he doesn't believe in as a leader than what he does.

He doesn't believe in top-down management. He doesn't believe a workplace needs to be stiff and formal. And he doesn't believe in sitting in his office behind a closed door.

In fact, the CEO of SurveyGizmo doesn't even have a door.

"I took it off to kind of make a statement," Vanek says. "I've lived in organizations when people lived in fear of the CEO. This is my way of making sure this wouldn't happen. You close your door, you back away from what's happening in your organization."

SurveyGizmo was founded in 2006, when Vanek was working as
a consultant.

"I noticed that my clients weren't satisfied with the survey software out there," Vanek says. "I knew what they wanted and what they didn't like. We didn't know the company would be such a success."

Vanek and one partner started with one server, which was $79 a month. He worked for no pay, and continued his contract business to bring home a paycheck.

"One of the things I tell young entrepreneurs is to stick to their dreams," he says. "Don't let anything stop you. Finding venture capital isn't always necessary."

What started small has grown into a company with more than $3 million in annual sales. The SurveyGizmo Web application has more than 150,000 users, with customers in more than 60 countries.

Inc. magazine recently ranked SurveyGizmo the 13th fastest-growing private software company in the United States. And every member of the team, he says, truly defines the company. Julie Jensen, senior marketing manager for the company, says she feels as if she greets her family when she walks into work in the morning.

"It's unlike any place I've ever worked before," she says. "We all have a feeling that we're in it together. Even when we're getting through the bumpy spots, we keep in mind that we're friends first."

And it starts, she says, with a leader who has a wonderful outlook.

"He walks in every day and says, ‘God, I love being here.' It sinks in to the rest of us, too."

Success, Vanek says, comes with practice.

"I started as a software developer when I was just out of high school," he says. "My first company wasn't such a success. But you know, I think every great entrepreneur should have a failure. That's when you learn
the most."

Two of Vanek's personal values - innovation and approachability - are defined by the way he runs the company, he says. Transparency is another value he believes adds strength to the staff.

"The financial books are open to employees," Jensen says. "A profit-share program distributes 3 percent of gross sales to everyone equally every quarter."

A final value, community, reveals itself when Jensen starts talking about Boulder's September School, an alternative high school that nurtures teens who haven't thrived in traditional educational settings.

"Class sizes are smaller, and these kids get more attention and thrive. It works," Vanek says.

The self-proclaimed workaholic says every day on the job is
an adventure. "One thing I tell young entrepreneurs is, don't hold too dearly to the idea you had when you first started. If you don't let it morph based on what your customers have in mind, it probably won't last."
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Maria Martin is a freelance writer.

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Readers Respond

Hi Maria, I am a fairly new client of Christian's company, Survey Gizmo. From my very first interactions I knew there was something very special about this group of people. I could feel the spirit of the way they run their business and I tremendously liked it. Even on my early calls to them I could tell I had not just bumped into one or two "nice people." It felt like there was a pervasive enthusiasm and committment to excellent service for each of their clients large and small. Thanks for writing this wonderful article on Christian because now I know "the rest of the story." By Columbia Jones on 2011 10 23

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