A brief interview with Jason Cohen

Posted by Dave CollinsDigital Marketing

Over the next few months we’re going to be interviewing some of the more interesting people in our industry.

The first of these, Jason Cohen, really needs no introduction, and his list of accomplishments is both extensive and impressive. Most of you will know him as the founder of Smart Bear and WPEngine, and also the writer behind the excellent a smart bear blog.

I’ve personally heard Jason speak many times over the last few years at the Business of Software and MicroConf conferences, and he never fails to captivate his audiences and sometimes make their heads spin a little.

Jason Cohen

Dave Collins: Do you think that entrepreneurs are born or created? Could circumstances or skills turn any person of reasonable intelligence into an entrepreneur?

Jason Cohen: The drive is ingrained, but the skills are learned. No one is born knowing how to create something from scratch.  No one is born knowing how to manage a team of 500 people.  But some people have a fire in their belly which helps them push through life even when it’s difficult for years,. Some people enjoy that push, some people have an aptitude for learning varied skills, and those people can be successful entrepreneurs.

Dave: Aside from particular skills, what do you look for in an employee?

Jason: Every startup needs to understand the culture it wants to have.  Every startup has a culture, but whether or not you decide what it is, is up to the founders.  You have to define your culture to know how to “look for compatibility” in others.  And then that’s what you look for beyond skills.

Also, I look less for skills and more for the aptitude to be great.  For example, we’ll hire a talented developer who doesn’t know our stack, rather than a mediocre developer who already knows our stack.

Dave: What makes you tick? [Interpret this as you wish]

Jason: This is one of the hardest questions for anyone to answer. But if you can, it’s probably the most important thing you can do to get to real happiness, because then you can pursue things which are aligned with what you enjoy and are good at.

I like to learn, so I know to pursue new challenges. I like to achieve mastery, which means I put years or even decades into everything I do, whether that’s a startup, writing, piano, sport, etc.. I have an ego and enjoy recognition, so I blog, do presentations, mentor folks, etc., both inside my company and outside.

Dave: How do you get past the really low points? Hoping for more than “take a deep breath and just get on with it”.

Jason: There isn’t anything more than that, and yet “that” is incredibly hard.

It helps to take solace in the fact that everyone faces it and no one has the silver bullet. In a recent piece in Vanity Fair, when asked about all the hard things about being President, one of the few things he talks about is getting through the low points, and when you’re losing your shit. Everyone goes there, and there’s no secret trick to get through it.

Dave: When your last day finally comes, how would you want to remembered by non-family members?

Jason: He figured out what I, personally, needed to hear, and then bluntly told me what I needed to be told.

Dave: What single skill or talent do you not possess but wish you did?

Jason: Ignoring unconstructive criticism.

Dave: What do you consider your greatest work-related accomplishment so far?

Jason: Building a company of almost 60 people wherein everyone says it’s an awesome place to work. It’s rare to create jobs that people actually want. It’s difficult to maintain and embellish that culture as you scale quickly.

Dave: Thank-you for sharing your time and thoughts. Much appreciated.