Who: Tidemark Fellow Scott Wagner
What: Former CEO of GoDaddy (and President, COO and CFO), and Head of KKR Capstone North America
Where: Atherton, California
Why: Scott is emotionally invested in the mission of small businesses, to the idea of giving back to local merchants and to the little guy. For him, it’s personal.
If you watched TV in the mid-2000s, you may remember GoDaddy’s racy Super Bowl commercials (the Bar Refaeli make out ads ring a bell?). The attention-grabbing ads established the brand as a household name and catapulted the company on a pathway toward success.
Today, GoDaddy shows up in a different way, reflecting its evolution into the world’s largest services platform for entrepreneurs around the globe. Its latest ad features real-life small business owners and a tagline — “We need a new generation of ideas.” The company no longer simply sells and hosts domains — it’s one of the largest global SaaS platforms, with products for SMBs and individuals built on top of those domains. More than 20 million entrepreneurs use their platform and the company employs 7,000 people worldwide.
Tidemark Fellow Scott Wagner — GoDaddy’s president and CEO for most of the last decade — would argue that he doesn’t deserve credit for the company’s success. In our 30-minute interview, he spent as much time asking questions about me as I did about him. He’s far more interested in other people and their stories, than in taking credit for his own contributions.
The story of Scott’s journey with GoDaddy is definitely one of digging in and building, but it’s also one of real vision — Scott saw an opportunity to expand GoDaddy’s reach, realizing its purpose and potential.
We asked Scott about his path to leadership.
Where do you consider your roots?
I am from Chicago, a Midwesterner through and through, and went to the East Coast for college. I then worked at Boston Consulting Group in Chicago for three years before returning to the East Coast for grad school. While there I met my wife, who was at Kellogg, so returned to Chicago for a year. I spent my 20s going back and forth, for most of the 90’s.
Tell us about a pivotal moment for you, in the early days of your career.
In 1999, during the first dot com boom, I was, like everybody, working on all kinds of Internet-related “stuff” -- but working for a consulting firm and feeling beside myself that the world was tearing in this new direction. And my wife, god bless her, said, “You’re miserable. Take six months to find something that you’re into. If you don’t find it, we’re going to Spain.” So I looked at all these incubating ideas and just couldn’t get my head around their value propositions. I just didn’t believe in them. So we went and lived in Madrid. I was a mental mess at the time and just needed to do something different. The irony is that it was that mentality that led me from BCG to a private equity firm where I did get into technology, but on the back side of the boom.
Was there a meaningful takeaway from your time in Spain?
Spain was a wonderful life experience, especially for a newlywed. But professionally, the 29-year old me was what you would call in a box, and super serious. If I could go back in time I would tell my younger self to just be myself. Even today, when working with investors who are particularly serious, I just want to lean across the table and tell them to smile. You can be yourself in your professional life too. You are not losing credibility when you smile. It will actually make you a little more effective.
When did your journey begin with GoDaddy?
It began back in 2012, when I was an operating executive for KKR working directly with companies in due diligence, and jumping in to help make things happen for them on the ground. KKR was considering GoDaddy as an investment, and I got hooked on the company from the start.
What made you think the company was special?
Everyone was a bit hung up on those old ads — impressions of GoDaddy were very specifically correlated to those ads. And bless that, at least everyone knew who GoDaddy was.
As we were looking into investing in the company, I hired a woman who ran her own market research firm — a freelancer I worked with often. I thought she’d be happy to take on the work, but didn’t foresee how excited she’d be about this particular company. She said, “I love GoDaddy! My business would never have worked without GoDaddy. They were the best when I was getting going.” And I heard a couple comments like that. I heard genuine, real language showing that people cared. For me, that was the spark. GoDaddy’s reputation may have been relatively low, but its user experience was really good. Too often it’s the other way around, where companies have strong reputations, but then you get close and realize that the customer experience is not great. So I pounded the table on behalf of that investment, which we ultimately made with TCV, KKR, and Silverlake.
And how did the investment go?
For a variety of reasons, some in the company’s control and some not, the first five months were an unmitigated disaster. It was like a free fall. There were three different investment firms involved, plus a founder, and the company leadership, and we all knew that we needed to do something different. At that point I already believed in the company. I was working with GoDaddy to build up international, through my job at KKR, and was just dying to get in there. I said, “Look, I wanna do this.” I could see where we could build products on top of domain names, grow internationally and shift to a great experience. I thought, ‘I gotta make this happen’ because if I don’t, it will be a missed opportunity and also, because there was a lot of professional reputation on the line. So fortunately I did go in as the interim CEO, and once inside, I became hooked on the people at the company.
How would you describe the spirit of GoDaddy?
There was a spirit within GoDaddy that was “super fast” — I’ve frankly never been at a place where people would just say, “Let’s get this done.” They’d say, “I got it,” and then run out of the room. It was refreshing. People didn’t debate. It just went. It was a super analytic and customer focused environment and everyone loved who we served. I was emotionally in. GoDaddy fulfilled the criteria of what I was looking for at that time in my life — this was it. It was the softer things like building something that served others, with people who cared. It was a product you felt proud of, and if others expressed disappointment in that product, you were emotionally wounded to your core.
You were mission driven before mission driven was a trend. Will that trend continue to grow in strength?
I think almost all people love to have a purpose that they can belong to or pursue. But mission-driven, as a phrase in tech, can become silly when people go over the top regarding the perceived holiness of what they believe their mission to be. They miss the real purpose of building something that really matters to people. That said, we all want a purpose to feel good about and to be rewarded by. And here’s the magic of a positive culture: You become better because you want to be better for a purpose, for the others around you, and for those you’re serving. You are pushed to be better, but feel comfortable with it.
Looking back on GoDaddy, how do you feel about your accomplishments?
During life’s stages people have different things they’re thinking about — accumulating skills, providing for their family, belonging to something, having a fun job. I cared about different things in my 20s, 30s and 40s. When I joined GoDaddy, I felt like I really wanted to lead, to grow and produce something that you can see in the world as a representation of real work for success. At GoDaddy, we didn’t just ride a massive tailwind. We earned our success.
What are you up to now?
Part of the reason I left the company in 2019 was to enjoy more time with my family, which includes three young teenagers. During the pandemic, we recognized how fortunate and blessed we truly are. You just gotta recognize that. Now, I am on the board of True Wind Capital and of course, I am a Fellow at Tidemark. I believe in helping company leaders learn how to build productive relationships with their investors. Investors can be a great sounding board, if you’re hearing their feedback. Building up teams and culture — how to have performance AND a good team bond is something I deeply believe in, stewardship of how you grow an org that evolves, grows, seeds over time. I’m always happy to discuss.
From Dave’s Desk:
“Scott comes straight from CEO central casting — he’s a great leader, strategist, and a talent magnet.
But if you dig under the surface, you come to realize that Scott has a bit of a contrarian bent. He doesn’t want to go after the fast, sexy thing — he wants to dig in and build. And you realize that to Scott, business is personal. You realize how driven he is about helping small businesses.
When I first described the concept of Tidemark, Scott jumped out of his seat when we talked about the giving model, serving mainstreet equity and advancement. His reaction was one of the first proof points for me that portions of the business community are seeking models that integrate professional and financial achievement with giving back.”