David Cummings was a co-founder of marketing automation pioneer Pardot, which turned ten years old last month. In 2012 the company was acquired by ExactTarget and then Salesforce. More recently, David founded the Atlanta Tech Village, the largest technology entrepreneur center in the Southeast. We caught up with him at the Salesforce Small Business Basecamp in Atlanta last month.

Q. The company you founded, Pardot, was Inc Magazine’s 172nd fastest growing company in 2012. What was the secret behind Pardot’s phenomenal success?

A lot of things contributed to making Pardot successful. First and foremost, it proved to be great timing for the idea. The fact that we started the company in Atlanta certainly helped a lot, too. It’s a lower cost market, and since we didn’t have to raise VC money, we were able to maintain control of the company and do things the way that we wanted. We were very intentional about the culture we built, and that was key to our success.

Q. What was the Pardot culture like in those days?

You hear a lot about putting the customer first, and that’s important; but we also wanted to be the best place to work as well as the best place to be a customer. We were very thoughtful about how we made that happen. To be the best workplace, we wanted to attract the best people. We wanted people that other people would connect with. And we decided that we’d always make the decisions that put the customer first, so we’d be the best place for them too.

Q: How is that different from the typical Silicon Valley startup culture?

Many companies in Silicon Valley get trapped in the Silicon Valley echo chamber, where the focus is on who’s working with which VC, or who raised the most money, and who got the most stock. By operating outside of that echo chamber we were able to create a certain company culture and hire the kind of people we wanted.

Q: What type of people did you want at Pardot?

We created a culture of people that were positive, self-starting, and supportive. A lot of startups focus on the self-starter — independent, high-performing people. And it’s very important to have people with a lot of initiative, but you can’t have a nice culture and be a place where people want to work, unless you hire nice people.

Q: Is culture really that important for startups?

Culture is insanely important for startups. It’s the cohesion that holds you together. For a lot of startups, culture is haphazard, and then all of a sudden they have 20 employees. The employees start grating on each other and they don’t work well together. To be sustainable, culture has to be intentional.

Q: If you had a list of things entrepreneurs should know, what would be on it?

First, that an incomplete plan executed today is better than a perfect plan executed next week. You will always have to make decisions based on imperfect information, so make the best decision at the moment that’s still reversible. Most decisions are reversible, they might cost time and money. But if you aren’t moving fast, you’re getting left behind.

Second, it’s critical to be a continuous learner. Before I started Pardot, I didn’t appreciate how much the business would change in so many dimensions over time. You need to keep up, but there are so many ways you can do it – books, blog posts, conferences, peer groups, trade shows, etc.

Finally, as I said before, it’s all about the people. The team and the culture dictate the way that the company operates. Many people argue about what’s more important – shareholders, customers, or employees – but you won’t have good customers if you don’t have good employees.

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