On March 8, 2022’s International Women’s day, from social media posts with the year’s theme of #breakthebias to the New York Times Crossword puzzle theme of women in history, we saw friends, colleagues and leaders across the country proclaim their respect for and commitment to women. It was inspiring to see. However, let’s remember it is what comes after the day of celebration that really matters. The #metoo movement got the ball rolling beyond a special day or month for women in many ways, but are we still talking about it? My friend Susan’s callout of Uber in her famous blog post in 2017 lit a fire that led to lawsuits and the start of some regulatory changes in the heat of the moment, but when the party is over and we’re sweeping up the confetti, are we still keeping the momentum?
Recently on social media, I saw several fundraising announcements that made it all too clear that many companies are talking the talk but not walking the walk on creating equitable working environments. The dichotomy between the images of those who raised extreme amounts of cash for a pre-PMF (product market fit) company to those who raised modest seed rounds for their post-PMF company was infuriating. The posts about someone’s upcoming participation on a “mannel” (all male panel) or their new Crypto team (left) are cases in point. Why don’t they notice what they are doing?? How do companies allow this to happen? Has anything really changed despite all our efforts for equal rights?
This morning, one of my coaching clients sent me a picture of how he planned to show up at his board meeting today (below, right – shared with permission). It was great to see his solidarity in this moment. In this case, I know Nick’s business, Help Scout, is on the bleeding edge of striving for equality. The company has made conscious efforts to prioritize hiring, culture and product decisions to be sure they remain 100% focused on a diverse team and providing an equitable and inclusive environment for their employees and their customers. They are transparent about how they do this and the metrics they track to stay on top of this focus. More importantly, they keep the beat every single day. Not just during International Women’s Day or Women’s History Month or Black History Month. Every. Damn. Day.
As I looked at the t-shirt Nick was proudly displaying, I asked myself “Do people know that Nick truly lives the slogans on his t-shirt? Are other companies doing what Help Scout does, but not sharing it broadly to inspire? Do other companies that are announcing mannels or their 5th, homogenous, executive hire despite public proclamations that they understand the practical and ethical importance of diversity simply not believe what they are saying?? Do I give them a pass and hope they’re working hard every day just like the team at Help Scout? Or, do I call it out when I see it? Do I run the risk of getting dismissed as a “salty old broad” or keep challenging this behavior because I just have to do what it takes?” Every. Damn. Day.
My dear friend Kim Scott’s voice rings in my head frequently reminding me to care personally, to challenge directly and not to display obnoxious aggression. I try to embrace Radical Candor every chance I can (I promise, Kim!), but there are days where I don’t care personally. I am fed up. Tired. Pissed off. I’ve been at this business of combatting bias, sexism, gaslighting and outright discrimination for over three decades. It’s exhausting! I have hope, though. I see more action than I have ever seen. Part of what gives me hope are, to borrow a phrase from Kim’s new book Just Work, “upstanders” like Nick. I don’t have to do all the work, leaders who identify as men understand that they will find more success and also do the right thing by hiring and promoting more diverse people.
The young people I work with also inspire me. I was conducting office hours with an exceptional student of mine the other day who is a Freshman at Harvard and cross-registered in my graduate-level course. As a young woman of color, she is breaking barriers in many ways. She aspires to be an entrepreneur and can actually believe that this is possible for her. When I was her age, few women dared to have the hopes and dreams that she has. The stories about how I was treated in the executive conference room when I was a college intern would shock her. The kinds of egregious things that happened all the time 30 years ago are unimaginable to young people today.
I have tremendous hope for her and her generation of women; for my own three daughters who are already fighting this fight in their early adulthood, and have far more options (and regulations and guardrails) than I ever did at their age. We are shifting, albeit slower than I’d prefer. What can I say, anyone who really knows me knows that I am impatient as hell!
So I ask you, what are you doing on March 9, the day after International Woman’s Day, to affect change? How about on April 1, when Women’s History Month is another moment in the history books? How will you continue to foster growth of your teams and embrace diversity “Every. Damn. Day”? For me, I will continue to push every daily, but also remind myself that change is happening, and celebrate it. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. I just hope I am around long enough to see what broken bias really looks like. When this topic is no longer a “thing”. That the shift has happened and things ARE in fact as they should be. Equal and just.
Recently, I was listening to the Huberman Lab podcast where Dr. Huberman interviewed Dr. Buss, a founding member in the field of evolutionary psychology and Professor of Psychology at UT, Austin, whose research centers around How Humans Select & Keep Romantic Partners in Short & Long Term Relationships. In the podcast, Dr. Buss describes his research on how people select mates and the dynamics of courtship. While the podcast was focussed primarily on heterogeneous relationships, marriage and monogamy, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels with co-founder relationships. My brain is in the entrepreneurship space most of my waking hours, after all, and it made me think about how many entrepreneurs I know are looking for co-founders, yet many don’t appreciate that this is a similar courtship to mating and partnership.
Many entrepreneurs believe they must have a co-founder and some are pressured by investors to have a particular type of co-founder. The conviction to have a co-founder is often based solely on complementary skills and experience vs. the softer, and often more important, relationship criteria. While there are some working papers out there, I have yet to see definitive research that proves whether one absolutely must have co-founders vs. going it alone as a solo founder. This is a highly subjective situation dependent on many factors; some of which I’ll discuss below.
Do you need a co-founder?
I’ve worked both for and with hundreds of entrepreneurs in the last few decades and on the topic of co-founder relationships, my observation is that each situation is highly dependent on the chemistry, the experience each brings into the relationship, leadership styles and many other internal and external factors. While having co-founders can de-risk the business and/or complement skills, forcing these relationships can result in bad “marriages” that create more harm to a business than help. Certainly, when a great match happens it can be magic, but just like any marriage, one should not enter the relationship rashly.
When thinking about whether or not you need a co-founder, consider:
How could a co-founder balance your skills and experience? For example, if you are a technologist, but lack management or operating skills (marketing, sales, etc.), you may benefit from a more seasoned business leader as co-founder who’s seen the movie before. While many operating skills can be learned, early stage founders may underestimate how critical these skills are to have early on and rookie mistakes can set back (or kill) a business before it’s barely out of the gate. Read Khalid Halim’s thoughts on Hypergrowth and The Law Of Startup Physics for more on this point. Conversely, expertise and experience can be additive to the business without a co-founder title and compensation. Unless you are doing hard science that is your core business, building a business that is technology-forward or relies on tech to some degree is not nearly as hard as it once was. Having a strong first-hire who is technical can suffice; the same holds for someone with strong sales, marketing or other operational skills.
Is domain expertise critical for your venture? Unless you are already the expert in the particular field your venture intends to address, you may need a co-founder with domain specific expertise. Having domain expertise will not only inform the product strategy, but will also help the venture gain credibility in the market and potentially open doors on the sales side. Investors may expect or even require there be a domain expert on the co-founding team, but similar to the point above, you may also be well served with a first hire or even an advisor who could serve you in this way vs. a co-founder.
Most importantly, ask yourself whether you value partnership, shared risk and collaboration with others. It can be great to have someone to brainstorm with, share the workload and to commiserate with during your journey, but having co-founders – like a committed personal partnership – is also a big test of your ability to be vulnerable, handle conflict and willingness to compromise. There will be many times your co-founding team will disagree on things – from product and hiring decisions to operating procedures and a fundraising strategy – and how you process these decisions together is fundamental to a healthy co-founding relationship. Self awareness, a willingness to lean into conflict and ability to thrive in ambiguous situations will be critical in a co-founding relationship. If you question whether you are up for sharing these experiences with one or more co-founders, you may need to do some introspective work before taking on a co-founder or, perhaps, go it alone.
Anyone thinking about having a co-founder must go beyond the skills and experience aspects and consider the fact that they are entering into a deep, personal relationship. Whether it’s because you couldn’t find “the one” and time is of the essence or because you are self aware enough to know you are better off going it alone, taking the solo route is perfectly doable by rounding out your team with necessary skills and expertise. You might also consider a second in command (COO, CTO, etc.) who plays a key role in the business without the official co-founder title and compensation. These individuals can still receive founding team worthy equity grants and, in earlier stage businesses could be anointed as “co-founder” down the road if the relationship blossoms over time.
The Co-Founder Courtship
If you’ve decided that you really want and/or need a co-founder, you’ve basically decided to seek a mate for a long term partnership. Just like a personal relationship may result in children, big financial decisions (like buying a house), running a household, etc., a co-founding relationship will force you to commit to how you will nurture employees, manage finances and run your business. There are big decisions to make – “how will we educate our kids?” is similar to “what kind of company culture will we have?”. There are philosophies on which to reach alignment – “where will we raise our family?” is similar to “will we have a home office or remote-friendly work environment?”. You can’t have a few coffee meetings with a prospective co-founder to discover how you will answer these deeper questions. It’s a courtship and despite the urgency you may have to get going with the venture so you can raise money, hire people, etc., I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to nurture these prospective relationships.
Herewith a few suggestions on how to court your co-founder(s):
Conduct a listening tour by meeting other startup co-founders. Talk with them about their own courtship process. Ask if there were questions they wish they had asked and hurdles they had to overcome early in their relationship. Even the greatest co-founding teams have war stories to tell about stressful situations in their relationships and what they learned from these experiences.
Using insights from the listening tour, along with your personal preferences, write a co-founder job description (JD) and include experience, skills and your ideal, softer, characteristics for this person. If you already have someone in mind, try to stay objective and not write this JD to ensure they can fill the role (confirmation bias). Use this as your guide as you meet prospective co-founders and adjust as you go. It’s very likely that the more prospects you meet, the more tweaks you’ll make to that JD and finding “the one”.
NOTE: If more than two of you are thinking about becoming co-founders, do the JD method as a “diverge-converge” exercise. Discuss potential roles each may fill and have each of you, independently (diverge) write the optimal co-founder JDs for each role. Once each has taken a stab at this exercise on their own, share these JDs with each other (converge) and discuss where you were all coming from for each role. Not only will this better define each role, but it will allow you and your prospective co-founders to expose perceptions and expectations of each other and how the leadership of the business will play out.
Experienced hiring managers know that it is rare they’ll hire the first candidate they interview for a newly created role because they may not be clear on the right fit for the role until they’ve met a few types of candidates. The same holds for co-founders. You may have to test a few potential co-founder candidates before inking a co-founder agreement. Try to meet at least a half-dozen people who may solve for the gaps you are hoping to fill (expertise, experience, chemistry, etc.). Yes, this may mean you are “dating more than one person at a time”, but you’ll be far more clear about fit through this series of conversations.
NOTE: Finding a half-dozen candidates may not be easy. Tap into your network, ask prospective investors, former professors, etc. and tell them what you’re looking for. Share the JD. Attend conferences, talks etc. and be clear you are in the market for a co-founder. YC also released a co-founder matching tool that may be helpful.
Test the relationship beyond coffee chats and dinners. As noted in the Huberman podcast noted above, relationships are truly tested when the parties engage in experiences that allow them to see more dimensions of their personalities. For example, go on a road trip or partake in an activity that neither of you have done before. See how each of you make decisions together like where to eat lunch or which trail to hike. Even a game of mini golf at a course neither of you have visited or playing a video game together can test how you collaborate and/or handle competition. You might also consider working on a start-up related project together to see how that feels, such as co-creating a pitch deck or conducting customer interviews together.
NOTE: If you are considering a first time co-founding relationship with someone you’ve worked with at a company in the past, this does not give you a “pass” to skip this part of the process. Co-founding a business with a former coworker is like going from dating to living together. You are sharing responsibilities you likely did not have when you were colleagues at a business where someone else was accountable for the overall successes and failures and, likely, making more strategic decisions than you were privy to.
Have vulnerable conversations. One of the most popular sessions in my course at HBS is the discussion around one’s relationship with money. Most adults have very different perspectives on money and typically this is rooted in deep family or personal experiences, sometimes starting in early childhood. A parent losing a job, having to work at a young age to support family, credit card debt, anxiety about school loans, etc. Understanding how you and your co-founder think about money will give you a lot of perspective when it comes time to raise capital, price your product, pay employees, etc. Similarly, it’s important to talk about any peak moments in past jobs, school, etc. that inform your attitudes about leadership, culture and how products are designed/built, etc. While these conversations may feel very uncomfortable, it’s a step towards a solid working foundation in what will almost surely be a roller coaster of a journey together. Being able to have these conversations also tests how you’ll handle and support each other during conflict and stressful moments. You will have context and better understand where you are each coming from. Most importantly, these types of conversations don’t stop once you agree to be co-founders; they should be ongoing throughout the life of your venture as each co-founder and the relationship matures.
Finally, I recommend that prospective co-founders meet each others’ partners/families/BFFs. Not only does this further uncover the broader context of who these individuals are, but it also helps these important people in your lives understand this new relationship you may be entering. So, when you are up until 2am slacking with your co-founder about the upcoming pitch or how to deal with a customer issue, they know who that person is and how they are partnered with you.
NOTE: For those considering co-founders who ARE your partner/family member/BFF, I encourage you to enter with a mindset around taking a personal partnership from no kids to four kids. It brings the relationship to a whole new level. This can be an incredibly rewarding experience for you, but it can also test the relationship to the max. While this person/people know and probably trust each other better than strangers co-founding a business together, it also means there is likely baggage that can create more emotion and triggers around certain issues than the average partnership. I have worked with incredibly endearing and high performing co-founding teams made up of siblings, married couples and BFFs, but I have also seen these types of co-founding teams erode due to irreparable events rooted in their personal history. Do not take this choice lightly. Consider getting a coach early on who specializes in working with co-founders who also have personal history together. I guarantee you will not be able to put your personal stuff in a box outside your business. Personal tensions will come up – either overtly or subtly – and having the support to work through it will be crucial to your long term success.
One cannot rush the co-founder courtship process. The most successful co-founding relationships I’ve seen inevitably end up being far more than co-workers. They are practically family and while that means potentially more emotions are at stake, it’s their mutual understanding and deep respect for each other that allows them to traverse this often treacherous journey. They have mutual trust and are committed to ensuring the success of their business, together.
There are many other articles and videos published on this topic, but a few I like are here and here.
Do you have lessons learned from your co-founder courting and/or working relationships? Please share in the comments!
It is a great joy to announce that the fourth Good For Her (GFH) cohort has launched! With over forty applications this year, it was incredibly hard to select our next group of extraordinary women. Each cohort consists of only 8–10 members to foster the intimacy that we’ve learned creates a strong support network. This new cohort has ten members, including an Aspiring Entrepreneur which is a role designed to connect underrepresented women early in their entrepreneurial journeys with women further along who can serve as role models and mentors.
I created GFH as a pay-it-forward model for women founders who are often operating solo and/or with limited connections to peer founders. You can read more about my founding story of GFH here. While fundraising is not the only metric of success — it is a mortgage, after all — our current cohort members have raised over $70M in capital in the past year; with several closing $12M+ A-rounds (e.g., HumanFirst and Wagmo) and and one recently closing a $20M round. Beyond funds raised, these businesses are focused on being great employers with high retention rates, growing revenue exponentially, and building industry leading brands.
Our newest cohort members are centered in NYC, however with our renewed ability to travel and many opportunities to connect virtually, we have expanded our reach as far as the UK and LA. Our member companies represent a diverse range of industries — from fintech and martech to consumer products and services, biotech, social-environmental impact solutions and everything in between. These are not “cute lady companies”. They are serious businesses making an impact on the world. The combined GFH community identifies as 52% BIPOC and member ages range from early 20s to mid-fifties.
When a new cohort starts, I am very engaged in pulling the group together and fostering connections. Over time, each cohort becomes its own “thing” without my routine facilitation. While each cohort has a special bond, the GFH community supports all members with our “give as much as you get” philosophy. From quick responses on Slack to jumping on calls in the moment when urgent advice is needed, these women strive to support each other 24×7. Now, with three cohorts well on their way, it’s time to welcome cohort four! Herewith, our newest members:
You’re the founder of a growing startup and it seems like just yesterday that you were a team of five, sharing a co-working space with one table and five chairs. There was an open flow of communication in the room and unless someone’s headphones were on to signal they were “in the zone”, anything was fair game to chat about.
Full Stack Engineer: “I’m thinking of moving the ‘Learn More’ button to the bottom right of the home page.”
CEO: “Sounds good. What do you think about what that potential customer said yesterday about our pricing? Should we push harder”?
CTO: “I d’no. Maybe we should talk to a couple more prospects and compare reactions?”
Full Stack Engineer: “Just so y’all know, I am probably going to revamp the pricing page layout in the next few days so if you’re thinking about changing things, lmk sooner vs. later, cool?”
CEO: “Totally, no worries, friend.”
Customer Support Rep: “Keep me in the loop too, all. I want to be prepared if customers start asking questions about the new layout or pricing changes.”
CTO: “You got it, friend.”
Operations Tech: “Yo, after lunch today can we talk about how capacity is doing with all these new customers? We might need to buy more cloud storage.”
CEO: “Ugh, I was hoping to keep our spending down before we close our A round next quarter, but I guess that’s a good sign that we’re selling. Revenue, yay!.”
It wasn’t unusual for the whole team to know every facet of the business. Where you were with sales, fundraising and how customers were feeling about every little change you made to the product. You saw each other’s work on your screens or perhaps, if all remote, you were in a non-stop thread in Slack with very few separate channels. It was intimate and cool….intoxicating. Even as the team grew from five to twenty five, there is this sense of deep connection that the early employees had with the founders of the business. A unique badge of honor which often garnered the respect of newer employees eager to hear the lore of those early days. However, with that growth, there becomes less intimacy and these early employees often find themselves with managers between them and the founders. This can create separation anxiety which manifests in different ways — from temper tantrums in meetings to disengagement and generally bad behavior — and can be the root of cultural issues or worse, unwanted attrition.
While many early employees will adjust to the scale of the business and the founders letting go of the details, some can become frustrated. They no longer feel “in the know” or are recognized as the CEO’s trusted advisor on particular decisions for the business. They are scolded for going around their new manager’s back to get the CTO’s opinions on their work or they try to undermine a decision made by the new head of a department by complaining to the CEO. Even finding time to just chat with the founder is a game of calendar Tetris for them. “They don’t have time for me anymore.” is a common sentiment. For these employees, you (or they) may feel that a scaling business is not a fit. Early stage is their sweet spot and a transition may be necessary. However, before concluding that it’s time for some of these early team members to transition, here are a few suggestions to manage Founder Separation Anxiety:
Openly discuss this situation with your team. It is a natural aspect of growth and success, but it requires managing expectations. “Good news, we’re growing! But this means we are going to be shifting how we work and some of us will be less in the know than we used to be.” This can be a great opportunity to ask the team what they need and where they are feeling the biggest gaps. Address what you can, but accept that you may not be able to honor all their asks. For example, being less in the know on board-level or financial issues as they may have in the “old days”.
Make sure you are accessible to your entire organization as much as you can be in both structured and unstructured ways. Create open office hours or lunch-n-learns for team members other than your direct reports to get time with you. Open office hours can be a standing block on your calendar (1–2 hours per week) where anyone can pop into your office (or jump on a zoom if you’re remote) and chat. Be clear that this time is to chat or bounce ideas around, not for decisions or setting strategy. Some newer employees might just want the time to get to know you better — your founder’s story or background (or theirs). These are invaluable opportunities to build a connection with your team. Unstructured time is simply ensuring you’re not tied up in meetings all day and have blocks of open time to walk around the office or pop into different Slack channels or Discord or whatever your business uses for remote communication.
Offer suggestions on how and when team members should book time with you outside of office hours. E.g., “Office hours are a great way to bounce ideas around with me or share ideas or thoughts about the business, but if you want to go deeper on a topic, let’s schedule a specific time to discuss and include others as needed.”
Set boundaries for early-timers when they try to end-around new bosses. Be open to listening to their ideas/complaints, but redirect them to their new bosses to make decisions. Coach them on how to express their concerns with their new bosses vs. offering to talk to their boss on their behalf or (worse) commiserate with them. Just because you used to sit next to them in a WeWork a year ago, does not afford them the privilege of undermining their leadership. Hold the line.
Be mindful of perceptions that come from “special relationships” between founders and early employees. It is not unusual for early employees to form personal relationships with founders outside of work. Late night beers or weekend family BBQs may have become routine. With a larger team, consider how these special out-of-work connections reflect on your leadership. Optically, it can infer special treatment or that some employees are privy to deeper business details. This does not mean you should end these friendships, but you should set clear boundaries and be transparent about them to the rest of your organization — especially if one of these individuals now reports to someone who reports to you. “Lisa, let’s be sure we don’t talk about work when we get our families together this weekend.” For the team, even just naming this, can allay concerns, but again, transparency is key. To Lisa’s new boss, you might say: “Lisa and I became BFFs in the early days of the company — our kids are BFFs too — but we’re committed to not discussing work when we connect outside of the office”.
This may seem like a lot to manage, but the time investment should result in team members better adjusting to the growing separation between them and the founders and having less anxiety about their roles in the business. You may not retain all of your early employees, but these tactics should mitigate some loss and will likely contribute to fostering a healthy culture of transparency, trust and respect among team members.
What creative techniques have you employed to mitigate Founder Separation Anxiety? Please share in the comments!
There are no books you can read or blog posts you can scan that will guarantee that you make the right hire 100% of the time. From bad chemistry to misunderstandings about role expectations, even the strongest candidate may not work out. Also, despite best efforts, early stage companies or new teams inside scaling business often don’t know what they need until they have someone in a particular role. You might realize “oops, this person is great, but their skills are not what we need!”. It happens at every company. Hiring is HARD.
While you can’t prevent occasional mis-hires, you can try to minimize the possibility by including a project or testing phase in your hiring process. This is the stage beyond the standard interview questions and reference checks that gives you a sense of who this person really is, their skills and how they will approach their role. The goal of these tests is to allow the candidate to demonstrate what they are capable of and what it might be like to work with them once they are on board. These tests are critical and will either help you dodge a mis-hire or give you a higher degree of confidence that this is “the one”. I recommend that these tests are performed when you have 1-2 finalists and just before you are ready to do reference checks and make an offer. This can be an especially helpful step if you are down to two finalists you really like.
With this in mind, below are some tips on how to do these tests. For each of these tests, it’s about how the candidate approaches the test and the problem vs. getting correct answers. Build alignment with your team on what “good looks like” for each test and plan to debrief once the assignment is complete and/or presented. Examples of what good might look like are included below.
“The First 90 Days” Test
This is a good general test for any new hire, especially an executive, but also for a people manager or technical leader. Have the candidate explain what their first 90 days on the job will look like. Either leave it wide open or offer a few prompts like “Who will you spend time with?” or “How will you get to know the business?” or “What accomplishments do you hope to make by the end of the first 90-days?”. Avoid being overly prescriptive or leading questions like “Name all the team members you’ll want to get to know” or “Will you spend time with marketing and sales?”. An experienced candidate should have a good sense of how they would spend their first 90 days based on the research they’ve done on your company and insights they’ve gained from interviews with the team.
What good might look like:
Thoughtful about talking with the right stakeholders and when – align with your team on who they’d expect to see on the candidate’s list and when they’d expect to meet with this new hire within the first 90 days
Organized and realistic about what can be accomplished in 90 days – align with your team on what you’d expect
Asks good questions to get a feel for the assignment – shows they are comfortable with getting clarity on situations (not arrogant)
Articulates assumptions made (if any) – often a requirement of leadership roles and demonstrates strong communication skills
Cites examples from conversations they’ve had with team members/research they’ve done on the company, market, etc. – demonstrates they listened, interested and have taken the time to understand the opportunity
Engineering and Design Tests
While there are some nifty tools out there that can test coding skills for engineers, I am a strong advocate for testing the human side of these skills. Those who design and/or build your product should be able to demonstrate their work beyond coding or portfolio samples. The best tests here are brief scenarios that demonstrate not just depth of syntax knowledge or design best practices, but also how they will work on a problem with your team. These types of tests can be done as “homework” although it’s nice if it can be done in-person as part of an onsite/video interview. Present a scenario and ask the candidate how they will approach it. You could give them some alone time to think it through and then ask them to talk you (or a domain expert) through it. Ask them to cite how they thought about it and explain the direction they took and why. Prepare to have another approach or idea for the scenario when they walk through their work. This can help gauge how the candidate handles feedback and if they are willing to collaborate on ideas.
Try not to give an assignment that takes more than 1-2 hours to do unless you pay them for the work. I know a company who always pays for the time taken to do the test and if the candidate declines payment, they make a donation to their charity of the candidate’s choice for their time. (So cool!)
What good might look like:
Asks good questions to get a feel for the assignment
Articulates assumptions made (if any)
Able to explain their work and creative approach; approach aligns with how your team operates and/or offers new ideas that will expand the possibilities for your team/product
Comfortable receiving feedback; bonus points if they’re willing to riff on the idea and take it to a better place.
Scenario Tests For Functional Teams (Marketing, Sales, Product, etc.)
Functional leaders are often asked to present a past project they did as a way to demonstrate their work. While this lends insight into the candidate’s past work, I prefer scenario tests. While the former does tell you an experience they had and what worked or not, it will not expose their work on something new. Further, a walkthrough of a former project may not give you insight into what they (vs. other team members) actually did to achieve success. In those cases, I listen for “we did this…” which begs the question “what part of that did YOU do?”. Here are some quick examples of scenario tests for a few functional areas:
Product: Our CTO just came back from a “listening tour” with some of our customers and wants to explore a new set of features to expand our product offerings. These offerings are not on the product roadmap. What steps would you take to understand these new features and how would you approach the prioritization process?
Marketing: We’re about to launch a new product for our customers. It is the first new product we’ve launched in a year. What steps would you take to plan for this product launch and how will you measure its success?
Sales Leader: We are building a product to attract new customers in a new vertical. What information do you need to prepare your team to sell this new product and how will you set sales goals for the team?
You could imagine similar scenarios for finance, customer support or other functional roles. Remember, they still don’t know how your business functions day to day and this isn’t whether they have a perfect plan, but more about how they approach the problem. For functional roles that will require strong communication and presentation skills, have them present their assignments as they would if they were doing it for your team, board or customers, depending on the scenario. For presentations, the ideal flow is interviews, assignment for finalists, and then a presentation to all those who interviewed the candidate. Other key stakeholders could sit in on the presentation, but to mitigate overwhelming the candidate, I suggest only those who interview them do Q&A after the presentation. Q&A should probe what’s being tested (what good looks like) and not to have candidates try to get correct answers.
What good might look like:
Demonstrates research they’ve done to prepare the assignment
Including people on your team they may ask to speak with to prepare their preparation
Presentation skills – both oral and written. Focus more on content and less on pretty graphics on presentation decks unless that’s an important element of the role
Articulates assumptions made (if any).
Scenario solution is thoughtful, logical and realistic – align with your team in advance on what this would look like
Bonus points if they add insights that the team can learn from (e.g., I once had a VP Marketing candidate tell us what was broken with our SEO and how to improve it as part of his presentation of a hypothetical scenario. It was brilliant!)
With all of the interviews and testing, you still may not get it right every time. Again, hiring is HARD. For some roles, a “try before you buy” is often the best way to go for both the candidate and the company. Not every candidate can opt out of benefits or other things they need from a full time job to do a trial, but if it’s possible or they can do it outside of work, go for it. Pick a project that’s reasonable to do in 30-45 days and agree on what good will look like before they get started. Pay them an hourly rate and set the candidate up for success so they can hit the ground running (e.g., security access to your code repo, slack, etc,) and continue to test the soft skills as they go. if applicable, tell the candidate in advance that if they are hired, equity vesting will start when they started their project vs their actual start date. It’s a nice incentive for them to take the project seriously and know you are invested in their success.
Finally, if you’re hiring a role for the first time and no one on your team has experience with that role – no one knows what good looks like – ask an advisor, investor or friend with experience to be part of the interview process. They should not only be able to interview the candidate, but also help you formulate the tests!
Do you have other tests or projects you like to use as part of the hiring process? Please share in the comments!
So many of the early stage companies I work with are struggling to hire talent. Despite the pandemic, they have raised capital and are looking to hire everything from engineering and UX to marketing, sales and support. You’d think with the pandemic there’d be a lot of people looking for work, but in startup land (tech or not), it’s definitely a candidate’s market…unless you are considered too inexperienced for a role. I especially see this for candidates in underrepresented talent groups where there are less opportunities to develop strong networks. Further, less experienced candidates coming from first jobs at a big company where they hoped to gain mentoring and experience before going to a startup can be boxed out before they even get their careers of the ground. These candidates are often viewed as unable to work in a more scrappy, smaller scale organization.
The most common reason for not hiring less experienced talent in a very early stage company (say, less than 20 people) is lack of time to manage and mentor these team members. I get it. If you are a startup leader, you want an A+ team of people who are self-starters and have seen the movie before. While also more expensive, experienced hires should know how things work and in theory should hit the ground running. That said, even experienced hires rarely work effectively and that independently on day one. Further, I don’t know a single startup that has hired an all senior team and never had to let someone go (or they quit) within their first 90 days. This can be because of a mismatch in expectations, lack of alignment or often it’s because the more senior team members had become accustomed to managing more than doing in their prior roles; they were potentially “startup curious” and couldn’t scale down and/or they had lost their player-coach edge.
It is rare that any startup gets their first twenty hires right. Iteration, learning what you need in your team and evolution as your product changes and company grows is a likely cause for lots of refactoring of teams in the first few years. Therefore, hiring a few less experienced folks could net the same result as one senior hire – some will work out, and some will not. Yes, letting someone go or having them quit and starting over is a total time suck, but that’s part of the game and most companies get better and better in finding and keeping great talent over time. From my personal experience working for several startups early on, each of which had insane growth, I found having a mix of seasoned and less experienced team members can be a super power. Less experienced team members were hungry and eager to learn and the senior team members enjoyed mentoring and handing off the more menial tasks so they could focus on meatier and often more strategic work. It was a win-win and many of those junior team members have had incredible careers after we gave them their first shot.
For the Manager
Here are a few things to consider for those anxious about hiring less experienced talent:
Pipeline: In this candidates’ market, hiring managers need to treat recruiting like a sales exercise. Fill the funnel! Overly prescriptive job descriptions will limit applicants (especially women) – this includes being too specific about the number of years of experience required which may not translate well for someone who’s been coding since middle school, but has only been in the workforce for 1-2 years. Get the resumes in, then decide how you want to weed out less relevant candidates.
Pre-Interview Screening: Don’t judge a resume by it’s timeline! As noted above, many inexperienced candidates – especially engineers – have been doing relevant work well before they went to college or may be understating their contributions in their current roles. They may lack the confidence to promote their work, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get the work done. Consider having a screening question about how long the candidate has been doing relevant work that may not appear on their LinkedIn/resume.
Interview: Size the questions and/or the coding exercise with the experience. Determine if the candidate can learn quickly, whether they ask good questions and whether they can deliver on time. Early on in their careers, these are the key skills that will assure they will thrive vs. showing you their perfect coding capabilities in an interview or through a take-home exercise.
Potential for hire: If all that is keeping you from hiring a less experienced candidate who shows tons of potential is having the time or talent to mentor these candidates, look beyond yourself and your more experienced team. Have advisors who can sign up to serve as mentors for inexperienced folks. This can range from doing code reviews before check-ins to helping an inexperienced salesperson practice their pitch. These mentors do not have to have full context on your business or the details of the work; if they are seasoned, they know what to look for and should be able to offer objective guidance (and you should offer them some equity and have them sign an NDA, obvi!).
On the job: Yay! You are ready to hire a less experienced team member. Set the right expectations and scale the work. As with any hire, they won’t be up to speed on day one. Their 30-60-90 day onboarding process may look different than a more senior hire though. Start small and work up to more challenging tasks. As my favorite leadership coach Brené Brown says in her amazing book Dare To Lead “Paint what ‘done’ looks like.” The most common reason for failure between employees and their leaders in any job – regardless of experience – is misalignment about what the endpoint should look like. Always define and communicate measurable, clear, goals.
NOTE: If you will hire for a role within the next six months, but are not actively filling it, and a current candidate shows promise for that future role, hire them! You don’t want to kick yourself in a few months that you didn’t hire that candidate when you had the chance. This of course assumes you have the budget to do so.
For The Less Experienced Candidate
For folks dealing with the catch-22 of needing experience, but not getting job interviews or offers because you lack enough experience, here are some things to consider:
Highlight Transferable Skills: Look deeply at your resume and try to tease out skills you have gained in past roles that are applicable to the job you wish to land. Were you a camp counselor while in college? You likely have strong leadership skills, can multitask and work well in teams. Worked as a waitperson in college? You have sales and customer service experience! Were you on the robotics team or helped friends build their first websites in high school? You started building your technical skills earlier than you think! This also works for job shifters – pull out the buzzwords that highlight your transferable skills. Be explicit under each role such as “Product Management Skills:…” or “Sales Skills:…”.
Get Help: Find someone in your network to help you further tease out your experience in your resume and help you practice your interviewing skills. Tap into former bosses, advisors and college professors. If they can’t help directly, they may know someone who can! Practice both technical skills and general communication skills. Both are important.
Continuous Ed: Continue to develop your skills outside of school or your day job. Take coding classes online (there are tons) or participate in one of a gazillion webinars designed for core skills like sales, growth marketing and design. A silver lining of the pandemic is that there are now so many great online resources! If you complete these courses, list them on your resume; this shows initiative, willingness to learn and the ability to multitask if you did this work outside of your day job or school.
Never Assume: Finally, never assume that just because a company doesn’t have a job posting commensurate with your experience that should not apply. This could be a stretch opportunity or the chance to get a warm introduction to the hiring manager for a future opportunity. Taking steps like this is a first sign that you are ambitious and creative and many people will hire talent despite a position lining up perfectly or even being open. As noted for hiring managers above, good people are hard to come by! I have personally hired many talented people without a perfect fit or a role open at the time because someone showed promise or I knew I’d need them within the next six months.
If all else fails…
Still not sure you can bring someone less experienced on board or can’t get a young startup to take a chance on you? Get creative and offer a “try before you buy” option. Even if part time, it can be great for both the company and the candidate to do a small project together – for pay. The manager can get a sense of a candidate’s work and the candidate can get a sense of what it’s like to work at the company.
Tips on this concept:
Agree on a project that is no more than 2-3 weeks worth of work for a junior team member and with a clear deliverable.
Use the time working on the project to meet other members of the team. Schedule a quick meet and greet on Zoom or join team meetings to get a deeper sense of the company culture.
If the trial goes well and an offer is made, the equity vesting/cliff start date should be from the start date of the trial project.
Be careful about competitive situations. If a current employer has a clause in their employment agreement that says any relevant work done outside of business belongs to them, don’t do a trial role like this for a related business (sounds obvious, but I have seen this happen too many times!).
I am truly hopeful that more young companies will take chances on less experienced hires. This is where magic can happen for all involved and I can’t tell you how amazing it is to see some of my most junior hires “back in the day” now in senior leadership roles or starting companies of their own. Hopefully, they are now paying it forward!
How have you figured out ways to hire less experienced people or find a role as a less experienced hire yourself? Please share in the comments. You can also read more about my thoughts on hiring here.
Startup founders wear many hats that they take on and off as company priorities ebb and flow; especially, but not exclusively, CEOs. One moment they are the CFO and raising capital and the next they are the Head of Product and making critical roadmap decisions. As a quarter-end nears, they become heads of Sales and as the company expands (or contracts) they’re running HR. There can be tremendous stress when a founder tries to wear too many hats at once or struggles to decide which to wear, which to remove, and which to hand off to someone on their team – if such a team exists! The entrepreneurs I coach have used following framework I’ve created to help them determine which hats to where when. While this article is largely focused on startup CEOs, the framework can also be an effective tool for other organizational leaders.
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The most common array of hats that a CEO may wear at any given time fall into the categories below, but no CEO – early stage or not – can split their time and attention so perfectly as the chart denotes.
Before deciding which hats to wear and when, a startup CEO should first identify with what their hats (categories) are in their current role. Using the visual above, here’s how I define these very common categories:
Product (What & When): This is what the company produces. It includes customer discovery, design, building, shipping and support. It also includes prioritization and tradeoff decision making for features, new products and services. Many startup CEOs are product people and this can often be one of the hardest hats to take off completely – if ever. Note that being a product visionary and/or a great coder or designer does not necessarily mean one is a great Product Manager – knowing how to make tradeoffs, analyze customer requirements or develop a product roadmap. Be sure to fully explore this “hat” before deciding it’s one to wear or take off.
Culture & Process (How): I was inspired recently by a coaching client of mine who combined these two into one category. If the culture doesn’t work, then the processes won’t work either. Creating high performing teams goes well beyond what workflows, policies and procedures are in place. It is how the team communicates, operates and evolves as a living organism. Never underestimate the value of focusing on culture with process starting from day one! Some CEOs are natural culture builders and system thinkers, but if this is not a strong suit, it’s definitely a hat that should be worn by an in-house culture expert or by someone with natural team-building/program management skills.
Strategy (Where, Why & When): Determining the company’s True North, setting direction for at least the next 12-18 months and making critical decisions about the company’s mission for things like fundraising, revenue growth and human capital. This is also about defining and communicating why the company is doing what it does which is as important as where it is going. Employees and investors/board members all perform better when there is clarity on why the company is moving in a particular direction. This hat is quite commonly on the CEO’s head forever.
Talent & Development (Who & How): A company will not succeed or grow without hyper focus on the growth of their employees. It is vital to the success and stability of an organization to establish best in class hiring practices and programs as well as to develop each person’s skills as individuals and leaders. As companies grow, CEOs must be thoughtful about where to focus hiring efforts, how to provide incentives to retain top performers and how to grow those with high potential. In addition, as companies grow, there will always be tradeoffs on when to promote from within, when to hire more experienced talent and when it’s time for some team members to move on. CEOs often wear this hat more often than others, but many have COOs or strong HR leaders on their teams who wear this hat permanently.
Back Office (How): A company can have the best product and team in the world and mess things up royally because the back office hat was on the wrong individual’s head. This is mostly finance (accounting, receivables, payroll, etc.) and legal (employee contracts, partnerships, etc.). I’m amazed at how many CEOs wear this hat for too long. It’s ok early stage, but let the professionals do this work once the company hits product market fit and is beginning to operate at scale. Some CEOs are former CFOs who are perfectly capable of leading back office teams, but data shows that CFOs often lack “Outside-in” thinking (a strong mega-trend and customer focus)” and lack the creative and inspirational leadership qualities of a great CEO.
Marketing, Sales & Business Development (What, Why & When): Brand identity, target audiences, community development, filling the pipeline, closing deals and creating strategic partnerships. These tasks often require CEO leadership – especially early stage. Some CEOs are very marketing/sales oriented which can derive huge benefits for the business as long as there are capable leaders on the team wearing other hats. However, many CEOs are not marketers and, like the Back Office hat, should leave that work to the experts.
The Have-to-dos, Want-to-dos & Good-ats
Rather than being stressed out trying to balance all hats at once, it is best to focus on wearing 1-2 hats at a time. These 1-2 hats are those that HAVE to be done. It’s great when these prioritized hats also happen to be hats a leader wants to wear and require skills that they believe they are good at, but that is not always the case – especially for early stage CEOs who often need to do a lot of things that they may be good at, but don’t necessarily want to do. Similarly, there can be things a CEO is good at and wants to do, but the business doesn’t require them to do it. Finally, there are times when something has to be done, the CEO wants to do it, but they lack the skill to do it well (self-professed or not!). Here are a few examples:
Finances – CEOs may be good at doing the accounting for the business and it has to be done, but often very willing to give that up as soon as they can hire a head of finance. They don’t want to do it!
Product/Technology – No matter how much a founder/CEO wants to design or code – and they may be good at it – there is a point as a company scales when CEOs have to take off this hat. They are no longer “have to-dos” at their level. Note, I have seen a number of CEO-Founders take their CEO hats off to dive back into the product!
Hiring – Inexperienced CEOs may be managing people and leading teams for the first time. They have to hire and want to hire, but are often unskilled when it comes to sourcing, interviewing and managing the onboarding experience. This is a skill they are not good at. However, this may be a skill they have to develop vs. hand off to someone to do for them.
If a company has the runway, the CEO can usually move swiftly to swap or delegate hats with the support of their co-founders and leadership team. They may hire more seasoned leaders or team members and/or offer training for those who need to develop their skills. However, for the fledgling teams who can’t fund these improvements, it is even more important to make hard choices about which hats to wear…even if that means letting some things slide or not executing perfectly. The tradeoffs can be hard and it is extremely common for CEOs to become so paralyzed about which hats to wear that the performance of the company is suffering more than if they had just picked 1-2 hats to focus on and move forward. The focus of this exercise can allow a leader to move quickly from one to the next so things don’t slide for too long.
To get started on assessing “have to-dos (HTDs), want to-dos (WTDs) and good-ats (GAs)”, I recommend a two-pronged approach:
Using the categories or hats identified, rate the HTDs, WTDs and GAs today and what the HTDs should be in the future. This exercise requires self reflection and a large dose of humility.
Define what measurable goals must be achieved to remove a particular hat OR issues that need to be resolved to put on a particular hat. Include an action plan (with timeline) that ensures goals can be met.
Using a framework like the chart below, begin to outline and rate the categories, 1-5. 1=low (this is a hat not being worn, not wanting to do, or something one is not good at ) and 5=high (absolutely something that has to be done, there’s strong passion to do it, self-assesses* that it is a strong skill).
*Self assessed skills are different than how others perceive one’s abilities. If unsure, do a 360-feedback survey with your team or seek outside help!
An optional third step is to color code each row to visually identify hats that are critical to wear (red), not urgent but important (yellow) and the hats that are satisfactory at this time (green).
I’ve created two charts below – before and after – as examples of how a CEO of a post series A startup with modest revenue might perform this exercise:
In the above example, the rows in green show where the CEO is satisfied with their current involvement (“hat wearing”). The rows in yellow are places where they need to adjust their involvement, but not urgent. The two red rows are urgent and where the CEO wants to put their focus.
In the case of Culture & Process, the CEO only rates their hat wearing as a “2” and there are serious issues in the organization to address. The CEO has identified what is going on in the “HTD Achieved/Needed When…” column which requires them to put on the hat and what actions they will take to ensure they are wearing that hat at least at a “4” (HTD Future).
In the second case, the CEO knows the Back Office work is important, but does not want to do back office work, nor do they feel they are good at it. Thus, they are working to remove the Back Office hat and reducing their involvement from a 4 to a 1. In this case, the bullets in the “HTD Achieved/Needed When…” column clarify what will be happening when the CEO has officially taken off that hat, moving it to a “1” (HTD Future).
Identifying what hats need wearing – and how firmly to wear/remove said hats – is step one. Taking actions to add or remove the hat(s) is step two. In the case of ramping up on Culture & Process noted above, the CEO would kick off the action items and set a timeframe of when they would be able to remove that hat. They would then update the chart to be clear what will need to be in place for them to remove/loosen that hat. Similar with Back Office work, once the key actions are achieved, the chart is updated to reflect that the Back Office hat no longer needs wearing. The updated chart may look like this:
With the updates above, the CEO has removed their Back Office hat and is firmly wearing the Culture & Process hat. They can now continue to focus on the Culture & Process hat until it can be taken off (“1”). They can also decide which of the two yellow rows – Product and Talent & Development – they want to focus on next while the other areas of the business require less of their attention.
Most CEOs who follow this process use months or quarters to time-box focused efforts and update the charts, but it all depends on how one works and how fast change is happening inside the organization. Choose what works best for you!
No Recipe Is Perfect
The exercise above is one way of thinking about how to balance many hats a CEO – or any leader of a large team – might wear. There’s no perfect algorithm and while one might aim to only wear a maximum of two hats at a time, there will be times when more hats will have to be worn. I’ve also seen CEOs who find that once they’ve mastered a new skill, the hat they didn’t want to wear is actually one that they enjoyed wearing more than they expected.
There are of course sometimes when CEOs realize that no matter how much training, coaching or mentoring they get, they are not able to wear any of the hats well or they just don’t enjoy wearing them. This is often when the company is achieving a level of scale that requires more experience than the CEO’s own professional experience. Some CEOs recognize this and work with their boards to find a successor, but sometimes this can be a decision taken out of a CEO’s hands when their board/investors decide the business can’t wait for the CEO to grow into the role. I’ve also seen many CEOs who find a great partner (President or COO) to run the business with them and augment some of the skills they have yet to or want to master. This not only keeps the company on the rails, but gives the CEO a role model to learn from along the way.
CEOs should be performing a regular assessment of where their time is focused, identify measurable results when changes are made and what actions to take to get there. Even a simple visual like the Before and After on the balance wheels below can kick start the process. Identifying what the current focus areas are (before) and where should they be (after).
No matter how a leader decides to assess and prioritize their hats, leaning into the balancing process will likely mitigate stress and potential burnout. What processes have you seen that are effective towards balancing hat wearing? Please share in the comments! Meanwhile, if you are thinking about trying this exercise, I have created a google sheet template for anyone to use to start this process. Feel free to save a copy of the template for yourself and dig in!
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NOTE: The balancing hat illustration at the top of this article was created by my daughter, Amelia Austin and is copy-written.
I am so very pleased to announce that the third Good For Her (GFH) cohort has launched this week! Back in 2015, I noticed that there were a lot of male founders supporting each other. Some had informal monthly meetups for beers where they’d talk about leadership and fundraising challenges. Some were part of programs created by investors or startup accelerators. When I asked why there were so few women integrated into these groups, I got answers ranging from “I don’t know any women founders” to “It would be weird to have only one woman in our group”. I knew plenty of women founders, so I decided that if they were not getting invited to these groups, I’d create one for them.
The focus of GFH is to create an intimate community for like minded startup founders who identify as women. Each cohort of 8-10 founders is carefully curated to ensure a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, company stage and types of businesses. We have founders of B2B, D2C and B2C products. They’re bootstrapped to post series A. There’s no limit to where their businesses can go to be part of the group. The only requirements for a member are that they are a founder of their business (not all are CEOs), have a product in-market and they are good humans. All members are vetted by me and occasionally another GFH member before they are invited to join. Most of our cohort two and three members are in NYC, however with the pandemic, we’ve become more flexible and now have members based around the country.
Including an “Emerging Leader” in each cohort is something we started with cohort two and will continue to do for all cohorts going forward. These young women are aspiring leaders who would benefit from being among the incredible GFH women. They are part of the GFH family and included in every way.
GFH is fully funded by me. There is no fee, equity grant or financial obligation for any of our members. It is my way of paying-it-forward and I take great pleasure from watching these groups and individuals thrive. Pre-covid, I hosted events that ranged from dinners in my home to taking members to the theater and book signings to organizing pitch practices and how-to sessions (our most recent one was on the product roadmap process). I lead on topics I know well and bring in experts from my network as needed. During the pandemic, our connections are primarily in Slack and Zoom meetups – we’re hoping that’ll change some day soon! Meanwhile, in the GFH Slack, each cohort has its own private (and very active!) channel and there are open channels for cross-cohort connections around topics like fundraising, hiring and leadership. All members sign a code of conduct ensuring what happens in GFH, stays in GFH! I am also available (practically) 24×7 to every member for networking and coaching. Oh, and there’s a lot of fun too – the GFH community has a great sense of humor 🙂
When a new cohort starts, I am very engaged in pulling the group together and fostering discussions. It is my goal that, over time, each cohort becomes its own “thing” without my routine facilitation. With two cohorts now well on their way, it’s time to welcome cohort three! Herewith are our newest members (hover on images for name & company):
Geetika Agrawal (VAWAA)
Jennifer Brisman (VOW)
Cathy Chukwulebe (Emerging Leader)
Rebecca Greene (Stealth)
Julia Hawkins (Cabinet)
Christie Horvath (Wagmo)
Shanea Leven (CodeSee)
Chrstine Schindler (Pathspot)
Mai Vu (Maivino)
I am sooooo excited about partnering with this group! The buzz has already started on slack and they are receiving the much needed support they crave. Welcome cohort three!!
Check out our website for more information about GFH and pay attention to all of our members – they are doing amazing things!
We are in an era of Objectives & Key Results (OKRs) and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs); tools companies use to track and measure their progress and ensure they are on track to reach strategic goals. In scaling startups, CEOs and co-founders have mixed feelings about delegating tasks they once owned to new layers of management. Some tasks, like perhaps managing the books to a new head of finance, they are eager to let go of, and some, like product decisions, can cause a lot of angst. In these times of transition, it’s not uncommon to implement OKRs/KPIs as a way to get comfortable with handing off these responsibilities. As management layers are added, there is a natural fear of no longer being close to the detail, of wondering whether a team can execute as well without a founder/top leader engaged in the day-to-day. I often hear CEOs/Founders of scaling companies ask how they will know if things are working if they are no longer in the weeds. These leaders want to trust their team and worry about micromanaging, but they also want accountability and the ability to track progress.
Measuring performance and holding leaders accountable is indeed important, but what’s often missing is the holistic view of where the company is going and an organization-wide understanding of how it will reach its goals. Before setting those metrics, leaders must be clear about the True North for the business – the compass of your company’s identity and growth direction – and set a near-term vision with a roadmap to get there.
The 30K Foot View
Anyone that asks what your company’s 3-5 year roadmap looks like is clueless about how businesses – at any stage – really work. With constant innovation, new market entrants and potential black swans like a global pandemic, the best a leader can do is set a 12-18 month strategic plan that is directionally aligned with the company’s true north. That plan should be broken down by quarter with the assumption that the degree of confidence in achieving goals within each quarter will decline over time. You cannot predict the future, but you can build within a set of assumptions. Assumptions should be articulated for each goal as a means to establish confidence levels.
Here’s a framework for thinking about the high level view of your company’s roadmap:
High-level Roadmap Framework (c) Julia Austin 2020
The true north (or mission) statement should be at the highest level, a guiding principle of the impact your company is committed to making for the long term. When I was CTO at DigitalOcean, we coined the true north statement “To Empower Developers To Build Great Software”. This gave us focus on our target persona (developers) and latitude to evolve as needed to achieve that mission. While we were (and they still are) a cloud company, this statement said no matter how we evolved, markets change, etc. we would remain focused on what’s needed for developers to build great software. Google’s statement is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Again, the focus is on the impact – the world’s information being accessible – not how the company delivers on that mission.
The 12-18 month vision statement should be a clear focus on near-term impacts. This may be to achieve a certain level of market adoption or to have a core set of offerings viewed as table stakes for the target audience. It could be the launch of a new product or service or a major financial metric like reaching Free Cash Flow.
Quarterly OKRs/KPIs should be brief (no more than 2-3 major goals), achievable, but with some amount of stretch. In other words, if you were using the traffic light rating system (red, yellow, green) not all of them will be “green” per quarter. More info here. Beware of over-adjusting OKRs every quarter – while they will definitely evolve, especially if the process is new to an organization, there can be a temptation to focus on changing the objectives vs. adjusting KPIs or accepting that the goals simply can’t be met for other reasons (poor leadership, systemic issues, market changes) which should be addressed outside of the rating process.
Expect each team across the organization to cascade their operational roadmaps from these strategic foci. Operational roadmaps should identify key initiatives and milestones. Some milestones may be a sum of parts (as in the Engineering roadmap below) and some may be more linear and timeline driven as the Operations and GTM roadmaps show below. Of course, each initiative can be broken down even further per team (see next section); that’s up to each team to decide how to manage from there. However this high level format is the right level of detail for broader communication across the organization and perhaps with your board or even your customers.
Strategic Roadmap Example (c) Julia Austin 2020
I encourage a six-quarter rolling approach whereby each quarter the leadership team:
rates and reflects on last quarter’s results;
reviews upcoming quarterly goals;
adjusts assumptions and factors in any new information (market shifts, product/revenue changes, etc.) for the next 6th quarter;
communicates the updated company plan across the organization; and
has each team create a tactical roadmap that lines up with the quarterly goals.
Below are representations of tactical roadmaps I’ve seen used in two very different organizations. In the first example, the product team and key stakeholders (sales, support and finance leads) review current priorities and drag and drop efforts according to their complexity and priority relative to company goals. They use a product like Mural to collaborate electronically (both when in-person and remotely). In the second example, a simple spreadsheet is used, projects are t-shirt sized using standard scrum methods, and there are links to each project’s details (in apps like Jira or Trello) for more information about relevant epics and user stories. PMs meet with engineering leaders each month to review and adjust as needed. In all cases, the details of each major initiative includes tie-backs to OKRs/KPIs. If they can’t be tied back, and measured, they should not be on the roadmap!
Considerations For Very Early Stage Companies – Pre-Product Market Fit
If your company is very early stage, expect to pivot the vision and the roadmap a lot as you learn and grow. Create guiding principles for when and how you would adjust a True North and/or Vision Statement. What factors must be true? What assumptions are you making about the market and/or target persona that may prove wrong or different than what was expected? Will you lean into these new findings and shift the direction of the business or keep testing those assumptions in different ways to learn more? Even the earliest staged companies should have a true north as they get started.
Avoid peanut buttering! One of my favorite terms, this suggests spreading many things across a broad surface vs. being focused on a few key initiatives. It is scary – especially for early stage companies – to commit to only 1-2 things when it’s so unclear whether either/both will be a success and there are so many other things to try. However, by spreading limited resources across too many things, it’s more likely nothing of substance will get done, or things will move too slowly OR each thing will be done with poor quality while possibly burning out your team. Pick those 1-2 focus areas and set time-boxed milestones that will drive next steps or a change in direction. For example, “we must reach 20-30% conversion rate with the current MVP over the next two quarters or shift to the other product idea.” Commit to these milestones and agree how close you’d need to be to reaching that goal to keep moving forward vs. cutting bait and moving on.
Considerations For Companies With Product Market Fit
Appoint a roadmap owner who can oversee the process across the organization. This is typically a senior product manager/head of product or Chief of Staff who is empowered to drive decisions and prioritize based on the 12-18 month vision. This role may be supported by a program/project manager who maintains the details in whichever tool or platform you use (e.g., updates the spreadsheet, inputs changes into Trello, etc.)
Be mindful of how much time your team is spending on roadmapping and the measurement process. If it’s taking more than a few hours per quarter to discuss, update and communicate the roadmap and OKRs, it’s costing your company far too much time and money. This process supports productivity, it doesn’t become the work itself! If it’s taking up too much time, it’s likely the goals and measures are far too detailed and/or there are too many people involved in the process.
Establish Rules of Engagement (ROE) for times when an opportunity or challenge may disrupt the roadmap. For example, what size/nature of a new customer opportunity would disrupt the roadmap? Can it only be for initiatives that were already on the roadmap, but further out? Will the sales team have points they can “spend” per quarter to reprioritize something? What about a major bug/performance issue? How bad would they have to be to disrupt the current plan? Once the ROE are set, these too should be managed by the roadmap owner. If the ROE are not adhered to, they’re useless, so only have a few and keep them simple. E.g., unless a new customer could grow revenue by x% and what they need is already on the roadmap, we won’t do it. OR if a bug is creating more than x% churn or denying service to a critical mass of customers, it’ll be fixed in accordance with the roadmap.
Prioritize the backlog and tech debt as part of the process. These are just as important as new features and the longer they are put off, the harder they will be to schedule and get done. Set aside anywhere from 3-10% of resource allocation dedicated to these efforts. It largely depends on how severe issues are, whether upcoming roadmap initiatives have dependencies on these issues and/or how long they have been festering. It can be useful to “age up” backlog/debt items to raise their priority.
A few finer points on this topic:
If a new request or critical issue bumps something else, always communicate the tradeoff(s) made and the positive or negative impact they will have on OKRs/KPIs.
Developers hate roadmap thrash! So try not to disrupt it too often.
Remember, for projects already underway, a reprioritization is not a 1:1 swap – there will be a J-curve in productivity each time a team has to stop something, start something new, and return to the old project later.
There is no one best way to do the roadmapping process. How you lead, the type of product you build, organizational structure and culture all come into play to determine what will work best for your company. Having a roadmap process will improve the prioritization process and create alignment among teams, will provide transparency across the organization and should give leaders (including your board) the right level of visibility to ensure the work is getting done. Don’t create a process just for the sake of process or implement OKRs just because someone told you that’s what you’re supposed to do. Be thoughtful and implement whatever process works best for your company.
Do you have other suggestions on how to run a great roadmapping process? Please share in the comments!
A number of the entrepreneurs I work with are in the middle of fundraising during this crazy pandemic. It’s unclear when we’ll ever be able to meet in person again, let alone travel to venture fund offices for live pitches. Therefore, most are pitching virtually via Zoom or other mediums. A common theme throughout their process has been the lack of face time with potential investors. Investors are expressing it’s hard to write a term sheet or know what it’s like to work with someone they’ve never met in person. It’s reasonable to think that an entrepreneur can accept that they’ll have to wait to meet the investor in person once it’s safe to move about the country again; they need liquidity and are quite used to making sacrifices to forge ahead. However, investors are less desperate and it increasingly unclear if the “I can’t write you a term sheet if I never met you in person” is valid or just another excuse to bow out of a deal.
This got me to thinking about the perspective of each in these times:
The In-Person Pitch
Consider what an entrepreneur worries about when fundraising in person:
Travel logistics: In addition to the cost of a flight and hotel expenses, if I can’t crash on a friend’s couch, I’ll be in SF for 48 hours and have to lock in meetings along Sandhill Road, ideally, back to back and with enough gaps to get from one to the next. OR…. Should I take the subway and risk ruining my professional look if there’s no AC or rack up ride-share fees that my startup just can’t afford right now?
I’m on their turf: Not knowing what to expect in the conference room, AV, who’ll be there and how they’ll perceive me as I am escorted through the office. Who’s watching, what physical attributes are they looking for, etc.
Who attends: We can’t swing all co-founders on the road financially or being out of the office for full days to pitch or for diligence. We have to keep the business moving!
There is certainly upside for entrepreneurs to get in-person face time with their future investors, but there’s not much downside for the investor to do in-person meetings.
Alternatively, the opportunities virtual pitches present to entrepreneurs include:
Schedule flexibility — Let me know what works for you! No travel necessary.
Cost savings — No flights, hotels or ride-share fees. No hit to the bottom line!
My turf — I’m in my personal space, representing who I am and feeling comfortable in my own chair. No one is scanning how I walk or what I’m wearing. I am authentically me!
My team — Need to chat with my CTO? She can jump on a video call whenever you’re free. Want to walk through our financials? My finance leader is happy to screen share our pro-forma to review with you.
From an investor perspective, one could imagine that the schedule logistics are the biggest plus for virtual pitches. But there are also some clear potential downsides of virtual pitches for both parties — many related to basic remote work challenges highlighted here, but I’ll call out a few:
Attention span — will both parties be fully engaged or distracted by other screen activity? (although I have seen many VCs looking a their laptops/cell phones more than engaging with entrepreneurs in a boardroom pitching right in front of them)
Eye contact — it’s hard enough to make eye contact in person let alone tracking gaze awareness and looking for social cues. There is no opportunity to catch a side glance or reaction from one party to the other. The post-meeting debrief won’t include observations like “did you notice when we shared our financial projections that they all looked at each other like ‘WOW’?” or when two partners notice body language between co-founders that suggest they may not be aligned on the company’s go-to-market strategy.
Cognitive load — not only does constantly looking at yourself while you are presenting create a lot of emotional pressure, but trying hard to track all of the social cues in 2D can be exhausting for all parties and could cloud the focus of the discussion.
Informal connections — the post-meeting socializing one often experiences is completely lost. The casual walk out of the conference room, chat at the coffee area or even the bio break that may lead an entrepreneur and investor to be washing their hands at the same time. Each of those situations are opportunities to form informal connections that don’t happen in the boardroom. You find out you have kids the same age or that you both like the same brand of lipstick. Your college roommate is in their soccer league or you both prefer oat milk over soy milk. While these are minor details, they make these connections more personal and build trust in what may become an important working relationship.
Optimizing For Our Current Normal
We won’t likely be going back into boardrooms for pitches any time soon, so herewith some suggestions to ensure the virtual-only rounds have a better chance of success:
Turn off your self-view and expand your screen to just video so you are fully engaged. Put aside your phone and resist texting with your co-founder/partners during the call. You wouldn’t do that in the boardroom (would you?!), so don’t do it on video.
For both sides, focus on facial reactions and body language (like leaning back or arm folding). Pause when you think “I really want to text my colleague to get their reaction to what’s going on right now” and consider how to incorporate that into the conversation. For entrepreneurs, this may be saying “Pat, I noticed you looked surprised when I mentioned we have large traction with such a unique audience. Would you like me to explain that further?” Or, “Sam, you seemed taken aback when we shared our unit economics. I have a backup slide with more detail if you’d like to dig into it.”. For Investors, it could be “Tyler, I noticed a long pause when I asked you about your engineering team. I am happy to discuss that further after this call if it’s a longer conversation or you’d like your CTO to be part of the discussion.” [Note: All of these examples could happen in person too, but may be done with more intention when on a video call.]
If the pitch is an hour or less, consider tacking on 10–15 minutes post-meeting to allow for more informal conversations. If it’s a longer, diligence or full partner meeting, consider scheduling a mid-point break for the entrepreneur to do a breakout with partners/team members they haven’t met yet. Or schedule these less formal chats as short meetings that follow the main event. Be explicit that these are more personal connections (“tell me more about YOU”) and not for deeper business dives. Yes, it’s more time on the calendar, but that’s the time the entrepreneur may have used to travel to your office or that you used to drive to the office or walk from your office to the board room.
Create opportunities for reference checking — Investors, make intros to other entrepreneurs in your portfolio who can share what it’s been like to work with your team after the money was wired. Entrepreneurs, make intros to customers, angel investors, mentors or others who can speak to who you are beyond your business. [NOTE: It’s no secret that backchannel references will happen on both sides, regardless, but being proactive about this is always a good thing!]
For entrepreneurs with physical products vs. software that’s easy to demo online, send prototypes or latest products in-market to investors in advance. Allow them to see and feel your product! You’d likely have brought it with you if you were in person, so why not send in advance? If you have limited supplies, ask the investor to send it back post-pitch. Any decent investor should be trustworthy enough to do that…on their dime…even if no term sheet comes of it.
Finally, investors, stop using lack of face time as a reason not to invest. Your investment theses are still valid whether you meet a founder in person or not and pattern matching can still happen on video. Trust your instincts and consider how incredible these humans are to be able to run and scale their businesses even during a pandemic with most if not all virtual teams. They are resilient and determined not to be thwarted by fully remote work environments. The strong survive and prosper, and so will you!
Do you have other tips to enhance the virtual pitch process for entrepreneurs and/or investors? Please add in the comments!