Beyond Their Funds, How Can Your Investors Be Helpful?

An entrepreneur recently said to me “When it gets really hard, I feel like I’m doing it wrong.” She went on to say that sometimes she’s not sure how her investors could be helpful — even if it’s just validating what’s hard vs. advising on how to work through certain challenges. I’ve heard other entrepreneurs say they’d like to get help from their investors but worry that purely by asking for help it will signal a weakness. Conversely, I’ve heard investors say they wish the leaders of their portfolio companies would be more transparent about challenges they are facing and ask for help. As one investor said to me recently, “They already sold me on the business and have our money. It’s now our firm’s job to help them succeed.”

In an informal Twitter poll I recently conducted, 56% of entrepreneurs who responded said their most common ask of their investors is for hiring help. Second to that (31%) are asks for introductions to potential partners or customers and a small percentage (13%) tap their investors for financial management advice.

I also polled my investor friends on what questions they like to get from their portfolio companies. What they shared made it clear to me that they can and want to be helpful well beyond their funds!

“Good entrepreneurs are learning machines so they’re always asking for advice and guidance from multiple sources of expertise, including their investors. In fact, the best founders are outstanding at squeezing every bit of insight, advice and contacts from their network of investors and advisers.“ Jeff Bussgang, Flybridge Capital

Do you know how to get the most from your investors? Below, I have outlined what I consider to be basic asks (table stakes) as well as suggestions for deeper asks.

What To Ask For

Hiring

Table Stakes:

  • Referrals and warm introductions
  • Posting job links on their websites
  • Invitations to recruiting events

Beyond the Basics:

  • Seek examples of job descriptions (JDs) and/or critiques of those you’ve written. Most investors were operators once and have a good sense of how to write a good JD; they may also have a recruiting arm at their firm who can counsel you on specific searches. [See point on compensation in Financials, below]
  • New to hiring? Practice interviewing candidates with investors or their associates before bringing actual candidates in for the real interview.
  • Resume screening can be an easy ask and a quick job for someone who’s seen 100’s if not 1000’s of resumes. Experienced eyes can point out immediate red flags and give you specific areas you may want to probe for a particular candidate.
  • Invite an investor to help diversify an otherwise homogeneous interview team. This can be a game changer for a candidate who may otherwise feel like they are a token hire. Knowing the extended team around the business is diverse, can allay these concerns.
  • Ask your investors to help sell the business to prospective candidates. This can be especially critical if you’re trying to hire a senior team member or a start-up first-timer.

    “This is something we continue to do, even with mid-level hires in mid-stage companies when the founder feels like a highly desirable candidate could use an extra push. It’s not a huge burden on our side, but can have a very strong positive impression on the candidate who probably feels like getting board/investor visibility is a strong positive in their career development. “ Rob Go, NextView Ventures

  • Investors can also be helpful offering insights on how your company is perceived as a workplace from their own perspective or from feedback they’ve garnered in the market. (people talk…)
  • Finally, but very carefully, investors may be able to help you get backdoor references on potential hires. I wrote more about this particular topic here. Backdoor references can be helpful, but only if done right!

Marketing, Sales & Partnerships

Table Stakes:

  • Introductions to potential customers and/or partners
  • Putting your company logo on their website; putting their firm’s logo/board member on your website
  • Invitations to marketing & sales events
  • Tapping their social media presence for sharing news and events

Beyond the Basics:

  • Investors look at markets all day, every day, and have an objective perspective on not just current market forces, but patterns over time and how markets move and customers buy. They may not know your specific market details or the intimate buying patterns of your target customer, but as Bob Mason of Project11 says “We often ask the right questions informed by our opportunity to step out of the day to day urgency of running the business. We have enough knowledge to understand the big market forces, see patterns from other businesses and can help drive an engaged dialogue. For the engineering-centric founders, you can think about this as ‘debugging’ an issue. When coding, you might bang your head for hours trying to find the root cause of a hard bug. But you bring over a colleague and talk through the situation and often a solution will appear. They didn’t tell you the answer, but the process of conversation brought insight to your mind.”
  • Whether you are building an enterprise product and need access to a buyer inside a potential large customer or trying to develop partnerships for your business (B2B or B2C), investors can provide invaluable insights on what drives particular companies, who the “real” decision makers are and how their buy/partnership process works. They can reach out to execs at companies and get an early feel as to how important such a potential deal or relationship could be.
  • Investors are generally good at analyzing marketing or sales funnels. If they are former marketers or sales people, they should be able to help you understand the “magic moment”, points of stickiness, drop off, etc.. They also won’t have the biases you likely bring to the table and can look at the numbers objectively.
  • Investors can be helpful with developing your company and product story as well as speak with folks in the industry to see how the story resonates.
  • Beyond offering advice on digital marketing and leveraging social media, your investors may also be helpful with brand awareness and offer PR opportunities. Perhaps they are sponsoring an event where you or a key member of your team can be a speaker? If one of your investors is a blogger, ask for a mention in their next blog post about a topic you’ve been discussing, or perhaps even a guest blog spot. Be creative about how your investors can help shine a light on your brand, product and team!

Product

Table Stakes:

  • If they can use your product as a firm or as individuals, they better be using it! Whether it’s for testing the MVP or to dogfood the brand, no excuses. There’s nothing more compelling than an investor who offers you a cup of coffee made with one of their portfolio company’s new beans or the investor who has a “powered by” one of their companies on their website. Have you asked your investors to use your product?
  • When asked (or not), investors never lack for advice on how your product can improve. Just remember, you are in it every day, they are not. So, always weigh that advice against what your team is discovering with your customers and progress accordingly.

Beyond the Basics:

  • If your investor is a former operator, especially at an early stage company, odds are they have built/tested many an MVP. Engage them in the MVP discussion. Review product priorities and test plans. Again, their objectivity and experience could give you a fresh perspective. This will also help them understand the tradeoff decisions you are making and can be very informative when it comes to strategic thinking about the company’s product roadmap and long term direction.
  • Speaking of roadmaps, if you’ve got a former head of product or VPE on your investor team, invite them to a planning session. Same reasons as above — fresh perspective and added insight when it comes to bigger picture discussions.
  • Security and compliance is an area often overlooked and where investors can probably draw on their own or other resources to ensure your company doesn’t get tripped up on a sale or regulatory issue because an “I” was not dotted or “T” crossed. They may have access to pen testers or be familiar with compliance requirements for things like PIAHIPPA or SOX through other portfolio companies’ experiences; even if it’s just asking when to worry about it vs. holding off on investing in this work.
  • Also helpful is tapping investors’ technical EiRs and/or network. When I was CTO at DigitalOcean, it was amazing to have someone like Martin Casado at a16z, our lead investor, to bounce ideas off of and even help us with some tricky architecture decisions. Similarly, my friend Jocelyn Goldfein of Zetta Venture Partners said she’s often tapped by her portfolio companies to help with developing data strategies and answer questions about data rights. Know who the experts are in these firms and they’ll probably love the opportunity to get into the details with you since it’s no longer their day job.

People

Table Stakes:

  • If they are involved with financial planning, investors should be helpful with basic headcount and organizational growth plans (what roles to fill, how many and when)
  • Investors are generally not shy about telling you (sometimes unsolicited) if they think a key employee they are interacting with is great, needs coaching or may not be successful in your organization. Just remember, if you have a board, other than the CEO, they don’t make hiring or firing decisions. That’s your job.

Beyond the Basics:

  • Whether they were former operators, or have just seen a large number of companies operate, investors can give helpful insight around people and culture. You can ask how to work through team challenges, enhance your company culture or even how to make remote teams work. If they’re not the experts in these areas, they likely have companies in their portfolios who are doing creative things or who maybe learned from mistakes and are willing to share tips and tricks to avoid pitfalls as you scale.
  • While it may make you feel vulnerable, asking your investors for guidance around your own personal development demonstrates your willingness to grow — especially if you are a first-time CEO, or other member of the C-Suite. I’ve seen investors coach leaders on everything from how to lead their teams and handle challenging employees to how to run a great board meeting. I’ve also seen investors support and sometimes even pay for executive coaches and training programs for high-potential leaders.

    “Drop your shields, if you think asking for advice or help from your investors is showing signs of weakness you have it all wrong. Your investors are by definition already on your side and any problem you are facing or any area of growth where you think they may be able to contribute to or connect you to someone who can be helpful, go for it. I want leaders to ask me ‘what am I doing wrong, where can I level up?’” Reed Sturtevant, The Engine

  • Beyond headcount and budgets, investors with experience leading teams at scale can be very helpful with how to think about organizational design through various stages of growth. Investors can also have a really good sense of leveling across organizations and have seen a lot of creative approaches used across companies.

Financials

Table Stakes:

  • Investment checks
  • Future rounds  —  financing strategy, valuation, etc.

Beyond the Basics:

  • It’s never too soon to get “budget religion”, especially if you have a capital-intensive business where you need to figure out working capital, financing with manufacturing, etc.. Ask for guidance on how best to manage your funds as well as how to track burn and prepare data for future financing to make the diligence process easier for new investors. They may even have models or frameworks other portfolio companies use that you can borrow.
  • Not sure whether your compensation packages are competitive or fair? Or how to think about equity vs. salary splits? Comping your sales team? Your investors have probably seen many different configurations and can help you get creative if you’re trying to land a key hire or to retain and motivate your current team.
  • Other financial areas where investors can be helpful are ways to think about marketing spend as a ratio of investment in engineering or sales/revenue, pricing models and tax considerations.

In all of the above cases, if your investors can’t help you directly, odds are very high that they know someone who can. Good investors won’t expect you, especially if you are a first-time founder, to figure it out all by yourself. For me personally, I always appreciate the humility that comes from anyone who knows what they don’t know and asks for help. It is impossible for anyone to know everything!

How To Ask

There are three ways I think every founder should interact with their investors outside of board meetings (if you have them).

  1. Investor update emails are always a good vehicle for asks. If you’re not sure if anyone on the investment team can be helpful, be specific: “Looking for advice on digital marketing strategies.” or “Would love to talk with someone in your network who can advise my team on HIPPA compliance.”.
  2. Routine 1:1 calls or meetings are a must. This establishes a good touchpoint with investors to establish a rapport and catch up informally instead of waiting for a crisis or issue to arise as a reason for a call. I suggest you always have at least one ask for these meetings and always follow up with a quick email with that ask in writing.
  3. Identify at least one domain area where each investor may serve you best (e.g., I am usually the go-to person for product & engineering or organizational planning for my angel investments and advisees). When the needs arise, set up face-time to dig into that specific topic with that investor.

Remember, your investors are not just here to provide cash. They are invested in you and your company’s success. As Jason Seats of TechStars says, when in doubt, “pretend that they are not an investor and figure out what you’d ask them. If you can’t come up with anything, they may not be a good investor for you.” This can also be a nice hack around targeting the right investors from the start.

Have other examples of ways your investors have been helpful beyond their funds? Please share in the comments.

 

Go Big, Or Go…Startup

big Fish Little Fish

Image source unknown

A common career advice question I get all the time is what the tradeoffs are between going to a startup vs. going to a big company. There are many things to consider and lots of “it depends” when it comes to where you are in your career, where you live etc., but when it comes to the general aspects of a startup vs. mature company, most of the situations don’t vary that much. I’ve done both, several times, so here’s a perspective on the tradeoffs based on my own experiences.

Startup vs. Mature Company

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(c) 2018 Julia B Austin

Putting aside for a moment industry and how you feel about the products the company is building (both of which are very important!), most of the differences between a startup vs. a mature company are pretty obvious. In a mature company, you will likely have more role models to learn from and stronger teams to collaborate with, a clear direction and a mature board. The role you consider may have a narrow scope, but could offer deeper learning and of course great benefits, compensation, etc.. You’ll also get exposure to what good (or bad) looks like at scale and possibly a nice brand for your resume.

Startups can offer a chance to do “all the things” which can be either a blessing or a curse depending on your interests. You may miss out on having peers to collaborate with, have to look outside of your company for mentors and role models or have limited budget to get stuff done, but you may get high value equity in exchange for lower than market-level pay. If you want to dig more into deciding which startup to join, I suggest Jeff Bussgang’s book Entering Startupland which goes deep on the different roles at startups and how to get your foot in the door.

Leadership

One thing often overlooked when considering a new job is the leadership of the company. Serial entrepreneurs will have a very different approach than someone who has limited real-world experience and mature company executive teams can be world class or “legacy” leaders who can’t move with the times. There are many tradeoffs when factoring in leadership into the decision process of startup vs. a mature company.

Screen Shot 2018-10-15 at 10.55.10 AM

(c) 2018 Julia B Austin

Startup founded by serial entrepreneurs: This can often be the best case scenario if you want to learn from those who have “seen the movie before”. They likely had no issue raising money and were selective on who their investors were and who sits on their board. They will know how to get the flywheel moving incited by past mistakes OR failures.

“When I started my fifth company I knew exactly how I wanted to build the team. So, on day one I hired a head of recruiting to get things off to a strong start. I also knew market adoption would be critical to fundraising so focused on growth very early on – before we even had a product!” – David Cancel, CEO & Co-Founder Drift

Serial entrepreneurs may also try to overcorrect in areas where they failed the first time, such as over analyzing or delaying decisions, being too conservative on cash flow or focusing too much on scalability too early in the product development process. If you’re interviewing with a serial entrepreneur, it’s always good to ask what lessons they learned in their last startup and how they’re bringing those lessons into their new venture.

“I joined Drift in part because I wanted to learn from the experience of the co-founders. They’ve seen it before so they anticipate issues, they know when (and how) to hire experts to level up the team, and they know what’s “normal” for a hypergrowth company. It’s the best of both worlds: you get the rollercoaster startup experience with some of the more measured leadership and strategic characteristics of a bigger company.” – Maggie Crowley, Product Manager Drift

Industry veterans doing their first startup: Founders coming from mature companies with no startup experience can have big company confidence, be great at hiring and leading teams, but lack scrappiness to get a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) out the door and work towards product market fit.

“At our first startup after a series of roles at large enterprise software companies, we tried to force a big company perspective on how we did employee feedback and reviews. We were too structured with this initially and quickly cut back to a more loose feedback and review process with our team.” Izzy Azeri & Dan Belcher, Co-Founders Mabl

They may also be too used to having teams of people and systems in place to cover the more mundane duties of running a company and don’t want to get their hands dirty. On the flip side, they often know how to implement those processes and know the people to hire to run them so once the flywheel is moving and cash is in-hand, they can get momentum quickly.

“Earlier in my career, I hired a small team within a large corporation that was scrappy and had entrepreneurial mentality. At my startup, I quickly realized the benefit of once having a corporation behind me when things weren’t working out. The impact of a bad decision or process was much greater with no safety net.” – Karen Young, CEO & Founder Oui Shave

Startup with limited leadership experience: Working with a skilled group of founders leading teams for the first time can be tons of fun. If you bring some experience to the table, it can be very gratifying to not only work from the ground up, but also work alongside these founders as they grow. However, it can be frustrating if you find yourself figuring out things on your own because there’s no one in the company to mentor you. These situations can be very rewarding if you’re patient and you can always get outside mentors and advisors if they’re not available at this type of startup.

“When we started, we got a lot of advice like: stay focused, don’t expand too quickly, be careful that experienced hires match your culture.  All good advice, but we discovered there’s no real substitute for learning the hard way. The lesson just doesn’t sink in until you feel the pain of doing it wrong.” Wombi Rose, CEO & Co-Founder LovePop

Mature company with inexperienced leadership: If they made it this far, they are either wicked smart, lucky or both! More likely they also have surrounded themselves with strong, experienced leaders, investors and/or board members. You can learn a lot from joining a company like this, but they are very, very rare! When companies scale too fast, they can also suffer from having people in roles that have outgrown their experience. Read more about the impact of Hypergrowth situations written by my friend at Reboot, Khalid Halim, for First Round.

Mature companies with experienced leadership: These organizations have all the standard things you’d expect. Probably more politics and process than you’d ever find at a startup, but the benefit of exposure to great role models and best practices can be invaluable. Sometimes, these bigger companies can also expose you to the “dark side” of leadership and processes which are also great learnings on what not to do in your next job or company you may start yourself.

Which comes first in your journey?

For those doing early career path planning and knowing they want to do both a startup and a mature company at some point, there’s always the question of which should come first. Hiring managers at early stage companies can get “spooked” when they see someone with too much time (5+ years) at mature companies; questioning whether the candidate will be able to transition to startup life. Not that it’s impossible, but it’s something to consider. For these candidates, I suggest highlighting any scrappy “ground zero” work they may have done at their companies to demonstrate they can handle ambiguity and take risks. I am also a huge (and very biased) fan of people who’ve joined companies early and scaled with them. They have learned a TON from those experiences and can often start scrappy, but know how to operate at scale. Win-win.

Conversely, someone with a lot of startup experience may have a hard time adjusting to mature company. A hiring manager at a mature company may question whether a candidate with only startup experience can handle a slower pace or won’t know how to navigate a complex organizational structure that requires political and communication savvy. You may have to sacrifice title and maybe some salary to get a foot into larger institutions who may view your past role, which may have been very senior at a startup, to being pretty junior if those around you have decades more experience. However, I always find those with startup experience can be invaluable to a team that needs to be shaken up, take more risks or explore new ground. Often, those who sacrifice title and pay when they joined, make it up fast as they move up the chain in a larger organization.

There’s no right or wrong place to start. A lot depends on how you define your skills and how willing and patient you are in either case to adjust. Much can depend on who hires you and their management philosophy. I’ve seen some people bounce between both types of situations over and over, some that just can’t handle startup life, and others who have startups in their DNA and should just stick with that world 🙂

“At a startup, every job matters and you can see almost daily that you are creating something that wasn’t there before. You have the ability to learn quickly and have a fast feedback loop to let you know how you’re doing. It’s very different working at an established company vs a startup, but you can learn a lot at both – you’ll just learn very different things.” – Rebecca Liebman, CEO & Co-Founder LearnLux

Questions To Ask

Regardless of whether you are a seasoned veteran or fresh out of school, as you ponder whether you want to join a startup or a mature company here are some final things to consider:

  • What tools do you want to add to your toolbox? Will the role allow you to hone skills you already have or add new ones?
  • Who do you want to learn from, and how do you want to learn? You can learn from experienced colleagues and mentors, but having bad role models can also teach you a lot about what not to do. Similarly, if you are an experienced hire coming into a company started by inexperienced founders, you may want to learn by mentoring or teaching these young leaders. Taking the skills you’ve developed over your career and applying them to a new situation in itself can be a very enlightening experience.
  • Who do you want to work with? How important is the size and culture of the team you’ll work with? Remember, you’ll probably spend more waking hours of the day with these people than anyone else in your life – regardless of the size and nature of the company you join.
  • What do you value? At the end of the day, love what you do and decide what role will allow you to maintain the integrity of who you are and who you aspire to be!

Do you have other tips on how to decide whether to join a startup vs. a mature company? Please share in the comments!

Mastering The Team Meeting

No matter how much we hate going to meetings, there’s a generally accepted best practice that teams should meet with their manager as a group on a regular cadence. More often than not, I hear leaders and/or their staff dreading their team meeting. Instead of these meetings being the least favorite time suck of the week, wouldn’t it be great if these were the meetings we looked forward to? That we felt it was time well spent with our colleagues and added value to our roles in some meaningful way?

There’s no reason you have to suffer or make your teams suffer through another tortuous hour or more. A while back, I shared protips on Mastering the 1:1. Now, herewith my tips on Mastering the team meeting…

Meeting Purpose: Set a clear purpose for your team meeting. What do you want your team to get out of the time spent together? Do you want them to stay informed about larger topics in the organization? Get to know each other and their respective work better? Whether you are rebooting a long standing meeting or you are a new leader of a team gearing up for your first routine meeting, talk with your team members about what they want out of the session. This time is much more about their needs than yours, so align the purpose with their needs. A fun way to get this dialogue going is to ask each team member to complete this sentence: “My favorite meeting of the week is my manager’s team meeting because……” What would they say?

Agenda: I am a firm believer that if a meeting is important enough to have, it should have a time-boxed agenda and always be followed up with notes and action items (“AIs”). Protips on setting the agenda:

  1. As the team leader, you should solicit 1-2 “hot” topics per meeting from your team. I recommend you do this no more and no less than 48 hours before it is scheduled so ideas are timely and content is fresh. Topics should not be tactical – that’s what stand-ups and 1:1s are for. Instead, focus on strategic discussions and information sharing. On the latter, do not make it a status reporting meeting. Information sharing could be a product demo, or draft of a presentation someone is preparing for a conference or a preview of a big announcement to solicit feedback before it goes out.
  2. Always send the agenda for the meeting 24 hours in advance. This sets expectations and ensures no surprises and attendees are well prepared.
  3. Prepping for the meeting should take less than 15 minutes. Solicit agenda items – prepare agenda – communicate agenda. Long slide decks and spreadsheets created just FOR the meeting is a total waste of time. If those materials already exist and can add value to the discussion, then owners of said content should A) share these materials ahead of the meeting for pre-reading and B) bring said materials with them and be prepared to share them at the meeting.
  4. Lead by example for your team and read all materials sent in advance before the meeting. If you have not read them, no one else will and again, you’re wasting people’s time. If you’re prepared, everyone else will be prepared.
  5. Finally, always carve out 10 minutes at the end of the agenda to take a pulse on your team. My method is “share thumbs at one”. Three, two, one and on one have everyone in the meeting give a thumbs up, down or sideways. I do a quick read of the room and video screens to gauge if we’re trending in a particular direction and, if so, take time to discuss. People feeling really up? Share why! People feeling down? How can we work together to make things better? This simple, transparent, way of sharing how the team is feeling is a great way for you to lead and for them to support each other. I also find doing this at the end vs. the start of a meeting tends to be a better read because no one is bringing the stress from a prior meeting into their pulse check.

Meeting Engagement: No one wants to listen to a monologue at the team meeting and no one wants to be in a meeting with other people who are checked out. Several protips to avoid this:

  1. Ask 1-2 members of your team to take the lead on the hot topics in each meeting. They do not need to be the experts on the topic, just the topic leader. This includes having them facilitate getting pre-reads to team members ahead of the meeting. The more they have ownership in a topic, the more engaged they’ll be.
  2. The team’s leader should not speak more than ⅓ of the time throughout the meeting. Other than updating your team about broad company topics, your job is to facilitate the discussion and LISTEN. If you’re a bad facilitator (not every leader’s strong suit), then appoint or bring someone in to facilitate. I’ve seen everything from EAs and HR leaders to program managers serve as facilitators of meetings – they keep the meeting on topic, on time and pay attention to the room. I don’t recommend one of your team members be the facilitator – they are there as an engaged participant, only.
  3. READ THE ROOM. Are people reading their email, checked out on a remote phone or video line or rolling their eyes at each other (visibly or under the table on their cells via text…)? Pay attention to what’s happening in the meeting and pause if you see this kind of behavior. If you’re losing people, you’re wasting everyone’s time and you’re costing the company money. (do the math, the average team meeting can cost a company thousands of dollars every week!). Tell people to put their phones or laptops away if they are checked out. Ask people called in remotely if they have anything to add to the conversation. Pull them in. If the topic is falling flat, be direct and ask why or solicit suggestions on how to make it more engaging. E.g., budget discussions are rarely engaging so even a simple “bare with me as we get through this” can go a long way.
  4. Have fun! It’s great to start a meeting with a funny anecdote or personal story to wake up the room. Maybe someone on your team has a good customer story or had someone on their team get a “win” worth sharing. Perhaps you have a fun personal story to share that shows your human side. Keep it light where you can, but serious during some of the tougher topics (budget, staffing, etc.). This fortifies the culture of your team both inside and outside of the meeting.

Tactical Stuff: When you meet and who goes to the meeting is just as important as the agenda and the content. Protips:

  1. Timing: Got a distributed team in multiple timezones? Find a time that’s mutually convenient for all team members. Do you find the meetings always run over? Schedule it for an extra 30 minutes and if it ends early, everyone gets time back – you’re a hero. Does the team have family responsibilities in the morning or after work? Don’t schedule the meeting such that it disrupts their lives outside of work (if it can be avoided). I also generally discourage team meetings on Mondays (frequent holidays/long weekends means rescheduling or skipping too often) and Fridays (long weekends and if hard topics, no time to debrief/process offline before the weekend).
  2. Decision making: If a meeting has >8 people attending, it is an “information sharing” meeting. Less than that, and decisions can be made at the meeting. If you have a team greater than 8 people, tee up decision topics for discussion and, unless it’s a layup, take the actual decision off line. Otherwise, there are “too many cooks”.
  3. Assign and rotate a note taker at every meeting. You and/or the facilitator cannot read the room and take notes at the same time. Further, by rotating the role across your team, you foster engagement and get fresh perspectives on the meetings each time. Notes should be distributed no later than 24 hours after the meeting while things are fresh. Always call out AIs with owners and deadlines in the notes.
  4. Guests: An agenda should always build in intros for guests and should be time-boxed for cameos. For example, if the head of HR is a guest at your meeting to talk through the next review cycle with your team, the team should know that person will be there and why. Further, unless there’s scheduling trickiness, have guests come at the start or end of the meeting so as not to disrupt the meeting with people coming and going throughout. My personal preference is guests at the start. Then we get into our regular routine.

Most important, don’t set it and forget it. If you do change things up, be clear on why you’re doing it and give it time to settle. Starting or overhauling your meeting process won’t necessarily show positive results the very next meeting and changing it too often will not only cause unrest with your team, but can create distrust if the rules of engagement keep changing. Have at least 4-6 meetings for a new routine to set in and then evaluate whether the changes are effective and adjust as needed. Solicit feedback from your team regularly too – after all, it’s their meeting!

Do you run a kick ass team meeting? Or, do you have ideas on how to improve the team meetings you attend? Share your protips in the comments!

The War For (Diverse) Teams At Early Stage Companies…and Beyond

Note: Diversity is a term used 30+ times in this piece and refers to all types of diversity, beyond just gender.

In 2004, there was a post-bubble burst resurgence of well funded startups and VMware, like many other companies in the Silicon Valley, was struggling to compete for talent against Google, Yahoo and others in their space. The hot conversation in the weekly e-staff meeting in Palo Alto was about maintaining the bar and hiring the very best talent they could find. This was well before diversity and inclusion was trending as a hiring pain point. There was a war on talent.

To combat this war, the leadership team at VMware got creative. There was an urgency to bring on talent and just competing on compensation and equity wasn’t enough when that talent pool itself was sparse. So, leveraging ties to several of the team members’ east coast roots, they tried an experiment and opened an office in Cambridge, MA.

As the Site Director hired to build out that office at the start of 2005, I was charged with bringing on at least a dozen engineers by the end of the year. I had strict guidance on who to hire first;  the first six hires had to be at least a Staff level engineer, which at that time was like a Principal at most other companies. Even though we were desperate to bring on more talent, the leadership team insisted we still keep the bar high. There were no compromises – hire the best, no matter what.

By the end of 2005, we ended up hiring over 20 seasoned engineers and were well poised to scale that location with more junior talent and expand into other regions across the globe. It was a hard push to win the war, but we won it and many would say that getting scrappy, maintaining the bar and taking risks outside of Palo Alto to hire great talent was one of the key factors that led to VMware becoming the multi-billion dollar success story it is today.

Getting Scrappy And Taking Risks To Create Diverse Teams

Flash forward to 2017, and the talent war is still on, but it’s not just about hiring top talent, it’s about hiring for diversity. There’s plenty of science to prove that diverse teams are what separate average companies from the big success stories. Once there’s diversity in teams, you attract more candidates from underrepresented groups. But there is a catch-22 when companies and teams with no diversity can’t hire candidates from underrepresented groups, in part, because they have no diversity in their current teams!

I was at an event recently where I sat in a breakout session about diversity and inclusion where most of the fifteen or so participants were white, male, CEO-Founders of very early stage companies. These leaders were complaining that despite best efforts, they were not able to find/hire qualified, candidates from underrepresented groups for their open positions. Investors were on their back to meet deadlines and reach revenue goals and the push for building diverse teams was not a high enough priority to push back. They had to hire the best talent they could find, and get coding!

But what if that talent didn’t exist? What if it was 2004 and there were no engineers to hire, never mind engineers from underrepresented groups? How do companies, like VMware did back then, combat this war vs. becoming complacent? What can companies do today to be creative, continue to scale, and develop a diverse team? What if CEOs, their leadership team and their boards held the line on diversity metrics, no matter what?

Starting From The Top

A company that is committed to diversity must demonstrate that commitment from the top, down. CEOs set the tone for the organization’s culture by demonstrating a commitment to diversity and inclusion. They don’t just say they care about the problem and acknowledge the importance of solving it, but they force it to happen. VMware’s founding CEO, Diane Greene, was adamant that we hire only the best talent from day one, and CEOs today need to do the same when it comes to hiring diverse talent.

One of the most compelling reasons for any strong candidate to join a company is knowing there’s diversity at the senior most levels. Having Diane at the helm played a huge role in my decision to join VMware. She was a role model and inspiration to everyone at the company as she balanced the complex demands of scaling our business with her family and other commitments outside of work. We were not only inspired to follow her drive and passion for the business, but the company naturally attracted other strong, candidates because of her leadership.

Whether you are an early stage company, mature business or even just a growing team within a maturing business, committing to diversity at the top is critical. Here are some suggestions on how to do that:

  • The founding team: Diversity does not just have to exist between your co-founding team, it should be among your first hires, your advisors, customers and/or friends of the company. The more diverse the team, the more likely you will be to attract new team members from under represented groups. Introduce prospects to these company “community” members to begin to demonstrate your commitment to this metric at the start. For example, I frequently join interview panels for early stage companies I advise to ensure not just a great hire, but to add diversity to the panel itself.
  • Set and hold the diversity bar for leadership hires: Don’t say “it would be really great to fill the next senior role with a diverse candidate”, rather make it mandatory to create a diverse organization. “We will not hire another manager, director, VP, etc. unless they bring diversity into our team.” Get scrappy and go hard to build these teams (see below). Stop looking for just culture fit and homogenous pattern matching and seek those different than you – they are sure to be additive to your organization beyond just their skills and experiences. Yes, it may take longer to find that person, but hold out for it – it’s worth it!

Note to VCs & Board Members

It is great to see so many VCs and board members stepping up to foster diversity in their portfolios. They are committing to invest in more women founded companies, hosting “diversity events”, making the Decency Pledge and some are creating special funds for diverse entrepreneurs. I believe many VCs are sincerely interested in this effort and not just creating PR tactics to position firms to appear supportive. While those efforts are important to further the cause (don’t stop doing them!), I challenge them to set the bar higher; implementing hard accountability metrics for diversity in their firms and in their portfolio companies. To not be complacent in the reality that it’s “hard to find qualified  candidates from underrepresented groups”, but rather force change to happen. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Mandate that your partnership be a diverse team. Studies continue to come out on how diversity in investment teams have stronger exit outcomes. Get scrappy and find ways to build diverse teams for your firms. The more diverse your team, the more likely your firm, will attract a more diverse group of entrepreneurs into your deal flow. And don’t stop at one – keep forging ahead and strive for a more balanced group of partners; a token diversity hire isn’t enough. Also, each partner from an underrepresented group on your team allows for more diversity on your portfolio companies’ boards. While there’s great debate on whether there’s a direct correlation with diversity on boards and company performance, it is a sure thing that diverse boards add new perspective and new ideas to help the organization succeed.
  • Refuse to fund a non-diverse team (!). Yes, you may have to get your LPs to sign off on this, but many LPs are now pressuring the funds they’re in to push harder on the diversity front. So, take the lead, be proactive and tell them you’re holding the bar. Even if it means an initial slow down on deal flow and longer lead times to exit. The data proves that those investments are far likely to pay off in a bigger way than the non-diverse team investments you’re making today.
  • Set your portfolio teams up for success and help find candidates from underrepresented groups for your investments. Extend runway with a bridge loan or other means until the company has had at least six months to try to shore up their team. Make this a priority of your firm. This too is likely to improve deal flow if you offer this type of support to entrepreneurs as many entrepreneurs are not even coming to you because they don’t have the requisite co-founder, never mind a co-founder/founding team that is diverse.
  • Cover the cost to augment teams during the recruiting process. Not only encourage your portfolio companies to bring in consultants/contractors from underrepresented groups as part of their core team until they demonstrate diversity in their teams, but pay for it! Invest in your teams beyond the equity round.
  • Note to Founders: Depending on urgency to raise capital, you might consider refusing to take money from funds that don’t walk the talk – will your board be diverse? Would non-diverse investment group allow you to fill their board seat with an alternate who brings diversity into the board? The more senior candidates you are courting to join your company will examine board composition carefully – especially if your investors play an active role in the day-to-day of your company (It happens more than we think!). How hard are you willing to work to get a diverse board? Also consider creating a seat for an independent board member from day one to be used if needed to round out your team.

Beyond The Leadership Team And Investors

How are you set up to source for and hire diverse teams? Are you looking in all the right places? In 2015, I wrote a whole primer on hiring for startups (much of which is also applicable for later stage companies), but here are some specific tips on getting creative on hiring for diverse teams:

  • Diversity in your interview panel: Most hiring managers these days know it’s ideal to have a diverse interview panel to help sell a candidate on the role and company, but if your team lacks diversity, consider augmenting the interview team with diverse “community” members – either from other teams in your company or by inviting board members, advisors, friends of the company, etc. to participate. More good info on the hiring process for diversity here.
  • Join, sponsor or network with diversity orgs: There are countless non-profit organizations that cater to diversity hiring causes. For example, joining the National Center for Women in Technology’s Entrepreneurial Alliance which is designed for both startups and incubators/accelerators, provides access to job forums, invitations to their events and connections with over 600 other membership companies. Blackengineer.com has a jobs board, as does lgbtconnect.com. There are loooong lists of other organizations you can tap into to support diversity hiring efforts here, here and here.
  • Bring on Diverse Contractors: To me this is a win-win. You can start getting some work done and having diversity in the office can allay concerns when members of underrepresented groups come in to interview. I’ve heard countless stories of a candidate going for an interview and saying “the whole office was dudes or all white” …you get the visual. I’ve also heard many stories of contractors who fall in love with the company they’re working with (and vice versa) and join full time! (and as noted above, maybe you can get your investors to pay for it!).
  • Never miss the opportunity of a passive candidate: So many companies fail to build diverse teams because they wait for applicants vs. seeking out great people. Troll LinkedIn, go to meetups related to your company’s area, hire sourcers to look for great candidates who may not even know they might want a change until they get a call from your company! Don’t wait for these candidates to come to you.

The First Diverse Hire

Once you reach success and start to hire diverse team members, remember, for many of them, they may be the first one – whether it’s at your company as a whole or perhaps just in one team. There can be an ominous feeling when one thinks they’ve been courted or hired as the token diverse candidate/employee. What will you do to ensure that they are set up for success?

  • Acknowledge the problem from the start. The first time you diversify your team, especially for a small company, the individual will know they are bringing diversity to the table. Speaking from experience, it’s fine to call it out, as long as it’s clear that this is not THE reason they are in consideration. Needing a strong technical leader, or someone who has specific domain expertise is the priority, diversity is simply a value add to the team/company…but don’t dwell on it.
  • Consider how you operate today and whether there are any conscious or unconscious biases towards the current homogeneity of your company/team. Are there activities that happen at work or after hours such as fantasy leagues, spa trips or perhaps even non-family friendly activities that keep the first diverse hire from feeling comfortable or the outlier? Does your office decor offend or intimidate? Carefully examine how your company culture, rituals and environment is setup to be as friendly as possible.
  • You’re not done – the first hire that creates diversity in your team should not check a box and then you move on. Keep at it and for God’s sake please do not make that hire the ambassador for all future diversity activities! It is still the hiring manager/leadership team’s responsibility to keep the momentum.
  • Finally, focus on retaining those great hires.

Make diversity a priority. Hold yourself, your team, your investors and your board accountable. Set standards, get scrappy and change things for the better.

This is a war on for diverse teams. Treat it that way.

Reply in the comments if you have other creative suggestions on how to win the war on creating diverse teams.

So You Want to Be A Product Manager

Because I teach a course on Product Management at Harvard Business School, I am routinely asked “what is the role of a Product Manager?”. The role of a Product Manager (PM) is often referred to as the “CEO of the Product”. I disagree because, as Martin Eriksson points out, “Product managers simply don’t have any direct authority over most of the things needed to make their products successful – from user and data research through design and development to marketing, sales, and support”. PMs are not the CEO of product and their roles vary widely depending on a number of factors. So what should you consider if you’re thinking of pursuing a PM role?

As an aspiring PM, there are three primary considerations when evaluating the role: Core Competencies, Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and Company Fit. The best PMs I have worked with have mastered the core competencies, have a high EQ and work for the right company for them. Beyond shipping new features on a regular cadence and keeping the peace between engineering and the des

ign team, the best PMs create products with strong user adoption that have exponential revenue growth and perhaps even disrupt an industry.

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Do you have what it takes to be the best PM?

Core Competencies
There are core competencies that every PM must have – many of which can start in the classroom – but most are developed with experience and good role models/mentoring. Some examples of these competencies include:

  • Conducting customer interviews and user testing
  • Running design sprints
  • Feature prioritization and roadmap planning
  • The art of resource allocation (it is not a science!)
  • Performing market assessments
  • Translating business-to-technical requirements, and vice versa
  • Pricing and revenue modeling
  • Defining and tracking success metrics

These core competencies are the baseline for any PM and the best PMs hone these skills over years of defining, shipping and iterating on products. These PMs excel at reflecting on where each of these competencies contributed to the success or failure of their products and continuously adjust their approach based on customer feedback.

Emotional Intelligence (EQ)
A good PM may know the Do’s and Don’ts of a customer interview, but the best PM has the ability to empathize with customers in that interview, are tuned into their body language and emotions and can astutely suss out the true pain-points that their product/feature will address. A PM with a high EQ has strong relationships within their organization and they have a keen sense of how to navigate both internal and external hurdles to ship a great product. Here’s a deeper look at how the four EQ key traits, as defined by Daniel Goleman, relate to the PM role:

  • Relationship Management: Probably one of the most important characteristics of a great PM is their relationship management skills. By forming authentic and trustworthy connections with both internal and external stakeholders, the best PMs inspire people and help them reach their full potential. Relationship management is also vital in successful negotiation, resolving conflicts and working with others toward a shared goal which is especially challenging when a PM is tasked with balancing the needs of customers, resource constrained engineering teams and the company’s revenue goals.

    Authentic and trusting relationships within an organization can lead to more support if additional funding is needed for a product or to sway an engineer to include a quick bug fix in the next sprint. Outside an organization, these skills could encourage existing customers to beta test a new feature for early feedback or convince a target customer to try the MVP of a product still in stealth mode. These relationship skills can also be what makes the difference between having irate customers because of a bug introduced into the product and those who say “no worries, we know you’ll fix this!”. 
  • Self-awareness: PMs must be self-aware to remain objective and avoid projecting their own preferences onto users of their products. If a PM is in love with a feature because it addresses their own pain points (PMs are often super users of the products for which they are responsible), they may cause a user to say they love it too just to please the PM (“False positive feature validation”). If not self aware, a PM may push to prioritize a feature they conceived even when all the customer interviews and evidence is stacked against it. This lack of self awareness could derail more important priorities and/or damage the PM’s relationship with engineers who may lose confidence in their PM when the feature isn’t readily adopted by users. 
  • Self-management: Being a PM can be incredibly stressful! The CEO wants one thing, the engineering team another, and customers have their own opinions about feature priorities. Managing tight deadlines, revenue targets, market demands, prioritization conflicts and resource constraints all at once is not for the faint of heart. If a PM cannot maintain their emotions and keep it cool under pressure, they can quickly lose the confidence of all their constituents. The best PMs know how to push hard on the right priorities, with urgency, but without conveying a sense of panic or stress. These PMs also know when to take a breath and step away if needed, regroup, and go back into the game to get sh*t done (GSD). 
  • Social Awareness: According to Goleman, the competencies associated with being socially aware are Empathy, Organizational Awareness, and Service. PMs must understand customers emotions and concerns about their product as much as they understand the concerns of the sales team on how to sell that product (or support team to support it, or engineering to build it). PMs have to have a deep understanding of how the organization operates and build social capital to influence the success of their product – from obtaining budget and staffing to securing a top engineer to work on their product. Finally, social awareness ensures the best PMs service their customers with a product that addresses their jobs to be done which is ultimately what drives product market fit.

Read more about what Paul Jackson has to say about EQ and PMs here – including a sub-link of an interview with Sam Lessin, former VP of Product Management at Facebook, who says he has ‘never successfully trained empathy.’ (or as Lady Gaga would say “you were born this way”…or not!)

Company Fit
So if the best PMs have well developed core competencies and a high EQ, does that mean that they are then destined for success no matter where they work? Going deeper, it is taking these skills and personality traits and applying them to the right company – amid a broad array of opportunities – that will ultimately guarantee success.

I have yet to see a standard job description for a Product Manager because each role is ultimately defined by the size, type of product, stage, industry and even culture of the company. Assuming the core competencies and high EQ as the minimum requirements, the next step is to unpack who’s hiring and what they are truly looking for:

  • Technical Skill – The type of product, who uses it and/or the type of company (e.g. Google who requires PMs pass a technical skills test regardless of what product they’ll work on) will determine how technical a PM needs to be. If the company is building a SaaS CRM, there may be more requirements for experience with go-to-market and customer lifecycles than how the product itself is built. If it’s a data science product with machine learning algorithms and APIs, the role may require a lot more technical depth to not only understand how to build the product but also how to talk, credibly, with the customers who will use it. That said, having a basic technical understanding of what is “under the hood” and mastery of the tools that PMs use is definitely important for the role, anywhere. Colin Lernell has more to say about these necessary skills here.

    If you are an aspiring PM concerned you lack the basic tech skills for the role, you might consider taking online courses such as the renowned Introduction to Computer Science (CS50) course offered by Harvard University or one of the many intro and advanced technology courses offered by The Flatiron School. 
  • Company philosophy about PM – Every company has a different philosophy about the product development process and where PMs fit into that process. Below are the three most common types with pros and cons:

    • PM Drives Engineering: A “throw it over the wall” approach where PMs gather requirements, write the quintessential PRD (Product Requirements Document) and hand it off to Engineering to spec out the technical requirements. Contemporary organizations may do this process in a more agile and collaborative way, but the expectation is that PMs know best about what customers need and engineering is there to serve.
      • Pro: Engineering can focus on coding without a lot of distraction; tends to work well for Waterfall development shops with long lifecycles.
      • Con: Engineers lose sight of the big picture and do not develop empathy for customers which can lead to a poor user experience; often there are unhealthy tensions when tech-debt and “plumbing” work needs to be prioritized against customer requirements. 
    • Engineering Drives Product: More technically oriented product companies (e.g., cloud, big data, networking…) tend to be engineering driven where engineers are advancing the science in their domain and PMs validate solutions or create front end access points (UIs, APIs) to tap into this new technology. There can be a collaborative relationship and feedback loop between customers, PM and engineering, but typically, PMs are serving engineering in these companies.
      • Pro: Breakthrough technology can offer customers things they didn’t even know they needed (VMotion at VMware was a great example of this. An engineer thought it would be cool to do, a PM figured out how to monetize it and it became THE billion dollar game changer for the company).
      • Cons: Engineers chase the shiny new thing, over-architect the solution or iterate forever (seeking perfection) before getting customer feedback; PM input on priorities are ignored, which is sometimes the most basic needs of customers to encourage adoption and increase stickiness of the product.

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    • The PM<>Engineering Partnership: There is a strong yin-yang between PM and Engineering where there is joint discovery, decision-making and shared accountability. Engineers join PMs in customer interviews and PMs are insprint meetings to help unblock tasks or bring clarity to  requirements, but the two roles respect the line where one starts and the other stops. PMs understand what’s being coded, but don’t tell engineers how to code and engineers have empathy for customers’ needs, but leave the prioritization to the PMs.
      • Pros: Streamlined prioritization process that values tech-debt/plumbing projects; better design processes leading to a more positive user experience; higher performing teams with improved product velocity, quality and typically, happier customers.
      • Con: Breakthrough innovation may not get light/investment; time-to-market may seem to lag (but I’d argue what’s released is far better aligned with customer needs with a far more scalable product).

I’m clearly biased (as is Fred Wilson) on the third type of philosophy about PM as I’ve experienced all three and found the yin-yang to be most effective, but it’s not to say the others are notably bad and, again, it really depends on what type of product, stage, etc,. Regardless, when considering a PM role, the philosophy of PM at the company could be the deciding factor on fit for the role.

  • Stage of company – The role of the PM at a startup is far likely to be responsible for “all the things” vs. a mature company where their role will be more distinctly defined. Eriksson, Banfield and Walkingshaw’s book Product Leadership has a section that has a lot more detail on this topic).

    • Startup: Beyond discovery, definition and shipping, they may also be responsible for pricing, marketing, support and potentially even sales of the product. These PMs thrive in a scrappy environment and are comfortable with ambiguity and frequent changes to direction as the company works towards product market fit and learns to operate at scale.
      • Pros: Likely to be more involved with company strategy, exposure to senior leadership/board, able to take more risks/make a bigger impact; more influence/authority over company resources.
      • Cons: Little-to-no mentorship or role models or best practice within the company (may have to seek externally); may not have requisite experience for some of the “things” (comfortable winging it); tight budgets. 
    • Mature Company: The PM may have a more narrow scope (deep vs. broad), have co-workers who handle pricing, go to market strategies, etc.. and likely part of a larger team of Product Managers.
      • Pros: More likely to have mentoring/role models and development standards/best practice; close association with an engineering team can develop strong relationships over time (great for long term impact/career growth); if product has market fit, there is an established customer base and performance baseline to work from vs. guessing until you get it right.
      • Cons: Less exposure to company strategy; just one of many voices of the customer; can get “lost” in the system; more politics; tight budgets. 
  • Founder/CTO/CEO relationship with PM – Especially in earlier stage companies, it’s important to know how involved the Founder/CEO/CTO is in the product process. If they are deeply involved, the PM role may play more of a support role to flesh out their ideas or validate concepts with customers vs. conceiving and driving ideas of their own. This can be great fun for some PMs who enjoy partnering with founders/c-levels and collaborate on the product evolution, but for some PMs it can be very frustrating if they prefer to take more ownership of product direction. It can also be challenging if the more technical founders/c-levels prefer working directly with engineers. This can leave PMs out of the loop or undermined (even if unintentional) causing not just personal frustrations but delays if they have to play catch up and/or continuously recalibrate. When considering a PM role that may work closely with the founding leadership team, be sure to find out their expectations of the PM function and decide whether this is the right fit with your interests.

There are of course many other factors to consider for any role such as the type of product you are building (B2B, B2C, industry, etc.), the humans with whom you’ll work and the overall company culture (diverse, inclusive, flexible work hours, remote culture, etc.), and of course compensation and benefits. There are also a million articles on hiring product managers to get perspective on what the hiring managers are looking for – I especially recommend my friend Ken Norton’s piece How to Hire a Product Manager. However, if you are striving to be the best Product Manager, consider all of the above before signing on to your next gig. Developing core competencies will be an ongoing activity throughout your career and leveraging a high EQ will ensure a more positive experience, but where you work, how they work and who you work with/for will ultimately determine your long term success.

Have additional pointers on succeeding in the PM role? Please share in the comments!

Opening Doors & Taking Action

open doorsAs the news unfolded in the past week over Susan Fowler’s recent blog post about her experiences at Uber, I have been thinking deeply about finding my voice on the matter. I recalled the countless times I had been harassed and never said a thing to anyone, let alone the HR rep at whatever company I was working at the time. I have dozens and dozens of stories of inappropriate, sexually charged, comments from colleagues, winks, suggestive touches, crass jokes, and pictures shared with me that I wish I could unsee. I never called them out.

Fear of gaslighting – being accused of being oversensitive, crazy, blowing things out of proportion – is probably one of the top reasons for not reporting the umpteen incidents employees experience in the workplace. It seems no matter how high we climb the corporate ladder, we still hold back. Whether it’s gaslighting, possible retaliation, or as in Susan Fowler’s case, being totally ignored, we doubt we will be heard.

On those rare occasions when we are heard, those who fall victim to bad behavior or blatant harassment are often “handled” quietly, if at all. Issues are swept under the rug before anyone knows. So, regardless of whether the bad actor gets a warning or more severe action is taken, no one else learns from this lesson. Organizations and leaders desperate to protect their reputations and avoid litigation make it go away a fast as possible. Perhaps those who helped “clean it up” get a reality check, but as long as there is no exposure, no public shaming, no admission of guilt, we will continue to see situations like Ms. Fowler’s persist.

It was a bold move for Ms. Fowler to publicly share her story about Uber and its leadership team’s lack of attention towards her situation. The ubiquity of Uber, and attention the company is already getting in other forums, certainly gave fuel to this issue, but this is not just about tech companies gone bad. It was a rallying cry for leaders at any company, big or small, to not only open the doors for employees to be heard, but to make it clear that crossing the line is no longer tolerated and when it is crossed, action is taken.

Opening Doors
Building a culture of open doors is not just about telling employees “my door is always open,” but actually opening that door. We had a thoughtful series of conversations on this topic at DigitalOcean (DO) over the past week. At our company all hands, we emphasized a zero-tolerance for any harassing behaviors that make our employees feel unsafe and our CEO and I both committed that, while we want people to talk with their managers and our People team first, we are 100% available to talk with any employee who is uncomfortable and prefers to talk with either of us about any issue.

Our commitment to our employees this past week has been well received, but executives making statements about their open doors is only part of the equation. Opening doors is also about ensuring a safe and inclusive work environment by proactively mitigating issues. Ensuring a safe work environment involves everything from setting policies and guidelines to conducting cross-company training beyond the online course we are required to click through when we start a new job.

studentdiscussion_250One of my former employers offered a training using situational role playing to develop understanding and empathy for those who may not appreciate the severity of certain actions. It was an invaluable exercise and we do something similar with the unconscious bias training we provide to all new employees as part of their on-boarding at DO. We’ve found by raising awareness of these behaviors in realistic settings we can do a lot to set clear expectations on what acceptable and unacceptable is, and make people more aware of their impact on others.

If you see something, say something.
Despite proactive efforts, open doors, trainings and policies, harassment still happens. Sometimes, it’s an innocent mistake where a young/inexperienced employee just doesn’t realize they’ve said something wrong. Sometimes, it’s an experienced executive who’s never been called out thus doesn’t appreciate the impact of their behavior. Regardless, we cannot stay silent.

I believe every manager is accountable for reporting any incident that they observe or is reported to them as soon as possible. I also believe it’s every employee’s right to know that their company is taking action to ensure a safe workplace. However, because of corporate policy and privacy protection, we often lack the transparency of how organizations are handling situations and whether they are operating a safe place of work. We cannot, for many reasons, publicly call out every person who crosses a line, but there could be methods(*) to get ahead of this such as:

  • Providing a safe forum for any employee to report an incident they’ve experienced or observed.
  • Tracking anonymized incident data to look for trends including frequency of issues and resolution timeframes.
  • Implementing and broadly communicating Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) that provide hot lines, advocacy and legal counsel.
  • Internal or even public communication on a company’s performance regarding harassment situations. Imagine a world where companies own unfortunate situations and say how they are resolving them and share improvement data. Scary as that may sound, I bet that if more companies shared this information, the trend of incidents would go down.

The beat goes on…
Whether it was in Twitter or in an intimate setting among friends, Susan Fowler’s story is not the first we’ve heard like this nor will it be the last. We need to continue to bring these topics front and center and commit to continuous improvement in the workplace. I’d love to hear how other leaders are handling this topic at their companies. We all benefit from learning from each other, so please share your stories in the comments.

(*) These are just suggestions, I leave the real policy and program design work to the experts 🙂

The CTO to VP Engineering Fork

bfa_code-fork_simple-black_512x512There comes a time in every scaling tech start-up’s life when an engineering team begins to show signs of needing help. The symptoms can include lost velocity in releasing new products/features, attrition or morale issues, fragile code or lack of innovation. I frequently hear CEOs and founders say “we need a new CTO” or “should we hire a VP of Engineering?”. But what does that really mean? A title is one thing, but the skills necessary to cure the symptoms is a whole other challenge.

Most tech startups have someone serving as CTO — whether it is one of the co-founders or a first senior hire. The role of the CTO is not straightforward and as a company scales, it’s unreasonable for that role to be the end-all-be-all. In the early days of a startup, the CTO is often the chief cook and bottle washer for all things technical. She is coding, serving as the de facto IT person and project manager as well as meeting customers alongside the CEO and helping with hiring decisions. She is expected to be deeply technical and often a domain expert. Firing on all of these cylinders may meet your company’s needs in the short-term, but quite often, there reaches a point where your CTO is no longer being excellent at what they came to your company to do.

In my experience, there tends to be two types of CTOs that evolve as a company grows:

The Evangelist — The shameless promoter of your product, this CTO is out on the road meeting prospects, existing customers and partners and marketing your product. At the same time, they are gathering valuable insight into your product, its pain-points and understanding how it compares to the competition. They are mindful of industry trends and the ecosystem of which your product belongs. They are the ultimate voice of the customer and are keenly aware of the product priorities. They set the vision for the “.next” of your product and the long-term roadmap. They may have once been a coder and understand the basics of your technology architecture. They can go head-to-head with other technology leaders in your space and represent your company at technology conferences. They also tend to be a recruiting magnet for engineering talent.

This CTO works hand-in-hand with the CEO and sales and marketing leads to set the strategy for the company — from market direction to the operations and scale of the business. They are financially savvy and comfortable presenting to and working with your Board of Directors.

The Expert — Often a domain expert or technical guru, this CTO is heads down with your engineering team ensuring your products are built to perform at scale. They may code, sit in code reviews, and mentor junior engineers. They are either designing your underlying architecture or at the very least leading that conversation and signing off on proposed plans. Also talent magnets, they attract senior engineers who wish to learn from this CTO’s experience. They may be key contributors to the open source community, prolific in filing patents, publishing technical papers and speaking at technical and academic conferences. While they enjoy meeting customers and value the insight from those meetings, they prefer more intimate meetings with technical members of customer teams and whiteboard sessions to brainstorm solutions vs. “selling” your products.

This CTO works closely with the sales and support team and often leaves the company strategy and growth discussions to the CEO and other leaders of the organization. They have an opinion on where the company should go, and they’re not afraid to share that, but they leave the details up to “management”.

The VP of Engineering

In both cases above, it’s rare when one of these types of CTOs is also a master at execution. This is when it is important to have a VP of Engineering (VPE). While a VPE can often be someone who can serve as a voice of the customer, be a technical expert and/or represent the company in technical forums, the VPE’s focus is on GSD. Key characteristics of a VP of Engineering are:

  • Process oriented — highly organized around priorities, velocity, quality and meeting deadlines. They have strong project management and communication skills.
  • Great at hiring — pattern matching skills for not just technical expertise, but for people who are collaborative and mission-driven. Knows how to ID the prima donna engineer from the eager-to-learn engineer and when to say “no” even with a great looking resume. Team fit is paramount to success.
  • Great at growing their team — this isn’t about going from 10 to 40 engineers. This is about career development. They’ve got a track record for bringing junior engineers into an organization and developing them into technology leaders and domain experts. Their former engineers have followed them from company to company because they are great to work with. They know how to have fun, but also how to appropriately push a team towards meeting a deadline with urgency and not burn them out.
  • Challenges the status-quo — they won’t just keep building what the co-founders started, but will question both the what and the how. They understand the impact that technical debt can have on the long term scalability of your products. They also know how to tune processes without overkilling the company with process. They are motivated to deliver products and features that customers not only need, but love.
  • Not afraid to get their hands dirty — they lead/attend code reviews, can code if there is an emergency, enjoy tinkering with competitors’ products to understand advantages/challenges of your own products, and appreciate the fine art of squashing bugs. They come in early and stay late when there’s a deadline — even if it’s to make sure engineers are getting food and coffee.
  • Strategic thinker — while a VP of Engineering may not be at the the table deciding the fate of the company, they are part of the discussion. They understand tradeoffs of time-to-market vs. quality and value the need to get a MVP out the door to garner customer feedback early on. They may push for a product or feature, but also respect the larger vision of the roadmap and know when to let go of something that isn’t a priority — in fact, the really good VPE’s kill things sooner than a CTO or CEO may like for the sake of velocity and GSD.

When you’ve decided it’s time to fork that technology leadership role and have both a CTO and a VPE, look for someone eager to create a partnership. Someone who prefers to lean into GSD and growing teams and who values the technology leadership, vision and evangelism of your CTO. Be leery of career CTOs who seek a role as VPE at your company — they may say they’re willing to be in charge of GSD, but could easily step on your CTOs toes. Look for examples of past engineering leadership roles as managers or tech leads. Also look for measurable achievements like improved velocity rates, quality improvements or hiring/team development metrics. Those are telltale signs that you’ve got a solid VPE candidate.

Sometimes it takes a lot of soul searching for a founding CTO to realize they’re not serving the company well around VPE-types of activities. I’ve seen plenty of CTOs worried that with a VPE on board, they’re not sure what’s next for them at the company. I’ve also seen CTOs excel when partnered with a great VPE where they can set the vision and execution strategy in tandem. Fortunately, I am lucky to have such a VPE on board here @DigitalOcean — as well as two awesome Engineering Directors with whom we partner to drive our technology roadmap.

Have you struggled with the CTO to VPE fork? Share your experience in the comments!