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”.

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!

Scaling Another Rocket Ship: Hello DO!

Every once and awhile, I meet a company so exciting, I can’t sleep because I’m thinking non-stop about its potential to scale, massively. Fortunately for me, I ended up joining two of them that turned out to be great success stories and I think I just found my third. Starting this month, I am joining the ranks at DigitalOcean as their CTO.

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Anyone who knows me well would agree that as much as I am an organizer and planner, I am also a risk taker. I love diving into challenges and creating results that require skill, agility and building relationships. While business savvy and technical skill are paramount to growing a successful tech company, understanding the human element and building high performing teams is what separates the good from the great.

In 1999, with a three year-old and an infant, I quit my healthcare IT job to go to Akamai to help them get organized before our IPO. Most of my friends and colleagues thought I was nuts, but I was hungry for bringing order to chaos and building something that made an impact. My three years at Akamai were among the toughest and most rewarding years of my career. We created the world’s first CDN for businesses and turned it into the backbone of the internet. The teams I led and partnered with were some of the smartest and coolest humans I’ve had the pleasure to work with. We pulled all-nighters together, cried together when we lost our CTO-Founder Danny Lewin on 9/11 and still celebrate the company’s success together at our annual “Akamai Pre-2002’ish Employees” reunion.

In 2005, I landed at VMware right after the EMC acquisition to help them figure out how to run a global engineering team. I took a leap of faith that we would not get fully absorbed into EMC (which was their MO at the time) and that I could help build another company made to last. What I found when I interviewed at VMware was the same good vibe I had at Akamai. Super smart people, fun, passion and humility…and of course, a wicked cool product. I still remember my final interview in Palo Alto – a last minute “Diane Greene would like to meet you” – that threw me for a curve. I was pretty frank with Diane that I wasn’t sure I could balance my role at VMware with three small children. She assured me that VMware would make it work, and they did. Both my career and the company flourished over my eight year tenure at VMware. When I joined the company, we had just over 800 employees and around $200M in revenue. Today, it boasts close to 19K employees and 2015 revenues were $6.57B. It was an incredible ride to help scale something that spectacular.

When I left VMware in 2013, I felt very lucky to have been part of two incredible rocket ship stories in the technology industry. After much soul searching around “Julia.next”, I settled into the startup ecosystem in Boston. I became a mentor at TechStars and recently began teaching a Product Management course at Harvard Business School. Until recently, I was fairly certain this was the tail end of my journey, but something was gnawing at me that I had at least one more in me. One more amazing rocket ship I could help scale.

Over the past few years, I’ve made a few investments and became a formal advisor to the founders of several local startups. It was one of these founders who introduced me to Moisey Uretsky, DigitalOcean’s co-founder and Chief Product Officer. For those who don’t know Moisey, let’s just say brilliance and tenacity is an understatement. Despite my protests against working with a company in NYC, Moisey convinced me to come to DigitalOcean HQ back in January to meet his equally brilliant and tenacious brother and co-founder-CEO, Ben, and get to know the business. One visit became several and within a matter of a few weeks, I was fully enamored and signed up to advise the company.

During my early work with the DigitalOcean team, my instincts told me that this is going to be another winner. It is beyond impressive how, in just four short years, DigitalOcean has built such a strong platform and community. Ben, Moisey and I – along with the other key members of the DigitalOcean leadership team – began to work together to forge a partnership that will enable us to super-scale this company. The achievements we’ve made to grow the business so far left me unable to resist the temptation to join full time to help take it all the way. So now here I am, honored and excited to be DigitalOcean’s new CTO.

So what is it about DigitalOcean that gets me so excited?

In addition to our tremendous business growth, strong culture, talented team and impressive list of investors, the most striking is the simplicity of DigitalOcean’s features that developers love. We let developers create, automate, and manage a robust cloud server infrastructure out of the box with floating IP addresses, shared private networking, tier-1 bandwidth, team accounts and SSD hard drives which all come as standard. And all of our services can be provisioned in as little as 55 seconds with a plan for as low as $5 a month.

I am continuously blown away at the reaction I get from people in our industry who hear I am working with this company.

“I love how easy it is to spin up a Droplet to build software!” – MIT graduate student building software for his own startup

“I have 6 Droplets of my own!” – Boston VC

“Their tutorials and community engagement is the best in the industry” – Engineer building a neuroscience application

“DigitalOcean gets developers – they give us what we need with no BS” – SaaS application developer

In addition to our core feature offerings, our multiple data centers around the world and a 99.99% guaranteed uptime enable companies to build and scale robust SaaS applications. Even more exciting is what’s to come. Our storage capabilities will begin to roll out this summer and what follows is a list of features that developers building production applications will surely love. Because at DigitalOcean, it’s all about love…

This is going to be another incredible journey of risk, opportunity and balance for me. We are an organization that values learning and what better way to hold that true than to continue teaching my course at HBS (fear not, @teisenmann & PM101’ers!). And, while I’ll certainly be spending a lot of time at our HQ in NYC, I will remain living in Cambridge and to continue to be an active member of the Boston area startup community.

Finally, I am hiring! We’re looking for amazing talent across the company. Check out our current career opportunities both in and outside of NYC.

Will DigitalOcean be another massively scaling rocket ship ? I’m pretty bullish about it. So check back here soon for updates on how it’s going!

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Hard To Do, And Easy To Screw Up – A Primer On Hiring For Startups

One of the most popular conversations I have with entrepreneurs I work with is how to improve their recruiting and hiring strategy. I love when they dive into this topic early on because it’s one of the hardest parts of running any company, no matter how small or big, and super easy to screw up. It’s also extra hard these days for tech companies when talent is sparse and you’re trying to create a culture of diversity. The blog post below is definitely not comprehensive and also not a replacement for a company-specific conversation tailored to your business, products and team, but in most cases these tips should be useful.

Herewith, a primer on hiring for startups.

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Your Hiring Strategy

How much time have you put into thinking about what roles you will hire and when? It’s easy to say “we just raised x-million dollars, let’s hire!”. Then, oops, twelve months in you realize you have a bunch of people you don’t really need or worse, you’re running out of cash. Take some time to think about your hiring strategy. Don’t just plot out how much money you’ll spend per quarter on “heads”, but consider what roles they’ll play and how senior or junior each one will be. Also think about what roles could be filled by contractors vs. full time hires.

One exercise I often ask entrepreneurs to do is to draw an org chart of what their company might look like 12 months from now. Then, plot out the growth stages in hiring along the way. While their company will almost certainly change a lot between when they start and what it will look like along the way, having some idea of which and when roles may be added, and what they will cost, is a good way to think about how to prioritize your hires.

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Org. Phase 1 (first 6-12 months)

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Org Phase 2 (Months 12-18)

Beyond budgeting for growth (and compensation – including equity – each role may require), you should also consider time invested in getting those hires and lead time to fill the positions. Assume you and/or your team will spend a lot of time finding the right people, interviewing, selling candidates on the opportunity and getting them on board. Ask any first-time founder and they’ll tell you hiring consumed way more of their time early on than they ever expected. Further, just because you’ve got a position open, doesn’t mean you’ll fill it right away; especially if you keep the bar high and don’t settle for just anyone for the role. Resist the temptation to hire too fast for key positions. The opportunity cost associated with letting the wrong hire go and starting over is extremely high.

The Job Description

Once you know what roles you want to fill and when, you should write a basic job description (JD). This not only gives you a tangible to market the position, but it also serves as a communication tool with your team to be clear on what the role is and what you’ll be looking for in the candidates they may be helping you interview.

No matter where you post or share the JD, if it doesn’t attract the right people to apply for the job, you’ve failed right out of the gate. You want as many candidates to apply for the job as possible. Some tips on writing a good JD:

  • Avoid overt and subtle gender bias
  • Highlight a need for aptitude and attitude over must-have tech skills
    • Fast learner, dedication, multi-faceted skills – all good ways to suggest you care about potential.
    • Research shows that women, specifically, generally won’t apply for jobs where they don’t meet all the required skills. Don’t create an exhaustive list. Only highlight critical skills. You can always prod for more specifics once they’re in for an interview.
  • Highlight training opportunities – this suggests you can get them there vs. absolute required skills.
  • Avoid superlatives – “Ninja” “Expert” “top in their field” can all be deterrents to someone applying for the role. While we all want to hire people with high self esteem, some people are very humble and may not think they are an expert. Even if they are!

Sourcing

Sourcing candidates is a complex process that goes well beyond just posting the JD on your website or AngelList.

  • Make your “jobs” or “careers” page GREAT. Candidates who go there should feel like “I want to work with those people!” Two of my favorite career sites right now are Ecovent and Wistia. Both convey a strong sense of culture as well as make it very clear what positions are open.
  • Think about posting on other sites that are related to your industry. Perhaps affinity or user group sites. For example, She Geeks Out has a Slack site that has a jobs channel. Only women geeks are on that site and many are looking for jobs! Or maybe a hardware meet-up site or industry association site.
  • Your best hires will come from people you know. Consider using a networking tool like Drafted to tap into your network and your friends’ networks to find the right people. Even a small bounty can be a big incentive to get the right referrals.
  • Think about having a BIZZpage or post on the Jobs Board on VentureFizz (Boston) or similar sites to get more local visibility.
  • Most VCs have job postings on their website for their portfolio companies. If you’re venture backed, leverage this!
  • Don’t just promote the job on your social media channels but ask your network (including advisors, mentors and your board) to do so as well. Make it easy for them by creating the tweet, FB post, etc, with the appropriate text and links.
  • Campus recruiting is an awesome way to get young talent – especially here in Boston! Try to get resumes of students who will be at job fairs in advance. If you see some you like, reach out ahead of time and make contact. Maybe ask them their t-shirt size (if you have wearable swag) and tell them you’re exited to see them at the job fair. It’s a great way to get candidates to actually stop by your booth. Have swag at your booth and, most importantly, have people who know your company and understand the roles you’re trying to fill.
  • On whether to use outsourced vs. in-house recruiters, it depends on what your hiring strategy is.
    • If you think you’re going to have a regular cadence of hires over the next 1-2 years or more, hire a permanent recruiter who can manage the entire lifecycle – from helping with job descriptions, to sourcing, managing the interview process and on boarding your new hire. Someone who’s in-house will understand your product, your culture and the kinds of people you hire. They will save you gobs of time and energy when it comes to finding and hiring the best candidates.
    • Outsourced recruiters are great for targeted, high ranking, positions like a head of sales or a VP of Engineering. Don’t waste your time combing your network for these people unless you find someone right away. That’s what these guys are good at. Have them work on a fee for placement contract vs. a retainer up front. This is a good way to motivate the recruiter and the best ones will be happy to work this way.
  • Finally, leverage your team. Remind everyone at your company that they are on the hook to always be looking for talent and selling your company as a great place to work. The best hires often come from internal referrals. Consider offering a referral bonus for referrals who are hired and stay on board >90 days. Remember, though, some cash or cash equivalents (e.g., gift cards) are considered taxable income!

Resume Review

Fewer candidates are relying on paper resumes these days in favor of LinkedIn, but you will still see the standard resume for awhile. Here’s what I look for when I read resumes, as well as LinkedIn and Github profiles and Google searches:

  • A summary paragraph should help me understand a candidate’s brand. Are they a builder and leader of teams? A technology architect that knows how to build something from the ground up and to scale? Can they close a deal or build a relationship with strategic partners?
  • Track record is important. These days, it’s not unusual to see someone 1-2 years one place and then another. I look for “jumpers” though – people who have been <1 year in a few places tells me they either can’t fit in or they have made a lot of bad judgment calls on the companies they’ve joined. One or two jumps among longer stints are OK though. Especially if it’s someone who had a long track record somewhere else, and is now trying to find their next home.
  • resume_reviewI want to see more about what someone has accomplished than their responsibilities – ideally with metrics. For example, they wrote a coding standards guide or implemented a scrum process that improved code release velocity by X% or created a sales strategy that improved MRR by Y. What someone was/is responsible for is not as powerful as what they actually got done!
    • Unless they just graduated or I’m hiring for a research position, I don’t want to see education on the top. I care more about what they’ve actually done than where they’ve been educated or their GPA. Anyone with no work experience, even if a recent grad, is suspect for a startup. It questions how hungry this person is and how hard they’re willing to work.
  • If it is a research type of role, then I do look for publications with others, patent filings (even if provisional) and conference experience. This tells me they’re serious about their work, can collaborate, can bring something to a conclusion and present their ideas. Without all of this, I’d worry they are more into experimenting and not getting anything of significance done and/or able to work with others.
  • On LinkedIn, I often get the general resume/CV info I need, but more importantly, I look for how the candidate has chosen to present themselves; like a good summary and a full story of their job history, education and groups they’re a part of. If they are an active candidate looking for a job (vs. a passive candidate I’m trying to lure away from a comfortable job), then I expect their profile to be up-to-date and clean. They should be savvy enough to know that hiring managers and recruiters will be searching for them on LinkedIn. I expect to see alignment with the resume/CV they provided. I also expect to see a few, current, recommendations for active candidates. Finally, I look for mutual connections who could be good back door references (more on this below).
  • Regarding Github, it’s a nice way to see how an engineer contributes to open source projects or their coding style or community followers. However, keep in mind it is a not always an indicator of someone’s professional work. For a very technical role, I still have engineers provide real coding samples and/or do a small coding exercise with one of my engineers to see how they code in the real world.
  • Finally, Googling a candidate for anything “suspect” never hurts. Bigger companies do background checks. As a startup, a good check can be just looking to see if you can find arrest records or other behaviors that may not gel with your company culture. However, not every bad find on a web search is a flag not to hire. Some people drank too much in college and have gone on to have wonderfully successful professional lives 😉

The Interview and Candidate Experience

So many companies underestimate how important candidate experience is to landing the best hires. From the first blush with the candidate in an email or phone screen, to their onsite and offer process. This is as much about you finding the right person as it is them falling in love with your company and the opportunity.

  • Phone Screens: Whether you have a recruiter do it or you’re doing them yourself, you should have phone screen standards to ensure there’s consistency across candidates. Your goal with a phone screen is to not waste anyone’s time – yours, your company’s or the candidate – and to decide whether someone should come in or not for a full on interview. There are some good tips here on phone screens.
  • The Onsite Interview:  Be organized!job_interview_woman-smiling
    • Line up the right people to interview the candidate. No more than 2-3 people who will work with them.
    • Be clear to each of the interviewers on what their role is for the interview – for example, Joe will test their coding skills, Mary will talk with them about their teamwork and collaboration, and Bob will dig more into accomplishments at last job(s) and what they want out of this role. All interviewers should see the JD and candidate resumes at least a day before the interview.
    • Everyone is responsible for A) assessing culture fit and B) selling the job, company and opportunity. Make sure less experienced interviewers know the basics around what they can and can’t share about your product roadmap, financials, etc. Drill into their heads that if they don’t know the answer, tell the candidate they or someone else will get back to them. Don’t make stuff up!
    • Make sure everyone who interviews candidates knows what’s illegal to ask!
    • Optional: Have them sign a NDA before they come in or before interviews start so you can share more with the candidate about the role and what you’re building.
    • Have an agenda for the candidate when they come in. The recruiter or hiring manager should walk them through it and explain who they’re meeting with and why (e.g., “Joe is a developer you’d work with” or “Mary is the team leader from our product team).
    • Make sure the last person they meet with knows what to do in terms of walking them out, handing them back off to the recruiter, etc.
    • Whomever wraps up should NEVER make any promises. Just tell them it was great to meet them and whomever is the hiring manager or the recruiter will be in touch soon.
    • Only the recruiter and/or hiring manager should inquire about compensation requirements, start dates, etc.
    • Nice touch: Give them materials/swag they can take with them after the interview. Perhaps a white paper on the space you’re going after or a fun t-shirt to remind them how cool your company is.
    • NOTE ON REMOTE HIRES: If at all possible, have them come in for face-to-face interviews and pay the expenses associated with this visit. If not, all the same rules apply for a video interview as in face-to-face.
  • After the Interviews:
    • Have everyone send feedback to the hiring manager/recruiter without biasing others. Don’t walk by the next interviewer and say “she’s awesome!” or roll your eyes.
    • Keep feedback consistent: Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and a Hire or Not Hire statement. No neutrals! Each interviewer either wants to work with this person or not.
    • If there is a big divide on a candidate (50-50 hire/not hire), then have a roundtable discussion so everyone can understand each other’s point of view. The hiring manager should read back everyone’s feedback and then ask people to share more details on concern or passions about the candidate. Ultimately though, it’s the manager’s call.
    • Fast turnaround is important! Do not leave a candidate hanging more than a day or so. Immediate follow up and next actions can make or break landing someone good and it leaves an impression on your company that can travel with the candidate. Follow up with a thank you for their time. If you’re passing, just say they are not a fit for the role and move on. If an offer is coming, ask for references and be specific on when you plan to make a decision. Let them know when they should expect to see an offer as well.

Regular and Backdoor Reference Checks

Although it did happen to me once where this was not the case, most references are going to be with people the candidate can trust to say great things. So, use those references as an opportunity to learn more about the candidate. A few key, but not all, questions I usually ask:

  • Confirm the role they were in with the reference and how they worked with the candidate (manager-employee, peer, etc.)
  • Ask them to highlight a particular accomplishment or contribution the candidate made and why it stuck out.
  • As their potential manager, what areas you should focus on to help grow the candidate in this role. (this is a great way to uncover weaknesses without asking directly!)
  • Would you hire him/her again if you had the chance?

Note that some companies have strict rules about references and won’t let someone do more than confirm title and dates of employment. The only time I read into someone not wanting to give details as a negative is if they explicitly say they prefer not to give a reference or have nothing they can share. I will usually ask if it’s company policy and if not, read between the lines!

Finally, on backdoor references, I highly recommend them. Be respectful of the candidate though – especially if they are still employed – and don’t blow their cover. Only ask someone to introduce you to someone who knows the candidate if they can trust that the person will respect the candidate as well and give you honest feedback. I rarely make a hire without at least one backdoor reference.

Your First Experienced (Senior) Hire – Don’t Be Ageist

A lot of startups come from young, inexperienced, founders with little to no prior work experience. It can be a little daunting when you decide (or your Board tells you) that you have to start hiring people 10+ years older and more experienced than the founding team. The idea of someone older or with more experience than you can cause all sorts of worry about culture fit, being patronized or steamrolled into doing things you don’t want to do. The best advice I can offer is experience and culture fit trump age. Many older candidates have worked at companies with much younger people before and if they’re hired to be the expert in a particular field, let them be the expert, but you are still the boss. It may mean they’re not keen on beer pong on Friday nights or can’t relate to the cat GIFs your team shares on Slack, but if they get along with everyone and meet the needs of your company, get past it. Those senior hires are going to take your company from good to great.

Making the Offer & Closing the Deal

Making the right offer for a startup hire is HARD. An experienced candidate has to make tradeoffs between salary and equity and no two candidates are the same. I could do a whole blog post just on this topic! Instead, I will give you a few things to think about and point you to a few resources:

  • Decide what kind of company you will be in terms of compensation. Is equity something you want your employees to value more than salary? Is parity among team members important? (because they will talk, trust me!).
  • Are you willing/able to pay market rates for a couple of key hires? If you can’t, can you set expectations that you will adjust salaries upon future fundraising/revenue growth? Will you be able to explain to earlier hires who have more equity than comp that an experienced key hire is getting market rates when they’re not? job_offer
  • How much equity will you put aside to refresh grants/hire future team members?
  • How willing are you to negotiate? Will it be a take it or leave it offer, or will you build in some room to adjust comp/equity up/down depending on the candidate’s needs?
  • What other compensation will you offer like healthcare, 401K or maybe Uber and food reimbursement for late night work? Not all startups can afford perks, but if you have some to offer it can make a huge difference for some candidates.
  • Resources: Understanding Equity, AngelList Salary Data, more tips on startup salaries and equity from my buddy @payne92.

A Quick Note on “Try Before You Buy”

A more common practice is to ask someone to work on a small project as a consultant so you can try each other out before either party commits. This can be very helpful – especially if they get some work done for you in the process! Be super clear on expectations here. Hire them as a contractor and pay them. Make sure they sign a simple contract that makes it clear they assign all of the work to your company and it’s under NDA. Set a timeline and agreed upon outputs (code check in, documentation, white paper, whatever…). Make sure they understand what you expect to see and that if it passes, they will get an offer. Do not be the company that keeps hiring “temps” to get work done with no intention to hire.

On-Boarding

Your candidate has accepted the offer! Hurray! You are so close to being done, but not quite over the finish line yet. Make sure your company is everything you promised and more:

  • Send a welcome “package” with general info, maybe some pre-reads about the company, the technology or market. Also include any benefit information (if applicable) in advance so they can think about what they’ll sign up for.
  • Get some info up-front to make the first day easier – like what email address they want (if they get to choose) and maybe a heads up on tools your company uses like Slack, Trello, Github, Intercom, etc, so they have a chance to familiarize themselves if they are new to these tools.
  • Order them a desktop, laptop, or whatever other tools they’ll need (if you cover that expense for your employees) so, ideally, these items are onsite when they start. It’s also nice if you can set them up on various tools, email, etc. before they arrive so they can jump in right away.
  • Figure out where they will sit and who they’ll have lunch with on their first day! So basic, but so welcoming and so often forgotten! Also, tell them what are normal work hours for your team and when should they arrive on their first day.
  • Make their first day and first week feel warm and fuzzy. Take them to lunch, introduce them to the team (locally and on Slack or the like if you have remote peeps). Give them opportunities to get familiar with tools, content and processes. Check in with them at the end of the first week and ask how it went.
  • Most important, ask them how their candidate experience was throughout the process so you can improve things for the next set of hires.

It’s crazy to think this is not what I consider to be an exhaustive list when it comes to the whole hiring process, but I hope it will get you and your company on a good path towards hiring top talent! Have some tips of your own on this topic? Please share in the comments below.

The Three P’s: Lenses to Assess Your Startup’s Performance

I took a bit of a sabbatical this summer and now, refreshed and with a few new topics brewing, it’s time to get back to writing!

LunettesA recurring theme I’ve encountered this summer is which lenses you should apply when evaluating the performance of your growing organization. As an advisor and executive coach to early stage companies, I’m finding more often I am preaching the concept of the “Three P’s: People, Processes and Programs”. Looking at your company or department through each of these lenses and asking yourself how you’re doing in each area can be very telling. It helps you understand where you may need to improve to continue to scale and reach success.

Lens #1 – People

The best leaders of any organization know that their people are what makes or breaks the success of their company. This isn’t just about performance and productivity metrics of each member or as a team, this is about people being in the right roles, having the right training, career path and great peers, bosses and teams to work with. When you ask yourself “are my employees happy?”, consider if you are doing everything you can to ensure greatness. This is well beyond great pay and company perks or weekly beer bashes. Most people want to feel challenged in their roles, but also supported and set up for success. They want equally smart (or often smarter) people to work with and they want to see you get rid of people who don’t work as hard as they do or who are jerks.

Great employees want to work towards growth either as an individual contributor or as a leader. They want to know that they will be rewarded for making solid contributions and for being team players. Growth should not always come from taking on more responsibility or more people to manage. Growth can also come from broadening their knowledge through exposure to new things such as customer visits, interactions with your board, or maybe going to a conference or speaking on a panel with other domain experts. When an employee is not growing or rising to a new challenge, ask yourself if this is a limitation of the individual, or is the system limiting them? Do they need mentorship from someone who’s been in their shoes before to guide them to the next level? Are you micromanaging, thus not giving them a chance to step up and show what they can do?

Happy employees also feel like they have visibility into the vision and direction of the company. They don’t need to know every detail of a product roadmap or the revenue strategy, but they want to understand where the company is headed and how leaders of the organization are measuring success. As a leader of an organization, do you have weekly or monthly all-hands and/or quarterly reviews that include vision and strategy? Do you routinely communicate through company email or on-line forums (e.g., Slack) on big company news like closing a big deal or a great new hire and include why these are important? The more understanding each employee has about the big picture, the more they can calibrate their actions and contribute towards success.

This first lens – evaluating if you are setting up an environment for happy, growing and informed employees – is probably the most important thing you can do to set your company up for long term success.

Lens #2 – Processes

As much as any startup loves being small, nimble and usually pretty organizationally flat, the reality is that implementing processes can be useful. I’m not talking about three ring binders full of protocols and standards. I’m just saying that having a general process for key parts of the business is important. There was probably a time (or maybe your company is there now) where everyone sat around one table and could just talk through how to get something done. Then, all of a sudden, one table becomes a few desks, maybe a few remote employees and a field sales person or two and what used to be a simple chat becomes harder to navigate.

ProcessConsider what processes are in place today that grew organically vs. with intention. If the organic processes work, that’s cool, but keep an eye on them because over time they may not scale. For those set up with intention – e.g., a hiring process or maybe your weekly sprints – reevaluate them on a regular basis. Are they repeatable and do they scale with more people in the company or more bugs to fix? Resist the temptation to keep a process because “that’s how we’ve always done it” or because “our Founder set it up, so how can we kill it?”. Companies that evolve have processes that evolve and what once worked then, may not work now.

Think about how decisions are made, information is disseminated and loops are closed for critical processes first. The most common areas where processes comes more and more into play tend to be product roadmap and execution plans, hiring strategies and go to market strategies. Here are some suggestions for each:

Product Roadmaps

  • Consider monthly, three-months-out roadmap reviews to prioritize new products, major features and release plans. Do not lose sight of the fact that this is not just which designers or engineers are building what, but also how you’ll market and support these products and features.
  • You may have weekly reviews to ensure you’re tracking to the meta-plan and make adjustments if needed. Have some sort of process in place to deal with surprises like a critical bug that bumps a feature or a customer opportunity that may change the priority of a future feature. Set criteria that justifies this type of change so you don’t have to analyze each one on the fly. For a critical bug to bump a priority feature, it might be something like “must impact >50% of our customers or degrade performance more than “20%”. For a customer opportunity it could be “must be a deal worth >$(?) revenue or a customer that will provide undeniable street cred for >50% of our current prospects”.
  • If/when the roadmap changes, have a process for letting people know. Don’t just update Trello and assume everyone will see it – have some sort of change management message that goes out via email/slack that tells the team what and why.
  • It also doesn’t hurt to have a process to track changes to the roadmap so you can see the impact on your initial plan over time. This will contribute to better planning going forward.

Hiring

  • I highly recommend a quarterly hiring plan – not just how many new heads, but actual roles you intend to fill. Given today’s climate where hiring is SO hard, it could take 2-3 months to get that right candidate. So have a process in place to assess where you are with hiring and what new roles you need to ramp on filling.
  • Get in the habit of a regular job description (JD) writing process. Don’t always wait for a role to open up. If people are in the role now, have them write their own job descriptions. This not only helps when it comes to review or promotion time, but you then have these JDs on file if/when needed. I’ve seen major delays with filling a pipeline with good candidates or terribly inefficient candidate interviews simply because no JD exists.
  • Have a hiring process in place that starts with the JD and ends with the on-boarding of this new hire. I’ll write a future post on this with more details, but the short story is that it should include how you’ll post and market the opening, handle phone screens, on-site interviews, making an offer, negotiating terms and how you’ll get that new hire on board and productive as fast as possible.

Go to Market

  • It’s one thing to have a product roadmap that outlines what you’ll build, but it’s another to say how you’ll get those things out there. With every product roadmap, there should be a parallel process for laying out how and when new products/features are publicized, priced (if applicable) and sold.
  • Have a process for content updates such as your website, marketing materials, and demos.
  • What process will you have for telling the world about your new stuff? Do you have a regular list of press or industry bloggers who write about your company or trends in your market? When should they hear about your new product/feature and what’s your plan to share what they write through social media or other channels?  How do your current customers and/or prospects hear about the latest new thing? These are not afterthoughts once the engineering is done, they are just as important processes to get in place as your code check-ins and testing procedures (which you have already, right?).

Looking through the lens of processes and seeing what you have and don’t have in place should tell you whether your company will be able to scale or is heading for a train wreck. Don’t be afraid to pause when you see a gap where a light process could relieve a bottle neck or better prepare your team for future scaling challenges.

Lens #3 – Programs

The Program lens is not used as often as it should. Granted, as a former Program Manager in a past life, I’m a little biased. However, what I often see missing in growing organizations is someone looking across the organization, programmatically, to ensure all the pieces are coming together including people, schedules and money.

A great example of this is the processes I mentioned above around new products or major feature releases. These are often multi-pronged activities involving engineering, sales, support, marketing and maybe finance and operations. You may have program_managerheads of each of these groups, but who is overseeing how they all work towards a common goal or launch date? For many small companies, that’s the CEO or CPO, but (oh by the way), these same people are running your company or out in the field selling or closing your next round of funding.

In the early stage, you may consider rotating the role of Program Manager between different leaders in your organization. Keep in mind, though, not everyone has the knack for project plans and cross-company communication. Make sure you pick the right people to be in this role.  As your organization grows, consider hiring an actual Program Manager. A Program Manager is often one of the unsung heroes of a company because they are in the background instead of on the front lines. They quietly prod and check things off lists. They communicate what’s happening and where there are possible gotchas. Program Managers beat the drum so everyone is marching in the right direction and at the right pace. They are masters in GSD (Getting Sh-t Done) with no task too small or ask too big.

So, don’t just look through the process lens, but also ask yourself what programs are cutting across more than one part of your company and who is orchestrating them. You’d be amazed how productive and efficient your startup will be when programs are well managed.

In Summary….

Startups, when they’re working, develop very quickly – often without enough attention given to people, processes and programs. It’s one thing for an Advisor or Investor to tell you what your company or department is lacking or how you could be doing better, but in the end, you need to ask yourself how YOU think it’s going. Applying these three lenses should help bring things into focus [pun intended].

Have you been using any of these lenses to assess performance or have different lenses that you’ve found effective?  Please share in the comments below!

The 90-Day Plan – To Go or Not to Go

90daysI give 100% credit to my dear friend Drew for inspiring this post. Drew and I were catching up last week about our respective lives, careers, and the startup world. We are similar people in that we have a million ideas and suffer from wanting to do everything at once! When we reach our saturation point of options, we each make a 90-day plan and decide to commit to next steps within that 90 days. It could be anything – a home improvement project, planning a trip, taking a new job or founding a startup – just time box it and go for it.

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I rarely do anything with any degree of seriousness without a plan. When I decide to take on a new project, I outline a few key questions I will ask myself and/or the team I work with:

  • What goals do we think we can reach within 90 days?
  • How much of ourselves can we commit to reach this goal?
  • What will be our successful “go” criteria beyond meeting those goals and timeline?
  • What will be our successful “no-go” criteria? (because deciding not to do something can be a successful outcome!)
  • At the end of our first 90 days, what do we imagine the next 90 days or beyond to look like?

In an established company setting, this approach could apply to a prototyping phase of a new product or feature, setting up a new human resource program or even raising new capital via a series “x” or IPO. Having a plan that considers the above may help secure budget and/or support of key stakeholders to let you take a risk early on before making a bigger investment such as hiring people, marketing, etc. This approach can also apply to building a company from the ground up.

I recently took this approach on a potential startup with a prospective co-founder. We had an idea and laid out a plan to flesh out that idea before building anything or raising any money. We created a timeline and committed ourselves to dig in. We answered the above questions like so:

  • We want a clear MVP defined within 90 days
  • We will taper back our other work commitments to give ~50% of our respective work time to this project
  • Our successful “go” criteria beyond the above two points was loosely defined as:
    1. Being more in love with the idea and its potential than when we started
    2. Proving the market opportunity was massive(*)
    3. Feeling like we were the right team and individuals to build it
  • Our successful “no-go” criteria was one or the combination of the following:
    1. The market opportunity was not as massive as we had defined
    2. We were not the right individuals/team to build it
    3. One or both of us became less enamored with the idea as we pursued it
  • At the end of the first 90 days, we would either raise a small amount of capital to hire engineers to build the MVP OR we would kill the project

(*) “Massive” opportunity for our project meant we’d disrupt a billion dollar market, but each project should have its own definition of massive

While we didn’t write out our plan as explicitly as I did above, we had many deep conversations throughout the 90-day period that solidified this approach. In the end, we had a successful, mutually agreed upon, “no-go” decision. It was a great learning experience not only in terms of the domain we explored, but also in terms of what each of us wanted out of our next venture.

It’s a bit of a cliché to say “trying is succeeding”, but wouldn’t you rather know you tried, with a plan, and understood why you decided not to do something than doing nothing or working without a plan and wondering “what if” or “why did we fail”? When you’re weighing options, take the 90-day approach. Go for it, execute on a plan, and be true to your self and whomever you may partner with to go, or not to go.

Have other good examples of 90-day plans that led to go or no-go?  Please reply and share!

Just Be Excellent

“Hi, my name is Julia, and I used to be a Grey’s Anatomy fan.”

I stopped watching the show sometime after season 4 or 5, but there was a scene in an early episode that has stuck with me ever since (and if someone can find the clip, I’ll buy them a fine dinner!). One of the female characters – Yang or Grey, I think – was feeling the classic pressure of needing to do more to succeed than just be a surgeon. She was stepping out of her comfort zone because she thought that’s what she needed to do to excel in her career. In this case, she was vying for an administrative type of role that required lots of paperwork, scheduling and managing staff – all non-surgical skills. While she was learning new things and stretching herself, she was not loving or doing well at this new type of work. In the memorable clip, one of this woman’s mentors lays it on the line with her and tells her to stop trying to be something she’s not or do something she doesn’t love and to just “be excellent”.

I often reflect on this scene when I coach leaders of early stage growth companies who are striving to grow professionally. keep-calm-and-be-excellent-8Sometimes it’s a salesperson who has become a CEO or a programmer who is now a VP of Engineering. Often, when one starts a new company, they are still doing their day job (sales, programming, market analysis…) not just because there’s no one else but them to do it, but because it’s their passion and the reason they started their business to begin with. The catch 22 of a successful startup can be that the job you loved and got you this far is a job you no longer have time to do. You are meeting with investors, managing people, closing deals, looking for space or just paying the bills. In many cases, there’s great satisfaction in learning how to run a company and domain experts become great leaders across and outside of their organizations. They are being excellent! Sometimes, however, they are being anything but excellent. They are poor people managers or suck at managing investors and they find themselves in a role that makes them miserable. This can have a negative impact on everything from the happiness of their customers, employees and the overall bottom line to their personal self-worth and esteem.

I have taken pleasure in seeing some great founding CEOs and CTOs step down from their roles early into their company’s success to go back to their true passion. Whether it was programming, a business development or sales role, they chose to be excellent so that they can make an impact on their company and found someone with the right skills and experience to do the job they did not want or were good at doing. So, when I am advising leaders in early stage growth companies about scaling their organization, I walk them through an exercise that forecasts what their company might look like in 12, 18 and/or 24 months. Then, I ask them a series of questions that include some of the following:

  • Do you feel prepared to manage an organization at that size?
  • What tools do you think you are missing in your toolbox to be good at that role?
  • What daily tasks and responsibilities are you willing or eager to give up?
  • What daily tasks and responsibilities are you loathe to give up?
  • What criteria will you use to know when you need to delegate something to a new or existing team member?
  • What criteria will you use to decide if you are still happy in your role?

Even with the best planning, most leaders have no idea what their companies will look or feel like at scale, never mind how they will feel about their own roles. However, being self aware and having some ideas in mind of what one will do at that juncture can be vital to their success. Lining up advisors and/or coaches who can help add those tools to your toolbox or to find the right people to delegate to, or perhaps hand the reins to, can be critical to the overall success of the company.

A good leader/founder is not a failure for admitting they suck at their job or that they can’t do it all. The best leaders are those who acknowledge what needs to be done and by whom and they make it happen. They know they need to just be excellent.

Have you stepped down from a leadership role so you can be excellent or know someone who has?  Please share your story in the comments!

Author’s note: After posting, I realized I should have called out that this mindset is applicable for ANY role. If you’re a great programmer, be an excellent programmer. If you’re a great designer, be an excellent designer, etc…

So what IS a Startup Foundry, anyway?

When I pulBlade's offices on Fort Point Channelled the trigger this summer and decided it was time to head back to work full-time after a year-long hiatus, I knew I wanted to do something meaningful and interesting.  I had just finished a stint as an EIR at TechStars Boston. I loved working closely with the founders and key members of early stage companies to help them strategize on their businesses, hone their messages and prepare for Demo Day where they would hopefully garner interest from prominent investors.  I made some great connections along the way and even invested in a few of these companies myself as a first-time Angel.  But it wasn’t enough.  I knew I liked the dynamic nature of working with different startups and building relationships with various founders and their teams.  However, I also yearned to go deeper with companies; to roll up my sleeves and dig into technical work and business strategy as well as help develop operations including the companies’ employee culture.  My challenge was to find the right home that wasn’t just a C–level position at one particular startup.  As I explored options, I found there was a new type of opportunity unlike those offered by accelerators and incubators.  There are Foundries, like newly created Blade Boston.

So, what makes Blade different than an accelerator or incubator? TechStars (or Y Combinator, MassChallenge here in Boston, and others) is a national start-up accelerator that offers a wonderful opportunity for early stage companies to get skilled on how to do everything from bootstrap and solidify their MVP to raising seed capital.  Like most other accelerators out there, it’s a fairly well defined program with a specific set of activities offered over a defined set of weeks that culminates into a demo day or some other type of grand finale.  Accelerators take a fair amount of equity in a company (average 5%) in exchange for their offering and most startups that take this route consider this reasonable given the fine tuning and exposure they receive in these programs.  Accelerator organizations enlist the support of a broad array of local, seasoned mentors who spend time with each class offering advice and their valuable network of resources.  Often, these mentors are also Angel investors and VCs who end up on the cap table and/or boards of these companies.  These programs are terrific, don’t get me wrong, but as someone itching to go deep, they didn’t offer what I was looking for as my next gig.

Incubators are somewhat different.  There are two flavors – those that come up with their ideas themselves and then find CEOs to execute (e.g., Redstar Ventures) and there are those that offer a facility and resources of like-minded people, as well funding to develop their products (e.g., Bolt* or Greentown Labs).  There are less programatic features to incubators, but they can be invaluable to companies who need a space to work with amenities and skilled resources and mentors available to help them along the way.  I love hanging out at these places and can see the value they offer to the companies I work with – several of whom had already “graduated” from TechStars and MassChallenge – but again, these were not places where I could get the right level of engagement.

Then along came Blade.

Brian Kalma and Petr Kaplunovich, Blade's UX pros

As I discussed what I was looking to do next with my Personal Board of Advisors, several of my board members said “Talk to Paul English, he’s doing something that may be perfect for you.”  Paul and I had met only a couple of times before and I knew he was building Blade, but I wasn’t really clear about what Blade actually was.  I knew Paul had an excellent reputation as a startup founder and all around good guy and I had heard he, along with his co-founders Bill O’Donnell and Paul Schwenk, had attracted some amazing talent (e.g., Brian Kalma, a nationally recognized top designer with whom I had worked at TechStars) to get Blade off the ground.  So, I reached out to Paul to learn more.  What I found was a startup Foundry and the perfect fit for my next gig.

As a startup Foundry, Blade offers something uniquely different from accelerators and incubators.  We attract very early stage companies with great founders and a hard problem to solve. At Blade, we care less at first about how the entrepreneurs are solving the problem, because we assume that the right team is on the right problem and they will figure out, tweak, and eThe Blade team hard at work.volve the solution until perfect. We don’t want to be heavy handed on defining the solution. We trust the founders to do that. We are just very, very active helpers. This is what makes us a Foundry. We have hired a lean, but extremely talented team of designers, engineers and product people that are assigned to work with our intentionally small set of companies we invest in at a time (3-4, max). We set no specific timeline on how long each company can hang out at Blade, but our goal is to help each company launch successfully with a solid team and a healthy series A. Because Blade can assign significant industry talent on a startup, as well as Blade management assistance, Blade takes some co-founder equity in the venture; the amount varies per deal.

So, it’s been a few months now and I am happy to report that life at Blade is pretty amazing. The team I get to work with every day is some of the most talented I have had the opportunity to work with in my career.   Not only are they a wealth of expertise, but they are also exceptional humans – kind, compassionate and extremely fun.  The companies we’ve invested in (three so far: Wigo, Classy and one stealthy one I can’t write about….yet!) are thriving.  Blade is a startup itself, so we’re also continuing to develop what we do and how we do it, but so far so good!  Look for future blog posts on progress at Blade – including lessons learned, tips and tricks for startups and their mentors.

Have more insight into the various accelerators, incubators and foundries out there? Please reply in the comments below!


*While I’ve categorized Bolt as a startup Incubator, Ben Einstein, Managing Director of Bolt, says “Bolt is technically a venture fund, so we use ‘extremely hands-on seed VC'”.  Hm, perhaps Bolt is a Foundry too!