Constant Learning & Advice for Founders
All Things Venture #066
One of my favorite aspects of working in venture is that you are constantly learning. You just get dunked in this massive fish bowl of intellectual curiousity and everywhere you turn, there’s an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to improve. Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend my first large scale in-person FirstMark event, Cloud NY. Cloud NY is our annual in person gathering of the top CEOs and founders of high growth SaaS companies.
I got to be a fly on the wall at the event, and I wanted to share some of my key learnings and observations after hearing from great speakers and leaders from companies like Hubspot, Mulesoft, Guru, LaunchDarkly and more. For all of the founders and potential founders who follow All Things Venture, this one is for you.
Listen, Focus, & Don’t Quit: There was a general theme of advice that emerged from the speakers that really centered around listening. Listen to your customers, listen to your employees, listen to your partners. With all of these stakeholders, the general theme was that these stakeholders will tell you their problems or tell you what they want (i.e a potential customer is struggling with keeping track of internal documents, or your employees are telling you they want flexibility in their work life). The challenge though, and why founders make the big bucks, is because they don’t tell you how to solve their problem or how you can create what they want - that’s what they look to you for. In addition to the listening theme, it felt pretty apparent that every founder that spoke had developed focus in different periods of their journey. It could be focusing on keeping the talent bar high, it could be focusing on a specific segment of their market, it could be focusing on listening to customers, whatever it was - at different periods of the founder journey there will be different outcomes that matter most. Focus on them. Relentlessly drive to them and course correct as necessary. Lastly, and I think this percolated under the surface, don’t quit. Don’t quit. This journey is going to be volatile. You are going to take some losses, you are going to take on risk. You will be constantly baying water and be on an emotional journey that sends you to Mt. Everest and the Marina Trench in the same hour. Through it all though, don’t quit. Trust your gut in crucial moments, and be authentic to yourself. Stay in the game as long as possible, and know that you’re playing the greatest game on earth.
Care About Culture: For one of the founders who spoke, and they lead a $15B+ public company, they said that focusing on culture was “transformative” for their business. There are tactical ways to do this, and some are described below, but one of the stories a different CEO shared was this - he had just been brought on as CEO to turn around the company and they were in a bad spot. About half of the employees had left and morale was low. The company had an offsite coming up where they were going to be outside of San Francisco for a few days. The CEO had everyone sign up to cook for each other. Everyone signed up for a meal to cook, picked up groceries, and they met at the offsite. From 8 AM to midnight for 3 straight days they stayed in the same house, cooked for one another, and discussed the strategy of their business. In short, the team had a shared, vulnerable experience that generated trust that (in my belief) allowed them to generate clarity on their mission, redefine their purpose, and feel connected as a team. At the end of the day, I’m of the strong, ferverent belief that startups are a team sport, and like any other team sport - culture matters a lot. The teams with the best cultures, with winning cultures, - end up winning in the long run or being consistently good.
All of the below advice is generalized from the conversations I had from speaking with and listening to various founders and CEOs. Bullet points in quotes are direct summarized quotes from what I heard. Bullet points without quotes are my general opinion from everything I learned.
Advice on Hiring
“Look for self-awareness. The most successful employees aren’t always the smartest, or the most pedigreed, they’re the ones who are self aware enough to adapt”
“Drive to self-selection in your interview process by being critically transaparent on what the job is and what matters… You want to drive to reality in interviews and remove the filter that comes with everyone being on their best behavior”
“A players want to play with A players. You never want someone who is just ‘solid’”
Advice on Building Product & PLG (Product Led Growth)
"Early on, integrate product commercialization (i.e sales) and product feedback together; sales and engineering should not be discrete functions”
“Customers are great at telling you their problems, but not about solutions. Solving for the customer means making decisions that solve pain points.”
“It’s very easy to get caught up in the acronym (PLG), and the generic advice. We realized that every product, in every category, has a different GTM. A GTM strategy can as important as the product itself, so don’t assume what works elsewhere will work for you”
“Very few customers go from qualified lead to closed without talking to a sales person”
Advice on Culture & Scalig
“As you scale, if you are being authoritative in your decision making once or twice a year, that’s fine. That’s healthy. If you’re being authoritative once or twice a month, you’re in your own way. If you’re being authoritative once or twice a day, you’re paralyzing your organization”
Founders have permission to be authoritative but they need to understand the weight of your voice because it has consequences and can send teams scrambling.
“Culture is to recruiting as product is to marketing. If you invest in your culture you will have an easier time to recruit”
“You are building two products. Your product, and your culture.”
As you add products, you are adding complexity. Every decision around GTM, resource allocation, and investment becomes harder. When you think about adding new products you need to think about why - Have you tapped out your available revenue? Are your customers directly asking for this product? Are you adding this product as a defensive/offensive strategy?
A piece of tactical advice on building your culture - survey your employees and ask them what they want, what they care about. Incorporate this habit in to your decision making and let the data guide your perspective
For even more tactical advice on building culture - read this
That’s it for today everyone. Hope this helps and that everyone has a great rest of their week!