The best source of learning, advice, and vendors I’ve received is from other founders.
Great investors know that their portfolio theory not only applies to returns, but to establishing internal knowledge-sharing among companies at different stages. I’ve been to portfolio conferences for a few different funds, and have gotten more value out of them than any other conference I’ve ever attended.
In DC, there’s an invite-only group called Mindshare that’s been running for decades – I joined it a few years back, and it’s my go-to when I need a vendor, looking to hire someone, or have a general question/issue. There are also numerous others – Netcito, Vistage, etc. There are also ad-hoc groups – a bunch of local founders at roughly the same stage on one email list.
These aren’t “networking groups” – you’re not in there to exchange business cards. Joining it gives you access to the collective group – throw a question out to the entire list/basecamp, and anyone will jump in.
If you’re not in one, find one now.
Michael Wolfe has a great article about 1:1s and the benefits they provide at a startup.
I wasn’t familiar with this being an established concept when we were starting Contactually, but we started doing it, and it’s been pretty helpful.
At the moment, I have a few different types of standing 1:1 meetings, outside of the ad-hoc meetings to discuss a particular issue.
We have other touchpoints (weekly metrics meetings, OKRs, etc) where status updates are given and tasks are delegated, so when I meet with each team lead weekly, I take a purely servant leadership attitude. I may come in with certain discussion points, but my general focus is to help them identify and remove blockers. We have recurring times blocked in our calendars, but, to avoid it being a burden on them, my team leads + VPs can always cancel or move if they have something more urgent.
This is one of those cliche “we’re always talking but we never… talk” occurrences. Every week or two, I have standing meetings with my co-founders. These are usually unstructured, but it ends up being focused around our shared concerns, or bringing up issues we’ve noticed. I’ve found that the longer we go without connecting, the more friction and tension develops.
In addition to board meetings and ad-hoc topic discussions, having standing meetings also ensures that we’re aligned on major issues, they’re aware of what we’re working on, and know exactly where to help.
This is one of the more enjoyable things I do in the company. As we’ve grown, my facetime with each employee has diminished. So I have a standing meeting once a quarter with every full time employee. Beyond a general “how’s it going,” I’ve found it helpful to come in with a set of standard questions, which I’ve adopted from the 12 questions Gallup’s research has yielded (highly recommend you read Good to Great). I take careful notes which remain private, but I may have clear next steps to bring up with other people. Quarterly may seem like a long time, but I’ve found the time to fly by, and be just long enough that we can track issues to resolution.
As part of my evolution as a leader, better managing my balance between individual contribution and delegation/leadership was necessary. At the same time, my schedule was only getting denser and inbox overflowing.
So in August of 2014, I hired a VA – a virtual assistant. For privacy I won’t mention his name or embarrass him too much!
I’m going into detail here because I believe working a with a virtual assistant can be, from my experience, a huge advantage at an incredibly reasonable price. So I want to relay how I worked through it in the hope that it helps you.
Like many other initial tasks at Contactually, I started off with ODesk. I limited my search to the US only – I wanted a close enough time zone, and to eliminate any risk of a language/cultural mismatch, especially if they are going to be acting on my behalf. The initial search wasn’t too strenuous – ODesk makes it easy to quickly filter out the top candidates. I set up 15 minute Skype calls with the top ~six candidates, where I learned about their past experience, how they organize themselves (looking for specific keywords they mentioned), and answering any questions from them. As it turned out, the top candidate at the end of the interview process, completely by chance, mentioned that he had been using Contactually for a little while, as his other client was a power user I knew. Small world.
Ramping up was pretty easy, rather than spend large amounts of time trying to figure out what to do, I took a “figure it out as we go along” approach. The biggest decision was to give him access to everything – I believe a good personal VA needs to know everything. So that was email, calendar, Google Drive, Dropbox. This gives me the ability to simply relay what’s in my head, and he almost never has to ask to whom or what I’m referring to – he knows it. I still kept my non-work email private, and made an internal decision that personal tasks (e.g. flowers + dinner, etc) would still be just that. We established common communication channels – Hipchat (our team chat tool), Text/iMessage, email, and if need be, phone call.
As I mentioned above, I didn’t define all these tasks initially (I honestly wasn’t sure what we would be working on together), but as they came up, I found it clear to delegate to him.
- Email management – Daily, go through email, remove anything that’s not important or relevant to me. Certain email flows (emails from users asking for support, intros from AngelList, etc) get handled appropriately. Mark the emails that seem particularly important. Oftentimes he’ll ask me on Hipchat for an answer to a question someone’s asking, or how to handle something. Many times emails can be handled by forwarding to him with a short line “sign me up for this” “put this on my calendar” “remind me.”
- Calendar management – My calendar is getting pretty insane (NOT a humblebrag). He helps me structure my calendar, move around events, block off time for certain tasks, handle conflicts, and in general, gives me the faith that I can just look at my calendar a day or two ahead and work through it. I do around ~20 screening calls a week with job candidates, and most of those can be handled via ScheduleOnce, but any other meeting request or introduction, I can intro them to my VA and he will handle from there (or he will see the incoming request and, with a quick ask on Hipchat, handle). And of course, be able to quickly rearrange things if I have to cancel or reschedule for any reason.
- Repetitive tasks and executing processes – Having someone who is incredibly organized and processed driven is crucial here. There are numerous repetitive processes that he’s able to handle (e.g. exactly what needs to be done after I complete a screening call or when a new hire verbally accepts), or multi-step processes that need to happen. I can bang out a quick email to him with what needs to be done, and clear my mind of it.
- Other one-off tasks – By keeping open lines of communication, there are a flood of other tasks he’s able to offload from me. Placing orders, getting quotes, transcribing emails/meeting notes, grabbing files for me, answering questions, etc. Text message and phone calls help when I’m out of office. I’ve also given him permission to act on my behalf for other people in the company, and periodically he’ll help other people in the company with their needs.
The leverage I’ve been able to achieve, both in terms of time and attention, has been absolutely worth it.
DJ and I hosted the first BattleDecks event in DC.
20 presenters. 3 minutes each. The only hitch – they have no idea of the topic or the slides until the audience does. No prep time, just improv.
It was awesome. Definitely will do that once a quarter!
Being a founder of the company – especially the CEO – warrants a special ability to see the entire picture. This applies not just to having the foresight to see where the market is heading and gear the entire company towards that, but also the responsibility to look back and put past actions into perspective.
With that in mind, I wrote this article for my employees, investors, and most importantly, our users. People saw technical debt and they thought “poor product” – so it was my duty to paint a complete picture.
Onward and upward.
From my limited experience, one of the bigger predictors of success or failure among early stage founders is acceptance that they might be wrong, knowing what they don’t know, and being open to improvement.
When I think back to when I first graduated college – the mix of experiences, trials and tribulations, people, and of course time has formed me into a much different – almost indistinguishable person (maybe with some resentment). Especially over the past few years of
holding on for dear life being at the helm of the rocketship that is Contactually, every day presents a new challenge to grow.
When it was clear that I needed to both focus on being CEO, as well as step back from my founding role, it’s fair to say I was thrown well in the deep end. While on the whole my team saw me as an effective leader, there were clear areas of improvement (habits to break, skills to improve, and new traits to develop). One of our advisors, who has the scary ability to understand me better than myself, suggested I work with a coach.
What? Who uses a coach?
As that possibility was opened to me, it became clear that this was not only an accepted practice, but a common one. From early stage ventures to Google to long-running F500s. A quick google/quora search confirms that. But surprisingly few entrepreneurs in my immediate network employ a coach, or had heard of it.
A few introductions and phone calls later, I started working with a coach. I met some amazing minds, but decided to go with someone whose approach to leadership coaching and attitude fit what I was looking for.
I’m not going to go deep into the process as that’s unique to my coach’s subscribed methodology – but happy to talk 1:1, just talk to me
Four or five months later, it’s made a tremendous difference. Much of it is intangible – there is no Neo in the Matrix-like “I know kung fu” moment. But I can point at major things in the company and can with confidence say that it would not have happened if I had not reached out and received help growing into the leader the company of my dreams needed me to be. Working with a coach, even if just for a short period of time, is now not even a question for me. I’m recommending it to others on my team, and whenever I meet with any other post-traction entrepreneur seeking advice, that’s the primary piece of advice I give – you can always improve, and a coach can help.
2014 was a pretty exciting year for Contactually.
There are a lot of qualitative and quantitative advances this year for Contactually. We started the year 15 employees strong, less than a million in annual recurring revenue, and a solid yet buggy product. The growth that the company has seen over 12 short months is nothing short of insane. We’re ending the year with more than 50 people working on Contactually full time, tripling our revenue, a mature product, and a team I have to pinch myself every time I see come in every morning. We have numerous enterprise customers. Lower churn. Repeatable processes.
But the bigger thing is a je ne sais quoi – we’re just a different, better, and overall more mature company. People really use and value the product as a solution, not a tool. We’re more and more recognized as a strong entrant. Our teams have experience now, and know what needs to be done. Nothing that we really can track as a clear advancement, but when you realize that it was still only a little over 3 years ago that this was an idea, it’s pretty amazing.
We raised $2M in capital. Fundraising was one of the bigger hurdles faced this year. We ended up with a desirable outcome, and with our eyes open on what milestones the market needs us to hit.
We moved offices. The office hunt was one of the more stressful experiences I’ve gone through, mainly due to the high standards we set for our work environment. But seeing how the company has changed just by our surroundings has made it worth it.
My role changed as well. As one of the original developers and “product guy” on the founding team, I split those roles with wearing the CEO hat. As the company grew this year, it was clear that not only did I need a more focused mind on day-to-day product needs, the company needed a real CEO. So I became the CEO, and fired myself from everything else. It was a hard transition, but absolutely worth it. I can say professionally I’m a very different person from Jan 1 (and not because I just bought new glasses).
Personally, it was a challenging year with many dark times. The downside of Alex and me pushing ourselves further and further professionally is we were both consistently drained and burnt out. Day to day work life balance was kept in check, but the massive growth the company saw was at more of a personal sacrifice than I’d prefer to do in the future. We had done a heavy amount of traveling in prior years, but realized that 2014 came and went without us taking any real time off work – our “beach week” was spent on the phone with investors and commercial real estate brokers (simultaneously).
Onward and upward.
As our team has matured over the past year, we’ve started seeing how key strong team leads (e.g. VPs) are for us. And with me as the CEO, it was important for us to align ourselves around how they work with me – what I should expect of them, what they expect of me, and how they run their teams. As every company culture is unique, this wasn’t some boilerplate text taken off a blog. We’ve made specific decisions about how we operate, and that’s what is reflected here.
This is what I came up with, which every VP read through, commented on, and signed a couple months back. We’re considering having this for every employee as well – so they know what they should expect of myself and every team lead.
In order for us to be a billion dollar company, ____________________ and I need to establish an agreement on how we operate together to build the company of our dreams, and have a crapload of fun doing it.
Above all else, I want you to personally succeed in your role, and come out of this role a better person.
I trust you to execute in what’s best for our users, our team, and the company. You trust me to guide everyone to do the same.
You are fully in ownership of executing in order to fulfill the objectives laid out for your team. I will remove as many blockers in your path as I can, as long as you clearly communicate what they are.
You’ll report weekly, monthly, and quarterly on your teams performance.
You and your team have the freedom to operate in whatever way you best see fit (e.g. hours, software, org structure), as long as you heed the current company values, ensure your team is not isolated from the rest of the company, and do not intentionally undermine me or any other employee of the company.
We will respect each other’s roles and ownership. We understand the difference between OPO (one person’s opinion), strong suggestions, and mandates. While you have the ability to say no to me, there may be times where I require action.
You will be held accountable for your commitments to me and the team, and I should be held accountable for commitments I make to you. We are human and deadlines may be missed, but we will communicate clearly about them.
We want to invest in your career development. Let me know how to do that.
I want you to have the best days of your life here, work well with all your peers, and be an ambassador to the company.
We both agree to this, dated ____________________
“Our ancestors have invented, we can at least innovate” – Amit Kalantri
When I first jotted down the idea for Contactually, I thought it was unique (otherwise I likely would not have bothered to capture it). As expected, I was wrong. We only found a couple then-active companies with any kind of meaningful feature overlap.
- Charge for your product. Early.
- Therefore, build something people will pay for and find people who will pay for it.
- This is not a consumer application. This is for professionals.
- Do not rely on spamming a users address book. It just doesn’t work.