I'm a Web Developer and Entrepreneur out of Washington DC.

Zvi Band

Founder of Contactually.
I'm also passionate about growing the DC startup community, and I've founded Proudly Made in DC and the DC Tech Meetup.

Reference Checks

04/12/2015
Christoph wrote a great post about the need for reference checks in a startup.
I’m surprised to hear periodically about startups that make hires without doing reference checks. Or, when people that have completely bombed our reference checks get hired.
Reference checks serve a few purposes for us:
  • Verifies that this is a good candidate (that’s the baseline you look for)
  • Helps us understand how to set them up for success
  • Gives us early warning on things to look out for
A few tips:
  • You could potentially ask for references and do background checks before their final interview – we’ve experimented with that for a few roles, and gives us some good questions to come in with.
  • Andy Dunn recommends you only go with unsolicited references – provided references paint the picture the candidate wants to paint. We haven’t gone that extreme, but I won’t hesitate to ask mutual connections, or ask provided references for anyone else they think we should talk to (“Who else did X work with?”)
  • Sometimes the little details end up standing out – issues we’ve had that, we realized, lined up with what’s in their reference calls.
  • We’ve sometimes had to make quick turnaround decisions on candidates and wanted to forego ref checks. Never do that. If a candidate is super hot on you, they should be able to provide references right in an interview, and calling them can be done within a couple hours. Once or twice we’ve given offers “pending reference checks”
That being said, we don’t do background checks – its something we’ve thought about, and I’m sure somewhere, someone thinks we’re crazy for not doing so.
DCIM100GOPROG0221333.

Galapagos

03/29/2015
There are ~90 ships that have access to the Galapagos. On recommendation and research, we went on the National Geographic Endeavor, one of the largest ships in the Galapagos.
Day 0
Connected through Miami (what a dump of an airport) to Guayaqil, Ecuador. From the many Ecuadorians we would later meet, Guayaqil seems like an awesome city, but as we got in so late and had to leave early the next morning, we didn’t see any of the city.
Day 1
Woke up in the morning, and after breakfast, bussed back to the airport. Took a plane to Baltra Island (aka “B3”) – which has little else but the airport. The airport was built in World War II by the Americans, and Baltra once hosted 5,000 soldiers (simultaneously damaging a lot of the indigenous wildlife). We were bussed over to the dock (in truth a block of concrete) and boarded zodiacs. Zodiacs were the sole mode of getting on and off the ship for anything, and we would do it multiple times a day. We went through the usual introductions, informational points, and safety drills.
The ship, the Endeavor, was built in the 1900s as a German fishing boat, and, after many retrofits, is now a 92 passenger expedition ship (with another 72 staff). As expected, it was cool to see how every square inch of the ship served some purpose. The ship’s crew was split into three distinct functions – the ship (captain, etc), hotel (cabins, meals), and expedition (naturalists).
The first afternoon we sailed to “Las Bachas” (poor pronunciation of “barges” for the wrecked ships found there) beach on Santa Cruz Island. We disembarked (on zodiacs) to the beach for our first hike through the Galapagos national park.
Ecuador is incredibly focused on the preservation and restoration of the Galapagos, as we learned during the trip. There are strict rules about what you can bring to the Galapagos, and what you are allowed to take away (nothing). You have to maintain your distance from animals, stay on paths, no flash photography, etc. You have to have a pass and ships have to be licensed, and you have to have a naturalist with you at all times (we had nine), who themselves are deputized by the park service. While we would only be told where we were going and what we were doing the prior evening, the ship had an agreed-upon itinerary with the park service. The exact windows of when we could land at each point was a benefit to us – only once or twice in the entire trip would we come across another visiting group, giving us a true sense of being in the wild.
The naturalists themselves are fascinating people. Most of them are native to the Galapagos (currently there are around 30,000 inhabitants of Galapagos, and Ecuador is now focused on trying to limit the population size), and all of them have extensive backgrounds in biology or a related field. We kept getting the sense that they were not tour guides, but they passionately cared about the the Galapagos wildlife and its restoration. The Galapagos while 600 miles from mainland, is a major part of the Ecuadorian national identity, and one of the four regions that the country is split into.
Back to the first hike – flamingos, iguanas, crabs, birds, sea turtles, and one or two sea lions. We learned about the sea turtle’s reproduction process, and saw mound after mound where turtle eggs were buried. After a quick swim in the water, took Zodiacs back for dinner. Not sure whether it was the rocking ship, being on vacation, or the strenuous day, but with 6 AM wake-up calls every day, the entire ship would be asleep by 9 PM.
Day 2
Disembarked on the shore of North Seymour. Landings would vary between wet landings on a beach where we’d have to change into hiking shoes on land, or dry landings on a makeshift dock. We were split up into groups of fifteen or so, and each group would have a naturalist escort them.
Saw blue footed boobies, frigate birds, and more iguanas in one place than I’ve ever seen.
Afternoon – went snorkeling off Rabida Island. We were able to see a fair amount of fish and a shark or two, but they brought an underwater specialist with us who, every night, would show clips from his dive, where he was able to go right up against the coral. We used a GoPro every time we went in the water, but his footage definitely beat ours.
After we returned from snorkeling, went for a walk along Rabida Island. While the entire Galapagos is made up of volcanic formations, the lava that formed Rabida had high iron oxide content, resulting in red sand. Again, saw some more wildlife, as well as a couple sea lions playing in the water.
Aside from the more recent human intervention (they definitely drove home the fact that we humans have a habit of screwing everything up), there were two remarkable points about the native wildlife. First, the total isolation from surrounding lands resulted in species that were both endemic to the archipelago, and related enough to each other that you can see how species deviated depending on their habitat. For more, read up on Darwin’s finches – we saw many types of finches as we traveled around. Second – and this is one of the core reasons why the Galapagos stands out – the wildlife is ecologically naive. They had no concept of human beings, and were unafraid. With very few seeing us a threat, you can walk right up to a sea lion with no fear on either side. Iguanas would walk right across your path as if you didn’t exist (I was surprised that not even the ground vibrations alarmed them). It made photography especially exciting.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner were served in the dining room, either buffet or plated. They encouraged you not just to interact with other guests, but also with the naturalists, who would grab an empty seat at your table. Getting to know them and not feeling like a foreign tourist was great.
Day 3
Fernandina Island. Also known as Narborough. Each exploring country, as well as Ecuador when officially annexing the Galapago, often gave each island a different name.
That morning we disembarked on Punta Espinoza for an intense hike over lava flows. This hike stood out due to the immense number of iguanas all over the area, as well as a few sea turtles swimming in the shallow waters. Marine iguanas mainly live in the water, but rely on basking in the sun in order to warm them up. Again, with no fear of humans, they would not stir however close we got (regulations kept us six feet away), nor would they hesitate from walking inches from us as they went in and out of the water.
After lunch we went to Isabella Island, an area called Punta Vicente Roca. When we went deep water snorkeling, we saw numerous sea turtles (and if you watch our GoPro footage, you can see one charge right at me), sea lions, sharks, and various fish. We even saw a flightless cormorants (a bird) swim right underneath us. Unbelievable.
After snorkeling, boarded zodiacs along the edge of the water. On the cliff faces and rocky outcroppings saw blue-footed boobies and other birds, our first Galapagos penguin, sea lions, and of course more iguanas.
In the afternoon we had a wine tasing on the bow of the ship as we crossed the equator. The ship dropped anchor in the calm waters of Tagus Cove.
Day 4
Isabela Island. Went for a long hike at Urbina Bay, and saw our first tortoises. This part of  the island is notable as, roughly 50 years ago, magma movements raised an entire section of the ocean floor up by 15 feet, exposing it to the elements. Along the hike we were able to see coral formations, now landlocked.
One theme of the trip was learning not just about the human impact to the islands, but also about the destruction that human-introduced animals caused. Isabela island had a major issue with feral goats and donkeys eating all the vegetation that turtles and other species relied upon, until a big effort to “eradicate” them over the past decade proved successful. There are now strict regulations on what animals can be brought onto the islands (dogs and cats must be sterilized, and any stray or even unleashed animal is sent back to the mainland).
That afternoon went back to Tagus Cove, where we took a fast paced (e.g. no stopping every five feet to explain a plant or animal) hike to the rim of a dormant volcano. Tagus Cove is where whalers would stop over to barter for supplies, noted by the historic graffiti of passing ships. Also of note was this area of Isabella was one of the ones Charles Darwin visited in 1835.
Day 5
Santiago Island (aka San Salvador aka James…). This is where Charles Darwin spent the most amount of time (9 days out of his 19 days on land).
Took an early morning intense hike along rocky lava formations in Playa Espumilla.
They guided us to a particularly beautiful part of Buccaneer Cove, a one-time pirate haunt. Given that tortoises, unfed or watered, can last for up to a year, pirates, whalers, and other ships would take tortoises with them as fresh meat months into a voyage (one of the primary reasons the tortoise population is so low). Snorkeling in the late morning revealed more sharks, fish, and a couple manta-rays. The dropped us off in a particularly beatiful spot for snorkeling, as we were able to enter a cave, turn around, and see a beautiful effect with the sunlight on the water.
In the afternoon the ship headed to Puerto Egas. After a wet landing we took a walk to find marine iguanas and sea lions playing in the series of grottos formed by lava, as well as numerous types of birds.
There was little downtime during the trip, often not more than a 30 minute break unless you wanted to skip a major activity. Any idle on-ship time was filled with lectures by the naturalists, instructional sessions, or other cultural activities. While being a “expedition” instead of a luxury cruise, we were still treated well. One of the funniest things I found was jumping from the zodiac into the ship after a sweaty morning hike, to be handed a glass of fresh juice and a cookie by the eager hotel staff.
That evening, we were treated to a barbecue outside on the deck of the ship.
Day 6
Spent the day on land. After waking up in the port of Puerto Ayora to the most turbulent seas we had so far, disembarked to Puerto Ayora. We first visited the Charles Darwin Research Center, which we had kept hearing about in the prior days (and a couple of the naturalists also worked there). CDRS is tasked with both researching and executing rehabilitation efforts of near-extinct species. Tortoise eggs or newborn tortoises rarely survive the invading rat population, for example, so the rearing center takes eggs, incubates, hatches, and then raises the tortoises until they are old enough to be released back into the wild. They are doing the same with mangrove finches and other species now.
Walked through the town of Peurto Ayora, and then we were bussed into the highlands. After a stop at a sugar cane processing demonstration and for lunch, we headed to Manzanilla Ranch (a former farm that happened to be right in the giant tortoise’s migratory path, and is now a tortoise sight-seeing area). Tortoises roamed freely, to the extent that our bus had to dodge them on the access road.
Afterwards, headed back to the ship, where we heard a talk by researchers from the Darwin center before dinner.
Day 7
San Cristobal Island (aka Chatham). San Cristobal was the first island that Darwin visited. Anchored in Punta Pitt (the Pitt namesake being the same one behind Pittsburgh). On the hottest day so far we took the most strenous hike up to the edge of a collapsed volcano cone. Saw red footed boobies and other animals. The hike was so hot that upn descending back down to the beach everyone went straight into the water, where sea lions were swimming and tanning.
In the afternoon the ship went to Lean Dormido (Kicker Rock), a beautiful formation of two rocks, with a narrow channel in between. We snorkeled through the channel and along the edge of the formation. The channel, normally calm, had unusually high 6-10 foot swells, but we were still able to spot schools of fish, manta rays, and a few sharks.
In the afternoon, there was a farewell cocktail party on the bow of the ship as the captain circumnavigated Leon Dormido against the setting sun.
In the evening we were supposed to go to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, a small town where we would fly out of the next morning, but high waves and flooding in the town kept us on the ship – the most turbulent night we had aboard the ship made packing a challenge.
Day 8
Woke up at 6 AM, had breakfast, then headed to the airport. Everything on the ship came and left on a zodiac, included tall piles of our suitcases. After a flight back to Guayaqil, went on a short tour of the city. Guayiqil is the largest city in Ecuador, and the main commercial port (major exports are flowers, cocoa, rice, and fruit).
Day 9
GYE —> MIA —> DCA

Affinity Groups

02/08/2015

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.

1:1s

02/04/2015

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.

Team Leads/VPs
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.

Co-founders
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.

Advisors/Investors
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.

Full Team
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.

Working with a Virtual Assistant

01/31/2015

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.

Hiring
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
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.

Tasks
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.

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#BattleDecksDC

01/29/2015

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!

Putting things in perspective

01/25/2015

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.

 

 

Working with a Coach

01/18/2015

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

12/31/2014

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.

Working agreements

12/14/2014

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 ____________________

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