How to thrive as an early-stage CEO

How to thrive as an early-stage CEO

Author: The Carta Team
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Read time:  29 minutes
Published date:  9 December 2021
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Updated date:  20 September 2023
Four CEOs of early-stage startups talk about how they found product-market fit and why their most valuable allies are other founders.

Being the CEO of an early-stage startup means lots of questions, lots of learning from mistakes, and lots of excitement. At the 2021 Carta Equity Summit, four CEOs who successfully led their businesses into early success talked to Lisa Wu, partner at Norwest Venture Partners. The wide-ranging conversation included advice on why to network with other founders right now, how they found brand-market fit really early, how they adapted after looking at data, developing a company culture that can scale, and discovering that saying “no” can be self-care.

The panel:

  • Gina Correll Aglietti, co-founder and CEO, Yola Mezcal

  • Cadran Cowansage, co-founder and CEO, Elpha

  • Deon Nicholas, co-founder and CEO, Forethought

  • Angela Sutherland. co-founder and CEO, Yumi

  • Lisa Wu, partner, Norwest Venture Partners

This transcript has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Lisa WuHey, my name is Lisa Wu, and I’m a partner at Norwest Venture Partners. We manage 10 billion dollars  in assets and invest in early-to-late-stage companies across enterprise, consumer, and healthcare. Today, we have four CEOs who will be sharing early-stage lessons. 

I’d like to kick it off with each of the panelists introducing themselves—spending maybe one minute with the name, company, and company description. Then, we’ll kick off the conversation from there. Gina, I’ll pass the baton to you, and then you can pass it to someone else afterward.

Gina Corell Aglietti:Great. Hi, thank you so much for having me, Lisa and Carta. My name is Gina Correll Aglietti, and I’m the CEO and one of the three founders of YOLA Mezcal. We’re an all-female-led mezcal company, launched a few years back. Yola—my business partner—and her family are Oaxacan. She grew up with a farm in the family, from her grandfather. Our recipe is his recipe from 1971. 

Years later, she went back and realized that the majority of people in the village her distillery was in were women. Sons were off getting work in cities. We decided to put our money toward empowering those women to have economic independence by creating an all-female bottling facility for them so that they could work, make their own hours, and get direct pay as well as a title. And also give some daycare to their children, so they could continue to work. 

That mission went on to how we would lead on this side of the border as well—trying to empower women, to work with a lot of female organizations, and to hire primarily women, and continue that legacy. And bring you really good mezcal along the way. So thanks for having me.

 Angela Sutherland:My name is Angela Sutherland, I’m CEO and co-founder of Yumi, the fastest-growing baby and children nutrition company in history. We now feed over 4% of babies born in America. We started it because we believe that nutrition will matter for the rest of your life, but it’ll never matter more than in early childhood. If you can make that impact in that period of life, it’s going to make lifelong changes.

Who this is for, and who we’ve always geared this toward, is the idea that women bear the burden in the kitchen. If you remove these options on the shelves and they no longer feel good to you, then who gets the burden? Women. Not only could we change a generation in terms of health outcomes and nutrition outcomes, we could also change a lot of the dynamics of what women have access to, helping working women along the way.

Deon Nicholas:Hello, everyone. I’m Deon Nicholas, I’m the CEO and co-founder of Forethought. We transform customer experiences using human-centered AI. We launched about three years ago at TechCrunch Disrupt, and since then we’ve grown. We’re now at about 124 thinkers or employees, and we help power the customer experience for large tech brands like Carta and Hopin and folks like that. Very, very excited to be using AI to help people, just in general.

Cadran Cowansage:Hey, so I’m Cadran. I’m the founder of Elpha. I’m a solo founder, and I’m building a professional network for women to succeed at work. We are really focused on creating a space where women can talk about really anything that’s happening at work or in their personal lives. We do office hours with experts, there’s a ton of job opportunities, we partner with companies that want to hire women—and all of that is happening with over 50,000 women who are part of our network. Before founding Elpha, I was an engineer. An interesting transition, I would say, from engineer to CEO and founder.

 

Start networking with founders ASAP

Lisa:Let’s start off with fundraising. To get a company off the ground, you need capital, and to get capital, you need to fundraise. It’s great to see a diverse set of CEOs here, but I would love to just understand: If you aren’t plugged in with investors to raise capital, how do you actually build that network to raise money? Cadran, do you want to kick us off?

Cadran:Yeah, for sure. I would say that it’s really never too early to start building this network. The network that you use for fundraising is also super useful for a ton of other stuff, like getting advice from other founders, and things like that, as you’re building your company. 

The place that I would start from scratch is meeting other early-stage founders. The reason I would start here is because founders tend to be a little bit lonely. They’re working on something that family and friends maybe can’t relate to, and they’re often working on it either by themselves or with a really small team.

It’s one of those opportunities where people really want to make friends. This is a group of people who are unusually open to meeting new people. A good way to approach meeting them is being supportive and open about your experience, and as helpful as you can be. I think once you know founders, there’s really a network effect there. You’ll meet more founders, they’ll introduce you to their friends, and those founders will introduce you to other founder friends. And those founders have events that they go to with investors, and they’ll invite you. 

They can introduce you to the investors that they work with. It’s a very natural way to get those first intros to investors, and investors love to meet founders through founders they have already invested in. It’s also just a great point of reference for an investor to take you really seriously.

Lisa:I can confirm that that is the case, as an investor. Just because as investors, we’re inundated with a lot of signals everywhere, but we trust the founders that are in our network—so that warm intro certainly helps to surface you to the top. 

You mentioned starting with founders. Was this a similar approach—did others take on this call as well? How did you meet these early-stage founders? Do you just find them on LinkedIn and reach out to them? Are you attending network events? What kind of guidance could you share there?

Angela:Yeah, I could chime in on that one, too. I completely agree that founders help other founders, and they also believe more in other founders. In the early days—and any stage, I’d actually argue—so much of it is your conviction in what you’re doing. Generating that conviction needs other people to have conviction. So the more people you can find en masse that believe in your story and believe in what you’re doing and believe in you—then you can refine your story around your conviction, before you even talk to someone on the other side. Someone that you’re fundraising from.

To do that, there are multiple ways. Friends of friends, or even cold reaching out to people. People are much more open than you think they are. I think, to Cadran’s point, you actually have this unique period where you are either lonely or you actually want the enthusiasm of other founders—you want to vibe off of that. Really, you’re just looking for it. 

Then when they believe in you…we’ve had amazing early investors, founders of different incredible companies, and they’ve helped with way more than just fundraising. They’ve helped with everything from brand help or connections to everything else. They’re probably going to be even more helpful than just the fundraising side. That’s definitely a good place to start, with other early founders or even late-stage founders. Founders in general.

Lisa:It’s encouraging, I think, for folks to hear that, because sometimes there can be a mental model that “I don’t want to bother a founder,” but it sounds like there is receptivity just for folks to open a network with one another. 

 

Fundraising can be challenging. There are a lot of setbacks along the way. Could you guys share just some of the challenges that you faced while fundraising, and how you navigated through those?

When not to listen to advice

Gina:Yeah. I can chime in there, definitely. And yes, to agree with Cadran and Angela. I think people want to help more than you realize. When you’re starting something, you feel so isolated, but once you show how passionate you are, if you are truly passionate, it’s totally magnetic. Anyone who’s been through it or is excited for you to go through it, or has experience, will feel that and they will offer help. It’s just so much simpler than we believe it is when we’re in the trenches of building the idea or building the plan. I think people just really, really do want to help when they’ve been through it themselves.

But yeah, fundraising for us was exciting in the beginning, when it was a little earlier. A pandemic and a category that’s new—it’s not easy to keep the inspiration alive around fundraising. But one thing that I can throw out to newbies is: Don’t get mired in the stories that either lawyers or advisors tell you—especially ones who maybe haven’t started a company themselves—around the rules of the game, or the jargon you need to have, or the protocol, or the consecutive order of things. I think that the biggest thing that I’ve learned is that you’re paving your own path, you’re carving out your own story.

You will find those people who are excited to be part of your journey, and they are the people that you should latch on to and make it work with. If you have an instinct that something’s going to derail you from the path you’re on, don’t chase that path for too long. Don’t get yourself backed into a corner, and don’t feel so desperate. Know that everyone’s been through that moment and you’re going to overcome it and just try to stay true to who you are and not get caught up in, “I should do it this way, or it has to be done that way.” Or, “This is what they told me it should be done like.”

You need money, but you also need to stick to your plan and your story, and how you want to do it, and never let those two things battle each other too much. Find the balance, and you will. I think that it’s very challenging, but again, people want to help. So, call on your friends, call on your advisors, but don’t listen to one story. I think that everyone has their own story of how it unfolds and there’s no one right way.

 

Why other founders often make the best investors

Lisa: What about other ways?  Just because I think it does require resilience as you fundraise in this environment, and I think hearing other stories would be helpful.

Deon: Yeah. When fundraising, especially the first time doing it, so to speak, it is grueling, and I think that’s the first thing to remember. You’re going to hear a lot of nos—I heard a lot of nos, and that’s normal. Eventually it tends to work out. It can be a long process, and you see the TechCrunch articles, and you see all the, “We’re crushing it,” and you’re like, “Well, how did that fundraise go so easily?” Most of the time it’s grueling, but the good thing is that with fundraising is that you don’t need a bunch of yeses. You just need one or two yeses. You may go through 20 or 30, and I definitely did, before getting a yes. So, I think even that mindset shift can be helpful.

Then I would second what Cadran and Angela were saying earlier: I would start by pitching the founders. Not only just because of the community and the fact that we’ve all been there before, and we’re like, “No, I want to make it less painful for you.” But I also think going back to that from a strategic perspective, if you can get early-stage founders as your first believers—your first angels—they refer you to their investor network, and things go a lot easier that way. That’s often better than, for example, cold emailing Lisa. Something to keep in mind.

Cadran: Yeah. I just want to add one thing there. Really good point, Deon. Founders as investors are also really awesome because they have such good advice to offer you. They have been there and they know your struggles. At times, those are the investors that I feel most comfortable being really candid with about things that aren’t going well, because they know. They’ve done it, and they can offer great advice. Those are really, really valuable investors to have too. 

I’ll also jump into our fundraising story a little bit. Our product is for women. Our customers are women. You can’t see a lot of the product unless you are a user. One of the things there was that we would meet with investors who were mostly men, and they would say, “Well, let me check with my girlfriend or my wife,” or some woman in their life. And that was really a cue for us: “This is probably not the right relationship. They’re not seeing this really urgent problem that we’re trying to solve.” I build community, and so network effects are the thing that I love most, and thinking about those in your relationships.

I think our first angel was an Elpha member. She was an early Elpha member who loved our product and she invested, and then she introduced us to other women investors. Those women were folks that she knew, who she knew felt that this was an interesting problem—and that really snowballed. Those investors invested and introduced us to other investors. So I would say my conclusion is: Don’t get discouraged if the first people you talk to don’t get it. Keep pushing forward. Investors who really understand what you’re trying to do are the ones you want anyway.

So, people who show that that’s not the fit early and fast, that they’re actually doing you a favor. Then I would say the other conclusion on my side is just leveraging the investors that you do have, and using the network effects of their networks to get those intros to other investors. And also because investors love getting an intro from someone who has invested. That’s very validating.

Figuring out your competitive advantage early

Lisa:I can confirm that as well. It’s nice to hear a thread around resilience and not getting discouraged, and you only need one yes. From my side of the table, this is how I view it: As a CEO, you have many hats to wear, but three of your core responsibilities are to set the vision, to raise money, and to hire your executive team. If you don’t raise the money, you’ve essentially failed at one of your goals, those three key goals that you have to do. And I have an example of a founder who got 99 nos, and just one person said yes, and that was enough to move the company forward, too. I just want to emphasize that it’s hard. It’s just like interviewing. It’s hard not to take it personally because it is the company, and at the same time, it’s also the goal—and you just need that one.

So moving forward: Now that you’ve raised capital, let’s discuss finding product- and brand-market fit. Each of you operates in markets that are competitive and have found a fit there. I would love for you to share some of those learnings as you’ve navigated through to find that differentiation. Deon, perhaps we could start with you. In a world of chat bots, how did you find differentiation there?

Deon:It was really interesting for us because that was actually one of the things that made it harder to fundraise. For example, investors saying, “Hey, well, it’s a really crowded space. How are you going to win X, Y, and Z?” 

I think the principle that ended up being the most important goes back to building something people want. I think Sam Altman and the YC folks talk about this a lot. Find a core group of users that love what you’re doing. 

For us, what ended up happening was just spending a ton of our time with our users. We had a lot of upfront R&D and AI stuff we had to de-risk from the technical side, but once we had that, we spent the rest of the time talking to directors of support operations. We realize that for all of them, the problem was not yet solved. That was the interesting thing. You’d hear all this noise from the investor perspective of, “Well, it’s a space, it’s very crowded, it’s competitive.” But we asked the customer about their most important pain point—in this case, it was their volume, ramping agents, and things like that. And when we asked them, “What are you using to solve this today?” they’re like, “Well, we’ve tried X, Y, and Z solution, but it just didn’t work.”

When you have something like that, you can see that there’s a pain point that just hasn’t been addressed yet. There might be some risk as to why it hasn’t been addressed yet, and you might fall into the same trap. But really, if you turn it into, “OK, well, how could I just become a laser focus on solving this one problem for my customer?” you often find that through a little bit of innovation, and through a lot of focus, you can actually build the solution that breaks through the noise.

Lisa:Do others have a perspective on just finding and nailing that brand-market fit in a sea of competition?

Angela: I can jump in. I think one of the things I realized pretty early on was: What is your competitive advantage? You have to figure this out really early. It’s not just how a consumer sees you and differentiates you; it’s also how you view yourself and differentiate yourself. 

I think there are two parts to that. Really early on, I was a math major, so I knew that I could probably build some algorithm. So I did that. We were making sure that the data that we had and we could collect was actually going to be meaningful, and it turned out to be incredibly meaningful. What we know about parents by region, what we know about children by region, is just so impactful. Then that affects how we can make a better experience. 

Ultimately, you’re creating a better experience for people, because you have this information on them, because you know them so well. You can get way better product-market fit if you’re actually making a product for them. There are two parts to this. One is: How do we approach differentiation? The other part is: We always knew that you can’t be a product for everybody. I think the sooner you can define who that person is, and who you are for, then you actually get really quick adoption.

I think the problem is this: So many people want to say, “No, I’m for everybody. Everybody should use this. Everybody!” It’s like, that’s never the case. The biggest companies in the world, like Apple, are not for everybody. They don’t have the whole market. Who are you for? That’s really helpful in defining what you’re supposed to do and what you’re meant to do; it was helpful for us.

 

Building community within your market

Lisa: That’s great. Speaking of competitive advantages, one way to also build competitive advantages is to build community, which can unlock those advantages in just customer acquisition and retention for example. How does one go about building community from scratch? Cadran, you’re building a community. Perhaps you can tee us off?

Cadran:Our early community was our competitive advantage also. I used to work at Y Combinator, so Elpha actually started off as a side project while I worked there. My first users were YC employees and alumni from the founder network, so it was a very strong group of people. I’ll talk about why that was a great recipe for growing community in a second. But first, having that really strong kernel was super important for creating a moat around why this community is specialL They are talking about interesting topics that you can’t find elsewhere on the internet. This content is unique. 

Digging more into how to build community from scratch,I would say that whenever a founder asks me, my first question is: “Why do you want to do this? Do you really want to do this?” Because building community is really hard, and it takes a lot of effort. You have to really commit to it, and make sure you have the time for it, and make sure it’s important for your business—that there’s a really clear business case for it. Once you check those boxes, you make that decision, the next thing is figuring out the core group of people who create that community mode for you, and how you get them really engaged with your product.

When we were thinking about this, it was basically: Find a group of people—it can be pretty small, but they should have a really clear, shared purpose.They have a shared vocabulary, some level of comfort with each other preferably; ideally, they already know each other. Also, if they know each other, but don’t have a place to engage with each other and get to know each other already. Preferably, whatever the shared purpose is, there’s urgency around it. They really want to talk about it. It’s an important problem. It’s something that’s on their mind a lot. It’s something they’re really excited about.

Finding that core group of people is the very first thing you need to do. Then once you have them, it’s really all about giving them a space to connect. Giving them that space means creating guardrails. That’s basically making it really, so everyone feels it’s easy to contribute. They know what to talk about, they know how you want them to talk about it, they know if there are things you don’t want them to talk about, they understand the culture of the space. Then part of the way along, you create those guardrails and you show people that, you really lead by example.

So, you have to be a very active contributor. Somebody on your team—but probably you—has to be a very active contributor in the community, really stoking conversation. That really shows people how to participate.

 

Organically defining your brand and story

Lisa:That’s great. Along the thread of competitive advantage, another one is just brand. It is easier to start companies these days, and very difficult to replicate that emotional relationship that you build with a customer. I would love for you to  share some learnings you have around achieving that brand-market fit. Gina, how did you think about building a brand in your category, and how do you measure its success? Are there certain KPIs that you look at? 

Gina:It interesting, what we were naturally doing before we even settled on: “Yes, this is exactly how we’re going to do it, we’re going to make it, put Yola’s name on this and we’re going to go out with this mission around bettering women’s lives at Oaxaca, but that strong women need a strong drink.” This mission we were on was exciting to us, but it was all happening quite organically in terms of the political moment and the social moment that was happening as well.

We started the idea a little bit before the women’s movement blew up in 2016 and 2017 when Trump got elected, and Me Too happened. I feel like there was a lot of energy for what we were doing that naturally unfolded just on the heels of us launching. But when we were starting, it felt like distributors and people in the industry turned their nose up to us and said that it was silly to alienate customers. But going back to what Angela said around having happened upon Yola at a party, and then just totally adopting it…I don’t know if there is an exact roadmap.

I know that you can take your brand, which you think is really meaningful, to some PR agency or marketing firm, and they might have some rollout plan or some campaign idea, but unless you approach your world of people with a less transactional attitude, and a more “I want this to relate to you and I want you to feel the same kind of passion for it and excitement for it that I feel” by making it theirs somehow, I don’t know if there’s a way to actually measure it exactly.

 I think it’s just that you realize along the way that a combination of things happened, and you continually try to drive energy around the product, and what it means and what it stands for. Continuing, continuing, continuing with such steadfast earnestness. I don’t know. I don’t know how to actually give you the exact order of things. I think sometimes it’s a little bit of magic and just a lot of hard work. But that’s for our product. I don’t know if it applies to everyone else’s, but that’s for our product. 

Angela: I love that because I think it’s almost like what Cadran says, plus what Gina says: that community does so much for all of these things, and particularly for brand. It’s  true for Yola, I loved it since the early days of mezcal, and I was saying that I found it with a group of friends at a party that I went to. It’s almost like tying back to: When you choose your product, you’ve got to choose who it’s for. And maybe you’re perfectly building this product for these people. That group is that same group, and it keeps going. 

It’s actually been true in our company, too. For us in the brand side and community, we actually really track it. Baby and early kids is one of those places where referral is really, really high. You have very low trust on everything else, so the person that you ask the most is someone who just had a baby. You’re like, “Hey, what did you do? What diaper did you use?” 

Because of that, you can actually see KPIs, you can see tracking in certain levels of penetration with groups, equals a certain level of referral. Again, we’re a D2C (direct to consumer), so you can’t do this like retail and that type of thing. But what’s really cool about that is that it goes back to, if you can build a really strong brand and you really know who your people are, it actually is the best flywheel effect for you.

Other brands in the space go back to differentiation, but they don’t keep a solid brand all the way through. Maybe they’re organic when they’re for littles—and then for olders, they’re not. Maybe they’re plant-based, and then they have meat later. There are all these different things, and they maybe don’t have this tight brand ethos.I think people feel that. When they are loyal to you, it’s because you have a really strong brand ethic. 

I think it goes back to all those things, but I’ll tell you again: Whatever Yola did worked on me. It’s the only mezcal I buy.

Gina:You also said you didn’t even know the full background of the story. I think that that also is important to note. It’s like, you can have all these great additions to what the identity of your brand is and what you stand for and how you make something. You can be as sustainable, and as vertically integrated, and all of these things we try to do with such diligence and such purity. However, at the end of the day, if the product itself doesn’t speak to someone and it isn’t a really good product, that fits into brand-market fit.

It’s like when we started, mezcal was a very small category. It’s expanded. It’s very saturated. (It’s not so saturated, but it’s still quite saturated now as opposed to when we started.) But when we were getting started, people weren’t having what I experienced with mezcal—which was this very, very traditionally made product that was so authentic, and so based on the plant and the water and the distillation. And yet they were getting very extreme notes of wild agaves that maybe weren’t so adaptable to everyday life where you live in Los Angeles.

You could adopt this because it was a really nicely balanced product that is also made with such quality and is consistent. And ultimately, if you don’t have that to start, you shouldn’t slap all the other stuff onto an idea or a product, or a brand, or any of it. Start with making something that’s really, really good and really done right, and then I think all of the other stuff can be coloring the thing you want to become.

 

Managing the evolution of your company and idea

Lisa:What I hear that’s a thread across a lot of your comments is the word love, right? Is that you’re finding this initial set of customers, and meeting their needs, and letting them fall in love with the product or service that you’re bringing. And because of love, they want to talk about it and share it with other folks. Something that I’ve observed is that people don’t buy products; they buy the best versions of themselves. So the brands evolve over time, too. Gina, when you’re like, “I can tell it,” I can see you explaining the magic that’s hard to articulate, because that’s the brand. It’s the feeling around it

Continuing on the theme of product-market fit, and this is inspired by Philip, oftentimes a company goes through several iterations before landing on product-market fit. How different is each of your companies today versus the original idea?

Deon: I can jump in there. So, we were building an AI product to start. At the beginning, we were trying to be all things to everyone. I think Angela talked about this: what not to do when you’re starting a company. Focusing on that persona—who is the person who needs your product the most?—ended up helping us to focus and then find that initial product-market fit from which we could expand. So, originally we were just trying to be a general AI platform for the enterprise, or for any worker, any knowledge worker, so to speak.

We definitely found that when you’re trying to be all things to everyone, you’re not something to anyone, you know what I mean? I think figuring that out; who is the person for whom this is the greatest pain point, where are you going to find customer love and not a vitamin, so to speak, was really important. So, we evolved by becoming actually more focused, and then realizing there was a lot more we could do for our customers within a very specific space, and then we expanded from there.

Lisa:Others?

Angela:Sure. I can talk about how, the thing is, it’s really interesting when you’re a data company, when you’re really data driven, I think it’s probably the same with Deon. You actually really get to grow with the data you get—when you get it back. What we were seeing is that lots of things that you think are right, that you think will work, turn out to not work—so you get to iterate it a thousand times. You get to go through and say, “OK, this is going to get better. Now I’m going to do this younger, and I’m going to do this older, and I’m going to do these other types of products,”

You think it’s one size fits all, and you realize it’s not. An example of that for us is that we didn’t think we needed to do single flavors. This was really early on. Everyone can do that themselves. It turns out, people really want single flavors. That’s actually what they want. It was the biggest selling, the biggest adaptation. Great. That’s great. But you don’t know these things until you actually start seeing the data and how it shakes out.

I think what’s great is just learning to be flexible in that. To know that everything is iterative, that your product, your company, your choices are all iterative. If you remain flexible as a founder, it’s going to drive more innovation, it’s going to drive more answers, and you’re going to get better product market fit if you can stay that nimble. So, I just encourage anyone thinking about who does your company become? Just be open to it. That’s the point. It’s going to become something and you’re going to iterate on it, so just keep your eye on the data and it’ll guide you. 

Deon: That reminded me of two things. Be laser-focused on the problem, but very, very open on the solution. It’s like, you know who you’re solving it for, get real clear on that, but how you solve it will change and that’ll be different over time. Then the other thought: I think there was a stat that only one-third, or only 30%, of your product ideas are going to work. Period. For whatever it is, it doesn’t matter what space you’re in. That ends up leading to: We, as product people, will often be like, “Oh, this is going to work. It’s going to be the greatest thing on the planet,” and you launch it, and the first thing that happens is nobody uses it. Or nobody consumes, or nobody buys it. 

That’s actually pretty common, and then you can iterate from there, think about data. Is there a cohort that is actually using it or buying it or consuming it, and then you go from there. I think that, that’s actually more common than we think, and it’s kind of humbling as CEOs or product people.

 

Developing company culture and hiring as your company scales

Lisa: Now that we’ve talked about capital and product-market fit, we’d love to shift the conversation to just scaling. Part of scaling requires just building a team and a culture. Deon, you’ve hired a lot over the past year. How have you thought about maintaining that quality bar as you scale so quickly?

Deon: It’s one of those things where you’re figuring it out as you go, I will say, for anyone listening. But I think it started with getting very clear on your company values. Values are an interesting thing because you want to write them down, you want to be articulate about it. But your values are not something you create. It’s something youdiscover,because your values are actually created by the people you hire, what they do, how they behave, what they think, how they operate. A company culture is just like a cluster of people, and then that actually then becomes a by-product for your culture.

Getting very, very clear on what it is you want to be, and what it is you don’t want to be, is the most important thing. Especially, for example, in a pandemic, getting deliberate about the company ritual, so to speak. How are you doing? Does your team do all hands every couple of weeks? What are you talking about there? How are you scaling? How do you communicate on Slack? Things like that start to become really important in this growth stage, especially in a pandemic.

Lisa:I love that view that the culture is just really like a cluster of people. Because I observe it’s who you hire, who you fire, and who you promote, that builds the culture over time.

What about what characteristics to look for when you’re hiring? Because prior to starting companies, when you did hiring at big companies, it was very different from who you hire at an early stage. How would you distinguish those differentiating characteristics for what type of person you hire at an early stage? Cadran, I’ll pass the baton to you.

Cadran: Fundamentally, a person who is happy and successful at a really big company and has been there a long time, and is doing really well, is not the same person who’s going to do super well at a super early-stage startup. Part of that is early-stage startups don’t have a lot of structure, and you have to define the structure, and if you’re figuring out product-market fit, there’s going to be lots of experimenting and quick turns left and right, and the plan may be changing more often. 

I think digging into what drives a person and gets them excited about work, and understanding their risk tolerance. Looking for people who are really autonomous. I’ll say this is just what I look for. But people who are super autonomous, who are really hungry to learn, who are comfortable with ambiguity—give them a big problem with ambiguity and they just want to explore it, figure it out. They feel comfortable coming to you, even though you’re the CEO, but coming to you when they need help. They feel comfortable giving you feedback. That type of person is who I really look for. Folks who’ve worked at startups before are awesome, because they’ve shown that that’s what they’re excited about. If they founded a company, I think that’s great, because then they’re really comfortable with ambiguity. Those are a few things.

Lisa:Those are good.

Gina:Hunger, it’s a good one, and communicators, good communicators.

 

The importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion

Lisa:This one inspired by an attendee named Jennifer, is how do you guys think about D, E, and I with your organization, and building a diverse team? 

Angela:I think one of the things is that, when you start a company for women’s products, it’s so important to have representation across all different types of women. Who is this affecting? Who can be the voice for all these things? Then also men and parents and all different things, since you’re trying to get as many voices as possible. I’m a big believer in diversity of thought, and that includes in every category—even though people don’t like to talk about politics, but that’s true. In every category, you should have a diversity of thought across all things. It’s going to drive more understanding and more knowledge, so we believe that it’s very true in hiring as well.

We take personality tests, we take all these things. We want diverse backgrounds, we want diverse education. It’s going to change the way that you build a brand and build a service if you can actually get more people in the room to disagree with you. I actually like the combat a little bit. I like that someone is pushing back; the more people have diverse thoughts in a room, the more likely that’s going to happen. You weave it into a hiring plan, because it’s actually going to push your company further if you could have more diverse thought across every sector.

 

Self-care and saying “no”

Lisa: That’s great. We have a few minutes left, and I just wanted to shift a bit into just founder psychology and founder self-care. Starting a company is really, really hard, and we’d love to hear what each of you do for self-care, just to proactively manage burnout.

Gina:Happy to start. The pandemic forced me to realize that I was about to crash and burn. So, that can be a good thing to just slide in there and stop you. I came out of this last couple of years with a lot of education—I think as we all did—and realized that we do need to take some time at home, that we do all need to take some isolating time. My job requires me to be out at night a lot too, and burning the candle at both ends. 

So, taking time off from actually being at events and being at social things, but the basics, like also just taking your team or yourself to the spa. I mean, basic, basic, helpful things that are isolating and also like meditation and therapy. But I also think that I used to say a lot more yeses, and I think my nos are getting a little bigger. And the bigger my nos are, the bigger my yeses are. I’m more present and I’m more capable.

Lisa:Others?

Cadran:I can jump in. I think this actually ties back to virtual team-building, which with the pandemic is something we all have experienced together. I’ve discovered that trying to be vulnerable and open with the team when I’m struggling with something or feeling burnt out, and talking about what works and what doesn’t work for me—really, it just feels good. I think it’s really helpful for everyone, and it also makes it OK for team members to talk about it.

I think this question is actually an opportunity to be candid with your team, which is interesting. For me, things that work really well are working out consistently, eating well, sleeping. I think sleeping is probably the biggest one, and taking breaks. I am somebody who tries to follow the wave when I’m feeling focused and really able to dive into something that takes all my thought—then I do that kind of work.

Versus if I’m feeling unsettled or distracted, then I’ll give, put something on my plate that’s easier. Obviously you don’t always have that luxury or option to shuffle things around, but for me, it’s really helpful to try and also manage my schedule around where I’m at headwise.

 

Founders’ advice for their younger selves

Lisa: Last question is: If you could go back and give your pre-founder self one piece of advice, what would that be?

Deon:I’ll jump in there. Going back to what we talked about around self-care, and all that. Your company’s health is a reflection, in many ways, of your health. Invest in understanding yourself, understanding what your strengths, your weaknesses are, taking breaks, taking rests, coaching, therapy. All the things you can do to put yourself at your tip-top position.

Because at the end of the day, your job is to make decisions, and the ones that get to you are the hard ones, so you want to be in the right headspace to do that emotionally and mentally. So taking care of yourself, and growing and continuing to grow in that way, is really important.

Lisa:Hey, Angela, you want to close this out with your advice?

Angela:The thing I underestimated was how important passion is, and enthusiasm, and optimism. I joke about this, but all of us, we’re making something out of nothing. Nothing existed, and now you exist, and that’s on the back of your enthusiasm and your passion and your drive. Never underestimate that and how far that can go.If you think it’s because of all these other reasons, like our product-market fit, it’s not. It’s actually because you wanted it to exist, you willed it to exist.

I spent such time thinking, “There’s all the numbers, what am I going to show people? What are all the proof points?”. But the honest truth of it is, we all created something out of nothing, and that’s because we were driven to do it. So, the more you believe in it, the further it’s going to go, and the more you believe in yourself with it, the further it’s going to go. That’s something I underestimated: It’s really more about believing in it.

Lisa: I love it. I think that’s the end. I want to thank all of you for participating, and thanks to the great questions that came across through the comment side, I hope everyone got some good tips on believing in yourself and your resilience to start your businesses and continue to scale. Thank you.

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The Carta Team
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