Meet AWS VP of Technology Francessca Vasquez

“How did they do that? How did they get there?” Companies succeed because of the people who build them – operating leaders who grow businesses to new heights and make decisions every day that can impact entire industries. Each month, our Operator Spotlight gives you the inside track from one of our incredible Operator LPs (Limited Partners) who are changing the game – building and scaling some of the world’s most successful companies. Read on for lessons learned and mistakes made, perspectives from the top, practical advice, and ideas on what’s next. 

This month, we spoke with Francessca Vasquez, VP, Technology and Customer Solutions at Amazon Web Services (AWS). Her team helps customers enable digital transformation, deliver new customer experiences, and drive business innovation outcomes. Francessca also serves as the Executive Sponsor for the AWS Global CIO Council. Prior to AWS, Francessca spent 11 years with Oracle, most recently as the Group Vice President of the North America Cloud Infrastructure team. She’s held numerous leadership roles in consulting, business development, and business-technology architecture strategy with Salesforce, CSC (now DXC) Sun Microsystems, and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).

You’ve held big roles at big companies, what have been some of the throughlines of your career? 

FRANCESSCA: My career has spanned over 25 years, exclusively in the technology space. A key through line is working directly with customers and solving their problems, across industries and functions. I’ve worked within consulting, engineering, sales, architecture, and product, and the benefit has been to truly experience the full lifecycle. I’ve also switched between opportunities within the Americas and globally, and I truly believe that sometimes your passions just find you. Jeff Bezos often says some people find their career, but some people are lucky enough to find their calling. I feel like I’ve found my calling. 

Your role spans several key areas – technology architecture, enterprise modernization & migration, innovation engineering, and workforce diversity, equity & inclusion across the worldwide commercial organization (!!). What’s your approach to prioritizing and helping your teams stay focused? 

FRANCESSCA: The days vary, but all my teams work side by side with customers on how to enable their best outcomes and move them to the cloud in the most innovative and efficient way. To do this well, and for the customer experience to be strong, I spend a good portion of my time developing talent. I spend about 50% of my time focused on leadership development, talent movement, and how we live up to our value of being Earth’s best employer. As part of that, I prioritize on how inclusion, diversity, and equity tie into my business strategy, which has allowed my organization to innovate faster. 

The other 50% is driving innovation for customers through strategy planning or operational execution. Whether B2B or B2C, customers tend to be “divinely discontent”. They always want a better experience, and they should. I’m constantly trying to explore new ways for customers to achieve their business outcomes and experiment with metrics, data, and customer feedback to drive shifts in our business. I’m regularly with customers and enabling my team to remain Day 1 in their approach to solve customer problems. 

Outside of work, I spend my time in the community. It’s truly a passion of mine, and it keeps me fueled. I participate in a nonprofit sponsored by the PGA called First Tee. I love mentoring, youth development, and empowering community through golf.  

Helping a range of customers understand and get the most out of rapidly changing technology can come with significant challenges. What’s a key skill needed for success?  

FRANCESSCA: Emotional intelligence, communication and critical thinking. Every customer has a unique set of opportunities and challenges and you are constantly problem solving. You need to be able to look at their today, their tomorrow, and their next year and really understand them. It’s all about putting yourself in their shoes, building a relationship, and earning their trust. I think many customers are also hyper-focused on shaping their cultures to be more innovative. 

I lead a team that crafts highly-scalable, flexible, and resilient cloud architectures that addresses our customers’ unique business needs. That’s why it’s critical to deeply understand the customer – and they have evolved greatly over time at AWS. Customers seek more business and industry solutions that accelerate their time to value and are applicable to both technical and non-technical users. Customer decision-making, now extends beyond IT and into the lines of business and the C-Suite. This requires an ability to adapt and to evolve your skill sets alongside them. 

What’s the best advice you’ve received about how to manage people?  

FRANCESSCA: I grew up in a military family and have drawn inspiration from former Secretary of State, Colin Powell who said, “Good leadership encourages everyone’s evolution”. I wrote it down a long time ago and carry it with me as a reminder that you cannot be a great leader unless you build a team that evolves their capabilities and skills. I assess my own leadership based on the operating growth of my team. 

Another one is from a former president of my alma mater who always said, “A great team is always becoming”. It serves as a reminder to value diverse thought and perspective, know that businesses and customers evolve and change, and that teams should be constantly learning and being challenged as a result. I’m always becoming and value this as a distinct leadership skill. It prevents you from staying in the status quo. It’s a lesson I didn’t learn until later in my career, and it has an impact everywhere. Building a team where you’re more than a collection of individuals but rather operating as a working group with mutual accountability and rapid trust helps you move much faster towards your mission. Team dynamics are everything.

How have you made a mark in your industry? What’s something you’ve done that’s perhaps counterintuitive in your field – broken any rules with interesting results? 

FRANCESSCA: Some might say that I push boundaries. Workforce innovation and building a deeply intentional “people” strategy is critical in any growth strategy. Way before it was widely adopted as a business practice, I got my organization thinking about how unconscious bias shows up in the workplace. I brought in professional coaches to establish a process for bias training. The results have been incredible from customers, my leadership team, and employees. I’m committed to building diverse teams that mirror the markets and geographies that my organization serves.

Early on in my career, I worked on technology applications and vehicle sensor telemetry for automakers. Today, mobility innovation through software, data, 5G, and IoT is how most auto manufacturers will transform the driver and customer experience. Every time I get into certain cars with advanced telemetry, I’m incredibly proud to see the impact data and connectivity is having on the automotive industry. 

Describe one pivotal moment in your career that was truly defining for you in one way or another – an opportunity that changed your life or a moment where you recognized defeat and changed course.

FRANCESSCA: I like to joke that I stumbled into leadership by accident. I was offered a position when a leader left. I spent the first couple of years learning how to be a leader, and experienced success and failures while serving in that role. I then went back into an individual contributor again to build out a new go-to-market plan for moving a business segment into industry verticals. 

Initially, it was a tough transition for me. I had to really develop a growth mindset. However, it was this experience where I learned how to lead through influence, operate in ambiguity, and the importance of being resilient. I also realized that leadership wasn’t purely synonymous with being a people manager. That experience propelled me into the next three jobs and launched my formal career. 

What Wine, Noses and Questions have to do with Board Success

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of joining twenty remarkable women for a Board Retreat organized by Operator Collective in partnership with Maggie Wilderotter and Baker Botts. The event was designed to accelerate our journey towards joining our first public and/or private company board. My fellow attendees were some of the most accomplished and diverse business leaders from all over the country, working in senior operating roles at highly reputable technology companies.

With the rolling hills of the Wilderotter Vineyards as our setting, we engaged in an active discussion around an intensive board curriculum developed and delivered personally by Maggie Wilderotter, former F500 CEO of Frontier Communications and Interim CEO and Chairperson at DocuSign who has served on over 50 public and private boards. A champion of diversity in the boardroom, Maggie has introduced over 50 women to BOD roles.  

To many, the inner workings of a public company board can be a mystery. Throughout two days of intimate and interactive sessions, Maggie openly shared her decades of experience as a leader in the room where it happens. Her honest and captivating stories provided the inside track for successful Board service. 

While there were many valuable lessons, here are a few takeaways.

Noses In, Fingers Out

It is important to understand the difference between what the Board is responsible for and what CEO/Management is responsible for. The bottom line: know the difference between operating versus advising. Even in public companies, too many new board members get this mixed up. The work of the board is advisory, not a transfer of power or authority. Effective boards operate with collective wisdom and influence discussion as a group of peers.  An easy rule to follow:  always frame your dialog using questions, not statements, to facilitate a productive discussion. Board members should build on ideas, ask thoughtful questions, exhibit respect, and be courageous when tough decisions are needed. The Board helps CEO/Management make strategic choices to create value, not just activity. You want to have both an outside in and inside out perspective to shape the strategic direction of the company to create shareholder and company value.

The Capital P in the Power of the Network. 

Getting on a Board is a different process than getting an executive job and requires being strategic to secure the right seat. Do your homework: understand how your experience best fits with what a specific Board is looking for, create a Board Bio that showcases your expertise using the language of the BOD, create a target list of companies where your interest and experience align, and get to know other Board Members. The vast majority of directors appointed are known to either the CEO, Executive Management, other Board of Directors or a major shareholder; only 25% of placements happen via search firms. Many people don’t realize that every public company is required to file an annual proxy statement which is available to anyone. In the proxy, you can look up all the directors (name, age, tenure, compensation, and committee membership) and leverage this data to your advantage to be intentional with who and how you build relationships. 

Make the Commitment from Day One

Board service is a serious commitment of time, energy and expertise. Once you get on a Board, understand the culture and come prepared to actively listen, learn and participate. Be broadly aware of all key stakeholder needs. Engage with other Board Members from other companies, socialize and stay in touch with fellow Board members between Board meetings, and make yourself available to the CEO and Leadership Team. And, engage with shareholders outside the proxy season to build relationships and solicit feedback with the intent to address key issues before they become proxy proposals. Be future oriented – think oversight, insight and foresight. 

Maggie’s intentional leadership, positive force and authenticity were inspiring. As an added treat, we got a behind-the-scenes winery tour led by her husband. I made new friends in the Operator Collective community over delicious food, wine and laughs to support one another on this journey. I found the retreat to be insightful, actionable and enjoyable. We all know this is a hard combination to get right at any event. 

Thanks again to Maggie Wilderotter, Catherine Zinn, Pam Kostka and Anna Jacobson who made this happen! 

 

Photo L-R: Lauren Antonoff, Ann Funai, Leah Sutton, Nancy Wang, Olivia Nottebohm, Maggie Wilderotter, Pam Kostka, Catherine Zinn, Jessica Ross, Tracy Williams, Yolis Ruiz, Jessica Rusin, Maia Josebachvili, Anne Kornblut, Rashida Hodge, Aarti Borkar, Michelle Grover, Poulomi Damany and Zaina Orbai

Intelligent Workload Optimization and Cost Governance for Modern Data Clouds with Bluesky

Hot off a September 14, 2022 launch, Bluesky is helping Snowflake customers save time and money with an innovative approach to workload optimization.

The company: Bluesky

Bluesky provides data-driven enterprises with a workload optimization and data governance solution to better assess and get visibility into the cost implications of workload changes, then recommends ways to optimize performance more cost-effectively. The company is currently deploying their flagship product on Snowflake workloads. With Bluesky Data engineers spend less time manually monitoring and evaluating workloads and can focus on creating data-driven business value, faster. FinOps teams get peace of mind from knowing that data teams are following cloud financial best practices and optimizing workload performance to maximize their data cloud investment. 

Bluesky’s origin

Founders Mingsheng Hong and Zheng Shao have been friends for 18 years. At a wedding in early 2022 (the groom became an angel investor) they discovered they were ready to step out of their comfortable “corporate” jobs and do something entrepreneurial with their mutual interest in big data, SQL query optimization, machine learning and the need to help companies get a handle on usage-based pricing in modern data cloud environments (yes, it’s nerdy). The two identified an emerging market for a data cloud workload-based optimization solution that would be applicable to any organization needing to maximize their investment in platforms such as Snowflake and other modern data clouds. Given their experience solving similar optimization challenges at web-scale companies like Facebook, Google and Uber they knew they could build something valuable for the enterprise market. They quickly got to work raising a seed round and building a world class engineering team. A mere 6 months later, they are ready to come out of stealth mode and bring Bluesky to life. 

Why you should pay attention

Across industries, organizations are adopting modern data clouds to innovate and accelerate digital transformation. In today’s economic environment, every organization is looking for ways to keep data cloud costs under control while freeing up valuable data engineering resources to drive business value. The same traits that make cloud data easy to use and drive innovation also make it hard to manage from a financial perspective. Bluesky seeks to address this challenge by giving enterprises ongoing visibility into the cost implications of workload changes and automatically recommending ways to optimize performance more cost-effectively. In turn, Snowflake customers can concentrate on understanding and deriving value from their data rather than spending time refining, managing and optimizing the environment. 

Their innovation to workload optimization stems from a unique algorithmic approach. In contrast to established cost visibility and optimization products like CloudHealth by VMWare for public clouds, Bluesky focuses on SQL query workloads and performs “whitebox analysis” to provide in-depth optimization suggestions. For example, when Bluesky finds queries that repeatedly read the last 2 years data on an hourly basis, it flags them and then provides automated rewrite suggestions. In contrast, the EC2 type of jobs being monitored by other cost visibility and optimization tools are “black boxes” where the internal logic is not known to the tools. As such, the optimization suggestions that can be made tend to be more limited. 

Bluesky has already helped over a dozen companies reduce their Snowflake spend by 20% as well as increase query efficiency by up to 500x – massive financial and operational improvements. Bluesky complements Snowflake’s built-in capabilities such as their query optimizer with a unique workload optimization approach that goes beyond a single SQL query to cover a set of queries across data ingestion, transformation and analytics. By intelligently watching for similar query patterns, Bluesky can detect complex situations that simplistic visibility tools miss. Bluesky can suggest high-impact tuning options for valuable workloads, increasing efficiency while also looking out for clear savings hiding inside the noise of regular operations, such as long-running queries that fail repeatedly without providing any value. 

How Bluesky works

Bluesky’s SaaS solution is designed from the ground up to make querying and analytics faster and cheaper over modern data clouds, in turn, delivering exceptional operational and financial value. Bluesky provides ongoing visibility into workloads to better understand data warehouse usage, daily credit utilization, queued jobs and more. Bluesky uses profile-driven Query Cost Attribution and pattern-based Query Clustering to understand the implications of how customers are using data and identify ways to optimize performance more cost-effectively. In turn, customers can immediately take action on any Bluesky-generated recommendation to drive measurable business impact.

Bluesky analyzes query patterns to detect similar groupings, using an innovative technology it calls query patterns. By intelligently watching for similar query patterns, Bluesky can detect complex situations that simplistic visibility tools miss. Bluesky can suggest high-impact tuning options for valuable workloads, increasing efficiency while also looking out for clear savings hiding inside the noise of regular operations, such as long-running queries that fail repeatedly without providing any value.

Benefits

Bluesky’s dynamic optimization engine delivers intelligent insights that help you optimize workload performance, improve governance and run data cloud infrastructure on a more cost-effective basis. Bluesky goes beyond simple infrastructure cost measurement and looks at patterns in how customers use data across their entire data cloud to continuously find opportunities for improvement. 

Bluesky’s intelligent monitoring and actionable insights help Snowflake customers continuously optimize critical data workloads that support their business and enable agile, high-speed analytics at any scale. Instead of having unproductive, rearview-mirror conversations that end in countless delays, Bluesky delivers an intelligent workload optimization solution that lets data engineers take active ownership of their data cloud costs and performance and collaborate more effectively with finance teams and budget owners. 

Next 

If you are a data-driven enterprise concerned about the increasing costs and complexity associated with modern data clouds, Bluesky can help. For Snowflake users with an annual spend of $50,000+, they offer a Free “cost efficiency check” and best practices. Join Coinbase and other companies who are leveraging Bluesky  to achieve up to 20% cost savings on their Snowflake workloads as well as 500x better query performance.

Join the team! If you want to be part of it all, they’re hiring. Reach out to learn about open positions.

Hispanic Heritage Month: 6 incredible OpCo community members to know

To celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re highlighting some of the most successful, respected executives in the tech industry who identify as being of Spanish, Mexican, Caribbean, Central American, and/or South American descent. Get to know (and follow!) these exceptional Operator LPs and portfolio founders and executives:

Aubrey Blanche @adblanche

Founder and CEO of The Mathpath; Sr Director of Equitable Design, Product, and People, Culture Amp.

Aubrey Blanche, Senior Director of Equitable Design, Product & People at Culture Amp, is also the CEO and Founder of The Mathpath as well a startup investor and advisor, and non-profit board member. Through all her work, she seeks to question, reimagine, and redesign the systems and practices that surround us to ensure that all people can access equitable opportunities and build a better world. She is the inventor of the balanced teams approach to building proportional representation and a culture of belonging in the workplace. 

Elena Gomez @gomez3_elena

Chief Financial Officer, Toast. Board Member of PagerDuty, SmartSheet, the Haas School of Business and OpCo Advisory Board 

While most people go to restaurants to simply eat the food, Elena Gomez spends just as much time observing the operational flow from order to execution, giving her a leading advantage in her latest role of Chief Financial Officer of Toast, Inc., a cloud-based, end-to-end technology platform purpose-built for the entire restaurant industry. Elena is responsible for Toast’s finance organization and leads the company’s accounting, treasury, financial and strategy, and business operations. With over 30 years of experience ranging from scaling SaaS businesses into multi-billion organizations, building and leading large-scale operational teams, and achieving executive alignment on strategy and financial goals across multiple stakeholders, Elena has no shortage of proven outcomes. Most recently she helped scale Zendesk to over $1B in annual revenue while serving as CFO. While her accomplishments seem like they couldn’t get any bigger, she recently added one more title to her CV: 5th grade basketball coach to her daughter’s team.  Elena currently serves as a member of the Board of Directors at Smartsheet and PagerDuty. She also serves on the board of the Haas School of Business and The Boys and Girls Club of San Francisco. She holds a B.S. in Accounting from the Walter A. Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkeley.

Maia Josebachvili @MaiaJo_

Head of Strategic Operations, Financial Services, Stripe. Board Member of Brightwheel.

Maia Josebachvili is a member of the Leadership Team at Stripe, having served in multiple roles — Head of Strategic Operations, Head of Corporate Development, and Head of People. Prior to her current run at Stripe, she served as Vice President of Strategy, Marketing, and People at Greenhouse, a recruiting and automation platform. She’s also had stints as a Founder & CEO (sold the company), a derivatives trader on Wall Street, an engineer, and a pro-skydiver logging over 750 skydives. Throughout these experiences, she’s been a part of the growth journey of scaling several companies from 1 to 8000+ employees. Maia is on the board of Brightwheel and the Dartmouth Magnuson Center, and is a board observer at Forma and TrueLayer. Outside of work, you can find her trail running, camping with her husband and two sons ages 4 and 5, living the part-time van-life, and working towards a life of full-time adventure.

Manny Medina @medinism

CEO, Outreach

Manny Medina is the CEO of Outreach, a sales platform he co-founded in 2014. Prior to Outreach, Manny was employee number three on Amazon’s AWS team where he engineered Amazon’s compensation system for Amazon Associates, and led the Microsoft mobile division from launch to $50M in annual revenue. He holds an MBA from Harvard and a Masters in Computer Science from the University of Pennsylvania. Known for his vulnerable and transparent leadership, Manny sends heartfelt weekly emails to his employees, hosts Friday get-togethers, and encourages everyone to recognize the highs and lows of their job and workplace. Manny grew up in Ecuador and now lives with his wife and three children in Seattle.

Cindy Guerra Robbins @CindygRobbins

Former President & Chief People Officer, Salesforce. Board Member of YearUp, ActiveCampaign, Appfire, Path Forward.ORG.

Cindy Robbins, formerly the President and Chief People Officer of Salesforce, is an independent board director, corporate advisor, and senior executive with 20+ years of experience counseling CEOs and other senior executives. During her 13 years at Salesforce, she was instrumental in making Salesforce an equal-pay pioneer, one of the world’s most admired companies, and one of the best places to work. Today, Cindy serves on the boards of ActiveCampaign, a SaaS-based marketing automation platform, and Year Up, a non-profit organization that trains diverse young people and pairs them with major companies for internships and jobs. Cindy is an expert on recruiting and retaining talent, optimizing productivity and employee satisfaction, and building healthy and diverse cultures that facilitate growth. 

Christina Calvaneso Ross @cfochristina

Co-Founder and CEO, Cube

Christina Ross is the Founder and CEO of Cube, a real-time FP&A platform for modern finance teams. With prior roles at Rent the Runway, Criteo, Eyeview, and GE, Christina has over two decades of finance experience that she’s now leveraging for her latest startup. As a venture-backed CFO and in roles prior, Christina is committed to ensuring company diversity exists at the start, enabling the greatest possible experiences and outcomes for employees and users alike.

 

Operator Spotlight: Webflow COO Linda Tong

“How did they do that? How did they get there?” Companies succeed because of the people who build them – operating leaders who grow businesses to new heights and make decisions every day that can impact entire industries. Each month, our Operator Spotlight gives you the inside track from one of our incredible Operator LPs (Limited Partners) who are changing the game – building and scaling some of the world’s most successful companies. Read on for lessons learned and mistakes made, perspectives from the top, practical advice, and ideas on what’s next. 

This month, we spoke with Linda Tong, newly appointed COO of no-code website platform Webflow and Board Member at Prezi. Linda’s focus on innovative execution and design-led leadership has driven incredible growth and empowered companies across industries and sectors. She was previously General Manager at AppDynamics (acquired by Cisco), VP of Product and Innovation for the National Football League, COO of Nextbit Systems, Chief Product Officer at Tapjoy, and a Product Marketing Manager at Google where she helped launch Google Chrome and Android. 

Tell us a bit about your journey from building the product to running the business, and how your functional expertise enables you as a leader?

LINDA: I have always found joy in creating products that people love, and it made product management a natural path for me. The practice, to me, has always been about understanding what value we want to deliver, for whom, and how to balance making decisions across a varied set of constraints (resources, time, quality, scope). There’s no perfect answer, but the problem solving involved in arriving at a decision  is what makes me enjoy product so much –  I love finding ways to align teams to execute on a vision to deliver value to an end user. Working on products that I am personally passionate about has just been the icing on the cake. As my career evolved, however, I found myself moving further away from actually building product to leading teams of people who built product, and then ultimately teams of people running a business. The experience as a product person still remains however – whether I’m building a product or running a business, it comes down to bringing teams together to execute on a vision while balancing multiple constraints. The only difference for me now is that instead of my product being a set of features or a body of code, my product is the business. 

You’ve crossed the divide between hot startups and legacy enterprises a few times, what are some of the skills required to make those leaps successfully? What’s one key thing that each can learn from the other? 

LINDA: I won’t lie, making those leaps has been deeply uncomfortable and probably not a recommended path by any means unless you like ambiguity as much as I do. To switch modes like that and be successful requires patience, willingness to live in uncertainty, and an ability to learn quickly. Each time I jumped, I found myself feeling deeply inadequate and realizing that I needed to learn completely new domains, systems, tools, practices, and more. My advantage in these situations has been my ability to stay curious and learn from my experiences. When you have as many varied experiences as I do, you ultimately develop this library on the many ways to solve problems. As I approach problems in any role, I marry the context of the role with any relevant historical experience and that usually allows me to provide a unique perspective in every room I’m in. What I have found being in both startups and large enterprises is that when you bring in diverse perspectives (whether it’s diversity of race, geo, socio-economic background, age, experiences, or more) the sorts of results you can get are always better than when you lack diversity in the room. We often discount background experience as a source of thought diversity, but to me, it’s been one of my key advantages. 

How has the COO role changed since you first assumed the position about a decade ago? 

LINDA: The COO role, to me, has never really been that clear. There has been plenty of literature on the many ‘kinds’ of COO’s out there, and today the role is still incredibly (if not more) ambiguous. When I first stepped into the role many years ago, there was probably more alignment with the ‘executor’ role, one in which a COO led most G&A operations, and drove a focus on execution oriented operations for a business. Today, I feel lines are more blurry and see significantly more variance in COO’s and the roles they play. More, now than ever, I see different COO’s with varied backgrounds whose roles are simply defined by the business’s needs. 

What’s the best advice you’ve received about how to manage people?  

LINDA: The best advice I was ever given about management was to never have my standard approach to management, but rather, to manage the individual. Every person is different and great managers don’t expect each person to work well within some standard system. Instead, great managers learn the individual and figure out how best to meet the individual where they are. If the ultimate goal is to help an individual meet their potential, what better way to unlock it by understanding them deeply. 

You recently joined the board of video presentation collaboration software company Prezi. What do you wish someone had told you before taking your first board position?

LINDA: Similar to my experience of diving into wildly different companies, jumping into wildly different roles comes with a whole new learning curve. For board roles, the knowledge on how to be a great board member is not as common, so you really have to hunt for it. I wish I had spent more time talking to folks about their board experiences, how they prepare, what relevant job experience helps them, and how they individually add value as a board member. With a board role, you have less regular time with the board and management team you’re working with, so fewer cycles to ramp and learn – which makes the ability to ramp quickly all the more important. 

How have you made a mark in your industry? What’s something you’ve done that’s perhaps counterintuitive in your field – broken any rules with interesting results? 

LINDA: When I think of my ‘field’ I still think of myself personally as a product person (who’s current product is a business). One of the things that I think makes me different  as a product person and as a leader is my propensity to make big bets and drive focus. I truly believe less is more and as a product person and leader, I have driven programs across my past few companies to simplify through cutting vs. adding. When most people ask about new features, new programs, new products, new anything, I mostly ask about less. What can we cut, where do we simplify, how do we do less. From cutting a large percent of the features in the NFL app when I was running product there, to generating a program (project assassin) at my last company to cut features, processes, and more, to now focusing the team I’m leading, I would love to say the mark I’m leaving is one of simplification and focus. Instead of coming up with new things to do, I’m simply removing the noise and focusing our teams. 

Describe one pivotal moment in your career that was truly defining for you in one way or another – an opportunity that changed your life or a moment where you recognized defeat and changed course.

LINDA: Early on in my career, I found myself and the product I was leading at the verge of being decimated. We had built a product that fully relied on the support of an ecosystem we were built on and that ecosystem could simply turn us off if they so decided. The fateful day came where we were given notice that we would be cut off from this ecosystem and faced a pretty terrifying reality that our business could disappear quickly. Our backs were up against the wall, and I remember seeing resumes printed out in our shared company printer that week. We all faced this moment of fight or flight and in that moment, I sat down with a small team to problem solve and find alternative paths for our business. Within a few weeks we had identified a path forward and built a prototype. We ultimately pivoted our product line to  ensure the sustainability of our business going forward and it worked. What mattered most for me in that moment was knowing how I would act whenever my back was up against the wall and that has given me strength throughout my career whenever faced with hard situations. 

 

Office Hours Session Notes: Successfully Navigating Product Growing Pains

After achieving PMF, product & engineering organizations face unique scaling challenges.  Success is predicated not only on having a product that customers love and use, but on knowing and planning for the next inflection point across staffing, team-building, cross-functional interactions and changing customer expectations.

We tapped two world-class product leaders to share their advice on navigation product growing pains through the good times, and the challenging ones:

Pratima Arora: Chief Product Officer, Chainalysis and Board Member, Digital Ocean.

Pratima is responsible for the entire R&D team at blockchain data platform Chainalysis – including Engineering, Product, Design, Research, and Data Science – and has doubled the team to 200 in the last year. Previously, she was responsible for Confluence Cloud at Atlassian where she built the team and culture while growing revenue 4x in four years. Prior to Atlassian, Pratima spent nearly a decade at Salesforce, growing Sales Cloud revenue from $300M – $3B while building the product team from the ground up.

Jessica Rusin: Chief Technology Officer/Senior Advisor, Guild Education

Jessica has 20 years of technology experience and most recently was CTO at Guild Education, the high growth EdTech and upskilling startup valued at over $4B. She joined as the second employee and grew and managed the technology organization from one engineering employee to over 225 while growing revenue from <$50K to $100MM+ in ARR. Prior to joining Guild, she was the Senior Director of Engineering at MobileDay, a venture-backed startup, and has led software engineering teams at Digital River, Inc. and two large telecom companies. 

Here are a few gems they shared: 

Keep your eyes open for signals that change needs to happen: 

  • Consistent communication breakdowns
  • Inefficiency, productivity goes down
  • People feeling disconnected
  • Different customer demands

Growing means you can’t talk to everyone anymore

  • Set expectations on your team: change is the only constant. But beware, only introduce change if it’s going to make you faster
  • Have the right kind of engineering leadership – your best engineer might not be the right one to lead a team. Look ahead and see who that might be, where they are now, and how to prep them for management roles
  • Be explicit about tradeoffs when you’re prioritizing
  • Alignment reviews across the org to show what teams are working on – you used to be able to talk to everyone and that changes when you have multiple teams and larger teams

In a high-growth environment, you’re going to reinvent yourself as a leader every 6 months

  • Every time the team doubles, step back and reassess your personal leadership:  where do you have to grow, what do you have to hand off to someone else, what has outlived its relevance, what new hires do you need to make.
  • Be humble and recognize that you don’t know everything that’s happening in the org like you used to
  • Stay open to learning from the organization – what’s working, and what’s not. 
  • Listen, and ask a lot of questions. Ask people around you what the hang ups are – not just direct reports, but consider peers and skip levels to get the real picture
  • Adaptation is key
  • Trust your direct reports, rely on them. When they tell you they’re not getting enough time from you, you need to reassess what you’re doing

You’re probably holding onto something you need to give up (even…[especially] CEOs)

  • It’s a healthy realization that it’s time to grow, but it’s hard
  • Help leaders (reports, peers and your boss) who are stuck holding onto something channel their energy towards the areas where they can have the most impact
  • It’s emotional, so get to the root of it – what’s the fear around giving that thing up?  Remain curious and ask questions to help everyone realize the issue
  • Engage your peers to validate if they share your observation
  • Could be a good time to consider executive coaching – having a neutral third party can dial down the emotion 
  • If you continue to see a growth mindset in someone, it’s a signal that change will happen. If not, and the patterns are repeated and they’re not getting better – it’s a red flag. Take back control about what you’re willing to work around

Helping early adopters grow with you

  • Early customers get used to guiding where the product is heading, and it’s a great feeling that’s tough to break as you mature in your team and offerings
  • Bring them into the fold, share your roadmap and make sure you’re connecting the things they want with that roadmap
  • Be open and honest about how you’re growing as an organization and that previous methods of input need to grow
  • Make sure you understand their underlying need – they’ll often say they want a specific feature but it may or may not solve their actual problem
  • Be opportunistic about how you can continue to create special value for them, like grandfathering them into something that you charge for elsewhere
  • Customer advisory boards: Bring early adopters together as champions to create empathy – allow them to experience and recognize they’re not the only customer with needs and demands. Offer prioritization exercises where they can have a few votes, or ask them to stack rank things to help them experience the importance of tradeoffs
  • And don’t underestimate the importance of customer roles! Support, onboarding, and communication are key, and need to scale and adapt as the product architecture evolves

Roadmaps:  Prioritizing without much data or signal 

  • It can be challenging to know that what you’re working on is the right thing for long term success
  • Building product is as much science as it is art. There WILL be mistakes and you won’t always get it right. Some features early on won’t play out how you might predict 
  • Frameworks can help, but you need to start with defining business impact
  • Experiment! Find the cheapest and quickest way to test your hypotheses
  • Leverage any early adopters to help prioritize and get a feedback loop on usage and engagement
  • Consider administrative configuration a bit earlier than you think – helping something get to self-serve can save engineering time long term, but do the math (it’s always a balance as it’s not the most exciting engineering work!)

Setting – and managing – leadership expectations

  • It’s easy to assume new senior leads will come in and fix everything (afterall, that’s why you hired them!)  Sometimes they’re too eager but don’t have enough context – manage expectations all around with direct, clear communication and create space that allows them to not feel like they have to act immediately
  • Be intentional about alignment, share upfront what the best practices are when onboarding – ask new people for feedback about their experience and use it to modify practices 
  • Continue to listen more and learn more 
  • You will consistently reset with the team on best practices and how you’re all going to work – you will have to do this over and over, and over, again
  • If it’s not working – make decisions to part company early. It’s common to take too long to let someone go that isn’t working out, but they do more damage the longer they stay

 Tooling, and retooling

  • Find ways to wrap the solution or create one layer of abstraction so if you need to swap something out it doesn’t cause big problems 
  • It can be a conversation for the entire leadership to rally around 
  • Evaluate where vendor lock in doesn’t really impact the business – if it’s your bread and butter, then you need to be much more careful – if it’s part of your core business, don’t outsource too much
  • Evaluate your time spent and the criticality – see if it’s something you need to build in house. Be wary of over-engineering things up front when you may outgrow it in a few months
  • There are usually logical growth points to retool
  • Always keep in mind what will help you accelerate
  • It’s always a balance on knowing how important it is for your business – consider if something is a one way door or a two-way door where you can change the decision 

About Office Hours: This invite-only program series connects OpCo founders and CEOs with leaders in our LP community on key operating issues critical to success. These candid, interactive conversations surface best practices, how to avoid potential pitfalls, and compelling “how we did that” stories from the trenches that range from strategies to tactics. Check out past sessions like Building Your GTM Machine and Culture Scaling.

From the Collective: On Community Part 3 – Putting Community to Work at your Org (and Maximizing its Impact)

Welcome to Part 3 and the final installment in a three-part series focused on community. In the first part, I covered where frameworks can hit their limits. In my last post I talked about how building a culture will help build and sustain your community. Part 3 explores how we can get the support we need by expanding our community teams internally and securing a seat at the table. 

Building community takes work; it requires strategy, continuous content & marketing, buy-in from management, budget allocations and resources, programs and staffing, and above all else, consistency. But if you look at the average community team across growing companies, there seems to be a trend: the teams start small, and often stay small. How can a team of 1-3 people manage, plan for, and run a community operating like a full company?

Spoiler alert: a tiny team can’t, at least not well. But the team can lean on existing internal teams, orgs, and leaders to support the community as a whole and build what I like to call the ‘extended community team’.

I often say that community is the container that holds all customer engagement and activity, but not all customer engagement and activity comes from the community team itself. Your extended team is made up of all other leaders whose programs, products, and/or services engage with, rely on, and activate community members.

For example, in a SaaS company, the Documentation team is its own team and department. They’re responsible for creating product documentation, short how-tos and scripts, and managing the changelog for releases, fixes, and updates. While most community teams operate independent of Documentation, many utilize the Docs team’s materials to share in the community. 

It’s easy to see how the Docs team could seamlessly support community and how community can support the Docs team. But without the intentional collaboration and a plan, community has to track and ask for those documents as needed, creating extra work for the already tiny team, and putting added stress on Docs to respond to community. This isn’t what we want to do.

As a community leader, imagine receiving weekly documentation updates and changelogs directly from the Documentation team that can be shared in community chats and newsletters? Content sent your way on a regular cadence creates value for your members, ensures customers and prospects are updated on all new features and fixes, and comes at little to no lift to you – or the Docs team

Now imagine expanding that alignment across the company to collaborate with additional teams such as: 

Invited Team Member Offer Ask
Product Lead
  • Share product feedback from community members
  • Highlight top-voted asks for features
  • Receive beta invites for select community members to try new features and share feedback
Education Lead
  • Share community testimonials around certification program
  • Highlight members with multiple certifications looking to educate others
  • Promote trainings and support enrollment
  • Learn about new education programs to pilot and share
Documentation Lead
  • Share doc requests coming through community
  • Align on doc updates and releases
  • Pilot a user-run docs update program
Marketing Lead
  • Share top members for interviews and stories
  • Create a member to marketing flywheel and outline their journey
  • Highlight expert community members open to speaking opportunities
  • Learn about ways community can better support marketing and how to integrate the community experience into the brand
Sales Lead
  • Share community ‘Getting Started’ guide for new customers
  • Support handoff of new users post-sale
  • How can community better support deals?
  • Surface common roadblocks members face
Engineering & Support Leads
  • Reduce support tickets with community-led Q&As
  • Support customer happiness
  • Expand product usage via knowledge sharing
  • Review outstanding, unanswered technical Q&As on a weekly basis

The list can go on, and the more you align internally, the more that tiny community team becomes not so tiny anymore. So how do we build this well-oiled expanded community machine? Here are a few steps to get you on your way. 

Show Your Value

Consider this your first task as a community leader: if you want people to follow you, you need to showcase value. Use this as an opportunity to share how you can support their strategic goals, and what you’re able to do. Don’t add in an ask just yet, especially if you’re new. This is an opportunity to simply provide value and get yourself on a team’s radar.

Going back to our Documentation team example, start by setting up a meeting with the head of the team. Use the opportunity to introduce yourself, share a bit about where the community is and what you’re looking to do, ask about their team and goals, and then showcase some way the community can support one of those goals. 

At a prior company, the Docs team wanted to ensure releases were getting out to all customers, but not all customers signed up for release notifications (classic dilemma). I offered to share the releases in my monthly community newsletter, as a release notification in the community (an entirely different notification system), and in an ongoing releases page bookmarked in the community platform. They loved the visibility, I was able to do it all with minimal lift, and we were able to automate the entire process together after a few months.

Report back

As you start collaborating with internal teams, it’s important to track what’s actually being done and report back. This ensures on-going alignment and showcases more of the strategic value and results that community provides .

For the Documentation team, I routinely shared metrics on how many releases were shared monthly, site traffic to the releases page vs general site traffic (the releases page was one of the most popular pages in the community!), and a roundup of comments/corrections sent in from customers for the team to update.

Keep the updates brief and aligned to what the team’s specific goals are. By doing so, the value you’re creating for these internal teams is clear. It also signals to other teams that, ‘Hey, that tiny community team is really doing something!’

Sync with a few internal leaders regularly and report back on how the community is helping. Once you have the relationship built and proven with individual leaders, it’s time to bring it to the next level.

Align Internally

Get a recurring monthly meeting going with all relevant org leaders and share what’s coming up in the community across the company, how it affects their teams/initiatives, what asks you have for them, and what value you and community are adding. This is a group meeting with all of the individual leaders you’ve built relationships with. The group format serves many purposes: 

  1. Helps manage your time now that you’re collaborating with so many teams and leaders 
  2. Shows everyone how community is the thread connecting all of these teams
  3. Anchors many team initiatives to community actions and value 
  4. Positions yourself as the expert in all things community
  5. Deepens community alignment to the business and its goals

Once a meeting is set, it’s time to double down on programs, metrics, and reporting to ensure everyone is up to date. At this point, not only will the leaders know who to go to for anything and everything involving the customer, but individual team members across the company will respond similarly. Don’t be surprised when people are pinging you asking if the community can support an ask of theirs (and don’t be afraid to say ‘no’ if it doesn’t align with your goals).

As the community carves itself a bigger seat at the company table, you’ve got options for where you go next. Perhaps you want community more involved in company strategy, or just be top of mind when larger decisions are being made. Once you have buy-in from all internal stakeholders across the company, you can strategically position community however you want.

If this sounds like a lot, remember, building community takes work. But by putting in the work from the start – pushing beyond the limits of a framework, intentionally crafting a culture with and for your members, and growing your team in a way that benefits everyone involved – you will create a successful community able to sustain itself.

With all of that said and shared, I love talking about community whenever I can. Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you think I can help, and when it gets too tough, just remember that this does not happen overnight, but it certainly can happen. 

 

 

Operator Spotlight: Microsoft VP of Customer Success, Azure Data & AI Rashida Hodge

“How did they do that? How did they get there?” Companies succeed because of the people who build them – operating leaders who grow businesses to new heights and make decisions every day that can impact entire industries. Each month, our Operator Spotlight gives you the inside track from one of our incredible Operator LPs (Limited Partners) who are changing the game – building and scaling some of the world’s most successful companies. Read on for lessons learned and mistakes made, perspectives from the top, practical advice, and ideas on what’s next. 

This month, we spoke with Rashida Hodge, Vice President of Customer Success, Azure Data & AI at Microsoft. Rashida is a technologist and executive leader at the forefront of AI and emerging technologies that are changing how businesses operate. Currently she leads the Data and AI Customer Success Worldwide Commercial Business at Microsoft, accelerating data-driven digital transformation for customers through a differentiated and connected customer experience.

A former Fortune 40 Under 40 recipient, she leads technology innovation strategy, develops diverse teams, and orchestrates global technology transformations. 

You’ve held big roles at big companies. Where have you made an impact in your field? Have you broken any rules that led to interesting results? 

RASHIDA: AI is a technology that has been around for a long time. But, over the last several years, it has become more consumable, scalable and accessible. 

Very few people were paying serious attention to AI when we launched the IBM Watson business unit. Now, it’s top of mind across board rooms, typically included  in every client discussion on emerging technologies, and it brings forth a discussion of curiosity at family dinner tables.  Over the last 10 years, a much richer and broader understanding of the technology has surfaced and we have a better understanding of how AI can and should be applied.  Honestly, living in the heart of this transformational shift has been incredible. 

Today, we have robust platforms, repeatable patterns of success, and industry differentiation. To know that my early experiences and engagements – both successes and learnings –  informed the industry and shaped the use of technology across companies and platforms is extremely humbling. 

What’s something people often get wrong about customer success? 

RASHIDA:  Many  enterprises underestimate the  value that customer success brings to the core strategy, growth, and sustainability of the enterprise.  Customer success is the heart of understanding the why, builds the fidelity to determine the what, and delivers the how in execution.  As we continue to mature and grow in the world of cloud, customer success will more and more be seen as a required function.

Not everyone gets dubbed the “Superhero of IBM Watson AI”! Share how your interest and expertise in AI came to be.

RASHIDA: Honestly, I wish I had a cool, sexy story to tell you about how I planned this out entirely but life is a mixture of hard work, perseverance, grit, timing, and a dash of luck.  And I ended up in the AI space based on a combination of all those factors.  When IBM decided to commercialize Watson into its own business unit, I had the opportunity to work closely with the senior vice president, Mike Rhodin, who was tasked with gathering a core set of leaders to create this business unit from the ground-up.  I was fortunate enough to build out the technical delivery team to deliver our early engagements.  Through this experience, I had a front row seat to the roller coaster ride of bringing a product to market, aligning customer expectations to the journey, and bringing the value of this technology to life for our clients globally.  And frankly, one of my clients gave me that nickname because of how intimately I advocated for them through this journey. I will always treasure this designation because it represents what I love about serving my clients – helping them achieve success, value, and meaningful impact for their business. 

A move to a new company after 19 years is a big shift. What was a key learning you uncovered during that transition? 

RASHIDA: I am just thrilled to be at Microsoft.  To have the opportunity to work for a company where we are focused on empowering every person and every organization to achieve more is remarkable and aligns with my passion for doing meaningful work and enabling customer success.   The key learning for me during the transition is that we are lifelong learners; and regardless of our experience and previous performance, there is always more to learn. During this transition, I realized that pivoting not on what you have done in the past, but instead indexing on the pace at which you can learn, the comfort in being uncomfortable and being open to feedback are the real winners in being successful. 

What are some of the influences that led you to your views on how culture and diversity are the keys to commercial success? 

RASHIDA: Now you have hit a nerve, and a passion for me indeed.  

As a black woman in tech, I understand the reality of what happens when we neglect to do the work of having inclusive and diverse environments. For a large majority of my career, I operated under the “tax”; and partially still do.  

I’m black, a woman, and some say I look “youthful”. We have to remove the unspoken taxes that put undue pressure and burden on a particular identity, because we need the room to be colorful, varied and full of richness. 

For me, commercial success starts with talent – diverse talent from all angles, lenses and perspectives. It is important for us to pay attention to how and who we recruit, because technology mirrors our society. And when we do, we must focus on retention. Diversity equals seeking out the talent and providing the right atmosphere to retain the talent. I describe this often as inviting a bunch of cool, interesting people to a party only to have a lame party. The food is bland; the music is a snooze; and zero effort was put into these phenomenal people having a great experience. So, yes, who is going to want to stay at that party? Surely not me, or anyone who wants to have a good time. We need to do the work to find the talent and then ensure we have a fabulous party! 

If we have learned anything over the years, it is that technology is not just a business imperative but a humane imperative.  So, as we architect, build, and implement technology solutions, we need to ensure diverse talent is in the mix and technologies are relevant and applicable to broad, varied groups of people.  

What’s something you’ve done successfully, personally or professionally, to empower the next generation of underrepresented leaders? What’s one thing you want to take on next?

RASHIDA:  A few years back, I heard a message that challenged me to think about the difference between significance and success. It pushed me to think deeply on “my why”. Why do I show up day after day and work hard with grit and passion? After much thought, I walked away with the reflection that success is about choice and decisions for our own personal benefit; while significance is about choosing a life and decisions that benefit others. In the early stages of my career, there was a burning passion to make my successes meaningful.  But over time, I learned that we have a role to play in contributing to and supporting the environments that shaped us.  

As a child of teenage parents who totally relied on scholarships to afford college, I took the bold step in 2012 of starting an endowment at North Carolina State University to provide need-based aid to women and people of color studying in Industrial Engineering. This was not financially easy, but I believe it was a necessary sacrifice. I wanted to offer to others what was offered to me – the opportunity of an education. 

It would have been much easier for me to make this level of a contribution once I had made much more money, reached some greater pinnacle of success, or donated as part of a trust once I passed. But it was important for me to establish significance now;  because we cannot wait for the perfect moment to act, and establishing significance requires real sacrifice.  My goal and desire is to continue to live a life of significance by enabling advancement and opportunity for others.  

What’s your secret super power? 

RASHIDA: My ability to build from my circumstances, which was learned and adopted from my dear mother. My mother gave birth to me as a teenager, and endured not only her own shock, but the shock of many others in our family and community. Through the crushing pressure of disappointments, family whispers, and her newfound love for me, my mother made the decision to be relentlessly resilient in spite of her circumstances.   She refused to allow her circumstances as a teen mom to stop her from getting her education and rising through the ranks of our local hospital and becoming the VP of Engineering Operations. Through her experience, she equipped me with my super power of building from your circumstances.  My mom’s teenage mind bore out a resolve that imprinted on me a tenacity and vigor for life; and I firmly believe it is up to us to take the resources present and finesse them into our own personal greatness. 

 

We believe culture, diversity, and operational excellence are the keys to building truly great companies. Learn more on our website or on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Meet Faros AI: the EngOps company connecting the dots for engineering leaders

New to the scene but hot out of the gate, learn all about OpCo portfolio company Faros AI.

The company: Faros AI

Faros AI is an operational data platform that brings all engineering data into one place to give engineering leaders a single-pane view of their entire software development lifecycle. It takes the guesswork out of planning so that a team can make decisions, allocate resources and improve productivity based on actual data. EngOps is officially here.

Faros AI’s origin

Co-founders Vitaly Gordon, Shubha Nabar, and Matthew Tovbin are machine learning pioneers. They met while building Einstein, Salesforce’s machine learning platform. While enduring struggles of a rapidly growing engineering org, they realized that their counterparts in Sales, Marketing and Finance were incredibly data-informed about their operations. They were modeling and measuring the impact of changes, and moving efficiently. Meanwhile, the engineering side of the office was flying blind. Seemingly simple questions about engineering velocity, security, compliance, or cost required an extreme amount of effort to solve. Relevant data would take weeks to compile, and by the time analyses were complete, the data would be unusable. The team learned they weren’t alone, either: when they spoke to engineering teams in other organizations, it was the same story. Thus, Faros was born.

Why you should pay attention

Faros is making big moves. This March, Faros AI raised $16M in seed funding and has partnered with leading companies like Box, Coursera, GoFundMe, and many more to help their engineering teams move faster. The team has also developed an open source version of the product called Faros CE (Community Edition), which they launched on Product Hunt and is available to install from their website for free.

The details

Based in Sunnyvale, CA, Faros AI is on a mission to help engineering leaders gain unprecedented visibility and insight into their operations with data that is automatically extracted and synthesized from all relevant sources. As a result, teams can ship quality software quickly, efficiently, and reliably. 

How it works

Faros does what no other program has done before and connects engineering systems like Jira, Jenkins and GitHub, including an intelligence layer to make logical connections across the data that they could deliver to customers in a dashboard. The program can trace a project across systems, allowing for much quicker access to data. The team has built over 50 connectors to connect typical engineering tools, but also allows for the tech to be open source so engineering teams can connect to any system, regardless of whether Faros supports it natively or not.

Why we’re obsessed

Faros AI is the first truly holistic view into customers’ engineering operations in a noisy space with lots of point solutions, but no real platform. The founders are recognized across the industry as some of the best and are building out a world-class, innovative team, including many who have worked for them before. We’re confident their EngOps platform will become only more and more necessary with the remote/hybrid future of work where engineering processes are more diffuse.

Get involved

You can download the free version of Faros, Faros Community Edition, or inquire about the Professional or Enterprise editions on Faros.ai. Faros is also hiring! Join here.

From the Collective: On Community Part 2 – It’s Not Community, it’s Culture

Welcome to Part 2 of a three-part series focused on community. In my last post I talked about using frameworks to build your community and the limits that we all face when we rely on just that method. For part two I want to focus on how we can all build and sustain communities that go beyond the numbers to unlock a member’s full potential.

HOW TO BUILD A LONG-LASTING COMMUNITY

First things first, we’re building a culture, and that’s important for our own framing. The frameworks I mentioned in my last post can and will help you build your community at a high level, but none will tap into the core wants, needs, and desires of the collective. Those frameworks, as great as they are for structure, were not created to build a culture as much as they were to support a member/customer. 

That being said, customer communities do in fact have cultures. The best ones have very intentional cultures, which is why they’re successful! Think about Salesforce’s customer community: Trailblazers. They’ve built a deep culture where members help each other and they celebrate their success. It’s less about a transaction and more about getting people what they need and supporting where they’re trying to go. They even have their own terminology, which further strengthens the collective community and makes people feel like they’re truly part of something bigger (which they are).

Hubspot is another incredibly successful community that intentionally built a culture where knowledge flows freely, support and praise are given loudly, and togetherness is baked into the core. They’ve also managed to create subgroups for members to dive deeper into more specific topics and areas, without fragmenting the community as a whole (which is not always easy to do). At the same time, people love Hubspot’s community so much that they’ve become organic brand ambassadors inviting new people in. So how do they do it?

Both of the communities I referenced have been around for over a decade, and that’s important to note. Community is not an overnight success. Ambitiously launching with a handful of programs doesn’t guarantee success of any of them, because nurturing humans takes time. Fostering a culture of trust and belonging takes time. And testing programs, gathering feedback, and tweaking as needed all takes time.

Can you see where I’m going with this? Even if you replicated each community program offered by any successful org, there’s no promise that your replication will drive value, deliver joy, and meet your members’ needs. So how, then, do you do it? It takes a lot of work, commitment, and buy-in, and when done right, will support itself in the long run. Here are my 5 tips to building your community and creating a long-lasting culture:

1. Take the Time

A while ago someone started a rumor saying communities could be launched in 90-days and it caused a lot of company executives to believe that something so grand could be built in such a short time. I’m here to say that while you can certainly build something in 90-days, it won’t be a long-lasting community with the needed support to succeed. Communities take time because people take time, and they’re the one variable your community is built with and around (people being your potential members AND your company leaders). Give yourself time – 6-18 months – to really understand who you’re building with and why. This doesn’t mean you do absolutely nothing in the meantime. It means you use this time as a discovery phase and to build with intention. 

Keep existing programs running but revisit if they’re relevant anymore. Dream up new projects and see where they fit in the business and community itself. Connect with leaders in the company to understand their org’s needs and share how a community can be built to support them. This time is foundational to setting your community up for longevity.

2. Get to Know Your Current & Ideal Members

Use your discovery phase to get to know your members. For current members, reach out. Schedule small group sessions or 1:1s with those who are most active, least active, most in favor of, and most opposing. Why such extremes? Because those are the people who care and those are exactly the people you want to learn from and build with. I promise you, even the person who hasn’t logged into the community in months cares because at some point they joined, and were looking for something. Your job is to find out what that was and how come it never happened.

If you’re building a community from scratch and don’t have members, even better. Use this time to map who those ideal members are, find them, and talk to them. Start with community personas and use this time to really imagine who you’re looking to bring into the space. Understand who they are, what they like, and what they’re in need of. Roughly outline what you hope their community journey will look like, when they join (before or after sales?), and what that onboarding can look like. This plan doesn’t need to be ready for action, it’s more of an ideation phase to help you imagine what you can and might build. You may even find that the community you thought you wanted to build actually morphs as you start to understand who’s going to be in it and how they’ll use it.

3. Uncover the ‘Why’ for Members and the Business

This is crucial for foundational development and internal alignment. In your discovery phase, ask yourself ‘why’. Why does this community have to exist? Why does the business want to support it? Why do members join, contribute, stay, and bring others in? Alternatively, why do they leave, go inactive, or just stop showing up?

Unlocking the internal motivators and intrinsic drivers of your members is going to unlock the programs, events, content, and offerings you’re seeking to build. On the business side, it’s going to ensure deep alignment with business goals and set the community up for greater success. If the business does not support the community, it will fail, and that’s a fact. Communities take resources, and if you’re short on them, it’s the members who suffer. Ensure the community is aligning with the goals of the business before you launch, otherwise it will be an uphill battle from day one.

4. Experience Life Together

There’s a reason people use the phrase ‘comrades in the trenches,’ and it’s because experiencing life together can bring people closer. Now, I’m not saying we should jump to a trauma-inducing activity, but yes, let’s live a little together. Go for a hike, meet up for a drink, edit a resume together, or enjoy a small group dinner. Whatever it is, it’s crucial to move beyond the operations and metrics and tap into what makes everyone a full human being.

It’s not fluff either. As you work through the steps and do your diligence, you’ll see and hear from members about what it is they like and want in this life. You may learn who’s a parent, who has pets, who travels all of the time, etc. From there, you have the opportunity to craft moments that allow you to share those experiences. These are the intentional details that build a culture. And building this culture will provide value and community for members. You need both to be successful.

5. Build With, Not For

I saved my favorite for last. You may have noticed me mentioning ‘building with’ some of the best communities in the world. Notice I didn’t say I built some of the best communities in the world, because that would be a lie. As a community creator and leader, my job is to listen, uncover the gaps for both the business and the user, and find a way forward for all. In order to shift from building for your ideal member to building with them, you’ll need to remind yourself that at the end of the day, it’s their community. 

You cannot create something great ‘for’ them if you do not include them in what’s being built. For anyone afraid of giving up control or losing the community’s focus, this doesn’t mean you share a blank canvas and leave it up to them. Communities need leaders, and as one, your job is to source as many insights as possible, put them together like the puzzle pieces they are, and present it back to the community, reiterating what you heard and how you’re approaching it. Behind the scenes, if you’re honoring your discovery phase, that’s where you’re gathering community input before making your best recommendations. Community is a two-way street between the organizers and members, and if you can’t hear their asks, how will you ever give them what they need? 

These 5 tips, in addition to a solid framework, will guide your community from ideation to launch and help set you up for success. When in doubt, remember that your people want to be there because they took action and showed up. Those early adopters, highly-active members, and natural evangelists are the ones you want to connect with and want to build with. Tap into them as part of your team and build something great together.

It’s always worth remembering that building a community takes a lot of work, commitment, and support, but the rewards are limitless when done right. In my next and final post of this series, I’m going to talk a bit more about how to get your community a seat at the table in your company, and what it takes to be community-first.