By external measures, Gnip ("the social media API") is a 4.5 yr old raging success. I'm a technical co-founder in the company. I'm a first-time CEO, and have been for two years now. A year ago I hired a COO (Chris Moody).
This is a tough post to write because there is so much ego involved. For months I've been trying to create it in my mind, but have failed until now. My breakthrough came from going back to my roots and putting my ego in check; something I'm traditionally good at, but struggled with in this context. I got close enough that I was able to get the words out!
Among my top five reasons for loving Boulder, CO lies in the deep spiritual community here, generally connecting back to Buddhism. It's something I've tapped my entire life, and whenever I'm challenged, it supports me and gets me through ego stuff. Don't confuse that statement with having anything to do with Religion (separate in my book).
Ego's a funny thing of course, and it's the dichotomy between its strong presence in business (something I strive to "succeed" at), and the Id (something I strive to lead with in life) in humanity that is the most fascinating challenge to me. Hiring someone because you need to scale time is one thing. Hiring someone because you need to scale capability is another. The latter requires that you acknowledge the potential, or real, lack of something in you.
Why Hire a COO?
In short, to go faster!
In Q4 2010 we realized Gnip was going to hit it. Through careful team building and execution (and luck of course) we had a team and tech stack that would scale through the upcoming demand wave we had just caught. A few months into that scaling, one of our board members (Brad Feld) pulled me aside and said "good job, but you have to think bigger. you have to take what you've done, and go further."
That was an interesting moment. I got to a crystal clear realization that building a product and company is truly a never ending process.
This notion has distilled into an on-going joke Brad and I now share.
wrapping up a phone call awhile ago…
Jud: "blah blah blah. good to sync. catch you later."
Brad: "good to sync. go sell more."
Jud: "as a VC, you must love being able to end every call with 'go sell more'.
Brad: "Hah. Yes. go sell more"
Now he ends every call we have with "go sell more."
I started thinking about what the organization would need to look like in order to take Gnip to the "next level." What would the team qualities/skills need to be in order to do that? If we were going to "hit the gas," what roles did we need in order to ensure we'd come out intact on the other side of the next phase, and not splattered against a highway wall?
We were going to need more specialization. We'd kept the wheels on using a generalist approach. We were going to need more refined expertise that had proven experience in specific functional areas of the business. We needed specialists who could own those functional areas of the business: engineering, sales, marketing, finance.
Product & Engineering were squarely in my wheelhouse. While it took a good six months to find someone to run development, I knew what qualities we needed/wanted. We ultimately landed someone that had it all; thankfully.
Business functions were more challenging. I invested another six months talking to folks from all over the map. From folks I'd personally worked with over my career, to recommendations from friends and investors. Big company candidates. Small company candidates. Every background you could imagine.
We needed someone who could help us "lean in" to the next phase of scaling the business. We needed someone who would be a solid cultural fit. Someone who had scaled sales teams up, and who had experience in marketing enterprise SaaS business.
I needed someone who wasn't afraid to travel (a lot). I needed someone who could represent Gnip's interests externally, as well as someone that could effectively negotiate sales compensation plans with our team members. I needed someone who could go deep on operational nuts and bolts. I realized that if you're going to have a crew bigger than 25'ish people, more specialized experience in the room is necessary to scale up. Simple laws of distributing creativity, load, and stress kick in eventually. Can one person run a 100 person company? Sure. Can one person run a 100 person company that needs to forever attack new market segments and business lines that result in new products being built? I don't think so. You need leaders with specialized expertise in order to distribute the load.
I needed someone that was stronger than me in my relative areas of weakness. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Gnip would still be an awesome success if we hadn't started scaling up the team, but it would have moved into its adolescence with nutritional deficiencies that likely would have impeded further growth. When you're trying to build a product your customers want, if you ever hear the term "impediment" all of your guns should start blazing in an attack to eliminate it; wherever it is. In this instance, that meant ensuring there was more breadth in experience and leadership on the team.
I grew up doing everything myself; everything. The notion that the company I was building might do better with an additional brain the mix, took some getting used to. I preach the "always hire people who are smarter than you" gospel all the time. It's important to internalize what you preach and practice it yourself. That understanding calmed my ego to the point of being able to hire the role with clarity and commitment to making sure it worked.
Chris Moody fit the bill. He is able to quickly go deep in areas I cannot. Sure there's some generalism still in the mix with a COO. I could have hired a CRO and a CMO and a C-blah-O to go even more narrow, but that would have been too narrow, too fast. There was an in-between step for Gnip; COO.
Chris was "the right guy" because...
- he fit the team culturally. there was no oil-and-water effect
- we spent months together talking about every aspect of the company and direction, and we saw eye to eye on almost everything
- he had tangible success/experience in his background that we could talk about and connect directly to things we wanted Gnip to have
- he was consistent in his thinking
- I believed he could help us scale the team and business
- we negotiated through some tough points during the dating process, and that illustrated our ability to work through disagreement in a productive manner
Process and Support
I leveraged my network heavily during the process and had candidates talk to Gnip team members, board members and investors. During this process I met a lot of talented, experienced, who generally would have been powerful contributors for Gnip. The consummate professionals that they are, fully understood the process around hiring a position like this, and the fragility of getting the fit right. If you were one of them, thanks again for your time.
Once I'd narrowed it down to Chris, I had him sit down with another team leader. The conversation didn't go well. Both guys came back to me with concerns. After a few days of talking each of them through the concerns, both took my word that the concerns wouldn't be realized in the end. Chris was concerned that there was resistance in this person, and some head-strong characteristics that could get in the way of winning. Gnipper was concerned about the jarring impact bringing someone into the firm in this capacity would have. While both were right, I was able to illustrate to each how we would all win in the end. Onboarding wouldn't come for free of course, but we'd be better off down the road. And sure, Gnipper can be headstrong, but once you get to know him...
I feel awful for friends running other companies who had additional leadership "installed" by investors. The stories they tell are excruciating to hear. Those stories point to a lot of the issues with venture capital at large, and conversely highlights just how good Gnip has it. It has also scarred my view of some VCs I once held in high regard; I no longer would be willing to take them on as investors.
One of the most important people in the process was Brad. He made it clear the entire decision was mine. From whether or not we should hire more leadership in, to who it actually was. He didn't have a horse in the race, and that was critical for me. Pressure on those fronts would have yielded disjoint motivation, and this wouldn't have worked.
One Year Later
It's been twelve months since we brought Chris on board.
One of the reasons I haven't posted this earlier is that I wanted some time to pass. Talking about how great a decision was a few months after you made it is kind of pointless; there's still plenty of time for things to go sideways if you judge too early.
Chris Moody has been pouring his heart into Gnip for a year now. Every day he wakes up and fights for Gnip. He is part of the team. Bringing on a COO was a huge Gnip milestone that has resulted in very meaningful business execution! When I use the true measure of a hire, whether or not you learn something everyday from an individual, Chris has been a huge win.
There are entire vectors in Gnip that Chris takes on. I'm always reminded of this when I see him deep in conversation with others on the team. I think to myself a) that's a conversation I would otherwise be having (if I were able to find the time) and b) I'm sure he's doing a better job at it than I would. It's not that I don't want to be having said conversation, it's that I need to be spending my energy elsewhere in those moments.
Gnip has made incredible strides in partnerships over the past six months. Chris has been flying all over the place and investing heavy amounts of time and energy in getting these relationships in place. While he's investing the time which is a huge win, he's also getting the job done which is what really matters.
While I'm still in the process of freeing up my headspace and fully understanding what it means to have a high-caliber COO on the team, one thing I know is that I now have the ability to focus more strategically on our direction at large. It's possible now to rise above the fog of war and view the hiring and money from a strategic vantage point. That's very hard to do when every mechanical component around running a business is your sole responsibility.