Sept. 25, 2020

First employees in successful companies - how to build that dream team? By Andrew McIntosh

First employees in successful companies - how to build that dream team? By Andrew McIntosh

Andrew McIntosh, Director and Product Management for Platform & Integrations at Veritone Inc that went public in 2017 explains what he believes were the core strategies of the company founders that brought the company to a success. We also talked about early employees getting involved in the fundraising process and how does that work.

Andrew's Twitter: https://twitter.com/andymmmmc

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Transcript

And today as a guest speaker, we have Andrew Mackintosh, one of the first ten employees at very tone in that range. 

There were sixty five million dollars, and in two thousand and seventeen and this episode we'll talk about, how does it feel to be one of the ten first employees? 

How does the team building work and basically just the look of the start into the start within the team. So, Andrew, unless he called by, you giving us some background on yourself and on very tone. 

Absolutely, and first of all thanks so much for having me it's great to be here. I think so very telling the our mission is to make useful and ubiquitous for the world. And we do that in a couple of different ways. 

Both with gooey applications applications are actually and user facing for business analysts as well as with the whole platform. 

So all the different kinds of technologies that we had to build frankly, just to power own applications for our line of business customers. 

We open up for developer users as well and so this is very town's been around for a little more than six years now as a, as a company. 

And yeah, this is this has been, frankly our mission since the beginning, although obviously we've been iterating on it. 

Since then, and so when I initially joined very talented as the first ten, my focus was really on actually actually our strategy. 

So, when we first started our use cases with with were really around automating brand verification and add identify, these are really hard problems. 

And they just, 

they demand it just involves lots of data, 

which is why the use case makes a lot of sense to focus on for the, 

for the initial application of how could actually solve a useful business problem is, 

as opposed to just being kind of a fancy technology demo, 

they were actually real business problems that that a lot of companies had not just necessarily directly in the media space. 

Around this, this kind of activity, and especially in offline media so, radio and television, which is where the, the initial technology was was first applied. Those are customers that we're really trying to do. 

They didn't really know it at the time, but we're really trying to do a digital transformation, which became more of a buzzword around. I think twenty fifteen, twenty, sixteen, but you sort of saw the beginnings early rumblings of it and sort of two thousand and twelve, two thousand and fourteen timeframe. 

And so the digital transformation, and in the media space, and how can we actually make all of our media outputs indexable how can we make them searchable? And so as, you know, media is audio visual, it's not just text. 
So, just as Google solve this really giant problem. How do we, how do we create a really efficient a really effective search engine that can index all the structure data on the Internet tags bodies of text, and so forth. 

We were trying to do the same thing for the spoken and visual media creation process. We, of course, support structure data as well but in our minds, that was already a bit of a solved problem. 

How could we actually make the dark sort of all the start data actually, intelligible and quickly accessible to just to the world to humans and particularly our use cases. 

We're, we're, we're B, two B made sense, because the, you know, we obviously we're looking at a customers that have this problem and and they're willing to pay for this. And I think that's been that's been an interesting challenge for companies in general. 

We've anticipated this campaign explosion. The companies and I think the we saw that, 

and what's interesting is that as expected a lot of these companies have struggle just because getting customers to pay for something is really hard and then getting them to pay for someone that has kinda has historically had this perception is oh, 

that's a,
that's a cool tech demo but,
like,
who am I gonna pay for that you really have to focus on like, what's the use case for this? 

What's the pain point? Who's gonna pay for it? And that's that's been an interesting challenge for us and it's been, it's been fun to it's been fun to crack that challenge over time. Nice. Nice. Sounds like a pretty big background. A lot of it isn't there. 

So, let's start by the basic. What was your personal role in the very tune in? Well, yeah, I've had several. I think so. Initially I joined to build and run our strategy. 

And so my background is actually, YouTube is very own friendly enough has been, I think, my fifth or sixth startup I've only really worked at startup spirit has been the sort of the taking it from ten hour around little less than three hundred people. So it's interesting. 

So, to see how it's how it's grown in the last last six years of of working there. And my background is before time was actually deep YouTube knowledge. 

We build a helping build companies on on top of the ecosystem and so been very early at a couple in the companies, like full screen and so forth. And and so the. 

Overtime,
though,
what I found is that the problems that I was solving, instead of defining and building out the strategy, 
both from a business development as well,
as a product perspective,
was that a lot of the problems we're having in terms of ad clearance and just sort of getting ads, you know,
helping,
helping you to creators,
monetize with these new kinds of ad formats. 

We're able to create for them. Just given the fact that this ai technology that we had. A lot of the problems are really more operational on our side. So, from from perspective, for that angle, I formed and ran our team. 

And then I, which is basically think of that as sort of product owners for all the different kinds of internal tools that business users within our own company would use. 

And we also obviously did a lot of Dashboarding and data visualization and monitoring and reporting against our customers and users were interacting with various product sets. And then from there really became exposed to what was happening. Just even even when I know it's from my own skillset. 

Sort of the rise of the citizen developer, which you'll hear that actually, is another should've emerging term it's been around, I think, for about three or four years and and but it's really emerging into the main stay. 

Now, I think the mainstream and the idea is kinda, frankly what we were doing on this Ops is we were saying that we have all these problems. We're not necessarily professional engineers ourselves. We're not classically trained as engineers. I, I taught myself a little bit of code. 

My my my last year in college, and I was always very curious about it and then I just I kinda just, you know, buckle down and did it, but we weren't really classical. We've more classically trained engineers, but. 

What's what was interesting is we had all these different tools at our disposal that we had budgets. We were able to make the case for expanding this budgets as needed and we started began to integrate different systems together to build new kinds of internal products that were very specific to our organization. 

And so, in doing that, I discovered the sort of emerging user, the citizen developer, and from there moved into an external customer facing product manager role. 

And that's what I've been doing for the last the last three years, almost,
which is helping out,
you know, 

frankly, defining these, 
the defining new use cases for applications as well as the one of these sort of the more platform focused products, 

which is what I've been really heads down on the last last year and a half,
which is this idea of how can you give sort of a visual lens to all different kinds of platform services. 

We have around the processing layers and so forth. That we offer that. We offer developers and how do we make that more accessible to local users, which is something that resonates with me just given my rate. Right right. 

Yeah, I personally love those tools as well because I'm non technical, but the first question that I want to start with is, I mean, that was the second is what's your opinion in terms of. 

Getting into those early stage starts, so a lot of web herds given to startup founders, or potential startup founders is, you know, before you start your own company, try to work at another startup while being one of the first ten start. 

I mean, one of the first ten employees at that start, do you think that's actually valuable in terms of, you know, understand how to run your own company or not as much as it may seem. 

I definitely think it's valuable. I think it, so, I think the big mistake people so I think the big yes, I think the big mistake people can make is it did they just automatically assume that the startup is gonna be a slam dunk? 

Because that you only really you only really hear about the success stories, right? 

You only hear about the company's raising money, or you hear about companies with a specific kind of angle where they think they have something that they think they have some kind of product market fit or they might not even necessarily know yet. 

And I think from a, 

from a founder perspective, 

having interactive with a number of different founders and, 

and, 

you know, 

every, 

every start that I've worked out has had some kind of successful exit, 

which is, 

which is kind of interesting to think about either an acquisition or I I think the thing that I always appreciated, 

whenever I was evaluating my next thing,
whether it was gonna be a startup or do I do I do my own thing. 

I found my own company. What I was appreciated was founders, who would get on the phone with me, or we'd have these, these face to face conversations and they're walking me through not just the hey, like, here's all the cool things I've done. 
Here's all the successes, but they'd walk. They'd walk me through, like, oh, this company or this, this particular venture within this company was a failure and here's why and the failure was something it was very well rationalized out. The founder took. 

Full accountability for it. It wasn't like, oh, we didn't have the it was like a, if it really is like a team problem, or we didn't have the right execution. That's fair. But it obviously position in a certain way. Where it's a very transparent. It's very thoughtful. 

And it wasn't just oh, it was it was the people that were reporting to me and then there was there, it was their mistake. Now. 

Luckily,
no one said that,
but but that's the distinction I'm trying to make is that that's what I think a lot of really early, early stage potential employees kind of have their ears tuned for,
is that,
you know,
because they're gonna be working with the founder and more closely,
and the founders going to be working with Don,
right? 

And it goes both ways. So you want to make sure from as an early stage employee that's what you're interested in that you're kind of have your, you know, what you're looking for there and you also want to understand in that perspective. 

What is the goal of this business is the goal of this business to grow really quickly? Is it too? Is this gonna be a longer burn thing and also realize it founders like founders don't necessarily know. It's okay to say, hey, I'm not quite I'm not clear on that. 

Like, I don't think it won't hurt you. Like, if it hurts you, it's like, maybe that employee is not a good fit to begin with because they're gonna appreciate it like oh, cool. Here's the, here's the, here's the level of transparency and comfortability. The founders are at with their. 

Those kinds of questions and make sure you have, like, real good answers that aren't that are reflective. 

That are just like, yeah, here's where we are like this is the, this is the, this is the, if you're if you're prepared to offer equity, which I think is kind of, frankly, table stakes at this point, here's the equity amount. 

Here's the overall, you know, here's the overall size of the pool. Here's what our, here's what our board consists of. Here's when we have these board meetings here's sort of the level of approval process. 

You don't necessarily need to go into, like, what each board member, what their specific stake is in the company, but you can kind of give, like, generalized a generalized view of our largest shareholder is X. 

second largest is why, if they're really digging into that, and the reason I'd want to understand that is they want to understand, like, who, like, who's incentivize to stick around. Right? 
If the, 
if the perspective early stage employee really likes you, 

they want to understand like, 

are you going, 

like, 

is the board right is the board going to be is the board incentivizing you to stick around your own company and that might seem like a dumb question or silly question, 

especially in the early stages,
but but it actually is like it it's true.
Like, founders are not incentivized to stick around. Like, why would they. 

Good point. Good point speaking to founders. So now looking back at the early stage, I mean, early days of very telling before it went ideal, what do you think was the major achievement of the founders of that company in terms of team building? 

You know, maybe they kept some sort of super high level of trust there or, you know, we shared a lot of information with the team members, or the invite the team members to participate you on the fundraising side or what was that. 

What do you think was the best thing they've done? 

Yeah, frankly all the above, I mean, but really drilling into that I think it was so fundraising when I was involved in in helping fundraising a couple different levels, just as, as part of running the ops team it was it sort of made sense. 

Like, we were gathering a ton of metrics and then compiling them in a way that made sense for the, the key key stakeholders on on the fundraising team. Just in terms of, like, usage consumption. 

You know, it's financials all that, all that kind of stuff the, but more more broadly. What's funny about when you ask the fundraising question like,
we even had,
like, 

the founders I actually had their background was they had several exits in the past, 

including selling a company to Google back in two thousand and lose two thousand and six and so they saw the culture of of Google and really in a really deep, 

intimate way to much more intimate way. 

That I think a lot of people understand Google as what it is now they kind of saw Google back when everyone thinks about Google. I think it's changed a lot as a lot of these companies do just as they get bigger and bigger and we saw the same thing with ourselves. Not. It's not necessarily a judgment statement. 
It's just sort of an, it's more of an observation, but a big part of that was dog fooding. Right? So dog fooding your own products as a team as a company. 

And so one of the number one, the exercises that we did, where we all, we all did videos just, you know, just very casual videos on our on our own smartphones about what we saw the future. And I was in the future of berritown and participating in that. 

And that overall conversation, and then we, we would, we would, we would run these videos with through our own platform and basically, you know, to run them against transcription and face recognition and all these different cognitive services that we provide. 

And then we would compile that into one of our other applications, which is effectively kind of a kinda, it's basically a collections app. So you can just make collections of these different things. And then we would, you know, we'd share that out to to specific investors and show them like, hey, Here's an example of what this thing can do. 

And so, that was a great that was a great example of the just, like, using your own product to tell your story as, as a company to investors. So, the investors can understand it signals to the investors. 

Like, wow, this team is actually this company is composed to people who all understand, they understand the mission. They understand why they're there. 

And this is a sort of later stage sort of later stage fundraising, but it was still in the company was a lot bigger was about those must have been about sixty, eighty people at that point. 

But the idea was,
you know,
at that point,
when you've gone from, like, 

ten people, 

you've eight X, 

ten X, 

communication, 

and sort of like why you're there gets harder and harder to articulate, 

especially for folks who are doing all sorts of different related functions that aren't necessarily core product or core operations right? 

And so you're having that kind of having these different approaches to. 

We're gonna talk about what we're doing, but we're, we're gonna really demonstrate to our product. I think that's something that the founders do and that's something good to understand. 

Really really well, I think, from a, from an operational perspective, the sort of the other aspect is, the company has always been very, very transparent, you know, something, if something's not happening. And the expectation is that it should be happening. 
It's very clear, like, we need this tab. Like, it's not even like, we need to stop. It's like, hey, this is super important and here's why here's why we're actually like this is why we keep talking about it. 

But more than that overall, like, you know, just in terms of the. 

Even down to, like, hey, here's the financials of, like, here's the amount of here's amount of revenue. Each specific business unit is generating that is these are all like, public facing dashboard. So, like, nothing is everything is public and that's something that we, the ops team actually champion early on really myself. 

I saw I saw the model that had, which I thought was was brilliant, which was the idea that,
like, 

you had all these different dashboards delays, 

different kinds of monitoring across all the different products that the Uber has both internal as well, 

as of course external for their, 

for their consumers writers as well as the drivers, 

I thought that model was extremely compelling, 

regardless of whether your consumer B two B, 

the idea of saying, 

hey, 

here's how we're performing as a company and then you can drill in unit by unit or product by product with something that we try it, 

we really made an effort to provide a similar level of visibility and the founders were the founders wanted it. 

Like, they're like, this is great, you know, this is exactly, you know, in other words, we don't need to get buy in for it. 

You know, sometimes he's become really sensitive topics where everyone gets a little edgy about it and, you know, it's working with other folks, in the past, you're sort of you're reading talking other folks reading the stores and so forth and not the case here. 

It's definitely like, hey, we want, like, if if I think the ideal case scenario is that anybody in the company. 

Could go to a dashboard and click refresh and see, like, pretty much the exact latest in terms of what the sales pipeline looks like. What the daily active users was all the whole range of of metrics. Yeah. 

That's really cool. That's really cool. So, once you get just a little bit back to what you mentioned earlier, which is your participation in the fundraising process, how does it work? So what were you doing in terms of fundraising for the company? Yeah. 
So, I think, I mean, I think my participation ranged from there were folks that I knew so is early stage. I 
wouldn't even necessarily say it had to be coupled. 
And me, being early stage in early stage employee was just like, I, I cared about the company, obviously, and obviously it was also very much invested in it and it's success in a number of different ways. 

So, the, for me, like, at a personal level, like, I, I was, I was making connections to the founders with various folks who worked at venture venture funds and whether they were associates or potential partners. 

And so, the idea was, like, some, in the case of associates, people like to kind of bag on associates a little bit, but they're, they're, they're ambitious and they're really smart. And so I I think sometimes people get really they, they kinda over index index. 

I'm like talking to a partner the first time and associates are there to basically do the due diligence. 

And sort of do sort of crappy back channel and craft the narrative of is everyone, like, why, why are you as a founder, or, like, the sort of this company? Why are you talking to the, the partners of the firm? 

And so we did have some success with that. My my direct involvement was really more,
I guess,
sort of frankly, 

for lack of better protection,
like back office tasks,
but really around collecting the collecting the data fuel story that I frankly was really bullish on,
which is like,
hey,
like we have,
we're not necessarily a consumer company,
which is,
you know,
B,
two B was,
I think,
just getting hot again,
in the sense that you had a few interesting early,
you got a few interesting hits like Dropbox and box and these were companies that frankly made SAS 
kind of sexy in a way that it never really had been before, 
you know, 

everyone thought about SAS. 

They're like, oh, well, they're bored. I don't know what else is there. 

Maybe, there's a, you know, there's an echo sign which Adobe bought and there's, you know, I'll do a few other range of these companies, but they're not like those are the kind of the big ones. 

And so the, what I was actually focusing on was, how could we demonstrate that the usage of our platforms are really focusing on almost like consumer metrics but, like, not necessarily but those are kind of those are secondary concerns for us. 

In the sense of we cared about daily active users we care about monthly active users, but what we really cared about was retention. 

From the retention while people are actually coming back to the product. Like, these are our core customers, their enterprise customers right? So, they're, they're paying us. So, not only are they coming back, but they're paying us a subscription fee every month. 

And then also, there's additional consumption that they're doing on top that wasn't necessarily part of their in their original agreement with us. So, we kind of we let them we give them sort of a grace period of of of additional consumption. So, what it looks like for us is additional cognitive engine processing. 

So, the way the way our platform works is that you could, you know, as a, as a user is a third party user, you could. 

Run any any number of different, 

what we call cognitive engines, 

but think of them as effectively models, 

but they're models that are specifically build and wrapped to run in a production context where the, 

the data input, 

if you will the structure of that data input and the structure of the data output are conforming to what we call our baritone standard. 

So the reason why this matters is that as a, especially if your developer user. 

All those inputs and outputs are exactly the same each time no matter what different model you're using. So you could be using a third party model that we had nothing to do with from Google or Microsoft, or maybe, you know, just another another startup and a garage in Ukraine. 

It doesn't matter. There are all these different models, they're all wrapped and conforming to the standard if, and when they run on the platform and so that gives you a lot of a lot of flexibility and a lot of sort of piece of mind as an application developer. 

What you can build with that and in the same token, so we have these even for business users. This is this matters. 
Because what it means is that it's easier for you for you to use a broader suite of cognitive cognitive 
tools for whatever. 
You're trying to do so you could you could either build applications or you could just run these engines against whatever media you were trying to get more insight out of. And so these are metrics that we really wanted to emphasize first. 

And foremost is that this wasn't just these weren't just sort of line of business applications. There's actually an underlying platform here that was fueling all of our, all of our growth. Nice. Nice. That's great. 

So, we're moving on to kind of the closer to the end of today's interview. And next question is about the so what happens after the PO in two thousand seventeen do you see any changes, like, really big changes in the company or just. 

You know, kept working like before.
Yeah,
I was I was actually a little surprised,
and I sort of I pay I pay a lot of respect to our CFO and our, our legal counsel as well as of course, 

the founders who wanted to keep they wanna keep of course, I think everyone wants to do this,
but it,
it is very hard for a lot of reasons, 

but we want to keep the same kind of startup feel mindset, 

nimbleness agility, 

right? 

These are kind of the buzzwords everyone associates with the startup and, and it gets harder. So, to answer your question directly. 

I expected things to change and they did and it seemed like it was a big part of the changes in terms of. So, obviously making things making sure we were compliant with all the different kinds of regulations. 

Making sure we were tracking where we were in terms of getting towards compliance for a few of the new different standards that we were. We were evaluate it against just being a public company and, but also want to make sure that, like, we weren't losing. 

We still had, like, a level of of transparency because that helps maintain a level of trust where everyone can see the same data. Everyone makes data driven decisions. These are really important things to to maintain and to keep. 

And so I, I think that, I think the, the work that we were doing in the context of business operations, that changed just to make sure that we were actually compliant. 
But I was, I, I was, I was, I was prepared for a lot more dramatic changes. And, frankly, I think I might 
have just, I think I might have been over preparing myself mentally changes. 
Our changes are really fundamentally in, like, just making sure that the, you know, making sure we were compliant. So a lot of it was just a, from a, from a systems management point of view, you know, making sure we have certain level. We have a certain number of. 

With certain level of user reporting to make sure we understand like, 

what are how different users like our own business users interacting with our software how are they interacting with our internal tools making sure like, 

there's nothing like there's no potential for data leaks things like that. 

Those are things that we're really concerned about just because again we had this transparency so if you have this transparency at a certain level, you also need everyone to be on the same page of, like, hey, like, as you start using these tools there are there are monitoring. 

Monitoring activities, we're, we're monitoring what you're doing, because we have this level of we have all this data open. We have all this level of transparency for different team members to do these things to perform these different actions to view certain kinds of dashboards, for example, to view certain kinds of reports. 

And we want it that way, because that's we want to maintain that level of cohesion where everyone understands like, the data is here. You can view it. You can understand that. There's some level of analysis prepared behind it. 

But it's also like, these are also you need to follow those, those regulations when you are more public. Like, there's a lot less. It just it's one of those things where I think it's, it's not necessarily that companies have to. 

Changed dramatically, and a lot of the things we were doing anyway, were, like, we're sort of we've prepared to go public for a while. 

So we were doing a lot of things anyway,
in terms of,
like,
best practices for even while we were private, you know, 

these best practices have helped us build that muscle tissue I guess, for when we're going public it wasn't,
it wasn't like,
as dramatic or as painful a shift it was like, 

okay, cool. 

Like, we had all our data organized a certain way. We had all these different things set up in our in a, for example, in our Salesforce instance. 
And the right way. 
So that it was just, I think that was frankly the, the, that was the, the insight there that we learned was, like, from just even from a founder perspective, like, it. 

Take operations seriously and I think that goes to your to your earlier question. Like, that was the one thing the founders did really, really well that I had never seen from any other founder before, frankly. 

And if for good reason, like, I think some of the other, you know, other founders, what they were first time, founders, or they were, they were focused on consumer applications, were like, you don't necessarily think about operations in the same way. 

Operations at baritone was really wasn't is really thinks so, but it's almost like a,
it's almost like a like,
a, 

it's almost like its own kind of product team and the way that it thinks about things and so it has its own level of autonomy of solving problems is just to the customers a little bit different. 

That's all. And the more I think about it, that was very similar to in that respect in. A sense of your operations team is Frank is sort of funneling insights back into the, into the core product. 

And, and sort of, and feeding off of whatever the, the, the core product itself is producing right now, we're moving onto the last two questions of today's episode. 

One of which is,
you know,
after you've had so much experience working in a startup and actually looking from within the startup, how it works to do any sort of angel investing or mentorship or father early stage startups yeah,
I've done I've done as much angel.
Investing right now, just because I, for me, it's I want to make sure I fully understand the, the business. 

And then, also, is it a technical problem? Is it a people problem? Is it like, is it a spiritual problem? Like, let's dig into it that way, but, you know, the technical problems it's like. Oh, boy, that's fine. That's easy. That's very easy to do. Okay. 

Well, Here's Here's a suggestion and then, you know, those are those are so that's the kind of I think that's where I would draw a bit of a a distinction where sometimes it's just like it's just coaching or it's just or you just you're just rolling up your sleeves and you're saying, look like this is my background. 

This is my experience, these kinds of problems in the past and sometimes it's as easy as hey, like, set up a new kind of automated workflow and that's always that's always fun. 

And and it actually, frankly, I think people are talking, there's the common reframe, like, oh, this is an implementation detail, which usually is like, what that means is, like, hey, like, don't get so focused on the details focus on the problem. 
But it's interesting to me how so many problems can actually just be automated away, which was the right insight that I learned from from ops and baritone, especially which was, like, it's not so much like yeah it's a people problem. 

But it's because you're having people do boring work and so you can, if you can automate that work away, your people get happier and more productive, and they're able to focus on things that are frankly just more valuable to them. And then more valuable to your business. 

So really good point and automation of the process. I think it's like one of the major things you have to look into once you have a workflow established, but here, we're moving onto the last question after this. I was, which is the call to action. 

So, what's the one things you want the list to do? As soon as the episode is over? 

Oh, wow, you know, I, I don't really come prepared to to call anything to action. I mean, if you're happy by the way, I love talking about this stuff all day. So, if you want to chat with me, feel free to DMV, you can, you can find me on Twitter say, Hello? 

Huge Twitter users actually big fan of Twitter. I think Twitter is even now. I think it's actually very underrated. The messaging tools. So feel free to, to me, my my direct messages are open. You can say, hello to me at Andy and M. 

M. M. C search for EMS. That's my, that's my Twitter handle. But, yeah, I mean, say, Hello, if you've got questions, you want to drill into more to a specific idea, or concept. I'm, I'm always happy to chat. Perfect. 

That's a great call to action and I think I would never see that. Now, queries, Andrea, I think, like, every second speaker that's based on fundraising video says that Twitter is great literally. 

So, I think now it's more of more people will come on that. That's true. I'm only one here who doesn't like Twitter. 

I think, like, I'm the only one left on these projects, but yeah, I'll leave your as usually my call to action is go to this group and this episode take a look at the links them in a leaf there. 

And one of the links is going to be to the.