Scaling Up In Business And Finding Your Place In The System

Apr 2, 2021by IseeQReading time: 14 mins

Kevin Goldsmith and Péter Váradi on leadership, startups vs. corporate culture and diversity at the workplace

Kevin Goldsmith works as a chief tech officer at Anaconda, and had several similar roles in the past. Having been a vice president of engineering at Spotify, and working in high positions for companies like Adobe, Microsoft and IBM, his portfolio is just as diverse as impressive. In the past years, he migrated towards working at startups either as a managing partner or as a mentor.

Péter Váradi had been the engineering manager of IBM for over two years now. He has a solid background in software engineering automation and product management, working for top firms in the technology space. We were more than honored to listen to their discussion on topics like innovation, leadership and diversity.

In the first part of our remote TechTalk interview, we asked Kevin about his experience in the world of startups. We started by theorizing about building a new company, and the very first essential step towards that was deciding on the first hires. 

“It always depends on the kind of innovation, the companies goals and the field of industry”

We instantly agreed on something: having a technical co-founder is essential for success. Other than acquiring the knowledge that enables us to bring an idea to life, Kevin argues that entering the market should be a priority. For that, our company would need a business or sales expert, who can navigate us among the requirements of the given industry and can help us reach the first customers as soon as possible. One thing to keep in mind is that you should always look for skills that complement the ones you already have, not ones that can back you up in times of doubt. 

Forming the core of the company should be based on the same ground thoughts. Above all, a product or a service has to be developed to enter the market. Too many companies with a good idea fall to waste because they are afraid to make their debut early on, and realize their customer needs and concerns too late to be able to make a change. After all, consumer feedback and remarks determine the guiding milestones for your growth, and even though this seems like common sense, trust us on how rarely it is. 

“The culture of your business starts forming the moment you don’t run it alone”

If you start thinking about the culture inside your company after your team is complete, you’re probably late. Kevin believes each and every person you employ will add something to it, so leaving out the personal factor from the recruitment process is a great mistake. You should determine the basic elements you want to be determinant, and make your decisions accordingly, as they are extremely difficult to change later. Mindset, personality traits, goals and drives are best if aligned, so try to focus on your personal motives just as much. Culture will be an everyday issue in your business no matter how small or big, so even though your product may seem like the only priority, you might want to consider how everyday arguments and tension would affect it, let alone your life.

“Growth brings new perspectives on succession for scale”

One thing Kevin says he always has to remind founders of is that people are best-functioning at different levels of the company. When he first found his niche as a CTO, he made the realization that everyone has different focuses and strengths which are best suited for certain positions within a business. Leaders of startups acquire a challenge the second they launch: to grow faster than the business. Leadership requires different skills at every step of the way, and there are huge differences between managing 5 or 200 people. Very few people are able to do both their original jobs and management tasks successfully, so recognizing when our tasks grow beyond us and resetting our priorities is key. There are suitable positions for everyone at a startup, so finding the ones that match your skill set, and are the perfect balance between your comfort zone and new challenges is inevitable in the long run.

“Management skills can be mentored, but there’s no time for practice”

As we have mentioned, many struggle to keep up with the pace of a fast-growing company. But what are the signs of that, you might ask. Well, newly “promoted” leaders spend too much time doing their old jobs quite often, which is understandable. If you were a developer, and your new tasks don’t include coding anymore, it can take quite some time to get used to a new daily routine. Though delegating your old tasks may feel like a big win to some, it might overwhelm others. Seeking mentoring or counseling can both be the next step, but stepping down and continuing to do what truly makes you happy from day to day is also not a defeat. Kevin highlighted that he worked his way up to management level positions in 20 years- in corporate culture, you usually have time to do the same, while startup founders often have to do it in 3-5, so there’s really no time to practice comfort there.

“Ambition is mostly present, but updating the skillset needs more”

Some people have the potential to scale up, but many times the ambitions are more likely to determine one’s actions. People often fail to recognize situations when they’re simply not a good fit with their current abilities, and it can lead to missing out on important milestones or delayed progress. Many times, it’s not being good at your old job that makes you a good leader, different positions require really different skills- experience is not always enough for promotion. Kevin and Péter both agree that everyone can learn and develop themselves, but the responsibilities and goals change so quickly that it requires enormous motivation.

“You have to find your happy environment, but you don’t have to find it at the first try”

At enterprise level companies, the time frames we discussed are a bit more elongated. At startups, they evolve and change swiftly, and the balance lies within your personal preference. You can either see the whole ladder in front of yourself, as a well mapped-out career path. Big corporate firms (if they believe in you) will invest in you, train you, or help you upgrade your role elsewhere if it’s not available to them. Startups invent roles, and oftentimes you have no idea of what you will do, even of tasks you do at present. These routes, being very different from each, offer each person different advantages and disadvantages. You should focus on finding your happy environment- Kevin personally likes this speed and flexibility of startups, but considers bigger companies great learning abilities. 

“I would never tell anyone that startups are the way to riches”

Despite the popular belief that startups are the road to quick wealth, we agreed that your income is very much dependent on the exact position you’re holding. Developers are most often told that they’re joining rocket ships before they are hired. There’s always a chance for that, but the odds are never in your favor. When it comes to shares, Kevin doesn’t usually get the early ones with the big multipliers. He only joins later, and he believes it’s probably the smartest way. Share options are always a big risk, and even though he was lucky in the past, he really considers joining a new company every time. The tactic he uses is not only following common sense, but also expecting the worst.

Discovering your opportunities in the most possible places is one of the essential steps towards finding your dream job with a suitable atmosphere. Kevin worked at IBM and later on, he worked for Silicon Graphics at Silicon Valley before he took his vote for startups. He says your direction depends solely on your preference and motivational factors. You can learn a lot in corporate firms and startups too, and can also achieve success in both settings. Startups have multiple roles and more diverse opportunities in a really flexible environment to utilize your skills, while you are offered an infrastructure, more focused roles, advanced technologies and databases and the widest customer reach at a bigger firm. During our interview we agreed that everyone should experience both, unless either of them is a love at first try.

“A startup being bought by a big firm can end two ways”

The phenomenon is not new to our economy: successful startups are bought by big players one after the other. Kevin himself was part of multiple acquiring processes, and experienced them from both sides. He argues that a founder has to be very cognizant about the company they’re joining. There's little value of acquiring, but a lot in integrating certain practices to your product portfolio in the long run. If you think about it, you would be buying a firm because you would want to add capability for your customers, or market share to your other products. Eventually, your employees will join different parts in the integration, different groups of focus will melt into each other. Customers merely notice any disadvantage, they just enjoy the positive side of it. Another example is LinkedIn, being bought by Microsoft. They are one of the few who could keep their services separate by adding to Microsoft’s portfolio. According to Kevin, Adobe was really good at these practices. They integrated other companies with value as they were added to their product portfolio. The rule of the thumb is that you have to do it with open eyes and figure out the real intentions behind the pink fog big players try to shadow you with. These occasions can be treated as an opportunity to grow as an employee as well. There’s a natural level of assimilation, but it’s rarely the fairytale it is often pictured as by the media. They either need technology, a good team, or even the whole product, and integration is often the most profitable option. If companies are growing rapidly like Instagram did a couple of years ago, they might even start to worry competitors. This could have been an influencing factor why Facebook bought them, but as they were majorly different products, they could keep multiple brands under one ownership.

“Improving team diversity at Avvo was a great challenge” 

Kevin joined Avvo as a CTO. Even though the company was doing well in the sense that most of its sectors were diverse, the engineering team was a bit behind the rest. This made him commit to an American perspective, which includes improving not only the male-female ratio, but the involvement of multiple ethnic origins too. Based on these factors, the company as one unit was doing well, but the engineering team was not. There were many exceptionally talented female workers at different units already, so at first they were trying to give them opportunities with different roles, and show them to new employees so that they see it’s the company standard to have a diverse team. At first, they had to “suffer” through a couple rounds of interviews, but were motivated by the fact that their company was making a conscious effort to represent the diversity of their customer fit.

“It’s hard to build diversity if folks come to interview and they don't see folks like them”

Being clear about wanting to do better is of utmost importance, and also one of Kevin’s own principles. At Avvo, after months of hard work and directed effort, there were enough people from different backgrounds, so new applicants got to experience and see that they were joining a diverse team. Over time, diversity becomes natural with conscious effort, and you will slowly have the majority that will make it much easier in the future. It’s hard work, and requires a lot of energy. It's also not simple, you have to organize and participate in lots of meet-ups with underrepresented people, understand them, and above all their concerns before ever trying to hire them. At Avvo, they invested a lot of effort into these methods, but it only got considerably easier long after the start. When they reached a certain level, people started to come to them based on example, through networks of team members and colleagues.

“A lot of companies fail at being serious about diversity”

They just say certain catchy phrases and sometimes even introduce new policies, and then just not work hard enough for it. This is a process that gets much harder at the very beginning before it gets easier. People burn out quickly if the sufficient amount of effort is not put into managing issues like this, so you really have to be willing to invest time and money into it, and commit to your plans until the goals are achieved. The bigger the company the longer it’s going to take, as their hiring methods are slower and usually more considerate.

“I have seen what non-diverse teams build”

Kevin built lots of consumer products, and he has definitely seen what non-diverse teams build, as opposed to diverse ones. In the Valley and along the West coast of the United States, he is able to point out tons of products that were developed for young (and heterosexual) white men, which is a very narrow band of audience. He considers the inclusivity and quality of these products not acceptable. By his direct experience, there’s huge value in diverse thoughts and methods, which are not only transferred to the end product automatically, but reflect themselves in higher numbers of customer reach as well.

If you’re building a product: the conversations you have about it constantly represent the concerns of the customers. If the customers are not represented properly you’re missing important remarks and points. The same lack of representation can also cause well-meant things not to be received well.

Aside from Kevin’s perspective as a business leader, he has an insight into the topic as an individual as well: that he is extremely lucky. Just because of his skin color and ethic background, he had access to quality education, and he could see his race being represented throughout the industry. Now, he has all the skills and talent, but it was his luck being born like this. For this reason, he works tirelessly to improve industries and to provide chances for the less fortunate. It’s not to his liking to only see people like him in any business setting. He campaigns for the industry to reflect a welcoming nature and diversity, and we both believe that it’s a great environment for people who couldn’t come into it on the fast lane. Hiring second career people is one of his applied practices, as based on experience, they are committed to learning and growing like all newcomers, but they have experience with working life. 

“Some are very intentional about a culture they want to have”

It can attract a good team, even a great founding team, however, when the first challenges arrive, it often turns out that the thing the original leader wanted was not who they were as a person. When orchestrating a culture, you should be careful to align it with your own personality. Understand who you are as a founder, and what you can represent wholeheartedly. Keep in mind that you can’t change people, either yourself or the individuals you decide to work together with. Be serious in hiring, as having a diverse team will be one of your company value statements. It’s easier to make a conscious effort in the beginning than trying to introduce reforms into an already evolved dynamic. Even when people are really invested in doing things differently, culture change takes a while, and you can’t know what it’s going to be like at the end, so rather it being a definite goal, it really is the journey.

We are extremely thankful for this conversation with Kevin and Péter, the insights they’ve given us highlight some important aspects of thought that were deemed to be outstandingly helpful in the past, and we hope you will find them just as useful in practice as we did.

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