Back in university, when I was studying to be a systems design engineer at Waterloo, my classmates and I would often disparage faculties that taught “soft skills”. Written communication, presentations, management science… these were the realm of students who weren’t smart enough to handle computer architecture, fluid dynamics, and 3rd year calculus, we figured. These courses were subjective and they were difficult to fail so long as you were present.
Fast forward to today, and some of the most challenging aspects of my job relate to these “soft skills”. Negotiating, inspiring, leading, communicating–this is what I now do.
I was just featured in Canadian Business’ 20 Young Women in Power. During my interview I was asked what is the best professional advice I’ve ever been given. I didn’t have to think long about it before responding; “Don’t react”, meaning, never make important decisions at the time the choices present themselves. Never respond emotionally to someone who says something that upsets you, whether in person or over email. Instead, take a step back, and approach the situation from a different angle, instead of escalating the perceived dispute.
The advice came from a member of my board of directors–a successful executive in India–Sonjoy Mohanty. He gave me this advice in the middle of the most emotionally charged period of my professional life. My company, Savvica, was in the middle of a merger with StudyPlaces, a former rival. Significant restructuring was required under severe time constraints. It was stressful, the stakes were high, and emotions were boiling over every day, if not every hour. The merger is long since complete, and I continue to fall back to this advice.
My engineering education taught me how to think analytically and to solve problems. It is my foundation. However, its been my experience in executive roles, especially at the helm of Savvica, that revealed “soft skills” to be the most important I need to succeed.
My mother always says that if you can’t learn by listening to others, you have to learn through experience.
This week’s Economist includes an article examining what CEOs do all day. “What do bosses do all day?
The shocking truth can at last be revealed” Amongs the various interesting findings, the article reported that “bosses spend only 3-4% of their day thinking about long-term strategy”.
To be fair to the bosses studied, they probably run well-established businesses. Things are working well, and their priority is to keep your customers happy and keep the revenues rolling in. There is no obvious/imminent need to think about the future for hours every day. As a result, I am not shocked by any of the findings. Moreover, the HBR study’s author, Mr Chandy, “thinks bosses should spend less time with clients and more time thinking about the future”. I would argue that spending time with your customers helps inform future strategy better than almost any other activity, and it is time very well spent indeed.
Still, it was a thought-provoking article if only that it made me stop and think about how I spend my time. I am happy to report that a good 20% of my day is devoted to thinking about future strategy. My guess is that any startup CEO would report similar numbers, probably much higher the younger the startup. The day this number falls below 5% I’ll consider my job at Savvica as done.
Every Tuesday morning my management team and I have our weekly “Dashboard Meeting”. We’ve been having this meeting almost every week for over 3 years now, and I have found that it is central to making a business like ours tick. I’m pretty sure that most businesses (including startups like ours) have some sort regularly scheduled management meeting, but I thought I’d share the format of ours because I have found it so effective.
The idea of a dashboard meeting is simple. The entire meeting centers around reviewing the core performance metrics of the business, as provided by the various business heads (ie VP Sales, VP Marketing etc.). Examples include:
- Sales closed to date this quarter
- Traffic to website
- Revenues collected
Creating the Dashboard
The key to making the meeting useful is having a well designed dashboard. I’ve revised ours several times, and will continue to do so as the business evolves. Here are tips:
- Keep it as short as possible. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds as it requires you to really distill your business to the metrics that matter. Too many key metrics is like having no key metrics. Consider the Marketing section of my dashboard; I only focus on one metric related to site traffic: the number of organic visits. I chose this above pageviews, total unique visitors, new vs returning users, bounce rate, time on site, etc. For our business it makes sense to focus on this single metric because it captures most of what matters.
- Include your targets. Reporting numbers is great but you need to know what you’re trying to achieve. What is the target for the month/quarter? Sometimes it is also useful to extrapolate your numbers for the reporting period . Looking at our marketing example, I like to see our monthly pace for organic visitors – if we keep the traffic levels we’ve seen for the first 1 week what will the month look like?
- Include reference points. Looking at numbers without any context is pretty useless. What change have you seen from the previous month? What about the same time last year?
- Keep it online. We use Google Docs so everyone has access to the document and can update it or refer to it at any time. (Link to a sample Google Docs Dashboard below.)
Besides the obvious benefit of helping you understand how your business is faring, the dashboard format provides the following benefits:
- It is especially helpful in managing geographically dispersed teams like ours because it enables meetings to run smoothly over the phone as everyone has something to look at. An hour to an hour-and-a-half meeting of just listening to someone talk is tough.
- When properly formulated, your dashboard metrics act as “canaries in the mine”. They alert you to problems at which point you can dig deeper to find the cause.
- It provides a useful historical perspective. You can easily look back at the dashboard from any given week when needed. We use a new worksheet in Google Docs for every week’s dashboard. I often click back to previous weeks to see what was going on. Tip: Label each week’s dashboard with the date to make this easy.
- It ensures everyone is forced to look at the numbers that matter. It is easy to hide behind too much data and too much talk. Paring down your performance to a few key metrics shines a hard light on your performance.
- Creating the dashboard helps you and your team understand the core levers that drive your business. It helps you focus. This in turn helps to properly allocate resources for maximum effect and to make informed business decisions.
I’ve created a very simple example dashboard in Google Docs that can be found here.
- First up, Chris Michel, the Affinity Labs CEO: After the acquisition Chris has been travelling the world extensively taking the most gorgeous photos. He started a seed investment firm, Nautilus Ventures, where he has made investments in various startups and participates as a board member. Impressively, he is now an EIR at Harvard Business School as well.
- Eric Kim, our VP of Marketing, has started and raised funding for a new company, Twylah. Twylah is like Flipboard but built for brand marketers. It allows you to extract maximum value from your tweets by extending their lifetime value. If you are a twitter user, sign up for the beta, which looks really cool.
- Will Harbin, the VP of Product and my boss, went on to be EIR at Trinity Ventures and is now the CEO of The Casual Collective, a social gaming company, makers of the very popular Backyard Monsters game on Facebook. Will brought another Affinity alumni Jon Wirt with him.
- Curtis Atkisson, our CFO, is now CFO at Altius Education, an innovative company helping increase access to traditional high education. Altius has raised 2 rounds of financing from Maveron, where Chris is incidentally a Sector Advisor. Vincent Guerrieri, who reported to Eric at Affinity, is working again with Curtis as the VP of Marketing at Altius.
- Heather Fitzpatrick (aka Heather Marie), who was in charge of client management, has struck out on her own and started Combine Couture in NYC. She was always the best dressed in the office!
- Remi Gabillet, one of our talented engineers, joined Aardvark, which got acquired by Google only 6 months later. What a track record Remi. Back to back. He is also working on this own startup, 8tracks, aimed at facilitating legal music sharing, and is boasting over 6 million visits/month.
Update: I only included former colleagues that are now C-level at other companies now… but in the engineering world, both Tung Nguyen and David Dai are doing some amazing work. Both are in critical positions running top 100 websites in the world: Bleacher Report and Scribd, respectively.
I’ve spent a good amount of time over the past 1.5 months trying to find a replacement for Savvica’s current VP of Marketing, Abhishek Singla. (Job Description here: Savvica VP Marketing, Gurgaon.) Abhi has been with us almost 3 years, and joined us as our first employee in India. He has grown and evolved with the company—helping LearnHub reach the 1 million monthly visitor mark this past summer. Unfortunately for me, but quite fortunately for him, he recently got married. When it came down to choosing between his wife and Savvica, his wife won and Abhi will be moving to the UK in May.
Hiring is an art form. Yes, you can be disciplined and follow strict processes. At the end of the day, however, it boils down to your ability to read people. This art form borders on mysticism when you are required to hire someone in another country, without meeting them in person, for a make or break key executive position like VP of Marketing for an internet marketing company like Savvica.
I hired Abhi after having only spoken to him on the phone. I had spent 3 months posting the job on various startup blogs such as Venture Woods, searching for resumes on job portals like Naukri.com, and trying to get some candidates sourced via our investor Educomp‘s HR department. I started out looking for a marketing manager and quickly realized I needed a VP. I spoke to a couple dozen candidates and in the end I settled on Abhi because he was smart (an IIT grad), entrepreneurial (he had started his own education business and managed to raise money for it), but most importantly, the references I spoke to gave him glowing reviews. References are key. The best ones are via your network – the “back channels”.
Which leads to the present day and my ongoing search for my VP Marketing. I have been through over 100 resumes. I posted the job on LinkedIn and have reviewed all the candidates myself. Moreover, our investor’s HR department (Educomp) has forwarded me approximately 15 thoroughly vetted candidates. I have spoken to at least 15 top candidates. Abhi himself has probably spoken to double that. Recruiting for this position the second time around has reinforced my beliefs about the difference in hiring in India vs Canada/US.
First and foremost, in India, back channel reference checks are crucial, as candidates tend to embelish their experience and contributions. My favorite example was a gentleman who stated on his resume that he ran the marketing department for a company he previously worked for and “A team of visual designers, HTML designers, SEO and SMO were reporting.” I happened to know his former CEO so I emailed him. Turns out, the candidate created wireframes and had no direct reports. I guess the team “were reporting”, but to someone else! Oh, and the best part? The company he wrote this about was acquired by us this past year. He either didn’t do his homework or was hoping I wouldn’t.
For every candidate not overtly embelishing their resumes, there are 2 who are reaching so far beyond their grasp it makes you stop and scratch your head. The signal to noise ratio is very low. The job description explicitely says 5+ years experience in a senior marketing management role, and an expert at SEO, SEM and email marketing; being an assistant manager of business development in construction, 6 months out of school, makes you qualified how? I have yet to crack the secret code of communicating that I really do mean 5+ years experience (well ok, at LEAST 3, wink).
Another key difference in India is the boundaries of personal information. It is perfectly ok to ask candidates personal questions. In fact, most candidates list their birth date, marital status, number of children and even parent’s names on their resumes. After years of being super careful about not asking about anything remotely personal in an interview that could be construed as discriminatory, I admit that this has been somewhat refreshing.
The range of salaries, as expected, is much larger than what we see here in Canada/US. However, I was surprised to learn that with the right experience and education (ie Western), executives in India command similar salaries to those here. This is party because of scarcity. High calibre talent is always scarce, and in India, a country of over 1 billion and a booming economy, this is even more true.
India has also seen explosive growth in salaries. The investment banking firm we are working with duly corrected my business model, where I had projected reasonable 5% salary inflation year over year, to 15%. I was shocked and proceeded to argue this was unsustainable/unreasonable/unlikely, only to acquiesce once I discovered it standard industry practice. What’s more, it is not uncommon to expect a 20-50% pay hike when changing jobs. I know what you’re thinking, at this rate India will be more expensive than Canada/US, and their whole outsourcing industry will collapse. But this is mostly on the management end. Like I said earlier, bonafide managers are scarce.
Rounding out my list of major differences to Canada/US, I have seen that turnover tends to be much higher than I am accustomed to. Many high fliers (again, that elusive talent) switch jobs after 1-2 years. On reflection, I suppose its an achievement to have retained Abhi for 3.
Savvica has evolved far beyond what I imagined it would become when John and I started the business just over 3 years ago. And rightly so – as the brilliant Steve Blank has so eloquently explained, finding product-market fit is the #1 goal of the entrepreneur. Savvica is successfully zeroing in on a scalable business model: as a technology-enabled education marketing and recruitment services company. The website most people would be familiar with, LearnHub, is now just one piece of the story.
Here are the highlights:
We founded the company with a multi-million dollar venture capital investment from Educomp, India’s largest education company. We have enjoyed the continuing support from Educomp as we’ve scaled up our operations.
We work with universities & colleges primarily in the US, Canada, UK and India to recruit Indian students for their programs. We offer a broad spectrum of products and services including display advertising, lead generation, and complete enrollments. At the moment, we have over 150 active campaigns for customers from the US, UK, Canada, and India.
Our Portals (internally aka our student acquisition funnel)
We are focused on the Indian market, so we are not especially visible to the business community here in the US and Canada. In India though, we are huge. If you don’t count Wikipedia, LearnHub.com is probably the most visited education site in the country. No education site reaches more students in the world’s largest student market. We expect to hit 2 million visitors/month this spring, having passed 1 million visitors/month in 2010.
“LearnHub” is actually only one of the products from our company Savvica Inc. We also run JumboTests, LearnHub’s little sister, which launched last fall. This month it welcomed 22,000 new users, and its growth is accelerating rapidly. We are fairly sure its the most visited test prep site in the world, thanks in part to our content creation team populating it with more free practice tests for GMAT, GRE, SAT, and other standardized tests, than any other repository anywhere.
Here’s something you may not know. StudyPlaces was our biggest competitor in India. It had over $5M in venture capital from Kleiner Perkins, Caufield & Byers (KPCB), Ram Shriram’s Sherpalo Ventures, and others, and was founded a year before Savvica. This year, as part of Educomp, we acquired the company and have merged their staff of 70 into ours. A full revamp of the site launched last month, built on a consolidated Savvica technology platform.
Compass – Our “Student Relationship Management System”
Our portals are just the tip of Savvica’s product iceberg. Most of the magic (at least as far as our customers are concerned) happens below the surface. We built Compass to manage Savvica’s interaction with students. You can read more about it here.
- Michelle Caers has been promoted to our Chief Customer Officer, which reflects her expanded responsibilities. Michelle joined the company just when the first website launched as our VP of Business Development.
- Wesley Moxam has been promoted to our Director of Engineering. Our 3rd employee, Wes has lead our product & engineering implementation and scaled our systems to support tens of millions of requests per month.
- My co-founder (and husband!), John Philip Green, remains close to the company but is now working full time at CommunityLend, another startup on the move in Toronto.
It has been a very busy 3 years. Savvica is now over 70 people strong, with 58 in India. We are growing the team aggressively with job openings for a VP of marketing in India, developers in Toronto, and about 30+ new hires for our enrollment division over the next quarter. More stories of my adventures in business, India, technology, mergers, operations to come soon.
It has been 2.5 years since my last blog post. So many people have been asking John and I what I’ve been up to for the past 3 years that I felt it was the right time to start blogging again. A fresh start at a new address – my namesake.
Married-inc.com, my previous blogging home, no longer seemed appropriate, given John and I no longer work together. No need for alarm though—we’re still quite happily married!