What’s Next? Part 2: Finding the Right Opportunity

In Part 1 of What’s Next?, I discussed my ideal search criteria for finding my next professional role.  In this post, I’ll talk about my process of uncovering, narrowing and choosing the right opportunity based on that criteria.

So, here’s the process I’ve been following –

Determining my ideal search criteria.  Geography, role, stage of company development, industry and cultural attributes were all important to consider during this self-assessment stage.  Part 1 of this series was devoted solely to describing in detail this first step.

Putting myself “out there”.  This step involved several activities for me, most important (and most surprising) of which has been this blog.  While I didn’t anticipate or intend it, there’s been a positive reaction to my personal and professional transparency, perhaps I’m coming across as more genuine and “knowable” than a typical candidate, I don’t know.  My original intentions for the blog were simply to enable  my close friends and family to keep tabs on me and the important things in my life, to motivate myself to form and articulate points of view on certain subjects and finally, to keep a journal of sorts.  While readership is not substantial, my blog is discoverable during the recruiting process and it has helped, not hurt my search efforts based on feedback I’ve received.

Another important component of this step was to take ownership of my personal brand – ensuring consistent, comprehensive and current information and messaging everywhere online.  Updating and staying active on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and this blog ensures that I’m easy to discover and the message I want to share is consistent across all platforms.

Firing up the network.  To be clear, this is not (yet) to target specific companies although several companies have emerged opportunistically directly from my network right from the get-go.  This step is really about a discovery process of re-connecting with folks in my existing network to 1) get introductions to others in their networks that either I want to meet or they recommend, and 2) to get perspective and insight into what is happening in the marketplace for the types of roles/companies I’m interested in.  I reached out to friends, current and former colleagues, VC’s I’d met while raising capital for TrueCar and Pricelock and tried to prioritize the initial outreach according to my search criteria in step 1.  So balancing access to both geography and to types of target companies I am seeking helped to focus the first round of contacts.

This has been the most fun part of the process for me, re-connecting with people that I’d lost touch with and also forging new and interesting relationships.  The more conversations I have, the more I notice trends in advice, perspectives and prospective company names.  Having “insider information” or knowledge of specific companies that others believe would be a strong fit really provides an efficient, targeted leg up on identifying interesting and high probable fit companies.  This outreach process started nearly 3 months ago for me and I did no real specific company targeting for the first two months.  I had conversations and/or met with roughly 100 individuals during this phase, half of which I reached out to directly and the other half came through introductions from the first half.

Creating a target list of companies, researching and narrowing.  After several rounds of networking conversations and research, I had well over 50 companies across 4 geographies that were mentioned somewhere along the way or came up in my own research.   Without getting too scientific, I matched up the opportunities first against my criteria and second where I thought I could get a personal introduction.  This trimmed the list by half to roughly 25 companies, a healthy portfolio recognizing that a portion of the remaining wouldn’t be a fit from a role perspective, meaning no senior ops leadership role is currently available.

Another important output of this step was to identify the “key influencers and connectors” from all of the prior networking activity that have credible access and can make quality introductions to the “short list” of interesting companies.  There are less than 10 of these connectors on my list, but most have provided multiple introductions or referrals.

Circling back for introductions.  Folks in my network really appreciated that I was specific when I reached back out to them for introductions.  Instead of contacting them for another general conversation or update, I asked for referrals to specific companies.  In many cases, I crafted the introductory email that they could forward to their contact with personal comment.  While I deeply appreciate the time people have invested in collaborating with me, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to this smaller group of people who have put their own personal credibility on the line by introducing and recommending me to others in their networks.

Eat your Wheaties and dig deep, time to interview!  While every conversation is ultimately an “interview”, this stage is the most grueling and requires a lot of energy – actually going through the interview process with specific companies.  I’m finding that EACH company that I enter the process with as a candidate involves 3-6 rounds of interviews and requires interviewing deeply with 5-10 individuals at the company, Board and investor group.  Total interview time alone, excluding travel time, can top 25-30 hours per company.  This is the stage where I’m spending the preponderance of my time now across a “handful” of companies, although not every opportunity is in the same stage of development.

It is important to note that my approach has been a very personal one – reaching out to my network, extending that network and getting personal introductions and referrals to companies.  I did not post my resume anywhere online or respond to any job postings through traditional channels.  My experience shows that where supply outstrips demand (limited roles available, many gunning for them) and the more senior the role, the more critical a referral and personal introduction becomes to even be considered for a role.

I hope and expect to complete the process and make a decision within the next 30-60 days and dive into the next exciting role on or around October 1.  If I’m lucky enough to find and land the right opportunity, I’ll post Part 3 and let you know who it is.  Stay tuned!

So What’s Next? Part 1: My Search Criteria

Now that the cat is out of the bag on my departure from TrueCar, lot’s of folks have been asking what’s next for me professionally.  So I thought I would share my process and how I’m thinking about what I want to do next in a series of posts.  I actually began this process several months ago, it’s been a challenging journey with emotional highs and lows but has also been rewarding having met some incredible people and re-connected with others.

Bottom line, there are a number of potential paths to take and criteria to examine – company size, role, geography, my risk appetite, work/life balance – and there are pros and cons to each of the many combinations.  The good news for me?  I’m not ready to make a decision and I’m in no hurry.  And I’ve been blessed with a unique opportunity to have a professional transition at the exact time that my child is born and I plan on taking advantage of simply being a dad and staring at my son for a few months.  I’m extremely thankful for that opportunity.

So how am I going about my search for the next big thing?  There are really two high-level components to the process.  First, being clear about my search criteria and second, executing a process for uncovering opportunities and ultimately choosing one.  I’ll talk about the first component in this post – my ideal search criteria.  Important to note that “ideal” implies a willingness to compromise and evaluate tradeoffs, which in turn requires that criteria are ranked in priority importance.  Here are mine, in order:

  1. I’m not going to start my own company from scratch.  So, I’m looking to partner with a Founder or Founding team.
  2. Chemistry with and complementary skills to the Founder(s) is an A-1 priority.  Alignment on strategy, roles, values, culture, team building among others is important.
  3. I have a strict “No Asshole” rule.  Meaning I won’t work for one, I won’t be one and I won’t participate in a culture that rewards being one.  It’s toxic and threatens both morale and productivity.
  4. I’m looking for an early stage, venture-backed business post Series A.  As opposed to a pure garage startup with limited traction and no funding.
  5. I want to build a company with balance – work / life / pursuits.  I have enough experience to know that working 80-hour weeks just because your “supposed to” in a startup is bunk.  A culture of work hard, smart and leaving some juice for personal pursuits is far more productive.  I’m also not suggesting that clocking a 40-hour week is the right answer either.  You work harder in a startup, period.  But balance is possible.
  6. I’m considering four geographies.  Boulder, Austin, Bay Area and Los Angeles.
  7. I don’t care about industry vertical, but…
  8. I want to focus on a huge industry with a large addressable market.  Even better if the industry is fragmented with limited established brands.  But it needs to be a big idea.
  9. I’m targeting CEO roles, but will consider COO roles.  This is really a function of the experience/strengths of the Founder, back to chemistry.
  10. I want to build a company that solves a real problem and helps people in some meaningful way.
So, have I narrowed myself out of sufficient considerable opportunities?  Maybe, but that’s why its important to create and priority rank a list of criteria, so I fully understand the tradeoffs to be made and which of them can be compromised to create a broader set and volume of opportunities.
These are, at a minimum, guideposts for targeting companies, roles and geographies.  In Part 2, I’ll talk about the process of uncovering, narrowing and choosing which roles to pursue.

Thank You TrueCar

As I wrote in a previous post, there are several “life events” happening for me simultaneously.  Last week it was the birth of my first child and this week a professional transition – my last week of employment with TrueCar.  As I reflect on the past 3.5 years, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to have learned so much about building a company from the ground up.  Most important however, I’m thankful to have worked with an amazingly talented team of people – product specialists, statisticians and analysts, engineers and technologists, finance and accounting gurus, lawyers, PR and marketing wizards and the list goes on.  The original leadership team in particular deserves and has my deepest gratitude – Damon, Chris, Mike and Jesse – who took a risk in joining our startup and did so because they all shared a vision for building a business that had the potential for changing a huge industry.  And we did it!

While I’m excited to move on and tackle another challenge, it will be difficult to replicate the quality and cohesiveness of the team we built at TrueCar.  Building a leadership team of the best, who can also function at a high level together, is really hard to do.  It’s not just about intellect and job skills, its about personality, values and cultural fit as well.  A startup is by definition chaotic, ambiguous, uncertain, stressful and requires more time away from family than a normal “job”.  It can also be incredibly rewarding and energizing.  Its not for everyone, in fact its not for most.  But it was right for these guys and for the functional teams they built.

Finally, special thanks to Scott for giving me the opportunity to join him in building the business.  Eternally grateful.

Engineer = Rock Star

It’s good to be a developer in this job market.  Really good.  And not just in Silicon Valley, although SV really is the center of the universe for mobile and web technology.

At TrueCar, we’ve been really aggressive with hiring for both our LA and SF offices, including offering relocation packages from anywhere in the U.S., even for junior engineers.  We’re selling our story hard.  Here’s what we’ve been up against over the past year:

  • Google recently gave every employee across-the-board 10% raises – up from already strong compensation.
  • Large Silicon Valley companies like Google and Facebook are actually acquiring small startups, in some cases only a few months old, to gain access to the development team.
  • Poaching talent from competitors has become a fine art, escalating signing bonuses to extreme amounts for top talent.  As incredulous as a $500K retention bonus sounds, the economics of that decision for a company like Google makes perfect sense based on the shareholder value that lead engineer will create.  Oh, and 15% of Facebook’s employees have previously worked for Google.
  • In Boulder, a consortium of companies are pooling money to fly in engineers from around the country to attend Boulder Startup Week beginning in a few weeks on May 18.

Compounding the challenge is the fact that its probably the best time in tech history to be an entrepreneur and start your own company.  There’s efficient access to capital and mentoring through firms like AngelList, YCombinator and TechStars and valuations are soaring, encouraging top technical talent to do their own thing, which is exactly what is happening, effectively removing top engineering talent from the labor pool.  How crazy is it that top engineers leave Google, start their own company, get acquired within a year and end up back at Google as an employee?

It’s a downright war for talent right now.

Building a Consumer Brand, For (Nearly) Free

Three years ago when we were just starting TrueCar, one of the biggest challenges we faced once the beta version of the product was built was how would we generate consumer awareness, credibility and ultimately drive traffic to the website?  It’s the challenge any consumer-facing web property has to overcome – inexpensive customer acquisition – unless you are one of the lucky few (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube) that has an exponential viral coefficient.

And it’s not just about driving traffic to your website, but also converting that traffic to do what you want them to do – buy something, view something, tell their friends, etc.  Building credibility into the brand is critical to not only attracting who you want to your property, but converting them to action.

During our first few years, we spent no money on advertising and yet had become the #1 share-of-media over our top two competitors combined, were receiving over 1,200 monthly media mentions, were performing nearly 100 monthly media interviews and had been featured multiple times in publications and web properties such as Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Automotive News, CNN, Consumer Reports, NY Times, USA Today and others.  We grew our web traffic from zero to nearly 1M UV’s with no advertising spend.  For more content around our media attention, click here.

So how did we generate brand awareness, credibility and consumer traffic to TrueCar in the early days where cash was scarce?  Initially, it was through a comprehensive industry and consumer public relations effort until we had a credible reputation and the ability to convert and monetize traffic, then we migrated to a paid marketing strategy once we could guarantee a positive ROI.  It’s the first, initial effort of public relations to develop credibility and awareness that I’d like to address in this post.  Why PR first before advertising?  2 primary reasons:  Credibility and Cost.

Credibility.  Advertising by its nature is about self-promotion.  It’s a pitch no matter how you slice it.  Effective media coverage through PR however is about positioning your company as the expert in its field so that the media “filterers” (journalists, editors) are the one’s communicating directly to their readership.  There’s a level of separation that makes the company’s message more credible.

Cost.  Advertising is expensive.  Just ask General Motors who spends in excess of $2B per year on advertising.  A well-executed PR program’s most significant costs are the people that execute the strategy.  There is no comparison between the two on cost alone.

With that as the backdrop, what did we do at TrueCar to develop and execute a successful and low cost PR capability?

1. Determine What Credibility Means in the Context of the Brand Strategy.  For us, it was convincing the auto industry, through data analytics and unique insights, that TrueCar was the “go to” company for what’s happening in Auto for all things pricing.  Tough to do in a world where 80-year old brands have a foothold already in pricing.

2. Formulate a PR strategy that Focuses on Attaining this Credibility.  Our industry strategy for TrueCar was to become the most transparent, trusted and credible source of auto pricing data and auto industry trends, so we targeted publications, social media and influencers in the industry where the topic of vehicle pricing was at the forefront.  And, our consumer strategy was closely aligned on transparency, accuracy and (hopefully) boosted by the industry credibility that we were after.

3. Find the single most influential, credible industry analyst or personality and hire them.  This is the most important takeaway and I don’t know why more startups don’t persist here, especially in cases where industry credibility is correlated to successfully penetrating the consumer market, as is the case with Automotive.  There’s a fallacy that this person, given their stature, is “out of reach” or too expensive to engage.  While that might be true for some, you’d be surprised how energizing it can be for someone who has “done it all” in their industry to have the opportunity to do it again, to leverage their skills and relationships to have a massive impact on a new and emerging brand.   We wanted to first build our Industry credibility, then expand into our consumer strategy, so that’s where we started.  The right candidates have deep media relationships, are performing high volumes of media interviews, have an online social media presence and are viewed as credible industry ambassadors, not spin doctors.  Those folks are out there for every industry, and we hired the best in Automotive.  Jesse Toprak has been the leading Automotive Analyst for 15 years and has performed over 10,000 media interviews during that period.  He was on auto-pilot at his previous role, and was motivated by the challenge of starting from scratch to build our brand around credibility.  No shortage of risk for him personally, but the aspirational fit was there for both of us.

4. Rally the organization around the PR strategy and commit people resources.  Executing a successful PR strategy, one that will be compelling to your target media, requires unique insights that others in the industry are not providing.  That requires lots of data, analysis and product and technology support.  Additionally, because your PR team is externally facing and presumably are experts on trends, they can be important in actually driving product strategy and features.  All of this requires a commitment across the organization to dedicate resources to enable PR – online, offline, social media, daily blogging, outreach, interviews – the list goes on.  Let me be clear, this is hard to do during the early stages where seemingly every person in the company is over-worked and focused exclusively on developing core features and functionality, not crunching data that the PR team can go talk to reporters about.

5. Determine and Track Key Metrics, Measure Results and Adjust.  Some of our key metrics for PR activity include #interviews, #media mentions, #press releases, total consumer reach, unique visitors by media publication, social media followers, UV conversion (to sale) and Revenue.  Key metrics must be tracked!  Which implies there is an ability to actually attribute performance to PR versus some other activity such as viral, marketing, SEO, etc.  We set up unique campaign URL’s in our business intelligence software to track each media campaign separately.

What techniques have you used to build your brand in the early days?

Foundational Events in a Company’s Life

In the life of an organization, it’s easy to reflect back at certain foundational events that either resulted in a new level of organizational development and success, or just the opposite in the case of failure.  But they are “foundational” because their occurrence contributed so significantly in either a positive or negative direction.  While there are numerous important wins or losses that are memorable and significant along the way, especially in a startup, these foundational events are set apart based on their epic significance.

At TrueCar, there have been at least 2 such events over the past 3 years.  The closing of our first Venture round of financing in 2008 and merging with our sister company Zag in 2010 to create TrueCar, Inc.  Well, we just had another one announced Monday that I believe could lead to a tipping point for TrueCar – A partnership with and equity investment from Guthy-Renker, the leading international infomercial producer.  The most notable of their product partnerships is Proactiv, the acne treatment system that has grossed over $800M.  This partnership with GR involves a large equity investment from them that will help fund a massive brand development and advertising campaign for TrueCar.  It speaks to the potential for success that the experts in this process are confident enough to invest capital and put their own skin in the game.

Why is this so significant for us and why now?

First, why now?  The past several years we (Zag & TrueCar) have been quietly and gradually building our product and brand and have been gaining share of automotive retail with little to no marketing spend.  We’ve instead grown through large partnerships with companies like USAA, AAA, Consumer Reports, American Express and others as well as a robust PR machine that has helped build a foundation for the TrueCar brand, both in the automotive industry and with consumers.  But PR and distribution partners will carry you so far, to really scale the brand you must have widespread, household awareness which can be incredibly expensive.  However, in order to spend marketing dollars to acquire customers, there has to be a positive ROI on that investment, meaning for every dollar spent on marketing, more than one dollar must be generated in profit.  That’s a tough equation to make work unless the product engine is converting customers at high rates.  This is an oversimplification, but suffice to say that we now have the engine in place that enables a positive ROI on paid customer acquisition.  So, the time is right.

Second, why is this significant?  A partnership, including investment, with a leading brand-proliferation company like Guthy-Renker enables a mass introduction of TrueCar to consumers that would be almost impossible to achieve otherwise.  It has the potential to make TrueCar a household name among consumers.  It enables us, now that the “product engine” is built, to immediately and rapidly build the TrueCar brand nationally as the new and only way to purchase your next vehicle.  If our conversions (website visitor who purchases through our program) stand up, this will not only be a large cash outflow to pay for the marketing, but also a hugely profitable partnership due to the revenue generated from paying customers who see and respond to the advertising programs.  It’s also significant because this widespread, infomercial approach has never been done before in automotive retail, and we believe auto is ready for this type of innovation.  That could lead to an important first-mover advantage.

Only time will tell whether this will be an epic foundational WIN or LOSS.  But it will certainly be foundational.

What were your “foundational” company events that defined success or failure?

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