Starting a company is a lonely business. Finding co-founders can be the solution to this – but what if you don’t know anyone who fits the bill? Linda Lian of Common Room set out to build a company and recruited her co-founders one by one. Hear her story and theirs in the latest Founded and Funded podcast. Linda sat down with Madrona’s Shannon Anderson and then we checked in with co-founders Viraj Mody and Francis Luu.
Madrona works with founders from the earliest stages and has helped founders identify possible co-founders and those crucial early employees. Listen to this conversation to hear Linda’s approach and how the future co-founders at first ignored Linda and then dove in to the challenge due to her persistence and vision.
Erika: Welcome to Founded and Funded, I’m Erika Shaffer from Madrona Venture Group. Today on the podcast, we talked to Linda Lian, Co-Founder and CEO of Common Room, a company that as Linda mentions in here, Madrona has been working with in funding since the negative day one. Common Room is working to build a platform that enables brands to more easily connect with their users. The company came out of Stealth in the spring of 2021 with $52 million in funding from Greylock Index, Madrona and others.
We have a deep relationship with Linda in part because she used to work at Madrona. She was an associate working with entrepreneurs on new investments and our existing portfolio companies. From there, she went to Amazon’s AWS group and then she left to build Common Room. In this conversation, Shannon Anderson, our Director of Talent, talks to Linda about one of the most important elements of building a company, finding the right co-founders. Linda went about this in a slightly different way than we see with most startups. We also talked to two of those co-founders about how Linda approached them and their first responses, which was to ignore her for various reasons, and their decision to join her in founding Common Room. The conversation with Shannon and Linda is interspersed with Shannon’s conversations with Francis Luu and Viraj Mody, two of the co-founders that Linda recruited.
There’s a little bit of musical interlude to indicate when we are making a switch, we’re going to start off here with Shannon and Linda speaking. Enjoy!
Shannon: I am so glad you are here. We’re having so much fun working with you. I want to start off here with you. I just want to get a baseline for who you are and understand your journey. My question is, what is your why? In other words, Linda what kind of problems do you tend to find yourself solving? Another way to think about that it is, what are you known for?
Linda: Hey Shannon. It’s really awesome to be here with you today, talking about the Common Room journey which, Soma and Madrona has been part of since day negative one. But Shannon, to answer your question, I wish I knew myself better. It’s a big question, but I think that what really drives me, and it has from an early age, is to build something of value to prove that I can do it. I think that a lot of entrepreneurs might have a certain chip on their shoulder where the more that someone tells them that something can’t become a reality, the more you want to make it real. So I would say it’s been a combination of, just wanting to build something of value and the desire to prove anyone wrong who says that, that can’t happen.
Shannon: Yeah, I get it. Wanting to prove yourself is such a motivator. It’s an intrinsic motivator, right? It’s not, it’s a little bit external, but it’s really inside of you proving to yourself and to others that you can do it. What I’d love to understand is how your career has reflected these motivations, right? So, as you think about, why you chose the school you chose and the program that you chose, how you ended up from, job A to B, you ended up at Madrona, as an investor, and then you went to Amazon to be a product manager, and now you’re founding your company. I’m curious what, in your mind, as you look back, are those common threads.
Linda: So I think for me, I’ve always had this like insatiable appetite to look at things from a 360 perspective. By that I mean, I’ve had a nontraditional career in that, I have done a lot of different things. Sometimes I call myself like a ‘jack of all trades’ master of probably nothing.
But as you mentioned, I started my career in investment banking doing really traditional mergers and acquisitions and really large, cross border multi-billion dollar deals in very stable industries. And having had that experience, I think it was incredibly valuable to be able to strategically understand the value of a company from simply looking at its financials.
But what it made me realize was, I had this hunger to see the other end of the spectrum, which was how can I work my way from like this late stage, massive corporate clashing up against each other kind of world to go upstream continually to where, the source of where ideas become real.
I’ve mostly spent my whole career I think, working backwards and trying to get to that source going earlier, earlier stage, after my time at Morgan Stanley and investment banking, I went to a late-stage startup called Lookout Mobile Security. and still at that point, the company was a couple of hundred people.
I felt like that was still feeling like a company that had already figured out a lot of things. And of course, we now know that companies are never fully figured out, but I think at that time I just had another sort of push and urgency to go earlier and I never really tried to stay in the same role.
I think I always tried to maximize for learning and to me after a time in finance, I felt like I didn’t necessarily have the skillset or the experiences that I wanted more on the outward facing thought leadership, business development, content marketing side of things.
I felt like that was just an area where I was intrinsically uncomfortable and I think early-stage investing enabled me to leverage my sort of finance assets and experiences, but also couple that with, the day-to-day work of being an investor, which I don’t know if many people know this, but is incredibly, outward facing.
It has a lot of like mappings to what I would consider in a more traditional company to be almost like business development or, more external facing type functions. And then again, it’s after a couple of years working with Soma and the rest of the Madrona team I just felt like I wanted to get back into being where the action was, rolling up my sleeves, building within the context of a company. So when AWS offered me the opportunity to join them and lead product marketing for Serverless, which was at that time growing extremely quickly and was in this completely new category that was still being created, I jumped at the chance to do that. I think it’s really that that ability to take a risk and not worry about having this traditional more linear career path that I think has enabled me to be a better founder and to be a more empathetic leader and I’m still figuring out all those things. I think having that diverse background and perspective has been really helpful.
Shannon: Yeah, that makes a ton of sense to me as you walked through it and this whole working backwards concept of trying to get closer and closer to the source of where our company originates, or at least where our product originates.
So, at AWS you’re building the VM1 and now you’re at Common Room and you couldn’t get any closer to the metal than Common Room, because that was an idea that you had and nothing more at the time.
Linda: Yeah, exactly.
Shannon: Yeah. So that’s great. So, let’s talk about Common Room.
When you started Common Room and you had decided that you discovered a problem that you were passionate about solving in terms of a customer focus, did you start off thinking that you were going to be a solo entrepreneur founder, or did you have other ideas for what your early team might look like?
Linda: Yeah so I think despite having been an early stage investor and having seen this from the other side of the table, it’s never as real as when you’re trying to get something off the ground and you’re asking yourself, I have a problem that I want to solve. I understand and have empathy for a specific customer set, but I may not have the necessary skills to make this a reality or if I were to try, it would be a sub-optimal experience because I am not an engineer, I’m not a product designer, and I think it’s hard to believe that anyone wants to start a company as a solo founder.
Starting a company is a scary experience. It’s a leap into the unknown. It always feels better to do it with somebody at your side, but oftentimes, for one reason or another, you do end up being alone at various stages in the early company building journey.
I think for me there’s two paths that every founder or founding team can take, they can choose philosophically to build everything themselves and do what it takes to, learn new skills. And like the example here would be, I would design the product using pen and paper, even though I’m not a product designer or they can philosophically decide I’m going to identify what I’m good at.
I’m going to spend time doing what I’m good at on behalf of the company. Because I believe that if I can leverage my super power for the company, that’s going to be best for the company. And I’m really going to take a lot of time and effort to build a team around the things that I don’t have as much strengths and capabilities in.
I was philosophically very much in the latter camp and I think one of the first things that I did after we closed our C round was I set out to find the right co-founders on and I decided early on that the first co-founder I needed was in product design. I think this isn’t obvious, but with our product, Common Room, which is a new customer journey platform for community in order to enable companies to build and nurture and engage their thriving communities of end users, it was very important that we had not only at delightful product experience, but one that required a rich set of workflows and interactions and a highly social kind of way to represent community because community is all about people, content, and communication. And so with that in mind I set out to find my design co-founder, which it took months, and it took a lot of work and it took networking and pounding the pavement and cold outreaches and having lots of conversations that went nowhere.
But when I found Francis who is my Design, Co-Founder it almost was like an instant fit in terms of our working styles, the thought partnership that we had and his experience and background having been at Facebook for over a decade recently, leading design for groups and communities and also yeah, chill out there.
Shannon: That’s amazing. Like when the first time, the most recent time I spoke with you about your team and I had seen how much progress you made. The first question I had was so you’ve got three co-founders at this point, you’ve got Francis, who’s your designer co-founder, you’ve got Viraj Mody, who’s your Engineering Leader and Tom Kleinpeter, he’s also Engineering. And so you’ve got like a very, like an all-star team with incredible pedigrees. And if I remember correctly, you did not know any of these folks until you reached out to them? All three of them, if I remember correctly, were cold calls, can you talk about, let’s start with Francis. How did you know what you were looking for so that when you met him, you knew he was it? And then how did you do it? How did you go about it? Like literally, like how many emails?
Linda: I think that I knew I wanted to work with somebody who had a, like an intuitive understanding of community. That was the thing that I felt was the irreplicable or incredibly special quality that, like you could go one of two ways with product design for Common Room. You could think about it okay, we’re building an enterprise SAS product and platform that is meant to cater to companies and organizations.
And so I’m going to, bias towards finding someone with that type of background, or you could say, because we’re building a community platform that is meant to enable other organizations and enterprises to better engage and nurture their communities. I’m going to be biased towards, someone who understands community.
And so for me, it was a no brainer in that. I believe that there are many people who understand the B2B SAS motion, but there are very few who have a deep empathy and appreciation for community, which is an incredibly amorphous and highly fuzzy word, but it combines things like social communication, content consumption, content exploration this concept of knowing who people are, hearing what people say enabling everybody to feel supported and heard and connected.
And that, that to me was like a special skillset that was really hard to find. And so I tried to find people that, might have that. And it was really hard. I don’t think I found really anybody except for when I met Francis. So the process by which, I was able to team up with Francis was I messaged him on LinkedIn in a cold outreach message and he didn’t respond. And I continued to make progress on my own. And a couple of months later, circling back, I messaged him again and I said, “Hey I messaged you a couple months ago. I’m reaching out again, would really love to chat more about this if you’re interested”. And to his credit, he just had his first child, Ben with his wife, Lisa. And so it wasn’t that he was ignoring me, he was just doing a much more important thing of being a father.
But he eventually did pick up my call. We went and grabbed coffee, I think, the week before the pandemic happened. So I did get to meet Francis in person, which I think, we just started jamming and the thought partnership was super natural. And he instantly got what we were trying to do, and it just worked out and it was always very frictionless, and I think we align on values.
We talked about what it meant to build the business, all the downside and upside scenarios. And that’s one of the things that I always value with all of my co-founders of frankly, our entire team is that we can speak very transparently about all the things, and I think that level of trust is just super important.
Shannon: I’m really curious to understand the experience that Francis Luu had, not only being recruited by Linda, but some of the reasons that he found this opportunity so compelling. Francis is the Co-Founder and Designer at Common Room and he was the first person that joined the team.
Francis, welcome to our podcast. How are you?
Francis Luu: I’m doing well. How are you?
Shannon: I’m Great. I really wanted to ask you about your recruitment journey coming to common room. It’s actually pretty unusual. And what I’d love to do is ask you about your first interaction with Linda, that, this story goes both you and Viraj have the same story. She reached out to you and initially I think you, you did not speak with her, but at some point you finally, somehow she converted you into a conversation, a coffee chat, and then, and then the rest is history. So I’m curious, what changed your mind to talk to her? And what were your first impressions once you finally did make that step?
Francis Luu: Yeah, absolutely. And just to, as a bit of context I think this will definitely shed some light on Linda’s claim of basically us ghosting her. So yeah, let’s take it back a little bit. So June of 2019 my wife and I actually had our first kid and I promptly went on parental leave and around that time, I’d already then wondering if I was ready to take the next step. So I wanted to really, in a way, live that, and I think the parental leave and the very gracious benefits allowed me to really just live that without making a big leap or guessing.
So I did the stay at home dad thing for a bit ended up actually officially leaving Facebook in November and then, just continued on and I’m like, this is great. This feels like a next, a good sort of way to evaluate next steps for myself. And yeah, it was having a good time learning how to be a dad and. Understanding that it definitely isn’t a break at all. It’s a ton of work and a ton of different work. I’m just so grateful for my parents. I unfortunately have to go through it myself in order to learn these sorts of things, but better late than never.
So I think it was around February that’s I just randomly decided to log back into LinkedIn. I haven’t really checked in on anyone, when it came when it came to work and I saw it obviously a million messages I think people had seen that I’d left and we’re curious to reach out and everything. And right near the top of the inbox list was someone named Linda that had reached out and that hadn’t just reached out, this was her second time reaching out. And I actually completely missed her first message.
That was, I think back in November, December, she had mentioned that she was going to be leaving AWS, had an idea and really wanted to get some of my thoughts around it, given that the last two or three years for me at Facebook was actually working on the grips of Kennedy’s product. And I’m like, “Oh My God, I’m so sorry. I totally ignored your first message. I wasn’t aware of it. My deepest apologies”.
What was actually funny is that you can tell there’s a difference between message number one and message number two. Message number one was like, I think I’m going to leave. I have this idea. And then the most recent message right around the February timeframe was like, I started a company. I’d love your feedback on what we’re working on right now. So there was clearly this sense of progression and I’m like, oh, okay. If she just wants some feedback and some ideas more than happy to help out, I guess it’d be nice to use my brain again for a little bit and not just be completely to a completely in the dad thing, even though that was, that’s been a lot of fun up to that point.
So yeah, I, I reached out, reached back out, apologized profusely and we figured out a time and a place to meet, and it really was as simple as that. And then we saw each other in person and shared a coffee for about, I think it was a good hour and a half, two hours that first time.
Shannon: Francis it’s interesting. Linda used the ‘I’d love your feedback’ tactic. So tell me about that tactic versus maybe another tactic she could have used, which is, I want to recruit you. Would you have responded differently?
Francis Luu: I think so, especially at that point, I had been tinkering around with the idea of perhaps going back to work, but I wasn’t ready because I was really enjoying just staying at home, being with the kid. And I think the barrier to entry, hearing something like, oh, ‘just wanted to get your thoughts on something I’m working on’, I think made it quite a bit easier to say yes. Yeah, of course, ideas and feedback can be a very casual thing. When it comes to recruiting, that could be a bit more of a commitment even just saying yes to a conversation.
Shannon: The interesting thing here is every solo or, co-founding team that I’ve ever talked to says in some way, shape or form, we want to go hire the best XYZ out of you name any, big company, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Convoy and in through more local companies. And, but you did it. And it’s, I always discouraged okay, listen, it’s not about the pedigree. It’s not about the fact that they work at Facebook, that’s a safety net. It’s almost a lazy way of specking out the wall saying if they’re good enough for Google, they’re good enough for me. You have a napkin with an idea on it and a little bit change in your pocket, not to underplay that, but, what, how did you do this? What is your secret?
Linda: Yes. So, when we teamed up with Viraj, he was still at his last role. And I think with anybody that you’re trying to, attract, whether they’re, a new father or they’re in a really busy job as the technical advisor to the CEO during a pandemic. It’s all about building that relationship, aligning on values and if they’re, that person’s not ready to take the leap, then showing them continued progress over time.
So, with Viraj I reached out to him, he might have not responded, but I did reach out again and he picked up the call and we talked about the idea, and he felt like it was really interesting. I knew that he would potentially find it interesting because, he had experience as the co-founder of a startup which was built around the music community. So I knew that this was a topic that he had thought about before and had lived. And I think instantly when we were chatting about Common Room, what I recognized was that, like Francis he had an intuitive and deep and instant connection to the problem that we were solving.
Not only had he built, Audiogalaxy with Tom Kleinpeter, who is now my other Engineering Co-Founder in the kind of music community space, but like specifically Viraj and Tom had also lived the journey at Dropbox of product led growth and what a user communities could mean for a company a modern SAS company. And so again, it was where, Viraj was really interested in the idea. We had amazing thought partnership. He was bringing new ideas that I hadn’t thought of to the table and when you recognize that kind of energy in a conversation, it sticks with you because you’re pounding the pavement, as you mentioned with just a little change in your pocket and you meet a lot of people and have a lot of conversations where that energy isn’t there.
And so if you feel that spark that’s worth fighting for. And so Viraj, Francis and I were chugging along and we were making a lot of progress on our own with respect to customer discovery and really honing in on the problem. And just talking to a lot of potential customers, many of whom we’re partnering with still today. And I think with Viraj, it was just going back to him, a couple months later and saying, hey, we’d love to catch up and share our learnings because we’ve learned a lot. And I think, with a rush, I think he was positively surprised by just how much progress we made.
And it’s always that it’s the concept of hey, come on board because this bus is leaving the station and we’re going to continue to drive this forward so you can’t ever have the mindset that you need anybody or anything to move forward and continue to build. You just have to keep going. And the right people will usually end up coming along, even if you have to play the long game and we still play the long game today, right? Like we’re always playing the long game, whether it’s with team building or earning the trust of our customers.
Shannon: You hit on something earlier that I really wanted to dig in on just for a moment. The idea that I know that Viraj, in looking at his profile on paper, I know he looked like he might have some of the same interests that you’d have in community. And that’s why he just, a little plug for Madrona, I went into the things that we do for our founders and try to help you with recruiting. And so we gave you a short list of people that we thought might look a little bit like what you had described as the kind of people that could help you build this thing. So his name showed up on that list, but that’s, identifying what somebody might be interested in.
It’s different than really discovering the truth of that. And I always think of everybody, including everybody here, listening. Everybody has a career problem all the time. And the career problem is that delta between where you are right now and where you want to be like current state versus future state. And we’re always growing and we’re always trying to get to that future state. So there’s always a problem we’re trying to overcome where whatever we’re working on, we want to learn something and then move onto the next thing.
And so all of these things lining up is almost a little bit like you think of it as magic, but it’s not, you’ve got, Viraj and you’ve got Tom and other than that they both know how to solve or a lot have thought a lot about how to solve these community problems. It’s, there had to be some other things that they were hoping would be present in working with you at Common Room, that wasn’t happening for them in their current role. How did you discover that? How did that conversation happen, in real time, when you were getting to know each other?
Linda: That one’s tough. I don’t know Shannon, if I have the same, like jujitsu as you it was probably yeah, it was probably unconscious on my part. Like maybe I was listening for the desire to build or the desire to start a company or the excitement around the actual work that company building is, which is team building and customers and I don’t know that’s, when you’ll definitely have to ask them.
Shannon: So Viraj thank you so much for joining me. I’m excited to talk to you about this topic. We talked about it in the past, but without the recording button on. So I really wanted to get your story. I had a chance to speak with Linda about her impression of the, the recruitment process with you. Tell me about your first interaction with Linda of course, the story goes that she reached out to you, maybe you weren’t necessarily responsive and so I’d love to hear what changed your mind about talking with her and, what were those first conversations and what were your impressions?
Viraj: Yeah, for sure. She emailed me just before the world locked down. And when I first got the email, it was definitely interesting but also one of many that I usually receive. And so I was like, hey, I’m just gonna ignore this for a bit, but I did respond to her saying, hey, this sounds pretty cool, I’d love to get to know you, but also like it’s unlikely that I’m going to do anything now. And it took us a while to get it scheduled. I was dragging my feet because honestly there was no urgency on my end to do this, but also the COVID rumors had started and people were starting to see the world going to lockdown. So like work had gotten really busy, too.
It took maybe 20, 25 days since she emailed me to actually get on a call with her. I really enjoyed that conversation. I could tell pretty quickly that, she knew what she was doing. If you know, if you know, Linda, you know, all her strengths, you can pick up pretty quickly. And so I left the conversation feeling pretty impressed by Linda, but also I was like, Hey, look, this is too early. I am really not thinking about doing a startup thing just yet, because I got a day job and it gets pretty busy. So I filed it away as something that was more interesting than the average email I get which I mostly don’t even respond to. And then just, things went to 11 at work. The world’s shut down for real.
The company I was at, obviously like every other company during the time, we were trying to figure out how to cope with everything because everything was up in the air and unknown. So things got really busy. I basically ignored reaching back out to her. I would have been busy, but then a couple of months in, she emailed me with a pretty solid update on what she’s been up to. Some of the things she’s learned about the community space, some of the customers she’s been talking to. And that was the first time, and I was like, okay, look, I probably want to take this call and reconnect with her because clearly she’s going to get this done and it lined up in some ways with what I was excited about. So it wasn’t like a complete, Bitcoin or AR VR thing that may have been interesting in its own , but I had no interest into like this was definitely something I had interest and experience with. And so the, hey, look, it’s worth getting in touch with her again and then the ball started to roll pretty quickly after that.
Shannon: That’s really interesting Viraj, Linda told me the same thing. She said she, her secret sauce here was really persistence, but not an empty persistence. It was one of providing something to you in the terms of an update. How does a founder get the attention and I’m not trying to be too flattering, but you’re a force, you have a, you are an accomplished highly pedigreed guy and you’re no lightweight. And Linda is no, she’s wonderful, but she’s no more special than every other, brilliant founder. What was the transition for you from ignoring her emails to, I gotta get in on this?
Viraj: I think for me, particularly the timing lined up with what I had wanted to do eventually anyways, so I’m pretty entrepreneurial. It was mostly a question of when not if I was going to do my own next thing or, join like a really early-stage company of some sort. So, I had clearly been like in the headspace of wanting to go back into entrepreneurship and then meeting with Linda and keeping up to date with what’s going on with her helped me see that, okay, this is a person who’s similarly motivated and who’s similarly diligent.
I would do what she did. Like just because somebody says no one to blows you off once doesn’t mean they’re not interested, doesn’t mean you walk away. So I saw a lot of what I would do in what she was doing, but also very complimentary, I come from a product and engineering background, her background is very different than mine. And so the thing that connected the dots for me was, hey, look, I am in this head space where I know I want to do this eventually. And in fact, until recently I was talking to Tom, who I was almost certain I want to do something with again, and from a space perspective, from a business opportunity perspective this stuff seems pretty legit, she was able to describe what she was doing, talk precisely about the progress she had made versus, I get emails from people that are either just like name dropping, like nobody’s business or using 300 words and I still don’t know what they were trying to tell me.
Linda’s like that, it’s very precise. So yeah, it just. It was the right thing to get me to start talking to her. And then obviously once you start talking to somebody and get to know them, then the equation is completely different than now.
Shannon: Yeah. That’s great. That’s perfect. So you referenced Tom Kleinpeter, and he is, was actually your co-founder at your previous company that you did together, which was Audiogalaxy. And it’s interesting because I want to move onto another topic, but I want to ask you, did you come together? Was it a condition of you coming that Tom would come with?
Viraj: It was not a condition of any sort. It was one of those where if you can get Tom and me together, you’d be a fool to pass on that opportunity, no matter who you are. This is like plainly speaking. Both of us have very different strands. Both of us complement each other really well and you increase your odds of success exponentially by having the, both of us on the team. And from my perspective, obviously I wanted to work with Tom again.
And if I was going to do this with Linda, I would want Tom to be on that team. Cause why not? A team is successful because of the various skills that people bring to the table and the complementary skills they bring to the table, it was a no-brainer from my perspective, I remember talking to Linda instead of breaking out of character for a second, hey, I’m just going to objectively tell you that if you could get the, both of us, you’d be a fool to pass on this really is the right thing to do. And to her credit, like she got it, we chatted about it and she had some questions about how we’d work. Cause it’s scary, if, bringing in one co-founder’s scary and bringing it in two at a time is even scarier. So I could totally see her perspective, but it was such a great conversation, walking her through my thought process, having her get to meet Tom, get to know him. I think it all worked out at fabulously.
Shannon: That’s awesome. It worked out great so far, so good. And it’s interesting because Linda recruited you out of Convoy, she recruited Tom out of Dropbox. Both of you have worked in enterprise as well as startup situations. What’s the difference, like how would you compare and contrast for somebody for first time co-founder coming out of a Microsoft, maybe not having done a startup before?
Viraj: The thing that’s common is you need to know how to build. At a Microsoft, you probably can’t get by and get too successful without actually being able to deliver. And that’s the same thing with a startup. You have to ultimately deliver. Talk takes you on so far, even at Microsoft, even at a startup. But other than that, I think it’s developing completely new muscle.
So it’s I’m probably, I could probably come up with an analogy, but I think the bottom line really is. You have to be willing to understand how the rules are different or how the needs are different and be able to adapt. And if you can get your head around that, I think the context and the experience you have working at large companies can be modified and reapplied to having really strong impact at small companies where almost certainly will not work is expecting that you would work the same way you did at a large company, and then expect to have success at a startup. I’m not saying it cannot happen, but I’d be surprised if it happens.
Shannon: So Viraj also, I want to just give you a plug. You are in the co-author of a book called Technical Recruiting and Hiring. Ozzie Osman is actually like the main writer and then you are one of the co-writers and this is published by Holloway. And it is a phenomenal book. It is my Bible. I send it to every founder that we invest in and I use it as our textbook, as we walk through various things that they’re learning and you wrote the campus and university recruiting piece of it, but I know you have expertise all along the way.
So I just wanted to say I think you really know, how to put your money where your mouth is when it comes to this topic. And so finally, I want to ask you about the future of Common Room and you guys are a little over a year into it. You’ve just come out of stealth mode. You raised your B round. What keeps you coming to work every day? And what are you most excited about in terms of the mission itself?
Viraj: When I was a kid, I used to love Cadbury chocolates. They were pretty big in India. And I was so passionate about it, that I sent a letter to the MD of Cadbury, asking them to invent. It was something with sprinkles and cashews and something. I don’t know the details, but I know I distinctly remember writing to them. And what was the most amazing part of this as I got a response back from them and they invited me to their factory and I toured it and it was. It was just so phenomenal. Even today, when I walk into a store, I will instinctively just pick up a Cadbury bar. I don’t like the American version as much as I like the British or the Indian version, but still that won’t stop me from doing it.
And so that little act of kindness or customer relationship building that happened when I was a kid, left such an impression on me that I’m essentially, I feel like an extension of the company for no logical reason other than I got to visit the factory and I got a letter from somebody high up there. But if you step back and think about that motion they made a lifelong evangelist or champion for their chocolate bar through a tiny personal interaction.
How do we build software to scale this so that everybody can have their customers become an extension of their company? You call it community motion, you call it bottom-up motion, you call it product led growth, it doesn’t matter what you call it, the dynamic I cared about really is that look; treating our customers as like a revenue machine on a transactional interaction paradigm where it’s you have a problem, I haven’t answered and let’s not talk to each other ever again, like that just feels so old.
And so that’s the thing that I connect the dots with where I’m like, if I can do a little thing, everybody intellectually understands, having our customers be your champions is great. How do we actually make that happen? How do we teach the world? How do we build software? To make that happen there, wasn’t the kind of things that excite me. So from a mission perspective, obviously that’s what brings me to work every day. Part of it also is the team, when you have fun working on stuff with people, it doesn’t have to be easy. It doesn’t have to be hard. It just has to be fun.
With startups, a new curveball shows up every day, multiple times a day. That’s part of the fun for me . Look if I can deal with this with a group of people who are similarly motivated and passionate. That’s perfect. What else could I ask for?
Shannon: That’s great. We are really excited to watch you all on this journey. I have to tell you before we go, I do want to ask you, did they make the candy bar that you suggested?
Viraj: No, they did not. My ideas were not that great back then or now, but at least I had ideas.
Shannon: That’s right. I just wonder, because whenever anything with chocolate and nuts, it sounds great to me, so
Viraj: Yeah, no, pretty sure they had professionals making decisions for them, but
Shannon: Viraj, I’ll talk to you again in a year or so when you’re down the line and maybe interview some of the rock stars that you haven’t even recruited yet and find out how this is all going, but in the meantime, I wish you all the best of luck and thanks so much for your time today.
Linda, a couple of things that I heard here today is that, you were pretty relentless. First you identified that basically, the skills and the motivators that you needed to put on your team to either fill the gap and what you were missing or round up the team. Then you iterated on that by having conversations with people and you were not just having conversations, but you were always in recruiting mode and earlier you refer to this thing called the ‘slow poach’. And I think that’s interesting because it’s, you don’t just go into recruiting mode for when you need somebody. You always need to be recruiting. And so when did I, when I wanted to ask is if you could give our listeners, two or three or four things that you consider to be your tenants or your operating principles, as you continue to move your company forward, as you probably have 20 people that you are sending emails to and pulling along, I’d love to know like, how you think about this just in a summary?
Linda: Yeah, I think for me, it’s just about two things. Building a relationship based on transparency and trust, having plain direct conversations about what it means to join an early-stage startup and the day-to-day work, like I’m always biased towards transparency. I don’t oversell anything. In fact, I undersell things. And the, secondly, if they’re not ready to leave, then continually keeping them updated on our progress. And demonstrating that rapid clip of, that acceleration of progress day after day, week after week, month after month. And hoping that at some point, those stars will align and we’re always, you know whether or not we’re a good fit for a good person today. We’re always going to be a place that welcomes great people at any stage. And so that’s what I bias towards.
Shannon: And thanks so much for sharing your story today.
Linda: Thank you so much, Shannon.
Shannon: You’re welcome.
It’s so interesting to talk to Linda Lian about her experience, recruiting Francis Luu, Viraj Mody, and Tom as well. And it’s interesting that the stories actually match up quite well, but one of the things that Linda wasn’t able to give insight to is what were the things that compelled each of these people to join her team?
And she, I think she knows instinctively, but like any great founder, any great recruiter. They may know it inside, but they haven’t really bubbled it to the surface. And one of the things I noticed was a real contrast in the reasons that Viraj and Francis joined Common Room. Viraj is really motivated by making great software and creating amazing customer experience. And he told this story about Cadbury as that’s the kind of product and kind of loyalty that he wants to build and doing that through great software is his mechanism for building that. And that’s a very compelling mission and it’s just as valid for what Common Room is doing.
Francis’ motivation, which is much more about his passion around community and building communities and groups, and some of the work that he’d done at Facebook and the markers for his motivations are really easy to see on his resume or his LinkedIn profile that he’s all about creating community with the software. Just working at Facebook is the tell. And when you look at Viraj, you can see the same mark different markers that actually indicate that his motivations are all about building great software building great teams.
So, in retrospect, after having this conversation, I can see very clearly that those two areas of motivation, the problems that they were trying to solve, I guess, in their career, like, what do you want to do next? What are you running toward? They each described them differently, but those are both compelling and interesting for them at Common Room and that’s what makes a great two-way fit.
So, for those founders out there listening to this, or for those folks thinking about becoming a co-founder with someone like Linda, the path that you get there, isn’t going to be straight, but it’s all about finding that two way fit and working together to solve problems that you all care about in a way, and doing it in a way that aligns with your values and your interests.
Erika: Thanks for joining us for Founded and Funded. If you were thinking of starting a company, reach out, as you could tell from this podcast, we really work for our founders. We worked with Linda early on, helped her identify possible co-founders, and then funded her company. It doesn’t always work that way, but we are very invested in the success of the Seattle tech ecosystem and that means making a lot of connections possibly for you.
Reach out to Shannon@madrona.com or to firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more and thanks for listening and please share this podcast and like it on all the different platforms, thank you.