Three Characteristics of a Great Team

This is my second post stemming from a rich panel discussion on which I participated recently for Fern Mandelbaum’s class at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, “Entrepreneurship from the Perspective of Women.” As part of this panel, Professor Mandelbaum asked us to share with her class how we think about choosing a founding team, determining the equity split, and attracting and maintaining a great team. In my first post, I shared my four filters for choosing co-founders. In this post, I discuss my views on the three characteristics that team members must share in order to be a truly great team. These characteristics are:

  1. SMARTS. A lot of people think this means technical book-smarts, but I learned the hard way that it mean something else. The best kind of smarts for team members to have is the kind that helps them recognize what they’re good at versus where others would function better. Knowing when to delegate what and to whom ties into smarts, too. Smart also means making decisions based on limited information. People who have top-notch academic credentials may or may not possess these qualities that are necessary for entrepreneurs. I learned this lesson the hard way in one of my companies.
  2. INTEGRITY. If every single team member doesn’t have this in spades, it’s a show-stopper. Don’t even bother going further. Integrity is the starting point of any relationship. Your founding team will be sharing a bank account and a great deal of responsibility. You’d better feel these other people share your positive sense of ethics!
  3. GUTS. As a founder, you have to be fearless in business. There will be times when things are incredibly difficult and you want to run away. At Octane, an early CRM company where I was a co-founder and the SVP of Products, I was a single mom who had the guts to walk away from my previous stable job at Siebel Systems, leaving lots of equity on the table, in order to take a risk with a start-up. Your founding team needs to be made up of people who can go with their gut and who are not driven by fear of failure. Failure is always one of the possible outcomes. It is assured for those who don’t even try or, even worse, who get cold feet when the going gets tough — which it inevitably will at a start-up, even at those that become wildly successful. If you don’t have the stomach for it, don’t do it, or you will let your team down.

No matter what kind of company you launch, it is essential that the characteristics of your team are those which resonate with your personal and professional values. There is no way to learn smarts, integrity, and guts. These are things that your team members must have. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be on your team at all.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn on February 3, 2016.

Four Filters for Choosing Co-Founders

Recently, I participated in a panel discussion as part of Fern Mandelbaum’s class at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, “Entrepreneurship from the Perspective of Women.” The seminar showcases successful entrepreneurs and their professional and personal journeys. For the panel on which I spoke, discussion focused on teams, partnerships, and co-founders. My co-panelists included Jana Rich, an independent Independent executive recruiter / team builder for startups; Elizabeth Weil, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, formerly of Twitter; and James Nicholas, a restaurateur. All three shared valuable perspectives with an energetic roomful of business students eager to become entrepreneurs in their own right.

As part of this panel, Professor Mandelbaum asked us to share with her class how we think about choosing a founding team, determining the equity split, and attracting and maintaining a great team. In this post, I take on the question that always comes first for me: choosing a great founding team.

I’ve started several companies in my career, and I’ve always done it with partners. In general, it’s easier, more fun, and better to be in the trenches with others. Picking the right partners is key to making it a good experience and a successful company. How do you pick the right partner? That’s sort of like asking how to decide if someone is the right person to marry. You can date and date and date, yet sometimes surprises pop up when you start building a family together. It’s the same with building a company: you do your best to choose wisely, but nothing is guaranteed.

As I’ve chosen co-founders for the companies I’ve started, I’ve found four filters that can help. They are:

1. Shared backgrounds. Common threads like schools, industries, or prior companies automatically break down barriers. The importance of always keeping your network alive cannot be overstated. It’s best if your co-founders are people whom you know, like friends of friends. If you tap your close friends, you need to be aware  that friends may have no idea how each other behaves professionally. As well, friends sometimes have unreasonable expectations of each other, and this can get in the way of making tough decisions. Once you start working together, co-founders will form close working relationships and will enjoy spending free time together, like on weekends and ski trips. New friendships will be born within the boundaries of the experience you’re sharing and may or may not grow into long-established friendships.

My co-panelists also offered some excellent points with regard to choosing — or not choosing — those with shared backgrounds as co-founders or employees. Elizabeth said that she looks for people who have interesting outside interests and pursuits.  Fern noted that sometimes you have to look beyond your own background and network to make sure that you’ve accounted for diversity and inclusion in your company. And in James’ case, he looked very close to home for a founding partner; he co-founded his restaurant business with his wife, Anna. While James and Anna have clearly-defined roles and function well as a co-founding team and as husband and wife, from personal experience, I can say that’s not always the case. My takeaway from our panel discussion on co-founders’ backgrounds is that each situation will warrant unique and careful scrutiny, making sure that biases in all forms are checked along the way.

2. Clearly-defined roles. Not everyone can be CEO. Not everyone has the tech skills to run product. Roles and responsibilities need to be defined as part of your earliest discussions with your co-founders. You don’t want a founding team on which everyone wants to be CEO or in which everyone thinks they’re better at someone else’s job. As your co-founding team grows, you’ll work together to recruit other members, ones who can add to the conversation with expertise that complements your existing team and feels like a natural fit. Jana spoke of this growth as going far beyond recruiting and hiring; she prefers calling it “building leadership teams.”  As important as it to have clearly-defined roles, it is equally important to make sure that your team functions well as a whole.

3. A feeling of empowerment. Make sure that all team members have the autonomy and authority  to lead within their roles. It’s good to have robust discussions of strategy, but it’s unhelpful to have everyone second-guessing each other’s decisions on a daily basis. Selecting co-founders with complementary skillsets who are confident and competent at executing their own roles is imperative. Trusting each other’s abilities and believing that everyone has the best interests of the company at heart is an important part of empowerment.

4. Clear communication. You have to communicate a clear vision in order to attract co-founders and early employees. It’s essential to do this swiftly, succinctly and orally. You need a fundraising deck, but that’s not what’s going to make great people want to work with you. You’re selling yourself as a partner while also selling the vision for your company. Thus, your elevator pitch has to be conversational and convincing but not polished. Your ability to convey your big ideas clearly and with conviction is part of how you will attract talent to your company. In early days, every time you pitch your vision, you are testing yourself and learning from the feedback. People who you want to join you are not those who accept your vision without asking questions, and even challenging your vision, but, in the end, they have to totally buy in.

There are, of course, many other factors to consider when choosing a founding team for a company. These are big decisions, as you’re selecting people to whom you’ll feel like you’re married for years to come. Take time to make good decisions by using these filters, and, of course, listen to your gut.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn on January 29, 2016.

Imagining IoT in 2025

As a new year begins, it’s fun to think ahead. I enjoyed writing my predictions and resolutions for the year. Why stop there, though? I wonder: what will the tech landscape look like ten years from now? It’s clear to me that the tech story of the next ten years is going to be the story of the Internet of Things and its related pools of data.

The capacity of the IoT to connect our lives in increasingly “smart” ways is truly limitless. Right now, though, we are still managing our technology, programming our devices to our preferences. This will change over the next decade as our devices get smarter and require less input from us. Will these devices intuit what we need based on data gathered through the cloud? I believe so. I believe that our homes will grow smart enough that they’ll know to turn on lights as we approach or to adjust heat settings depending on the preferences of who’s in the house at a given time. Nest already offers a “learning thermostat” that comes aware of a family’s preferences. Next, systems like Nest will learn to adjust those preferences specific to the home’s occupancy at a given time.

All of these IoT features will be visible and controllable in real-time or for future programming on our mobile devices. Already, some kitchen appliances are coming on-board. My friend has an Instant Pot pressure cooker that connects to her wireless network through Bluetooth, allowing her to program and monitor what she’s cooking remotely through her smartphone or iPad. She monitors dinner while walking her dog!

Data that products like Nest and Instant Pot and thousands of other devices collect will breed developments in IoT that we haven’t even imagined yet. Data from devices like FitBit that count our steps and that also monitor our sleep, data from blood pressure cuffs that send readings to our doctors and to apps, and data from our babies’ changing pads all make up a profile of our wellness that will yield lives of more informed choices and conveniences. Imagine how physicians who manage our healthcare will have the ability to view more and more consistent data on many facets of our health: blood pressure, fitness, sleep, nutrition, and more. While some folks will worry about the “big brother” implications of such monitoring, I focus on how very many lives this could stand to save. The way the IoT stands to improve our healthcare possibilities and our general health and wellness is exciting to consider.

In addition to home management system data and healthcare data, it’s easy to conceive that our cars’ systems will be able to interact with our mobile lives as well, reporting everything from fuel statistics to maintenance needs to us, to our mechanics, and to manufacturers seeking to improve with each iteration. With increased movement toward electric cars with their related charging needs for their batteries, statistics will need to be known in real-time. Improvements in all facets of this technology, from batteries to their charging stations to the communication of this data, are advancing rapidly. With Tesla’s forthcoming “Powerwall” battery for homes, this kind of technology and related monitoring already is leaping from our cars to our homes and offices.

There are many more examples of the IoT’s dramatic increase in possibility and scale. For example, with cable companies and entertainment providers like Netflix now integrating seamlessly to our mobile devices as well, and since books have been available for download for quite a long time already, a lot of the work ahead in improving the IoT will be focused on making these devices less breakable, lighter, more portable, and more ubiquitous. Will we still be carrying phones, tablets, and laptops ten years from now? I doubt it. Enhanced integration of these devices is in our future.

It’s hard to imagine where I’ll be in ten years. Wherever any of us are, though, we’ll be relying increasingly on devices that are among the Internet of Things. As an executive in charge of innovation for my company, I can’t wait to welcome these exciting changes that lie ahead.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn on January 21, 2016.

Collaboration is the New Communication

My role as EVP of Innovation for RingCentral excites me because I get to imagine what’s next in the technology landscape. Over the past year, we envisioned an exciting new reality in workplace collaboration. We saw that collaboration is essential to unifying all of your  communication streams. Whereas once your phone calls, emails, texts and documents were all separate work streams, now they are combined in one workspace. RingCentral is on the forefront of this movement with our acquisition of Glip. This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reimagining communications as increasingly centered around enhanced collaboration.

As I wrote about recently on Real Time Communications, products like Glip or Slack improve workplace efficiency by extending the reach of telecom technology. The way we communicate continues to evolve at lightning speed. Decades ago, we couldn’t have imagined e-mail; nowadays, who can remember a time before text? Having team chat embedded into our everyday workspace is important and a nod toward enhanced need for real-time, quick, text-type conversation as a complement to e-mail’s more lengthy formality.

Collaboration technology is much more than adding team chat components to our communication suites, though. To have one portal through which documents, calendars, task lists, and all communications can be filtered is a dream come true. Now, rather than sorting countless e-mails into files or taking one-off phone calls with “just one quick question” (which we all know is never the case), projects can be grouped and entire streams of communications about them contained in a single, searchable, manageable thread. As someone who has to oversee lots of different moving parts, this is ideal and spares me from being flooded with bits and pieces of every project in a disorganized fashion throughout the day. I don’t have to do any thinking about where tasklist items should go or about where to look for a deliverable; it’s already where it belongs. Enhancing the organization of our communications so seamlessly and effortlessly through collaboration tools like Glip improves our efficiency remarkably.

What I like best about reimagining communications as enhanced collaboration is how it flows so much better, leading me to believe that these tools will improve our work-life in ways that we haven’t yet conceived. Who hasn’t felt inundated with to-do lists largely populated with the need to update people on the status of various tasks? Collaboration as part of unified communications doesn’t do that for you entirely, but it helps to ensure that things don’t fall through the cracks. For example, everyone can check task lists in one place. It is also easy to update whole teams at once and to update them in a way that, if subsequent team members are added, can be reviewed readily without the need for recreating histories of a project to bring someone up to speed. Learning lessons of past work for future projects is becoming a lot easier with this kind of information synthesis.

As far as #BigIdeas2016 go, imagining collaboration as the future of communications is my contribution. I look forward to sharing with you as the year passes how Glip adds to RingCentral’s communications suite as well as how it continues to improve my own efficiency and flexibility at work in unexpected ways.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn as part of the #BigIdeas2016 series in which professionals predicted the ideas and trends that will shape 2016.

5 Resolutions to Restore Body & Soul in 2016

 

When I consider resolutions for a new year, I first reflect on the past year. This helps me to sketch out what to prioritize in the year ahead. Based on a challenging past year, as I look ahead to 2016, a lot of my resolutions are personal. For example, having lost my father last summer, it is a high priority for me to organize my memories well in the coming year. My family has lots of printed photos that I’d like to digitize, and I also plan to organize photo albums. This is a huge undertaking and one that is difficult to complete because it’s so time-consuming. It’s also pretty wonderful, though. Going through these photos is going down Memory Lane, and it give me special opportunities to stop and remember important things. It’s especially fun to reflect with my family when we can do this together.

In addition to organizing my memories, I’ll also be re-organizing my home office and closet space this coming year. I’m no hoarder, but I’ve come to recognize that I have a lot of things in my way that I put in my office thinking that I’d use but haven’t. Perhaps someone else can put these items to better use, so I plan to donate as much as I can. Less clutter occupying important work space and getting in the way of things I really need to access will make working in my home office more enjoyable.

Like many people, I also have some health goals for 2016. In RingCentral’s new office space, we have a great cafeteria, and we also have an amazing supply of snacks. I aim to snack less in the office. Just because there are treats around doesn’t mean I have to eat them! I really have to learn to avoid snacks when I’m stressed, especially. Maybe I’ll have an apple instead!

In the New Year, I also seek to multi-task less. We’ve become too accustomed to doing multiple things at the same time, and we all suffer for it. We think that we can read email while we talk on the phone, peek at texts while in conversation with others, or check our Facebook or LinkedIn feeds while in a meeting — but when we do these things, one of the tasks at hand is getting less of our attention, and none of them are getting enough of it. To bring my best self to each interaction and give each task the attention that it’s due is an important goal for me in 2016.

Lastly, I always like to set a learning goal for myself in a new year. This year, I have decided to learn a new skill, but I’m still deciding on the particulars. I look forward to broadening my horizons through learning new things this new year and every year.

In sum, being more organized, healthy, and focused as well as learning a new skill are my New Year’s Resolutions for 2016. Perhaps we can check in mid-year to see how these things are going! If you set resolutions like I do, I’d love to hear both what they are and how you manage to stay atop them so that you meet these goals as the year progresses.

All my best wishes for a happy 2016! – Kira

This Week on Real Time Communications: The Future of Collaboration

 

This week on Real Time Communications, I wrote an article on the future of collaboration. The collaboration software sector is heating up as the universe of unified communications and collaborations (UCC) products expands. Just as the way we work has morphed because of the internet, so, too, has unified communications evolved. For example, augmenting telephony with chat software makes for more efficient communication, and that can make a tremendous difference in the way we do business at today’s lightning speed.

The way we work always will be growing and changing, and the future of collaboration software will become yet more feature-rich in support of that. For more of my thoughts on the future of collaboration, please click here to read my article.

My Experience as a Refugee in America

 

With today’s news reports of violence, terror, and refugee crises, it feels more important than ever this holiday seaseon to take a moment as Americans and consider the freedom we have to live good lives. While I’ve written before about my immigration, like my tale of my first American summer camp experience, I haven’t addressed what it was like for my family of refugees to land in America. This is that story.

When my family left Odessa, Ukraine in the late-1970s, we emigrated because of discrimination against and persecution of Jews like us. We were unable to practice our religion, or any religion, in the Soviet Union. Part of what drove us to America was freedom of religion. Also, in general, my parents wanted a chance at a better life.

We arrived in the United States with family already here, including my mother’s brother (my uncle) and my mother’s parents (my grandparents), so we weren’t entirely alone. Family helped where it could, and, when we were in greater need, Jewish Family & Children’s Services stepped in to help, like by sending me to Camp Tawonga. This was the experience of many Russian Jews who were refugees in America: private service agencies helped a lot, much more so than the government. It was very rare to find any of us reliant on governmental help.

My parents found success here in America. In Russia, my father was an engineer who designed toys, while my mother taught Russian language and literature and worked as a librarian. Here in the U.S., my father retrained as an electrical engineer and worked for a hardware manufacturing company, and my mother became an accountant working in personnel for Seagrams. They both felt lucky that, in this country, being a refugee wasn’t a barrier to success. They had opportunity. In fact, in my community, it seemed like the success rate was really high; our parents, and then me and my peers, had an intense drive to succeed in our new country.

As a child, I watched my parents work hard to establish our new lives here just as I worked hard to figure out how to fit into this new culture and place. It felt like drinking from a fire hose every day! Even though my family wasn’t particularly disadvantaged in Russia, we had still come from a poor country. In America, we were surrounded by excess in a way that we couldn’t have dreamed. So many things were mind-boggling, like the abundance of food at the supermarkets, and all of the things for sale all over the place. We had so many struggles to fit into the culture at all, to learn the ways of America, plus a language barrier. Without mastery of the English language, especially, we were truly handicapped at first.

Here, for a long time, I was afraid to raise my hand in class because I was afraid of how my words would come out. But I soon realized that the U.S. had true diversity. It felt like nobody was born here and that there were immigrants from everywhere, especially in the Jewish community, where it feels like we were all only one or two generations away from somebody’s parents or grandparents being fresh off of the boat. In Odessa, people rarely moved from place to place, but here, people are more mobile, even among cultures. We had a saying in Russia that you were born speaking Russian and you died speaking Russian, but here, it felt like you could be born in one culture and become another. It was okay to be different in the U.S., but not in Odessa, where conformity was the norm. It took a while for me to realize that the reason they call the U.S. a “melting pot” is that you can be anyone here, that it doesn’t matter if you are born into money or not, or if your parents do or do not have connections. In Russia, you had to have your parents’ connections to succeed at all. Here, networking helps with business success, but it’s rarely, if at all, family-driven.

And of course, part of the reason we came – freedom to practice our Jewish religion – became part of our lives and joy. This is where I want to end my story, because, on today’s news, the perception is that religion is polarizing and devastating nations. That this is untrue in the United States is is one of the things for which I am most thankful. My family did not have religious freedom at all in the Soviet Union. As polarizing as religion can seem here at times, let us never lose sight that we have the freedom to practice our faith, whatever it is, as well as the opportunity to create new, successful lives. There is no doubt that my family’s lives are far better than they would have been had we stayed in the Ukraine. This holiday season and always, I am grateful that my family had that opportunity.

Postscript: There are important distinctions between my family’s experience as refugees and that of today’s Syrians. My family experienced no violence or anything close to what Syrians are experiencing in their Civil War. The experience of today’s Syrians is a lot more like Jews’ experience in World War II. It is a humanitarian crisis. That was not my experience. I don’t write this piece in an attempt to speak for all refugees, or even to enter a political dialogue, as sensitive as I am to the plight of refugees. I write this piece to put a human face on one story, one experience – my own – in a time when we are considering what it means to be a refugee in America.

* In memory of my father, Roman Makagon, who passed away on August 23, 2015 *