As Apple prepared to open its first retail store, Ron Johnson — the project’s chief architect — realized that the company was making a big mistake. The design was wrong, he told Steve Jobs, as they drove to the pre-launch meeting. The company was moving away from its focus on individual products toward becoming a holistic lifestyle spanning movies, music, and more — but the store didn’t reflect that shift. They needed to start over.
A few minutes later, Jobs was the one to announce that they’d be rethinking their approach to stores from scratch. It was largely on Johnson to make it happen — and what he delivered has fundamentally changed technology retail. Prior to Apple, he led Target’s successful rebrand. Since then, he failed to work the same magic for J.C. Penney. It’s safe to say, when it comes to retail, he’s seen it all.
As more startups like Birchbox, Bonobos and Warby Parker experiment with showrooms, retail best practices are evolving to embrace a hybrid model. In a recent talk at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Johnson explained how brick-and-mortar strategies can fit into the consumer tech economy, and shared tactics for startups to break the digital barrier.
For 15 years, Phil King has been proving that design should have a seat at the leadership table — carrying equal weight on strategy and prioritization responsibilities with product, business, and engineering executives. Moving up the ranks at eBay before taking the reins as Director of User Experience and Design at Flickr, he contends that successful businesses are built on well-designed customer experiences, and that the best design leaders never let go of their roots in order to produce the best results.
Having led one of the world’s largest photo enthusiast communities (with over 100 million members) through a massive and closely-watched redesign, King has a lot to say about leading a team to create products users will love. In this exclusive interview, he talks about how designers can become strong design leaders and make change at companies of all sizes.
From the moment Dan Shipper (on the left, above) stepped foot on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, he knew he wanted to learn how to build a real software business with paying customers and steady revenue. He passed with flying colors last month when he both graduated from school and sold his company Firefly (the first company backed by Dorm Room Fund) to Pegasystems for multiple millions.
Shipper’s success didn’t take anyone by surprise. Targeted early as a technology wunderkind, he was receiving multiple job offers by his sophomore year. He chose to stay in school, he says, because he wasn’t done learning. Now, having seen his first company through an exit, he has a degree and perspective on what makes a real difference for young companies and entrepreneurs.
In this exclusive First Round Review interview, Shipper shares the three tactics that moved the needle the most for him and Firefly, and how beginning founders can get a head start on success.
Knewton isn’t an easy product to explain. Analyzing hordes of data, it adjusts lesson plans for students in real time across subjects, determines how they learn, and suggests the best way to help them. It’s one of those technology experiences that takes on something huge and makes it effortless as if by magic.
For the last four years, Robbie Mitchell and his team have been inventing ways to describe an entirely new suite of education possibilities. As Knewton’s Head of Marketing and Communications, he has not only helped shape the company’s identity, but also the way it approaches marketing to get the most traction possible. Today, he runs the marketing team like an independent agency within the organization complete with its own engineers — a strategy he highly recommends for small teams that need to get a lot done fast. So far so good. Knewton has landed huge deals with titans of the education world like Pearson, Houghton Mifflin, and Microsoft.
In this exclusive interview, Mitchell explains how he devised the in-house agency model, how it's given the company an edge, and why other startups should consider doing the same.
Soleio Cuervo has been thinking about how to tailor technology to users for almost a decade. And he’s had a pretty unique vantage point. As one of the very first designers at Facebook (and reported creator of the famous "Like" button), he was instrumental in the creation of many of Facebook's early products and features. Now leading design at Dropbox, he spends his time thinking of new ways for products to understand our needs and wants in real time.
“Personalized streams are everywhere we look now: Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn,” says Cuervo. And that’s not even delving into the new movement toward predictive technologies like Google Now that serve up information before you even know you need it. But personalization doesn’t have to be the provenance of massive companies. Startups can take advantage of the same principles to build deeply engaging experiences.
After years of firsthand work and observation, Cuervo has seen four ingredients emerge that power personalized products. At First Round’s recent Design+Startup event in San Francisco, he explained each one and how newer and smaller companies can put them together to not only build great products but accelerate progress for everyone.
Reddit is considered one of the world’s leading news and social sites, with over 5.5 billion pages served to over 100 million unique visitors spanning 186 countries. It’s also known as one of the most engaged, vocal and opinionated communities on the web. It’s given birth to international movements. It’s found lost children. It’s sparked fiery debates in the media over what the internet should and shouldn’t be.
Given the sheer volume, you’d expect the community team to be huge, but it’s still in the single digits. You’d expect a sophisticated big data machine. What you’d find is a human approach that relies more on intuition than numbers. And yet, the millions of people who post, observe, and return day after day have enshrined it as a sacred part of their lives.
How can you make your company's community feel so connected? Heard? Engaged? In this exclusive First Round Review interview, Reddit’s General Manager and former Community Manager Erik Martin shatters assumptions and talks about how to win by making community management more about the heart than the mind.
Heidi Roizen is one of those names in Silicon Valley that everyone learns at some point. That’s what happens when you spend 14 years running your own company, then building developer relationships as a VP for Apple. Today, she’s an investor with DFJ Venture and teaches a class called the Spirit of Entrepreneurship at Stanford’s School of Engineering. Generally speaking, she’s someone who knows everyone (there’s even a Harvard Business School case about her) — and she’s wielded that influence gracefully.
Before graduation this year, she returned to Stanford (where she was also an undergraduate and business student), to speak at the Entrepreneurship Corner and share the lessons she has learned from over three decades of working and operating in tech. The result is a type of commencement speech for entrepreneurs, full of seldom shared gems based on her experiences.
Below are eight tenets Roizen has used to guide her career, create an expansive and lasting network, and shape new innovations. The beauty is that while they were delivered to an audience of people just starting out, they remain deeply relevant as a roadmap and important reminders for entrepreneurs at all stages.
Earlier this year, URX was a relatively unknown startup — a small team with a very technical product. That changed this spring when it announced a $12 million Series A and landed a series of glowing profiles from TechCrunch, The Wall Street Journal and others. Today, the company is quickly becoming synonymous with a new trend and term — deeplinking — the ability to link users to any page inside an app (vital as more people use their phones and tablets for everything they do).
Since then, the team has expanded to close to 20 employees, and is on the brink of a breakout growth. But what keeps CEO John Milinovich up at night? Making sure URX’s internal communications are designed to help it become a better company as it scales. The tech industry is littered with examples of communication breakdowns that stunted promising starts. Suddenly things got too big, people didn’t know what was going on, and products suffered. Milinovich is determined to dodge this bullet.
To fix things before they break, he’s been meeting with his backers and mentors — experienced entrepreneurs themselves — to figure out how to keep communication flowing. His contention: If people can focus on self-improvement, companies can too. And he’s deployed four strategies to make this happen at URX as it grows.
When you run a software recruiting company, you end up fielding a lot of questions from other founders who are just starting to hire. The number one question I get: How can I find a great recruiter?
This is a top priority for good reason. If you’re doing it right, hiring is one of your most time-consuming and energy-depleting tasks. That’s simply how you find the best people at the beginning. But when you hit hyper-growth, or your leadership needs to jam on the product, this isn’t always realistic. It’s easy to fall behind. A well-matched recruiter can not only catch you up, but help propel your startup through massive step changes.
The operative part there is “well-matched.” If you end up working with a recruiter who doesn’t get your company or your mission at a gut level, or who doesn’t have the full suite of skills they need, you can end up stalling out in your most important area for growth. It’s high-stakes. In my role at TalentBin, I’ve seen hundreds of recruiting relationships at companies of all stages. I’ve seen how it works with in-house recruiters, agencies, consultants and more. Here’s what you need to know.
Tobias van Schneider lives his life like one big side project. Today, he designs and builds new products for Spotify in New York, but he couldn’t have predicted that when he dropped out of school at age 15 to work as an apprentice in a computer shop in Austria. He couldn't have predicted that when he applied to graduate schools and design schools and was told repeatedly that he didn't have enough training or talent to build a career. He couldn't have predicted that even when he turned his side passion for visual and product design into a full-time job by opening up his own studio. He didn't know what to expect. But from that point on, side projects have marked his path like bread crumbs, leading him to where he is today.
As van Schneider was growing up, teaching himself new skills after work and on weekends, the idea of “side projects” became a foundational myth in the tech world. Products like Gmail, Craigslist, and even Post-Its can trace their roots back to work discovered and developed on the side. As a result, hackathons and other strategies have become standard practice at large companies and even startups to bottle this spirit and keep technical talent engaged.
This is great, van Schneider says, but not if it becomes a cliche. His argument: In order for side projects to truly succeed, they have to be stupid. Here’s what he means, and how it can help your company stay creative and competitive: