After I took up the offer, the immediate next step was to have a handover with the current CEO.
We came together 4 times to go over all the details of the company, from its history, to the shareholding structure, to the strategies so far, and all administrative things.
What I appreciated most was that he was gracious about the transition. We all understood that it was only a business decision for the good of the company and nothing personal. He had brought the company to where it was and that was a huge milestone.
At this point, my job was to absorb as much information as I could in the shortest period of time. I was fighting with time because there would be a lot of decisions awaiting once I stepped back into the office in 2 weeks.
The weirdest of all? 4 weeks ago, I was in the same office, and the former CEO announced that I would be leaving the company after just a short 6 weeks. And now I’d be going back. I could not see myself in such a dramatic scene.
The colleagues weren’t exactly shocked to hear my departure back then, as later they told me there was an early discussion among the team about how long I could “hold up” in such a mess. They had the answer now, it was 6 weeks.
The first day I was back in the office, I came in early because I wanted to see the team coming in one by one to greet them.
It was honestly awkward. I disappeared one day, and now I was back as the new CEO.
I did my part to say hi and chit-chat with each of them. I also set up a little presentation as a kick off to this new era.
I addressed a few things, mainly around the decision to return, what it meant to me, and what they could expect in the next few weeks.
It didn’t go too badly. I knew that even though deep down many of them were surprised to see such a big change, they were also excited about the possibilities.
And so I told them my plan --- I couldn’t make quick decisions right away. I needed time to speak to every colleague and every paid customer to understand where we were as a business.
And of course, a lot had happened in the 4 weeks since my departure, so I had to catch up.
I would soon be making some important key decisions, including what direction we’d be heading down and what my plan was going to be with the team.
I was sure that everyone was sweating. No one wanted to be let go.
We didn’t have a lot of paid customers at that point, I vaguely remembered it was 7 or 8 in total, which was alarming for a team of 20 people.
I sent them emails, saying that I would love to visit them and chat. I introduced myself as the new CEO.
Honestly, before I even visited them, I knew that they were what the startup world called “bad customers”.
Generally, how do you know when you have bad customers? When…
I didn’t want to be biased, but I actually knew what I wanted to do. But to be polite and professional, I still met up with them to build relationships and hear them out. This way later when I fired them, it would be easier and rational.
The outcome of those conversations was exactly how I predicted. I saw no chance of success with these initial customers. They were the wrong ones for startups and SaaS companies. They were never the “early adopters”, this type of customer would consume all your resources while helping you very little in building a product.
On the contrary, we could serve this type of customers, but then we would be better off being in the agency business and charging them premium. We wouldn’t be a SaaS startup.
While I was meeting our customers throughout the week, I also set up 1-1 chats with every colleague from Product, to Engineering, to Sales, to Marketing, to Operations.
Heck… that was a lot of people. I think at that point we had around 17 colleagues. A few had already been terminated before my return, and a few voluntarily resigned.
I had 2 objectives for the chats: 1) to understand more about every perspective of the company and 2) to figure out whether this person is worth keeping on the team.
I scheduled 45-min blocks with each of them and asked them to come meet me in a meeting room one by one. All of them showed their nervousness in their body language as they walked in - awkward smiles and not knowing how to say hi.
And the fact that I was calling on them one after another in a private room didn’t make it easier, I was like a detective trying to break down a mysterious criminal case.
This series of conversations was easy for me because I had interviewed at least 500+ people throughout my career. Some people wonder, “Jessica, how did you know you had done 500+?”
I knew because I kept one interview note per person on my Evernote… Couldn’t live without this app.
Okay, so from all the conversations, this was what I discovered about the team I inherited:
It was clear to me that if we wanted to turn this around, we had to rebuild the entire company. We needed a new culture, a new product, and a refreshed team. I knew whom I wanted to keep and whom I wanted to let go, and I must do the lay off in one go in order to rebuild momentum.
I ended up removing the entire business team, including sales, marketing, and customer success. These people were on a completely different wavelength, and they were not qualified to have any contribution to the new process we were to kick off: research - hypothesis - validate.
I also let go of 1 engineer who was clearly not up to standard. Despite knowing that, no one (even the co-founders) made the decision to fire him because the company was focusing on growing… and they needed more people.
If we wanted to bounce back, we could only have “A” players.
The team was down to 8 people including myself. We had a CTO and CPO (Product). We also had 2 UI/UX designers and 3 engineers.
At that moment, it felt like I had reduced the team significantly. But later on upon reflection, I realized this was a huge mistake to keep such a large team when we had no problem to solve.
8 people were a lot of brains which meant I spent a good chunk of time managing instead of focusing on problem, solution, and product. If I were to do it again, I would have made a bold move to bring the team size down to 2-3 people including myself. I’d share more in later chapters.
“Wouldn’t it be easier if you studied harder how to take the existing product on the right track instead of restarting everything?”
At first, I was leaning towards sticking to it, because I didn’t want to waste everything the team had already built. However, the fact that we had zero good customers made it clear that whatever was built was not good enough. And I realized as an entrepreneur, I had to be okay with throwing things away. Restarting could give us a fresh perspective, whereas working on the existing product would have limited ourselves.