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Startup life: leaving Athos

This was a tough post to write and I considered not posting it. However, in the past year I’ve found that writing has helped me crystalize my thoughts. So here we go.

After 11 intense months, I just left my job as VP of Product at Athos. Transitions are tough but it’s also the time we learn and grow the most. Ultimately, this is a story about a breakup, a mutual breakup between me and the CEO. We part as friends and with respect for each other. I leave proud of the work I’ve done and the team I’ve built but also comfortable with the fact that I am not the right VP of Product for Athos right now.

The longer story is probably more nuanced and I hope will help friends at startups now or thinking about jumping into one. I’ve been very lucky in picking the companies I work for. My first job out of college was Google. After Google I joined Facebook. I had great run at both companies and was lucky enough to work with amazing leaders and grow with both companies. Facebook and Google taught me to build, to design, to lead, to mentor, and to manage. So when I left FB and decided to join a startup, I was very confident. Lots of friends warned me that early startups are hard and unpredictable. But you cannot understand just what hard and unpredictable is until you take that journey.

So what happened over this past year? Why did Athos and I break up?

1) Early stage startups change every 3–6 months.

Early stage startups are constantly evolving. Especially when a startup is trying to answer its existential questions.

  • What problem are we solving?
  • Who is the best target audience?
  • What is the best path to a success business?

Founders always have strong hypotheses to those questions. However until the market validates those with engagement and/or sales, those hypotheses are the best guesses given what’s known at present. Every time new information is revealed, startups run the risk that the type and skill of leaders needed will change. Change isn’t bad, in fact it’s necessary for a startup. But change is also big reason for turnover at startups. With rapid change, the person hired 3 months ago may not be the right person for today’s hypothesis. They may or may not adapt to the changes or the mission may not resonate with them anymore. At Athos we narrowed our focus, both in terms of audience and on activities. We also made significant changes to our go-to-market strategy. With these changes, I realized I didn’t have the optimal experience or intuition for the product problems Athos wanted to solve right now.

2) Creative chemistry is everything.

We’ve all been there before, you’re excited about a product/problem but as you work with the team, the chemistry between you and engineering or design lead just isn’t there. You respect them, they respect you, but you don’t inspire each other and you have values that are different enough that there’s always friction. At a larger company, usually one person in this equation switches teams or role and usually everyone is happier and more productive.

The flip side is where you join a team for the people and you’re not quite sure how you feel about the problem space. But you and team just click and ideas flow easily. Even when you argue/disagree, you trust your partners and have psychological safety. In my experience, those have been some of the most rewarding experiences of my career and when you feel that way about a team, something great will come out of it. Facebook Moments came out of a situation like that. You can also make some lifelong friends along the way.

At an early stage startup, there’s no room for mismatched Chemistry. Especially for the head of product role, the chemistry between you and the CEO has to be great. If you have any doubts about that, it won’t work. Product and company strategy is intimately tied at the early stages and you both have to love creating together.

3) Have realistic expectations.

When I joined Athos, I thought of it as basically a blank slate. After all, the startup just launched their product publicly ~3 months ago and in all my discussions with the team, everyone was pretty open to trying new things. However, what I didn’t realize what how early culture for a startup is built. Athos was created to help the founders with strength and conditioning training. A lot of early assumptions are built into the hardware, technology, the team, and how the product is marketed. A lot of those things are hard and expensive to change. So when you join a startup, have some in depth conversations with the founders and the team about why they build the company and what assumptions are built into the product so far. Make sure at least 70% of those problems and assumptions resonate with you. Because even if they change fundamentally, it’s important that you don’t go into the startup assuming they will change. This is important to say, even as head of product, you are not the captain, the CEO is and you should believe deeply in his or her vision when you sign up for the journey.

Thank you Athos and let the journey continue.

So in conclusion, thanks everyone at Athos for a great 11 months. I learned a ton about how startups work, how hardware works, and about myself. Thank you to my team especially who made work so rewarding. I am really excited to see what the company does next.

In the meantime, I’ll be taking some time out of the structure/routine of running a product team to get my creative juices flowing again. On my list of to dos in no particular order: voice/guitar lessons, exploring/playing with VR technology, lots of yoga, and more travel from my bucket list.

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