Bryant Chou, CTO & Head of Growth @ Webflow. Hiring when hitting stratospheric growth.A-Players - The top startups' recipes to build teams of top performers
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- 3 Sep 2020
Bryant, Sergie and Vlad co-founded Webflow in 2013 with a very strong focus on building the best team. The three of them hired the first 100 people in the team, a dedication that's rarely seen in founders. Created in 2013, a Seed round in $3M in 2014 and then a massive Series A of $72M in 2019 - they're even growing faster during Covid. Is the dedication to hiring A Players the reason why Webflow is unstoppable today? Listen to the episode to hear Bryant's thesis on hiring, his tips on recruiting as a founder and his formula to hiring ICs and strategic roles.
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Vlad, myself and Sergey hired the first hundred people at the company completely on our own. We didn't rely on a single recruiter. It was all us. Just so you know, I think I built the marketing team from scratch as well, hired all of our backend engineers that hired all of our front end engineers. Sergey hired all the first 10 designers or something like that. So it was pretty wild. I am Robin Show, CEO at Higher Suites and we are sourcing automation software that helps of the tech companies hire the best talent at me.
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So today we're having brain soup from with flow. With flow is today a team of 170 people. The team was created in April 2013, raise a seed around the three million in 2014 and then that massive series of 72 million in 2019. So we're really happy to have you today. Brian, can you tell us more about with flow, what it does and what do you do? A Web flow, because I understand you don't really have the title anymore.
Yeah, well, first of all, thanks for having me on, Robyn. It's a pleasure to be here. Really exciting new podcast you and Higher Swede have created here.
But flow is a well back then in twenty thirteen. It was a pretty interesting company because we had a lot of doubters and naysayers, but we at the very start have tried to create a bridge between designers and developers.
And the reason why we thought that was so important was we just thought the traditional ways of developing for the web was broken, you know, where a designer had to create a mockup and then a developer has to go translate that markup into code. So in every other digital discipline, there has been abstractions over the technology. So whether it's print design, print publishing within design or Photoshop with image editing, there's always these tools that enable creatives to have much closer access to the medium that they're designing for.
So Vlad was kind of my co CTO in the sense of what was the main developer of the core designer tool. I worked on pretty much everything else. And around three years ago, after we started getting some product market fit, we decided to spin up a marketing team. And around three, three and a half years ago, I led that effort to start working on creating our go to market team, starting with marketing. And then late last year, I started working on our upmarket motion as well.
So now I'm kind of still got two feet and two boats where I still dabble a little bit with the technology. But I'm not operationally involved with our engineering and product teams anymore, and I'm leading our go to market team. So sales and marketing, are you currently hiring people in the team? And if so, what kind of people are you hearing today?
Yeah, so we're hiring across the board. covid has fortunately put us in a position of just tremendous growth, fortunately and unfortunately, where we've seen just more and more businesses coming online, like for a period in Q2, we were growing three times faster than we were a year before, which was already a very healthy clip. Well, so we've definitely caught a lot of tailwind. So like all businesses in March and April time frame, we didn't really know how our business would react to the pandemic.
But we've seen that our business has picked up pretty significantly. So we are not only opening all the roles that we were originally intending to open in the beginning of the year, but we've also added some. So I think we're planning to add anywhere between 30 to 40 people this year and probably end the year around two hundred and ten. And we're hiring across the company. So definitely given the fact that our products are very, you know, advanced and technical, we're hiring a lot of seasoned engineers to come in and help us bring our platform.
To more and more people and add a lot more functionality and use cases in there, we're hiring a sales marketing products, people functions, finance functions, Bizot functions. So pretty much almost every department has more than one headcount. And you can actually find all of our jobs right now on a slow dot com slash jobs.
What I like and admire at the same time is that you so you raised that series of 72 million still going strong financially. You're in very good place. And you didn't hire that many people. One hundred and seventy people. You reached that with a I'd say rather limited team, right? Yeah.
So I think when we raised our series, we're probably ninety or one hundred and we had scale the company's customer base to probably north of forty thousand active customers. And we're doing pretty well financially. But the big reason why we wanted to partner with Excel was we just saw that this market was a lot bigger than we initially thought. So software development and web design and web publishing workflows at the intersection of all three of these massive markets. So Excel has definitely proven to be a really amazing partner in that they've helped us realize that the journey that we're on is actually huge.
And with a bit more capital and also operational leverage, we can actually tap into the full potential of what we're doing here at the company.
And would you say that the strategy is rather to hire as many people and then see how they can help you tackle the market? Or is it that the country to wait for as long as possible without hiring people so that you're only hiring key people that can really have a tremendous impact on the company? Yeah.
So one thing that I believe is true workflow, which is not just true for hiring, is that we're pretty intentional and thoughtful about how we make decisions, especially when it comes down to making hiring decisions. And this is probably due to who we are as founders. This is probably due to the fact that the company had a lot of near-death experiences early on where money was not something that was easy to access. So I think the DNA and the upbringing of the company has led us to really be disciplined about how we're thinking about how to be strategic with our resources.
So we have a pretty clear product roadmap. We really want to work on these top five things that we believe will really bring Web flow to the stratosphere. And because we're so bullish on where we're going and specifically some of the things that we've seen in the market that are helping validate our strategic direction, it's definitely time for us to be extremely thoughtful about not just who we want to bring in, but also how we want to create a hiring process that's equitable, how we want to create an interview process that is inclusive.
So these are all things that are top of mind. So on top of the added pressure of bringing in people as quickly as can we also really take this very seriously at the company? And it's something that all the operators at the company have at their forefront, which, you know, at times feels challenging. But from what we've seen, we've seen it pay off in terms of diversity of thought and the ability to bring a lot more voices to the table.
Can you tell us more about the current process and how you try to tackle those diversity issues, how you build that inclusive interview process? What's the process like today?
Yeah, so we have our guidelines, which Heather, our VP of People and her team has worked really, really hard on, and they know that there's just tremendous bias throughout the interview and hiring process. So what we try to do at the company is try to stick to the guidelines as much as possible. So some of those guidelines are making sure that we are interviewing someone that identifies as a person of color or across a variety of other factors at not just the sourcing phase, not just the hiring manager phase, but also for our equivalent of onsides as well.
So we really try to tap into our network specifically to try and see how we can really improve the type of funnel. So that's just something that everyone's really bought into. And I think the takeaway here is that it just requires organizational alignment. It can't be something that just one hiring manager, one VPE says they want to do. It's really got to be bought into at the company level and it starts with the CEO and the executive team and then everyone else.
Can you tell us more about these guidelines? What is it exactly? Is it an actual like, I don't know, the Google doc that you use or. In written form. I don't have it in front of me, but like some of the things that I really try to remember is if there's a presentation, for example, with a candidate giving a presentation, trying to reduce the number of side conversations that are happening on the side, just making sure that you're really filling out the scorecard on your own.
When we're doing debrief discussions, you know, it's pretty common for people to just, like, hop into a meeting room and chat through candidates. But we find that that's a very biased activity in and of itself. So we just really lean heavily on our scorecards, which is the one medium where anyone involved in the interview process can offer their their opinions about the candidate, some other rules, or we've committed to the Rooney Rule, which is like we're going to at least interview at least two people of diverse backgrounds in the late stages of our interview process.
That's kind of a forcing function for us, because even though there's there's times where we would like to skip it, it's definitely something that we believe is really important to our process, and that's why it's in our guidelines.
So today your is said raise the seventy two million. So it's a very clearly hit the product market fit. But you also say that the company experience near-death experiences in the past. How did you see hiring change before and after product market fit? Did you really see at some point the product marketed to heat? And did you see a drastic change? And how did the hiring change before and after?
What's funny is that now what I think has like something like a thousand inbound applications to any one of our job applications a week, which is pretty nuts because we were struggling to even send cold emails to engineers like just five years ago. And I think the company's profile was much, much smaller, even though we had a lot of traction. Honestly, I think even though we were growing pretty well, like, let's call it like four or five years ago when we were growing like 100 percent year over year, over five million of Iraj, like that was a pretty good clip.
But the company's brand, at least from an employer brand perspective and also from an end user developer brand, was was just not anywhere close to where it is today. So I think for us, we did see a shift when in our top of funnel hiring pipeline after we started getting traction.
But I don't think it really changed our top of funnel hiring till Buffalo as a product became a lot more mainstream when developers started championing it, when developers would tell their marketer counterparts or their design counterparts to look at web flow. That's when we started seeing a lot more engineers reach out saying like, hey, what you're doing is really amazing. This is a product that I dreamed of working on for a really long time. I want to work out that flow.
So we've been fortunate to have that kind of interest in our in our company from a hiring standpoint. But that definitely was not the case like five, six years ago. It was flat myself on ask and who wants to be hired, sending a lot of cold emails, having the vast majority of of them going unanswered, me even doing some creepy things like trying to stock people on Facebook and because Facebook Messenger had a higher reply rate. So it was just it was it was a different time.
And it's something that I feel like really gave flatted myself. Just a lot of respect for the recruiting function gives us a lot of respect for the engineers out there that are getting hundreds of these emails a week probably. And then also just a lot of empathy for the founders out there that are struggling with hiring today.
Do you know today the I guess you have a recruiting team, more hope you have one yourself.
And, you know, if the recruiting team is still doing cold reach today. Yeah, fun fact. Like Vlad, myself and Sergey hired the first hundred people at the company completely on our own. We didn't rely on a single recruiter. It was all us just being hundreds of people. Yeah. Yeah. So I think I built the marketing team from scratch as well, hired all of our backend engineers. Vlad hired all of our front end engineers.
Sergey hired all the first ten designers or something like that. So it was it was pretty wild. But now fortunately we have a recruiting team. It's small but mighty. They do fantastic work and they're just incredibly, incredibly supportive because we've put them under a lot of strain with how quickly the company has grown and wants to grow. So, of course, like all functions within the company, we're adapting to the new normal, and they're definitely a team that has adapted extremely well.
So you said that you hired four hundred people, the. We love you, so I guess you still did a lot of manual work, but did you try to automate this using your background as a CTO? Did you try to use marketing hacks? How did you manage to do this? Yeah, I was not very smart about it.
To tell you the truth. There is LinkedIn premiums. Thirty nine dollars a month or whatever it was back in the day. And it was a lot of emails, which is honestly like the worst channel for engineers. And then Hacker News. I didn't put people on trips or anything like that, even though I was pretty familiar with Max, Max. And I thought looking back, that would have been a great, great thing to do, put people on a sequence.
But yeah, we were pretty rudimentary about it.
So a lot of a lot of meaning nails. And the type of people that you were looking, did it change over time? Did you look for the same skills? And can you tell us more maybe about the skills and how you tried to define the ideal person? You're looking for skills with the company's trajectory.
So in the very beginning, what you're looking for as a CTO is an engineer that doesn't even know where the walls are so that when they encounter them, they are just like run through them because it's just not something that you want to find. Engineers that are a very, very adaptable. Right. So Nathan, who is one of our first engineers, he was someone that was straight out of school, was someone that I could just tell was really smart and motivated.
So in the company's first phase is what you're looking for, are people that may not have the Googles or Facebook's on their resume, but they've probably had a startup or to maybe a new grad. But someone that's intellectually curious, hopefully someone that's self-aware, knows of where their weaknesses are and constantly seeks to improve them. Whereas where we are now, which is what flows, powering probably close to three billion page views a month right now. And that be considered like a Alexa top 30 website.
So our infrastructure is extremely robust. We need to have specialists in infosec. We need to have specialists and infrastructure when you have specialists and data engineering. And I think that's something that operators and especially founders Quito's need to be really cognizant of, which is like how do I not just hire to solve for my pain point today, but how do I constantly look 12 to 18 months around the corner and find those people now? Because once you're in scale mode, you're trying to fill those critical hires.
When you're already experiencing that pain, you're probably just going to set up your engineering or for some type of failure where it's, you know, every other day there's going to be a fire that you have to put out. That's just not a very fun place to be in.
OK, and this podcast is about a players. Do you see any common traits that you were looking in your top hires beat at the beginning of the company where you will looking for Jack of all trades? Or later when you were looking for specialists, did you find common traits among a players? I can talk about what I look for. So what I look for in the very, very beginning are people that, like I mentioned, people that are very adaptable, people that will throw themselves at any technical problem.
If we're talking about a non-technical role, people that are just willing to learn anything. So full stack marketers is like the equivalent of a full stack engineer, a marketer that can set up your first AdWords or Facebook or Instagram campaigns doesn't necessarily need someone to coach them through. It can be resourceful and talk to other people just to learn how to do it quickly as opposed to where we are today, where I'm much more indexing on not just someone's experience, not just someone's operational abilities, but, you know, what it's like to work with them would be like to have this person in our company's culture with a person positively influence with this person, negatively influence where organizational concerns are much more paramount because you don't necessarily want to have like a bad apple, enter your your company and then be dealing with personnel issues that aren't necessarily related to performance.
And then another thing that I really look for, especially at this stage, is, is self awareness. People that know what their limits are can talk about them in a very candid way. People that can communicate with each other in a way that's not confrontational, that's collaborative, because when you're in scale mode, like where outflow is, you definitely run into a lot of scenarios where, you know, oh, this person rubs me the wrong way or I'm misinterpreting the message as passive aggressive.
But something that we really, really care about is just radical candor and like the ability for someone to just give people radical candor. And that's baked into our core. And something that we really screen for when we're interviewing right now, you mentioned that self-awareness before. How would you assess that in interview?
One of my favorite questions is it sounds cliche, but like coming into Web flow, what do you think you would need to improve on? Right. So this would hopefully get at a candidate's ability to discern the differences between Webelos culture and operating mindset from their previous operating environment. And the candidate could bring up anything from domain expertise to promote work to anything at all. It's not so much the answer that they're giving. It's also how they're delivering the answer.
Right. So it's thinking about how that person is going to navigate through the organization now that it's completely remote, thinking through how this person would prioritize one thing or another. So those are just some signals that I try to pick up on talking about remote work.
How did the company adapted to the covid situation? Did you have to change things? Were you open to remote before? Yeah.
So fun fact. Webelos, actually 70 percent remote. So we do have offices in San Francisco and the founders were there. A few engineers were there marketing. A lot of the marketing team is here. And when covid happened, we obviously transitioned to 100 percent remote. And what we found was that it was actually a lot easier for everyone, for the most part, where we found that now that everyone's on the same playing field, there weren't conversations that were happening at the headquarters that weren't happening online.
And we felt like our remote employees, as well as our office employees, were more connected with each other because we're all on on them all day. And that's something that I didn't necessarily understand or expect. But now I really appreciate that aspect of it now that we're all 100 percent remote. And because we had been mostly remote, we had some pretty good processes in terms of how we communicate, how we record meetings and share them out later, how we really have like a writing heavy culture to really help get ideas across, especially across departments.
So those are all things that were really positive operational hygene that we had in the past that carried well into the future.
So I guess that didn't change much for you even improve the day to day operations.
Yeah, I mean, we still have a long way to go. Like, we're still like any company that's trying to adopt an operational framework we're still struggling with, OK? We're still struggling with strategic planning. We're still struggling with a lot of these things because we didn't implement them early on. So now that we're much, much larger, it becomes more difficult whenever you're trying to create these kind of processes. And I actually like to recently I've tried to use the word workflows as opposed to processes because, you know, people have a very adverse reaction to the word process.
But this is just the way we work. And there's a lot of people out there, especially if they join the company much earlier on that joined a smaller company, specifically because we didn't have process. So now it's something that we're we're trying to balance out. And as a final word.
So you started CTO then moved to to marketing yourself to change role. Well, how was it for you and how do you hire a team when you don't have that background yourself originally? So what should you do? Should you try and find someone was done it before? Should you try to train yourself as a founder and then, I don't know, reached a certain level on that specific role?
Yeah. So my job that has been constant has been to always replace myself. So whether it was someone that was contributing to the core code base, it was always also trying to find someone to replace myself in contributing to the corporate code base. So that's one constant from the past seven and a half years that that has not changed in terms of my role. And I think when I think about the frameworks that I use to hire people, especially as a founder operator, is I try to get some level of proficiency with whatever it is that I'm hiring for.
So if it's performance marketing, I'll try to establish a baseline for myself when it comes to what a good campaign looks like on Instagram or Facebook or whatever.
And when I go out and hire for those roles, what I'm looking for are hopefully people that are much, much better than me. But also, you know, if I'm just hiring, I see. And I feel like pretty confident in it all. Play this formula for delegation, which is I will find someone that's good at it, let's say 70 percent. So if I'm at 80 percent something, I'll find someone that's at 70. And that 10 percent is my effort to manage that person, to get to that 80 and hopefully exceed it.
So that's been like how I thought of, see, hiring where it's just like, OK, we just need someone to fill this seat when it comes to hiring for a role that's extremely strategic, extremely important and also very well defined. I opt to hire for just the best possible people. So like this is like the 90 to 100 percentile, like this person is just the clear world class operator in this domain. And a good example of that is our VPs of marketing and VP of Sales, where I looked for people that obviously knew way more than I did about sales or marketing.
But it was just so strategically important to find those people that can come into the company, bring their own operational experience, but also help you contribute to the vision. So that's where it's like you definitely don't want to settle for the 70 percent. You definitely don't want to settle for the 80 percent. But for directors and VPs, you really want to find world class talent like the expectation is, is that they're teaching you stuff. The expectation is, is that VPs are augmenting your existing vision and then also have the operational experience to execute on it as well.
So I see you'll look for 70 percent and key strategic roles, 90, 100 percent. Does that change with the size of the company like you want to see that could learn that that our maybe younger and more versatile in the early stage of the company or is really related to the role you're looking for?
Yes, specific to engineering hiring. You always want to have people that are across the spectrum in terms of their experience and expertise. So in the past, we had a lot of engineers. There were a lot more early career and that was great because they could work on anything. Their willingness to learn was extremely high. But we found ourselves potentially in balance between the number of senior engineers we had and junior engineers. So now we're really focusing on hiring more senior engineers, people with five to seven years of work experience, or preferably even more.
So it definitely depends on what your existing composition is like. But the one general rule of thumb that I've seen worked really well in scaling companies is that once you've hit scale, once you've got a clear product market fit, and then also if you have resources to do so, you should be hiring engineers that can really supplant whatever area of your engineering organization that's most at risk. So if you have really shaked or if your infrastructure is going down all the time, you probably want to start bringing in those specialists and those specialists will move slower than the rest of your engineers.
But over the course of time, they'll really help you build something that's more resilient. And those are things that are going to be really crucial as you scale.
Well, thanks for these final words, Brian. It's been 30 minutes. We'll definitely use the 70 percent, 90 percent phone our insurance. Thanks again for your time today. Yeah, of course it is.
It was a pleasure. And thanks for having me, Robert.
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