Define your goals — This might seem trivial, but I’m in conversations with tens of startups every quarter, and I can assure you, most do not take the time to go through the not-so-fun process of creating a detailed targets list. Not just for sales, but for every little thing. When you have a target, people work towards it. Improvising is cute when you are three people working out of a garage, not when you are building a company. Be systematic.
Always treat your employees like it’s a business and your customers as family.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Blumental.
Michael serves as Hyro’s COO and spent the last ten years building and scaling successful customer-focused global operations for B2B startups. Following her service as an Intelligence Officer in the IDF’s famed Unit 8200, Michael headed the Customer Management Division at MCE Systems, leading the division’s five teams across multiple locations worldwide. Pursuing a global career path, Michael relocated to San Francisco to build the US sales organization for Spot, an Israeli hyper-growth startup in the DevOps space, where she scaled the organization from non-existent to three teams on two coasts, increasing the organization’s revenue by 30% Q over Q. Spot was recently acquired by NetApp for $450M.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Mycareer path is anything but specific. The only specific thing about it is that I’m passionate about customers’ satisfaction and obsessive about providing value. This is what drew me into the startup world, where a single person has the power to take non-linear paths — because what really matters is the outcome, and you can take any path that brings you there (as long as it’s as fast as possible..).
When the time came to choose my college undergrad, I had difficulty consolidating my curiosity with learning computer science with my love of performing and interacting with people (I was a dancer at the time). I have my older brother to thank for the best advice I received — why not both? Instead of going on to be a full-time student, I decided to go to college while learning about sales and customer success in a startup. Seven years later, I was VP project management and CS at the same startup!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
Definitely! So, my Hebrew name is Michal, but in the States, I go by Michael. As you can imagine, when corresponding virtually, this can sometimes be a little confusing. There was this one time that I was in touch with a known-to-be-somewhat-conservative CEO of a Fortune 500 company. At some point in our correspondence, he realized I was a she and not a he, and I decided to ask him if that changed the way he viewed me. His answer was: “No, it actually makes me like you ever better.”
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
It was one of my first roles in the first startup I was with. I was working late and got an alert that one of our customers is having an issue. The protocol said to call our CTO, but he didn’t pick up. I decided to email the customer, who called me right back. We spent two wonderful hours on the phone, during which I bossed him around until we solved the issue. When I told the CTO what happened, he was shocked and told me I was talking to the CIO of a multibillion-dollar company. It turned out well, but that taught me to always be prepared and know who I’m talking to.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Startup life is never easy, and temporary downfalls are part of the deal. In one of my first leadership roles, the company decided to lay off a sizable number of employees, and as a senior director, I had to personally let go of 30%. This was the first time I had to say goodbye to employees, and it was the most difficult thing I had to do. I got the drive to continue, from understanding that this was both essential for the company and an opportunity for my past employees. I realized that I have the power to help them find new positions that I later got to see them flourish in. It was an eye-opening experience, knowing that my mentorship extends far beyond the workplace.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m fortunate to have been part of a program called Women2Women, a mentorship program aimed at increasing the number of women in key positions in Israel. The program not only introduced me to my amazing mentor Senaz Yashar, but also to 30 inspirational women that were going through the program with me and became my friends for life and my biggest supporters.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You can’t be what you can’t see” — that’s one of the Women2Women catchphrases. Before joining the group, I had not personally met any woman that held an executive role. I’m a firm believer that women should surround themselves with other strong women. Being part of this group made me aim higher and provided me with the framework and drive to constantly progress.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Virtual assistants have become an essential part of a business’s ability to provide excellent customer experience and service. However, creating a great and smart one remains out of reach for any organization lacking tremendous resources to invest in this kind of project. Hyro solves that.
We are developing the next generation of plug and play virtual assistants that allow businesses to deploy conversational AI interfaces at scale. Conversational AI is the set of tools that enables humans to interact with technology. Think Alexa, Google Home, and Siri. The problem is when businesses decide to introduce conversational interfaces to start conversing with their customers; they run into multiple barriers. First, they need to have Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning expertise. They will find that these projects will usually take years and cost a lot of money, and the solutions would be limited in scalability. This is precisely what we are trying to solve. We have a new take on Conversational AI — we use computational linguistics to understand what users are saying in real-time. This leads to the fact that we can provide highly sophisticated conversational AI solutions at lightning speed with zero work from the customer side.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
How smart our assistant is! One of our popular assistants is one that helps patients find doctors and schedule appointments. I was the first woman to join Hyro, so I was the first to ask for a female doctor, and it just worked! Without anyone needing to think about this use case or test it, simply worked because gender is one of the doctor’s attributes we scrape from the website, and any attribute the website has, users can ask about. This is an excellent example of how scalable our approach is. One of our first customers was working with a different vendor on a chatbot for their website and were frustrated with the amount of work they had to put into it and the poor results it provided. A week after we first met them, we showed them a demo on their website that was already better than what they had. Needless to say, we have replaced that vendor. The same customer also later said something to me that stuck with me since — they said we don’t just through data at the, we process it, understand it and then make suggestions and recommendations based on it. So, it’s not just how smart it is; it’s how it gets smarter over time.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Many of Hyro’s virtual assistants are deployed on Healthcare providers’ websites. When COVID-19 started, the assistants began getting questions about COVID. We all sat together in a virtual room to decide what to do, and we then decided to offer a free COVID-19 chatbot that can help answer FAQ and walk users through a self-risk assessment to determine their risk level and provide instructions on the next steps. We are proud to have been able to help many organizations take the load off their call centers and provide virtual assistance to thousands of their citizens and patients.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
To reference RBG, I will not be satisfied until everyone around the table are women. We take for granted when entire managements are male; we should also normalize the opposite. This became painfully obvious to me when, in one of my previous leadership roles, I was the only female in a 20 male executives’ group. I volunteer with a great organization that promotes female teenagers to enroll in STEM. I think the push should start at a young age, but also should be focused on leadership, not just STEM. We should also provide more support for women returning to the workforce after giving birth, tech companies should be designed with female needs in mind, so when we have a meetup, there shouldn’t be just pizza and beer, but child care as well.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Let me tell you a story. When I was the only female executive in a 20 people bi-weekly management meeting, I took issue with the fact that the person who was the most vocal always had the last word. That is inefficient, at the least. So, I decided to take matters into my own hands, and instead of raising my voice volunteered to be the moderator; thus, I got to set the agenda. There you have it — a female solution to a male problem. Women always have to swim against the current and find creative ways to be heard.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
Step outside your comfort zone. Make radical changes in your structure, pricing model, and, most importantly — the people you listen to inside your business. Actively search for unheard voices in your company — look for people in middle management or below. Customer service is a great place to start! Work for a week in support!
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Invest in your product and listen to your salespeople with boots on the ground! Sales are best when there’s something good to sell. There’s a certain false perception that a good saleswoman can sell ice to Eskimos or a pen to an interviewer. These things work great in movies, but in real life, you sell value. There’s no magic, and customers are no fools. This is true now more than ever in the age of Zoom. Invest in making a product that is of high quality.
Once you have a good product, smart sales incentives go a long way. Start with what’s most important for the business and build the sales goals around that. Does the company need lots of new customers? Set a sales target for the number of new logos. Does the business need to increase the deal size? Incentivize bigger deals, and so on.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
When I joined Hyro, I immediately subscribed to all the relevant publications and podcasts. Every time I read an interview or hear a podcast with someone who can either benefit from our tech or could give us good advice, I reach out to them. Some never reply, but I get to have super interesting conversations with those who do, and develop our product based on actual needs.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
- Responsiveness. Responsiveness. Responsiveness. Nothing beats being responsive. Make sure you set up your internal processes for quick response so that customers know they can count on you.
- Build genuine relationships. Make sure the person managing the relationship understands that it’s personal, much more than an item on a checklist.
- Setting up measurable metrics for success. This will align expectations on both sides, will allow the customer to always understand the status and contribute to a feeling for success when you reach your goals.
- The devil is in the details. Always be on top of everything and surprise the customer with how much you know.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn? See above.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Less communication, more internal processes. A successful company should be able to transition from a boutique manufacturer to a very effective production line. The only way to do that is through processes, which I take to mean structured communication. In every company I worked for, there was a transition period from what I call the community phase, where everyone knows everyone, to the city stage, where interactions must transition to a professionalized transaction type behavior. Personally, I have a soft spot for Jira, as it was the first tool I implemented to make this transition possible.
- Learn from failures. Expect failures, and welcome them. They are not just the best way to learn, they are the only way to learn. In business, there is no difference between constructive feedback and a distracted one, the only meaningful feedback you will have will come from failures.
- The story. The story is not just part of the sales pitch. It’s what motivates people when they work through endless mundane tasks or stay up all night to fix a bug. Startups are a difficult workplace and a demanding one. Success requires inspiring not just our customers but our employees as well. A coherent and imaginative story about the company fulfills both of these requirements and focuses the company trajectory. However, don’t expect to come up with one story and stick to it; the story has to evolve. That’s part of the learning process.
- Define your goals — This might seem trivial, but I’m in conversations with tens of startups every quarter, and I can assure you, most do not take the time to go through the not-so-fun process of creating a detailed targets list. Not just for sales, but for every little thing. When you have a target, people work towards it. Improvising is cute when you are three people working out of a garage, not when you are building a company. Be systematic.
- Always treat your employees like it’s a business and your customers as family.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
My answer might be considered controversial, but I would love to see an artificial womb. I think the next big step in allowing for true equilibrium is expanding women’s choice over their bodies, without affecting their decision on motherhood.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Helen Hanna Casey, CEO of Howard Hanna Real Estate Services. When I talk about female leadership, Helen Hanna Casey immediately comes up. She is at the helm of the third largest real estate company in the United States, and the largest that is privately owned. I would love to hear her unabridged life story and pick her brains on her biggest lessons from running such a huge enterprise.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!