Use your product or service. This sounds so obvious but after a business takes off it’s easy to get bogged down on the business side and focus on the big picture. By using your product you also stay connected to the team and you understand the detail of the work they are doing. Some of the most successful businesses still have the founders involved for this very reason.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jodie Hopperton.
Jodie is a British Media Executive based in Los Angeles. As Founder of FORE:media, an innovation outpost for corporations, she specializes in innovation and commercialization for media, marketing & retail organizations. Jodie’s career spans more than 15 years and multiple countries. Her extensive experience includes working with technology startups in addition to roles such as Director EMEA, Syndication and Licensing, New York Times, & Consultant COO, Global Editors Network.
She lived in Paris, Madrid and London before moving to Los Angeles in 2015, where she founded FORE:media in the belief that Los Angeles has become every bit as inspiring as Silicon Valley — probably more so.
Realising that Los Angeles isn’t an easy city to understand, she wrote “Los Angeles Reinvented: why innovators are moving south of Silicon Valley to the booming home of Hollywood’ to demystify the city and to convey to the wider world the scale and depth of the innovation taking place there.
Her infectious enthusiasm is groundwork for the strong business relationships she has developed and successful teams she has built. She also brings out the best in people on stage regularly speaking at and chairing conferences.
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?
As with many stories, it’s a windy path that made no sense at the time but with the benefit of hindsight it all ties together. I started my career in London at a British tabloid newspaper, which was a lot of fun. I had always wanted to live in a different country and learn another language and at the age of 26 I decided that it was now or never. So I moved to Paris, firstly working for an international trade association and then with the New York Times (that then had their European HQ in Paris). I moved up the ranks and became a director, running syndication and licensing for Europe. It was a fantastic job where I travelled all over Europe meeting editors and publishers. After 5 years the company bought in the digital paywall, which was the right thing for the business but negatively impacted my department. At this time I decided it was time for a change so I moved back to London. I began consulting to nonprofits and tech companies within the media sphere.
A year later an opportunity came up to move to Los Angeles. Although I consider myself a global citizen and have travelled to over 70 countries, LA had not really come on my horizon. Before I committed I did some research and found that Los Angeles was a hub of innovation for media and technology. Once I arrived I realized how much European media companies could learn and while many of them would visit Silicon Valley from time to time, Los Angeles has at least the same, if not more to offer.
It was then that I realized my career had led me to bridge different groups, translating needs to create partnerships, whether internally between departments or between startups and corporates. And that now, fifteen years into my career, I had built up an excellent network of international executives.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
There are some juicy stories but client privacy is fundamental to our business 😉
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?
Once I had a group of media executives that I was taking around New York to learn about video strategies. We arrived at a meeting in a swish new studio where we were being hosted by the head of digital. The meeting had been confirmed several times and as the group waited in the lobby someone told us that he would be along shortly. We waited and waited. And then someone else came to give us a tour of the studio, but couldn’t tell us much about digital strategy. We kept being told that he was on his way but as time went on I was less and less convinced. I was mortified as he was one of the key people of that particular segment.
Of course he never showed and we had profuse apologies. The group were exceptionally understanding at the time as they could see something wasn’t right. It turned out that he’d taken a last-minute holiday but no one wanted to admit this to us. He was so embarrassed when he realized what had happened.
He graciously agreed to do an online video interview after the fact, in which he was very open about the challenges he’d faced and mistakes the company had made along the way. This call ended up being more valuable as the executive was more open and the group had been armed with a week’s worth of knowledge and could dig straight in with the tough questions.
This also set the stage for our relationship. He has never forgotten the episode and has been great to me ever since — speaking at events I’ve organized and sharing candidly with executives I’ve introduced him to. It goes to show that being understanding when people make mistakes can actually work in your favour. By someone I barely knew standing me up, I now have an excellent relationship and I know I can rely on him even more.
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?
One of the hardest decisions I’ve made is ‘breaking up’ with a would-be cofounder. When we met we had similar but complementary backgrounds and instantly hit it off. The relationship made the business stronger and we bought different skill sets to the table. We worked on a few projects together to test the waters and everything went swimmingly. We made some errors along the way but fixed them fairly quickly and agreed a path forward.
Then we did some financial planning and by forecasting forward I realized that we were on different pages. I’m not a fan of conflict but the need arises from time to time. I have found that the best way of dealing with potentially hard conversations is dealing with them head-on, sticking with factual information and trying to keep emotions at bay. We sat down and had a ‘come to Jesus’ conversation laying out what I thought to be the facts: that as much as we’d enjoyed working together to date, we ultimately wanted different things and that it was starting to show and likely to get worse.
Although she didn’t see the conversation coming she recognized it immediately. We agreed to take a day to think about it and then discuss it again. We found an amicable way to part and it was absolutely the right thing to do.
Although it was the correct decision to make I soon realized that I missed having someone to bounce off. Now I am part of a small entrepreneurs group, all-female founders, that meet weekly to talk about business, any issues we have and can make an ‘ask’ of the group — it could be to read a sales deck, or To see if someone has a contract template that can be used, or simply to float an idea and get feedback. We are all supportive of each other but know and respect each other well enough to tell someone ‘that is terrible, please don’t do it!’. Knowing that you have a few people that have your back, that are supportive and that you can also help too is exceptionally motivating.
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 have been lucky to work with some outstanding executives, too many to name. But I actually think that I’ve learnt more from people that I have had negative experiences with.
Once I had a particularly bad boss. He used to sit on the front steps of the office building to smoke cigarettes — everyone smoked in Paris in those days — and when I passed he would make sly comments in front of my coworkers. One day he berated me for being 15 minutes late in front of my colleagues. I was so embarrassed and felt my cheeks turning red. When he had finished I reminded him that I had been on a business call from home at 7am that morning with someone in Asia. Instead of being happy to tell him that I’d won the business I felt bitter towards him. He didn’t congratulate me, just reinforced the office hours. In fact, I never remember him congratulating me, he always tried to make me feel like I needed to prove myself even though we’d had the best sales year in the history of the business. Later that day I overheard him tell the CEO that ‘we’ were on track and had landed a new contract. He didn’t mention my name and took all the credit. I swore that when I started managing people I would work to bring out the best in them and be sure to promote them internally to colleagues. I’m now proud of some of the teams I’ve built and stay in touch with many, who have gone on to be incredibly successful.
The other funny thing is that this awful manager was Dutch and as he was the only Dutch person I knew and I think it subconsciously made me wary. Years later I met another Dutch man, who was very different. And is now my husband!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Don’t wait for your ship to sail in, row out to meet it”
To get the most out of life we need to take leaps of faith. Sometimes we don’t know exactly what is going to happen but we need to take the plunge to find out what is out there. Moving to Paris with no job, minimal French and no friends was the largest leap that I have ever taken. I knew that I wanted to live in another country but it was scary just making the move.
I worked backwards with logic: what is the worst thing that could happen? In this case it was that I went for three months, hated it and came home. This wasn’t an ideal scenario but at worst case, it was worth it for the experience alone.
It turns out to be one of the most pivotal moments of my career, and my life. Making a success of the move gave me the knowledge that I could make a major change in my life without having everything planned in advance. And in fact I couldn’t have planned everything in advance. I needed to be there, to meet people and discover the opportunities on the ground. And that has held true in multiple other areas of my life including my last move to Los Angeles and setting up my own business.
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?
Having worked with c-level executives in multiple countries and seeing many businesses, in particular my passion area of news media, be completely disrupted by new technologies. Outstanding leaders are those that are aware they need peripheral vision to see the factors, trends and technologies that may disrupt their businesses ahead of time.
Many of these new technologies have come out of the US, specifically California yet European executives don’t always have the network or the insights to know what they don’t know in order to forge the right relationships. With my experience bridging groups, and translating needs to create partnerships between startups and corporates I created FORE:media to provide this deep insight to technology and audience shifts by helping executives connect and collaborate directly with technology pioneers here in California.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
In Europe there is a badge of honor for executives that have been to Silicon Valley as the mecca of all things innovation. Many of our inbound inquiries start with the words “we want to go to Silicon Valley, can you help?”. Even at a senior level I find it interesting that often executives will start with the solution, rather than the need.
At FORE we take it back a step and start with a needs assessment of the organisation which we’ve refined over the years. After all, we’re here to help the organisation discover what they don’t know. When we give our findings from this needs assessment including the themes that will be addressed, we’re met with positive remarks. We then present a number of suggestions of companies and executives that can share relevant insights into these themes. What often surprises clients here is that many of our suggestions are Los Angeles based. It’s not that Silicon Valley doesn’t have innovative companies — of course it does — but as the underdog with a burgeoning hub of innovation technologists and leaders here are more open to collaboration. In Silicon Valley the executive tours are more structured and work with PR and marketing to give the positive side of the story. We have a network of people that will share from an honest open standpoint which our clients get more value from.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
One of the few downsides of our business is that we work in our clients potential weak spots and/or investment areas that they are not ready to reveal so are often asked to sign NDAs. At the least the meetings we host are held under Chatham House rules where participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed. We’re working on exciting projects but can’t talk about them!
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?
We still find that a lot of C-level positions are held by men. The imbalance is getting better but there is still a way to go.
The big elephant in the room is having a family. I was a huge advocate of women ‘having it all’ until I had a child myself and realized that there simply are not enough hours in the day to take care of your baby, do a 10 hour day, eat well, exercise and keep your sanity. And yes I say 10 hour day because even if we’re doing 9–5pm in the office, we’re all online outside of regular hours, especially if you work internationally as we do. I run my own business so I have a lot more flexibility than most and now one year into family life we have a routine that works well for us. There are of course new factors that throw in some chaos — such as when our boy gets sick or doesn’t sleep at night because he is teething, but it’s manageable mainly because I have created my own flexibility.
Now with COVID it’s tough for a lot of parents. Children are home and need to be supervised even if it is through a series of school zoom calls. A recent Boston Consulting Group study surveyed more than 3,000 people in the US and Europe and found that working women currently spend an average of 15 hours a week more on unpaid domestic labour than men.
The fix is for all companies to offer more flexibility in the workplace. It’s a huge shift in approach but one that I am hopeful COVID will nudge forward and will ultimately become as important as pay and job title for attracting top talent.
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”?
The key for me has been to always have at least one mentor or coach that holds me to account. It needs to be someone who knows you well enough to point out blind spots and give tough feedback and who has the ability to frame this in the right way. When I was at the New York Times I was given an executive coach and it was one of the most effective developmental methods I have ever experienced. A good executive coach will help you understand yourself and the impact you have on others, how to challenge and encourage you to be the best you can be.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
I’ve just re-read ‘The Hard Thing About Hard Things’ by Ben Horowitz, which I highly recommend to any leader. One of the things he talks a lot about is effective and honest communication. Any team, but particularly a sales team, needs to be bought into the mission of the business as well as having a vested interest in the overall success. This is absolutely critical and any bad apples, particularly in management positions can compromise this so action has to be taken swiftly. Leaders often know when someone isn’t the right fit and handling this swiftly and fairly is exceptionally important to long term success. Even, maybe especially, when it’s a hard thing to do.
All salespeople should also read ‘Never Split the Difference’ by ex FBI negotiator Chris Voss. It’s the best book I’ve come across on negotiating and details effective strategies.
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?
We’re unlike many businesses out there as we have fewer, high value clients which aren’t recruited through the usual channels. Almost all of our business comes through word of mouth. The relationship we have with clients is exceptionally close and we have two core principles. Firstly, privacy is paramount. Clients will only open up and confide true information if you have proven to be trustworthy. Secondly, underpromise and overdeliver.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
The product role within tech and other organisations has become more and more critical for this reason. A great product manager threads together the various departments with the customer in mind. They take ownership of working with Design to create an incredible user interface, Engineering to make the product use smooth, Marketing to ensure that the right messages are getting through at the right time. They will analyze data behind the product daily so that they know everything about the users from time spent on product to churn rate and what elements make these fluctuate. Overall their job is to make the customers experience of the product or service delightful. A great product manager is worth his or her weight in gold.
Customers also need to be able to communicate easily with the company. Qualitative feedback can be as important as quantitative. For high touch products and services that means a dedicated person or team who are well trained to ask the right questions and offer solutions. For low touch services with large audiences it means enabling an avenue for customers to get the answers they need, or vent their frustrations and feel heard, in an easy manner as possible. Humans are all different and therefore this can’t be a one size fits all but a mix of online and offline such as database of resources, contact forms and email addresses, chat function and phone.
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?
It’s easy to hear the good stuff from clients about the work you’ve done but it’s the things you don’t hear that are the most important. And there is always something that could be better. So I consistently ask for feedback. After a project we’re never entirely satisfied when a client tells us that they are happy with the work we’ve done, it’s always important to ask what is one thing we can improve.
I feel like we can use the wartime aircraft analogy here. Engineers were asked to evaluate the planes that came back with bullet holes in. They reinforced these areas so that future planes were better protected when they went out. This strategy however was entirely ineffective. The engineers were analyzing the planes that made it back whereas it was more important to think about the panes that hadn’t made it back and figure out why. These planes had presumably been hit in other areas, places that caused the planes to crash. Therefore the reinforced areas needed be those without the bullet holes.
As business leaders we always need to be thinking about the things we can’t see. We need to ask ourselves ‘what would stop a customer coming back?’.
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.
- Assume nothing, test everything. This could be having a small part of your audience that has agreed to beta test new features, or using one of the many research and survey firms to test a feature with a target group. The obvious example here is Snap when they made a fundamental change to the app and then had to roll it back because of the outcry of their user base. It goes to show that even the smartest people with excellent instincts have blind spots.
- Consistently ask for feedback. I remember watching a BBC series in the 90s which chronicled CEOs spending a week with the workers in their business. Every single CEO made huge changes as a result of spending time ‘on the floor’. By using the product/service and spending time with clients using it you stay connected to the core of the business itself.
- Use your product or service. This sounds so obvious but after a business takes off it’s easy to get bogged down on the business side and focus on the big picture. By using your product you also stay connected to the team and you understand the detail of the work they are doing. Some of the most successful businesses still have the founders involved for this very reason.
- Talk to your people, often. Even with the best product in the world, any disconnects in an organisation can lead to disaster. I’ve seen people passionately work on a project that would never succeed because they weren’t aware of some fundamentals of the business. This led to demoralized staff and wasted time. If they had had the full picture and understood the organisation those energies could have been channeled into something productive that they could have been proud of.
- Never burn a bridge, always take a long term view. I remember seeing a colleague’s face turn white as we walked into a sales meeting. On the other side of the table was someone who they had fired some years before. The meeting was tense and clearly going nowhere from the get go. It turns out that the person has been fired unceremoniously at a previous company. I truly believe that relationships can be kept intact in any situation, even a firing, if communicated clearly and treated fairly. An excellent example of this is the excellent leadership that AirBnB’s Brian Chesky showed when he had to let a number of staff go.
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. 🙂
I hope that in these current strange times of COVID that companies truly focus on the goals and outcome needed by their people rather than measure by time at a desk. This involves clear communication so that employees know what they need to achieve, and that they are given the flexibility they need to meet those goals. I honestly believe that this is simply treating individuals as the grown ups they are and fully believe that companies who embrace this will be the ones that can attract top talent. Simple, right?
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 🙂
Michelle Obama is the most inspirational woman I know of. She is incredibly smart and built her own career which has to some degree been eclipsed by that of her husband. Yet she has stayed humble, focused on the important things in life and used her role to make the positive changes that she could. Now she is getting the well-deserved spotlight which again she is using to help others. I suspect that there is a lot more that we are going to see from her over the coming years.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!