Obsess over data — track everything, use visualization tools that make it easy to gain deep visibility into what our company is actually doing. Know what questions you want answered before you track anything, however. You need to make sure all your data is architected in a way that it’s usable in the various ways you want to use it to. What kinds of queries do you intend to write — make sure your tables are set up. Know when to use nosql vs. when it will give you massive advantages (usually in measurement). Data migrations are productivity killers and the last thing you want is to be sitting on a mountain of data that you can’t properly analyze.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Audra Everett Gold, CEO and founder of Vurbl. For the last 20 years, Audra has worked with early stage startups building cutting-edge technologies that bring game-changing ideas to life that grow into scaled businesses. Through many successes and failures alike, Audra has gained a unique and deeply informed perspective in building and scaling digital products in several tech verticals, utilizing various web-based technologies with teams of all sizes. Before creating Vurbl, Audra founded a Product Management consulting firm focused on helping early stage companies go to market. She also ran Product for Pluto.tv, The Mighty, Rubicon Project, Break Media, Fourthwall Studios/Nantworks, and held product management positions at several other LA based technology companies.
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?
I was in college when the consumer internet was first introduced to the world. From the moment I began using the public internet, I foresaw that this medium would eventually become the central place for almost everything we do to manage human civilization, communication, learning, and entertaining. I knew it was the most important development of our generation and I wanted to be a part of building out a completely new global medium. It was true then and I still can’t imagine doing anything else but building online technologies for the consumer masses.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
We were put in quarantine on day one of operations after our first funding check came in. We’ve been raising money and working in quarantine ever since and still have yet to work in an office together as a team.
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?
There has not been too much *funny* happening since we started the company. It’s been a pretty stressful time where we were literally just working week to week, unsure of the future of the company, much less the future of the world.
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?
See last question :). We closed our first check, had about 400k more to raise when our offices were closed down and we were forced into quarantine. All I had was a deck, a great team, and 20 years of proven success building consumer confidence. I thought the latter would get me much further than it did when I was fundraising. No one cared. Our lead investor all but disappeared so I was left on my own with literally no one helping as I searched for investors to complete the round. Everyone was worried about surviving themselves and very few people had time for anyone else.
Sure, I thought almost every day about “why I am doing this,” “what was I thinking,” “who can possibly get through something like this,” “this is crazy.” It made me think about the many people I know that are not nearly as strong or resilient as me and how they might have fared, which made me also realize how few people I know that would be able to bear the torture I went through. The way I saw it, though, was it was do or die — there was no going back. I have such a clear and strong vision of what we are building, the problems we are solving, and the way we are going about it that I cannot imagine walking away without seeing it through to the end. There was no choice for me. I was doing this and no one was going to stop me.
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?
Well, the truth is, not many people have ever helped me out in my career. I don’t have mentors, I have had to prove myself every day of my entire career. I’ve had to be so far and above better than my peers just to move up and get the positions I did, which typically go to men (95% of Heads of Products are male). Mostly, I have forced my way into situations and made myself indispensable, so the many misogynists that I worked for over the last 20 years could not easily get rid of me. That’s been a big part of my survival tactic in my career: just be so good at what I do, and take on the most critical product lines in a business, that it becomes very difficult to get rid of me.
That said, there is one person that helped me — in that they took a leap of faith in me to help me build Vurbl. That person is someone I worked with in the past and built a very successful product for, which ended up selling for 100’s of millions of dollars. This person wrote me the first check for Vurbl, and it is highly unlikely that anyone else would have taken this chance on me.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” — Picasso.
This resonates with me so much because there is nothing more true in technology: you cannot cleverly innovate or break rules in technology unless you are keenly aware of the foundation in which you are operating, and where there is room for improvement vs. what is necessary as a best practice for the long term success of the business. I have taken much pride in the dedication I have to my craft (tech product management) and the extraordinary amount of time I have spent learning, relearning, keeping up with changes, and being able to stay in front of many of the innovations in technology that I have been a part of. I see it all too often that someone has no idea about the segment of the internet they are building a business in, the technology they are operating in, or the way that revenue and customers move through their industry. I see so many mistakes made by “decision makers” that are not even close to being qualified enough to make the decisions they are forced to make. Many of them are recoverable (just slow you down and cost you more), but these are also sometimes devastating to the business and can be the difference in building a 10 million dollar business vs. a billion dollar plus 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?
Vurbl is an audio platform for people that create audio of all types, and for listeners that love to be entertained and engaged by the audio medium. We are democratizing the audio format, welcoming all types in one place, from audiobooks to podcasts, to speeches and education to comedy and meditation. If it works in audio format, you’ll find it on our platform. As an added bonus, we also have expert curators making playlists around subjects and themes that we see people looking for on Google and elsewhere. We are making publishing, consuming and monetizing audio content easier and more turnkey than has ever been done.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are the first of our kind: a singular destination where anyone can publish or listen to any type of audio content in the world, all in one place. You can also easily clip it up, playlist it, and share it in ways that no other platform has ever offered.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are providing free audio content to anyone that has access to the internet. We are providing ways to monetize audio content that no one has ever offered. We believe we will be at the forefront of the digital audio renaissance that is taking place right now.
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?
No, and honestly, I have only seen it get worse since I started my career in tech in 1999. I have worked with very few women in my career, generally, and probably only 2 or 3 female engineers over the span of 20+ years in the business. As I said above, only 5% of all Heads of Product in tech are women, and my women product managers are some of the brightest and most promising individuals I have worked with. Unfortunately, almost every female product manager I worked with even 10+ years ago has dropped out of the workforce or changed career paths because there was just simply too much sexism and resistance for their taste.
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?
Sexism, marginalization, and not being invited to the ‘boys club’ events like drinks or dinner after work. What happens is your ability to create lasting friendships is hindered, which hinders your ability to move up in a company, especially those that are highly political (most). These networks and connections are also very important to the long term viability of your career. It’s especially impactful if almost everyone executive you have ever worked with is a man because there are no female allies to turn to or leverage.
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”?
Unfortunately, I would need to look at this on a case by case basis. The sad truth is, if you don’t have a substantial network of male champions, moving up in tech will be very difficult for you.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Emphasize understanding the product they sell (in-depth training), hire people with great networks and people skills, give them attainable and measurable goals, reward them handsomely.
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?
If you know the general area of the problem you are solving, you have a starting point for testing acquisition channels. Know exactly what you are looking for your customer to do. Start there, then test and iterate. Also, hire brilliant growth people.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
Understand the way they are currently consuming what you are offering. Make sure you are making it easier for them to find, consume and share what you are offering. Measure everything they do and understand the difference in noisy data and actionable insights. Solicit feedback directly and monitor the places they congregate to listen in on the conversations they are having about your products. Always prioritize the actions you observe over the feedback they give you directly.
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?
Always stay true to your core mission. Users don’t like it when you completely bait and switch them. Remember why they came to you in the first place. Churn is dealt with very differently with free products vs. paid subscription products, so there is not a one size fits all here. When dealing with free mass market products, brand is paramount and maintaining their share of mind and attention are a constant, which is why you must have a product that is discoverable across all key components of the consumer internet (social, search, forums, reviews, etc). Paid products is a whole different game that I won’t get into because our current focus is free mass market products.
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.
- What business are you in? What’s missing in that business that is hindering its progress or innovation?
We are in the audio business, for example. When I looked around at other audio focused digital media properties, I saw that they were stuck inside an old way of thinking about digital audio, and there was almost no innovation in distribution or consumption for over 15 years. That means, there is 15 years of pent-up innovation that we can rapidly exploit and scale very quickly as a result.
2. Understand the technology you’ll need to create the best user experience.
You need to use the right stack and build your platform in a way that consumers can easily discover and consume it. Is your audience on social media? If they are, you better have a product that plays nice with social ecosystems. Likewise, is your consumer using Google to find what you are offering? If they do, you better be all over and discovery through search. It’s astonishing how many companies build products that are prohibitive to their acquisition needs.
3. Be your audience.
Don’t think you are going to build a great product if you don’t use the product yourself.
4. Obsess over data — track everything, use visualization tools that make it easy to gain deep visibility into what our company is actually doing. Know what questions you want answered before you track anything, however. You need to make sure all your data is architected in a way that it’s usable in the various ways you want to use it to. What kinds of queries do you intend to write — make sure your tables are set up. Know when to use nosql vs. when it will give you massive advantages (usually in measurement). Data migrations are productivity killers and the last thing you want is to be sitting on a mountain of data that you can’t properly analyze.
5. LOVE WHAT YOU DO, YOUR MISSION AND WHAT YOU ARE BUILDING. Building a business is one of the hardest, most torturous things you’ll ever do. You better make sure you are building something that is meaningful to you, and brings you joy at the end of the day. If I did not love the audio medium and believe in our ability to truly revolutionize the audio space for creators, listeners and brands, I would never have survived the last 6 months.
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 believe that by bringing together so much knowledge in one place — billions of minutes on everything you can imagine, on Vurbl, and offering it for free to anyone in the world, we are making a bigger impact than I can imagine making in any other way.
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 🙂
The people I currently admire most are Bill Gates (because of what Microsoft did for modern personal computing) and Howard Stern (because he has shown the massive amount of power the audio medium holds when properly leveraged).
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!