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“The Five Things You Need To Know In Order To Create A Very Successful Tech Company” With Douglas Brown & Lizzie Kardon

Know what you’re good at and offload the rest. It’s a skill in itself to know what you’re not good at, and to be able to delegate that. This might speak more to founders and leadership at small companies, but it’s really easy for us to want to do it all. Generally speaking, at least for me, I […]

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Know what you’re good at and offload the rest. It’s a skill in itself to know what you’re not good at, and to be able to delegate that. This might speak more to founders and leadership at small companies, but it’s really easy for us to want to do it all. Generally speaking, at least for me, I tend to feel this way because I want it done “right,” and I only trust myself.

But is the head of customer experience necessarily the best person to design a brand, or develop a robust advertising strategy? While these things, in theory, could all fit into the umbrella of marketing, it doesn’t mean I can’t delegate those projects to someone who is just plain better than me at design or CPC. Being able to know your strengths, and to get help from people that are more expert than you in other areas is something lots of leaders struggle with. If you can figure out how to let go of some of the control and let others thrive, your company will be more successful.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lizzie Kardon, co-founder and head of customer engagement at Den. She is an entrepreneur at heart, known for her advocacy work for women in tech in the #knowyourworth movement. Lizzie has built out audiences and strategies for since acquired tech startups and is thrilled to now be working alongside her husband as co-founders of one of the industries favorite new outdoor oriented 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?

A lifetime ago I decided to “get into marketing” because I wasn’t sure what to do with my dual degree in seemingly opposing and unrelated industries; Mathematics and Fine Art.

Fast forward along my non-linear career path through the global art scene, Silicon Alley, b2c, then b2b, and I finally landed on my feet as a digital marketer with a focus on community engagement and content marketing.

I’ve always been entrepreneurially minded, earning a playful nickname from my husband as the “Startup Hoarder” — never lacking in ideas! and, a new automated growth play! but I was always missing a critical component to success.

That component is what I now recognize as a truly valuable offering to a highly targeted community that I deeply care about and understand. That all brings me to today.

I am now the co-founder and head of customer engagement at Den, the technology enabled outdoor lifestyle company that I bootstrapped with blood, sweat, tears, and heart-pounding excitement alongside my best friend and husband, Michael Romanowicz. You can call me his better half.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

The most interesting thing has been the introductions and connections that come back to us as a result of putting a vision for a company out there with real intention, with nuances that were carefully considered and designed.

We’ve essentially already built a qualification engine that attracts a very certain person with a unique mindset. The relationships we’ve made are incredibly meaningful to us. What’s also impressed us is everyone’s generosity of spirit. Intros beget intros and we’re just trying at this point to tie this incredible community together.

That’s how we connected with architectural industry giant Dwell, and they published our story less than 30 days after launching. That’s also how we connected with a lot of our business strategic partners.

If we could give advice to any early stage entrepreneur it’s just to put it out there, at a low cost and quickly, and see what happens! You might be surprised!

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?

Outside of business hours on a Friday night, my husband mistook someone on Instagram DMing with us as someone trying to pry a bit too deeply into our business affairs and, for a minute there, no longer had a “customer first” attitude in the conversation.

In the end it was just a fan trying to learn more about our company, and my husband was just a little fried from a long week and didn’t give an A+ customer support effort.

We put the conversation back on track, but it definitely taught us an important lesson.

Customers have a variety of channels to engage with you as a business and can reach out to you at any time of day across any channel. Even if they’re hoping for an immediate response, it’s up to you as the business owner to determine what your level of support is and what your response time should be, and it’s OK to keep normal business hours.

This goes for small teams and even companies that have already operationalized a real customer support practice. You can’t brute force growth all the time, or be online all the time. You (should) have a life, your employees have lives.

We jokingly refer to the moment as the “(the name of person involved) incident” because for us it was a real pivot point in how we approached customer service from then on, both in its general framework and in the 1:1 interactions we have with all customers.

We cemented the understanding that we needed to consistently impress our customers with our positivity and commitment to their success, and that each conversation was really just an extension of our brand.

We also learned that you can’t sell to everyone, nor should you, and that’s OK too, as long as you keep true to what your brand stands for and do it with incredible professionalism.

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?

We’re still at the beginning!

So far we haven’t had to deal with any truly blocking, hard situations at the company like the risk of running out of capital, but that’s not to say it’s a cake walk either.

Contract negotiations can become protracted and tense before coming back to alignment. Cost fluctuations can happen. Marketing can underperform and sales become sluggish before they’re optimized.

The thing that helps us deal with the hysterics of running a small bootstrapped company with a tight knit team is that this isn’t our first attempt.

We’ve seen a lot of this stuff before in our previous companies and roles and we’re also in our mid and late 30s, and are more resilient to stress now than ever before.

It’s easier to read situations and people and keep it all together for the sake of the team and the business.

It also helps that we have a mission oriented company that’s just fun to work on.

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 won’t name any names, but there was a pivotal point in my career when I found myself up against an older man who I then believed to be in a position of power over the future of my success.

As an impressionable, early-level female working for a creative tech startup a few years out of college I sat down to an awkward lunch with the new C-suite hire at the company I worked for.

He was older, had a couple kids, and came with an impressive list of high-power titles at big startups that we’ve all heard of.

I “should have” been in awe of his enlightened state of having really “made it” in life. I knew I wanted to do big things, and this guy was one of those people I was “supposed to” look at and say — I want to be like him.

Well, over the course of the lunch he’d cut my annual salary by $20K and increased my workload to cover the jobs of the other people on my team he was laying off. Granted the company was a sinking ship and he was doing what he thought best to save it, but he told me to be grateful for this opportunity to prove my worth and commitment to the company.

He took advantage of my age and gender to devalue me in the workplace, thinking I would do nothing less than smile and comply.

I left work that day confused, disheartened, and sure of only one thing. I could stay and let men like this control my destiny, or I could quit with no idea of how I’d pay my rent next month. As an early 20s-something living in NYC the concept of a savings account hadn’t yet occured to me.

So, I came in the next morning with sweaty palms and a hangover to take back my power, and I quit my job.

To answer your question directly, I’m grateful towards that guy. He lit a spark in me that still glows today. That was my first moment of reckoning towards realizing I didn’t have to aspire to be like any man, that I could be successful in tech and startup land by just being me.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“My mother told me a couple years ago ‘Sweetheart, settle down and marry a rich man.’ I said, ‘mom, I am a rich man.’” — Cher

I love this quote because every time I see it I laugh, and feel my chest puff up.

While depending on a rich man in 2020 continues to be smashed by powerful and independent women, I find it crucial to remind ourselves of ridiculous and outdated ideals like this.

Today, we are constantly faced with unlearning societal norms and gender roles. As women, we are expected to be equal to men only after we’ve satisfied all of our feminine duties.

The thing is, we don’t need men to reach our own success.

I grew up in a household where my father was constantly telling my sister and I to “never rely on a man.” My mother told us every night, “you are smart, you are strong, you are beautiful.”

I grew up knowing that my strength and brains were what made me beautiful. I knew that I would grow up to be my own “rich man.”

I think at times I lost sight of that truth, but it was always somewhere inside of me. Today I stand strong as a mother and woman in leadership, running a successful company, with a happy and loving family.

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?

At its core, Den is a technology enabled housing startup that combines adventure and architecture to deliver architect-grade home and cabin designs that are easy to build, budget aware and look beautiful.

But we’re so much more.

Den began because we know that building a cabin changes who you are, having a cabin changes how you live, and sharing a cabin changes how you engage with others. Today, we serve a diverse global community of dreamers, DIYers, and doers who are as enthusiastic as we are about bringing the outdoors in.

As a young couple we set out to try to build our own cabin set in nature and somehow succeeded despite the challenges and complexities of the process. We knew we could make it easier for folks and thus Den was born.

We’re helping to address the lack of access to quality modern design at an accessible price point, and we’re trying to get people back to nature. Particularly in a time when we’re all forced to stay in our houses or apartments more, travel less, and keep community interaction to a minimum.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What’s unique about our company is that in a world where slick DTC brands can pop up overnight, we’re a company that has grown slowly and organically from a place of authenticity. Our audience knows that and they love us for it (and we love them).

Den really started two years prior as a side project called Walden that ran alongside our full time jobs.

We only decided to launch Walden after building our own cabin because we felt like we couldn’t credibly enter the space without having this experience.

In those early days we spent so much time on the phone with customers (we still do) just learning about the space, sharing stories and advice.

We built our audience conversation by conversation and this is what would ultimately set the foundation for what would eventually become Den.

Now we post our customer’s successful cabin projects almost like proud parents. It gives us so much joy to see folks succeeding with their builds, and also taking steps towards new lives and lifestyles.

And, you know, there’s no shortcuts to this. You can’t buy followers (well you can, but shouldn’t) or try to hack your growth because it all comes out in the end.

You either have an audience that’s truly engaged that you’re moving in lockstep with or you have a bunch of bots following your account.

We’re so happy we did it the way we did.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes! We’re consulting on a few projects in the hospitality space with some great teams, and we’re also taking big steps towards manufacturing our own cabins.

We at Den have noticed a pervasive market size myth with regard to home building companies, in that people think buying a “kit” = DIY success.

This is not true. In 99% of cases, if a person buys a building kit they’ll still need a builder to assemble it for them. Based on this, we wanted to deliver a technology enabled product that for the first time ever honored the DIYer and cabin enthusiast in us all.

We’ve spent months in R&D, engineering and designing an innovative cabin kit that delivers on this promise: A two person team, with no prior building experience, can build a small A-frame in just one day.

A market first.

When you have something that is easy to construct and can go up in a day, the appeal and use cases broaden tremendously.

Suddenly, you can build a backyard office or yoga studio over a weekend.

As an Airbnb entrepreneur or hospitality operator you can add hotel rooms quickly to an existing property and increase your bookings.

We’re just about to make this product available for purchase, and there’s so much energy here.

We can’t wait to share more with folks over the coming weeks.

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?

Quite frankly, no.

I made waves this year after inspiring the #knowyourworth movement with my viral Google Doc that asked women in tech to share their salaries and job titles. Over 2,000 women bravely made their salaries public for all to see, and the data was disheartening.

By the time I was interviewed on ABC news, my Google Doc accounted for over $5M in annual income missing from the women in the doc. It’s now accounting for 5X that amount.

With women making up only 25% of the tech workforce and making as low as $0.90 to every $1.00 of their male counterparts, I was blown away.

In terms of specific changes? Salaries need to be equal, regardless of gender, race, or any other factors outside of experience level. Plain and simple.

Next, more women in power need to be celebrated and highlighted in the press to break down the status quo that they are “less likely” to lead successful tech companies.

Finally, more women need access and encouragement towards education and jobs in both STEM and tech.

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?

For one thing women in tech (and every other industry for that matter) need to make the same wages as their male coworkers. Tech companies should follow suit with those few who have already made their company salaries publicly available.

Second, women need to be nurtured and taught from a younger age to know their worth and to be comfortable asking for what they deserve. The “intimidation” factor seems less prevalent in men than in women when asking for your deserved salary number, and that needs to change.

Third, women need more support from a benefits perspective that protects them against age-old gender inequalities around becoming mothers while they work full time. Longer paid time off, assistance with infertility and postpartum support, assistance with childcare expenses, access to healthcare that supports them physically and mentally before, during, and after childbirth.

I might even go as far as saying their male counterparts should have mandatory paid time off after their own partners give birth. Even the fact that men often go back to work just a few weeks after the birth of their children puts pressure on women to shorten their maternity leave.

I could go on and on here, but practices like that maintain the gender gap in tech, and it’s just plain wrong.

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”?

Looking back on everything, I wish I could go back and tell myself “only work on the things you truly care about, even if that means you’ll make less money.”

Too often we see people optimizing for salary, working for a “brand name” company, or for a market thesis when they’re missing the one thing that matters — An idea or mission they care about.

Even a serial entrepreneur probably needs to return to passion eventually after running out their playbook on a string of wins.

I’d tell them to get back to what they truly and deeply care about and go from there.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

In the context of Den, my husband and I are the sales team.

How we “punch above our weight” is that we have a well performing marketing ecosystem that brings qualified traffic to our front door at scale, cheaply, through a mix of organic and paid methods.

From there we have well performing lead capture mechanisms that further qualify the lead, and from there marketing automation that nurtures the lead even more.

So much work is already done through this process, it’s like we’re a team of 8. By the time we get the sale or get on a call with a lead so much is already known that our close rate is incredibly high.

Before a company considers standing up a team of business development reps to brute force pipeline growth, one needs to examine whether or not the upfront work to create scalable and inexpensive pipeline development has already been done.

I guess because we’re in the cabin business we can finish off this answer with this quote: “You can’t build a great building on a weak foundation”!

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?

Authenticity and quality, as a practice, above all else. Both as a brand and in the product and services that we sell.

More tactically speaking, community activation and business development has been the number one most effective channel for us in terms of quality customer acquisition and growth.

It has been crucial for us to align ourselves with people and brands that speak directly to the mission we strive towards and the audiences we serve. Our main growth channel has been Instagram, a place where it’s easy to become lost in a sea of brands and bots but has carried the load of our marketing success.

The approach we took towards growth on social began when we were just beginning to see our follower numbers pass into the hundreds, and continues today.

When you interact with our Instagram account, you’re speaking directly to Michael or me. We’ve developed relationships with other outdoor oriented business owners that lead to huge boosts in customers and sales while we were looking to gain traction during our launch.

We even began growing our community on Instagram long before we were ready to launch our product. I was inspired by the launch practices of tech-enabled beauty brand Glossier, who used their social clout to build hype leading up to their launch which turned out to be a massive success.

Second to social, a highly strategic boost in relevant PR carried our Q3 launch far beyond the goals we had set for the remainder of the fiscal year.

We were able to craft a brand story and beautiful creative that caught the eye of some of the industries most renowned publications. Everyone reading those pubs, we wanted for customers. Cold pitching to PR is hit or miss, but with a solid strategy and the right targeting you will get noticed.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

Segmentation and offering the right content, tools and products is the key.

For us we want to match the lead or customer up with the right experience and product set, and in order to do that we need to be aware of a number of things.

Are they window shopping or ready to buy? What are they really looking for? Have they expressed it clearly, and do we have it?

Mismatch along this journey leads to bad things: bounce, not spending our (or the customer’s) time wisely, and having poor offer/customer fit at the point of transaction which also has downstream negative effects.

How we proactively try to avoid this and provide great user experience is this: First, we provide a lot of great content for free and that content also helps us understand where the user is in their journey of building a cabin.

Second, we set up the tooling we mentioned earlier so everything is humming along and we have some sense of who these folks are.

Thirdly, we don’t try to sell someone a shoe that doesn’t fit exactly right. We’d rather actually not make the sale and disclose to the customer where they might not be fully satisfied before they discover this on their own and come back to us with a complaint.

With this approach our lifetime tally of negative issues that customers have raised with us post sale is < 10.

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?

We’re not a SaaS business so these metrics don’t apply. We do have a number of full lifecycle product offerings we’re considering now that trail the customer with value add upsells following an initial purchase however.

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.

  1. Trust your instincts and be ready to act at the “right time.”

We had been working on the Den launch for months. Years, if you count the time we came up with the idea, to when we actually went live as a company. We were really plugging along when March 14 rolled around and lockdown in the US began.

All of the sudden, we were stuck at home with our toddler while I was in the throes of first-trimester pregnancy with our second, both juggling our full time jobs and side hustle with Den. For a minute there, life felt almost impossible. We felt trapped inside, scared, uncertain of whether or not we would ever feel the total freedom and reckless abandon of communing with nature and other outdoor enthusiasts again. A lightbulb went off and we realized that if we were feeling this way, so was everyone else we aimed to serve with Den. The economy was tanking, layoffs were rampant, but NOW was our time to launch. It was hard. Like I said, a lot was going on at home and we didn’t have a ton of time to dedicate towards taking advantage of this “perfect” launch moment. Mike and I sat at our dining room table late into the nights after our day jobs were over and our kid was asleep powering away on Den. We knew a COVID launch was risky, but it just felt so right. To make a long story short, we trusted our gut on that instinct and we took advantage of what felt like the right timing to launch our company. By the end of month one we had crossed our revenue goal for Q1 of 2021. By month two? It had doubled.

2. Know what you’re good at and offload the rest.

It’s a skill in itself to know what you’re not good at, and to be able to delegate that. This might speak more to founders and leadership at small companies, but it’s really easy for us to want to do it all. Generally speaking, at least for me, I tend to feel this way because I want it done “right,” and I only trust myself.

But is the head of customer experience necessarily the best person to design a brand, or develop a robust advertising strategy? While these things, in theory, could all fit into the umbrella of marketing, it doesn’t mean I can’t delegate those projects to someone who is just plain better than me at design or CPC.

Being able to know your strengths, and to get help from people that are more expert than you in other areas is something lots of leaders struggle with.

If you can figure out how to let go of some of the control and let others thrive, your company will be more successful.

3. Know that no one cares as much as you do, and that’s ok!

As the founder of a startup or a senior level stakeholder at any sized company, you have to be honest with yourself in the sense that most other people working for you won’t obsess over business outcomes to the same extent that you will. Psychologically speaking, it makes sense. Excuse my extremes here, but if someone has everything on the line to gain or lose (AKA, you), the outcome is more important to them than someone who gets a paycheck no matter what.

The thing is, this is ok! It can drive you nuts when you send an email on Friday at 4:57pm because you want an answer before the weekend, but let’s be real. The people working for you aren’t checking that email until Monday.

We all need balance in life, maybe take a page out of their playbook and relax because it can wait!

4. Set goals that you know you can easily accomplish.

Anyone who has worked freelance knows the best way to keep clients happy is to underpromise and overdeliver. But guess what? This also works on YOU! There’s something to be said for positive thinking and momentum.

What I mean is, if you set goals that you know you’ll be able to easily reach, it keeps your momentum going, and if you exceed those goals, that’s even better. I don’t really mean KPIs here when I say goals. What I do mean are personal goals, relevant to your business of course. I’ll give you an example. As [essentially] solopreneurs, my husband and I needed to accomplish a lot every day while we created business success for Den. Between working full time for other tech companies, parenting a toddler in quarantine, and so much more, some days felt impossible. We had to figure out a way to keep a positive mindset if we wanted our business to succeed. So, we implemented a daily goal of accomplishing three things that we knew we could do for the company. Some days they were as big as finalizing pitch decks for huge hospitality groups or as small as answering at least one customer support ticket. As long as we accomplished our three things, the day was a success and it gave us momentum towards the following morning.

5. Don’t take investment right away.

When you’ve got a good idea, and have proven product market fit, those golden carrots seem to appear out of thin air. Three words for you. Don’t do it! At least not right away. It’s really easy to get swept up in an opportunity that feels like a shorter path towards success, and outside investment fits right smack in the middle of that. If you’re struggling to meet your revenue goals for the quarter, and an investor comes along and offers you 10 times the amount you need, it seems like a no brainer, right? Wrong.

Success doesn’t come overnight. That’s natural. That’s normal. That’s ok! You have way more to gain if you take the approach of slowly growing, and smartly reinvesting your gains back into the company. Mike and I completely bootstrapped our company, and have only grown as fast as our revenue numbers allowed. Yes, sometimes that means things go a little slower, but every single dollar that comes into Den goes directly back into our business, or into our savings account. If you’re like us, and ultimately want to work for yourself, this is the way to go. No investor meetings, no pulling your hair out to “hit those numbers” faster than you’re able, no threat of your company being taken away from you.

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. 🙂

Fundamentally change the support of working parents in the US.

Today’s working parents face too much pressure with not enough support from our government, society, or employers.

We’re always asked to keep pushing, keep doing more and, now more than ever, do it while we raise the next generation into decent human beings.

Look no further than this recent NYT article on parental burnout to see what I mean.

Mothers and fathers, especially of young children and newborns, are being pushed to the brink by stress and responsibility.

I can only assume this impacts the way our children will grow up, so what if we began at the source and made it easier for parents to make a living while raising their children?

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 🙂

This would be a reach, but it’s someone I think about every day. Michelle Obama. Hands. Down. To me, she is the pinnacle of success, grace, and empathy.

I, along with most of the world, have had a challenging year psychologically and emotionally. While I have my own particular situations and reasons, 2020 has led me to explore my own spiritual awakening and finding my higher purpose.

Have I reached either of those yet? No.

But, it’s made me want to be a better person and to recognize the qualities in other people that inspire me to do more and trust in the goodness of humanity.

Michelle Obama inspires me with every word she writes, every movement she stands behind, and every speech that she gives.

I aspire to be more like her every day. To handle challenging relationships or interactions with grace, to devote myself towards helping others, to live my life fully, beautifully, and unapologetically.

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