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“Trust your gut.” With Douglas Brown & Rachel Renock

Trust your gut. As a founder you have to deal with a lot of “advice whiplash”. One investor or advisor will tell you that they think you should move in one direction and someone else will say the complete opposite. It’s important to always consider the source of advice or feedback and weight it appropriately because […]

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Trust your gut. As a founder you have to deal with a lot of “advice whiplash”. One investor or advisor will tell you that they think you should move in one direction and someone else will say the complete opposite. It’s important to always consider the source of advice or feedback and weight it appropriately because many times you know something about your customers or your product that they don’t understand or see. Collect opinions but at the end of the day, trust your gut and intuition when making your decisions. Jargon is the enemy of shared understanding.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Renock.

A former advertising creative, Rachel Renock quit her agency job at 25 and launched Wethos to help freelancers earn more by finding and forming the teams they love. Since its founding in 2016, Renock has raised over $5M in funding for Wethos, landed on the cover of the New York Times, and built Virtual Studios™​ so independent creators can instantly price projects, easily team up, and automatically split payments, all in one place.

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 suppose I never really “chose” to be in technology, I actually went to art school, but I saw a problem and technology seemed to be the best route in solving it. In 2018 my cofounder and I were working with an organization called All Voting Is Local, their mission was to ensure as many Americans as possible were exercising their right to vote. Claire and I were running our own studio at that point by putting together and managing tons of project-based creative teams to launch awareness campaigns in states where voter suppression was at its worst. In that chaotic process, we realized two things: 1) In order to make an impact at large, we’d have to find a way better way to scale up. 2) In order to scale up, we needed to empower the creative teams to self-organize on behalf of their clients. So, we raised $5M in venture capital and built an entirely new operating system in which we generated $1.4MM in revenue and deployed over 150 teams. We like to say that the first Virtual Studio was our own, and we used it to solve meaningful problems, and that’s what brought me to technology.

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

My cofounder and I are “non-technical” as they say, although I hate that term. We met while working together at a big agency in NYC. I come from a background in design and creative direction, she comes from accounts and operations. Since we’re not engineers, we build the first iteration of what is now our pricing engine in a spreadsheet, manually breaking down, categorizing, writing, and pricing over 300 different deliverables. It took just over two weeks over the Christmas break toward the end of 2018, at the time I lived in a six floor walk up with my 16 year old dog who I had to carry up and down the stairs every day. We like to joke that I was trapped in my tower toiling away in a spreadsheet (which I was).

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?

I mean, pretty classic mistake of accidentally sending an automated test email to our entire email list and client base. There was nothing bad in it but that was the day we learned that I shouldn’t have access to ALL of our accounts

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’ve almost run out of money twice, I believe the closest we’ve ever come was 6-weeks, which was truly awful. Once it was because our first iteration wasn’t working, so we pivoted and closed a big contract just in time. The second was due to fast growth and poor management of our accounts receivables. A combination of heroic sales efforts and well-timed fundraising pulled us through that one but I had several panic attacks during those periods, the crippling on-the-floor-can’t-breath kind, not fun.

My sometimes unreasonable need to solve problems I care about is what drives me to get up every day. What I love most is the privilege of building something new for the world, and that’s not a responsibility I take lightly. How quickly and widely technology impacts our world is definitely something that keeps me up at night, and it influences many of the policy and technology decisions we make on a day-to-day basis.

I’ve found as a creative that no matter what, you will fall in and out of love with what you’re making endlessly. At most major inflection points in the company, I’ve had a moment where I feel too tired to go on. Where I consider that maybe someone else would be better to take the company to the next stage and I could just quietly see myself out and go drink out of a coconut on the beach.

But without fail I overcome the unknowns that are feeding my anxieties and immediately fall back in love again.

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 want to highlight someone who has made a massive impact behind the scenes. Dion Ridley joined our board last year, but he’s a brilliant engineer and has been our tech advisor for about 3 years now. When I met Dion all I had was a handful of wireframes and a crazy vision and he has continued to be instrumental in helping us determine the right product strategy for the time and resources we have on hand at any given stage. Dion helped us make some critical decisions at incredibly important moments in our journey, I’m super grateful he’s with us.

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

When I was 19 I got a tattoo on my ribs that says “luck favors the prepared.” Still holds true for me 10 years later.

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?

About 75% of high-earning freelancers are teaming up so they can deliver a wider range of services to their clients. They put detailed proposals together, win larger contracts, and then they all take home a bigger slice of the pie than they would if they were alone. But today, scaling your freelance business up is hard because forming teams compounds the operational and financial chaos just as fast as it compounds earnings. Virtual Studios enable them to instantly price complex projects, easily team up with friends, and automatically split payments, all in one place. Our goal is to make it way easier to team up and earn more.

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

The first virtual studio was our own, we ran it for 1.5 years through our own technology and scaled up to deploying 15–20 teams a month. Our new consumer platform will now enable anyone to form their own Virtual Studio under their own brand and invite friends to team up with. We know our customers’ problems first-hand because we are our customers. Today, you can use Shopify to pop up an online store in an afternoon, but the new generation of creative founders don’t have the tools they need to scale up the way e-commerce entrepreneurs do. We want to make it as easy to pop up an online studio as it is to pop up an online shop today.

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

The current economic crisis has people starting small businesses at rates higher than ever, the ad agency world is suffering particularly bad right now. A lot of really incredible talent is either being let go, furloughed, or pushed out because of rampant toxicity, sexism, and racism that plagues the industry. We hope to give those who are driven out of a broken industry a new way to work together, one that’s collaborative and not competitive, one that prioritizes transparency over toxicity, and one that empowers them to create jobs for their communities and to build the future they want to see together. Our tools are explicitly built upon this premise, it’s in our codes of conduct. It lives within our terms and policies, our educational content, our marketing efforts, and our accessible design.

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, I’m not satisfied. I feel that we’ve already tried to change the status quo but there is a lack of real desire by those in power to take action. The current system is working as it was designed, to gate keep and uphold the status quo. The technology sector is not a meritocracy no matter how badly people want to believe it is. Just like the rest of society,

tech runs on a compounding generational advantage that white people have, men and women. We’ve pushed brilliant Black and brown women out for too long, they’re already rebuilding outside the existing system, accomplishing twice as much with half the resources. If we want to change the status quo, we have to stop this performative conversation around diversity and start redistributing the billions of dollars that are disproportionately invested in companies founded and run by people who look like me. Businesses built by Black and brown women are statistically under-capitalized, over-mentored, and yet are still outperforming the rest of us. The truth is that conscious and unconscious racism and sexism are holding back billions if not trillions of dollars in economic value across sectors, including technology.

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?

I think men have a lot of advantages in Tech. For one, they’re statistically under-performing but over-capitalized compared to everyone else with a whopping 98% of venture capital going to them. Among other things, this stems from the high percentage of men in decision-making seats within funds. The data on how diversity dramatically increases innovation and growth is robust and clear. We’ve provided all of the information those in power would need to implement changes, if their decision-making was driven by data as they say then we wouldn’t be having this conversation any more. At the end of the day, sexism isn’t my problem but it’s forcing me to build a world-changing company in a system that’s getting in my way, making it twice as hard to succeed. I will persist because I have no choice but it is in the hands of men in the industry to make meaningful long-lasting change.

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”?

Yes this one is easy: go talk to your customers.

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

Don’t underestimate the power of a great sales process, through training and documentation. It might feel like overkill if you’re at a smaller stage but if you’re starting to build out your sales team this is an absolute must to make them successful. Also, to celebrate each others’ wins, I don’t find the “cut-throat sales” strategy to be very successful, you just ultimately burn people out faster and end up with a lot of sunk cost in replacing them and ramping a new person up.

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?

I like to go on listening tours. Before we launched the private beta of Virtual Studios we did an entire quarter of customer discovery. We had weekly roundtables with 10 customers and structured a pilot program that helped them grow their businesses in exchange for feedback and product testing. At the end of the day, building a deep relationship with a smaller group of customers creates evangelists who will sell your business for you to more customers just like them.

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

Strategy very much depends on your stage. At a small size, it’s good to stay as close to customers as possible because you’ll largely be relying on qualitative data until you reach a volume in which the quantitative data is meaningful. Our approach was to give them a white glove experience. We sat down with every single one of our first 100 studios to show them how to use the product and hear about their pain points.

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?

Focus on asking your customers about their problems, not seeking solutions from them. Many times customers don’t really know what they want even if they’re suggesting solutions. Dig into finding out what the core problem is that they’re having and then come up with solutions to test and iterate on. Solving your customers problems with an elegant solution will keep them on your platform much longer than implementing every tiny feature they request.

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.

5 Main Lessons Learned

Trust your gut

As a founder you have to deal with a lot of “advice whiplash”. One investor or advisor will tell you that they think you should move in one direction and someone else will say the complete opposite. It’s important to always consider the source of advice or feedback and weight it appropriately because many times you know something about your customers or your product that they don’t understand or see. Collect opinions but at the end of the day, trust your gut and intuition when making your decisions. Jargon is the enemy of shared understanding.

As much as possible, try not to invite words or terms that are going to cause internal misalignment. The simpler you can keep you documents, policies, procedures, and conversations, the better. Especially in a remote environment, thoughtful communication is key and introducing a ton of new vocabulary will only cause people to swirl and misunderstand one another. Find people who balance you out and trust their expertise.

As the founder you may have done every job at your company at one point but that doesn’t mean you’re good at it. It’s important to not just hire for your weaknesses but then actually listen to the people you’ve hired. You have to be a mile wide and an inch deep, it’s not your job to be an expert in user experience but it IS your job to put all of the puzzle pieces together so that your UX can take into consideration other parts of the business that are crucial like your revenue model. You can likely make money faster than you can raise it

Raising money isn’t for everyone and becoming dependent on outside capital to succeed is a slippery slope. I learned early on that I can likely make $100K faster than I can raise it, especially if I had a product or service that people really wanted. When you do seek outside capital, make sure you’re able to put it to good use because with any investment comes a high expectation which will crush you as a founder if you’re not able to deliver on it. Raising outside capital just to “survive” can be a recipe for disaster in both time cost and intense pressure that can impact your mental health. You don’t have to be mean to win.

It’s important to set high standards and to not make excuses for people that you wouldn’t make for yourself but that doesn’t mean you have to create a toxic work environment built on fear. The moment the people at your company become too afraid to raise red flags or come up with new ideas because they’re worried about being berated or humiliated is the moment you’ve lost. You are the founder, that doesn’t make you god and that doesn’t give you the right to manipulate people emotionally to get what you want. Honesty is all about delivery and direct feedback can be given in a way that isn’t a personal attack, respect the fact that people are more than just the work they do for 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. 🙂

I hope to make starting an independent business a more viable path by first and foremost stopping the race to the bottom we’re in when it comes to wages. Our data-backed pricing engine creates transparency for people that enables them to charge more because they have a sense for what other people are charging on average. There’s a broken dynamic right now where we’re pitting people against each other and driving wages down to the point where paying someone $5 for their time has become the norm when it’s absolutely absurd. Our goal is to create a growth ecosystem for creative entrepreneurs that centers around money, how to make more of it, how to leverage your power ethically, and how to create more jobs for your communities.

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 🙂

I’d love to sit down with Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez, I think what she accomplished with her grassroots campaign in NYC is absolutely incredible. Her ability to speak about complex issues with clarity and conviction that cuts through all of the twisted noise is rare in the world today. In her short time in the spotlight she has already inspired an entire generation of women to run for office and drafted meaningful legislation on the most urgent issues we’re facing as a country and society.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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