Friday, February 22, 2013

How Customer Development Landed Me at a Top VC Firm

For the last 8 years of my life, I've been immersed in the design and implementation of large-scale distributed systems and data processing pipelines. In December of last year, I began working for the top VC firm in the Northwest, Madrona Venture Group, where I help our portfolio companies with their technical hiring needs. Yeah... I went from engineer to recruiter and what's more surprising is that customer development is what got me here. Nearly everyone I talk to asks me how I ended up at Madrona, so here's the story of how customer development landed me at a top VC firm.

I first came to Seattle at the beginning of 2008 to work on an incubation project at Microsoft that would later become Windows Azure. After about 2.5 years on the project, it became clear that the trajectory of relevant skills I was acquiring had started to taper and that my experiences on the team were no longer driving me toward my long-term, entrepreneurial goals. It was time for a change and while the decision to leave a high-performing team wasn't an easy one, it was a good one.

My next stop was another incubation project in Xbox Live, where I would be exposed to new challenges and greater scope of responsibility. Even though we were running at 100 miles per hour, I forced myself to make time outside of work to supplement my personal development. I was constantly volunteering in the local startup community and reading as much material as my attention span would permit. Toward the middle of 2011, conversations about Lean Startup were becoming increasingly pervasive and The Four Steps to the Epiphany and The Lean Startup quickly found their way onto my reading list. These books and the surrounding conversations led to a personal epiphany that, in a very short time, changed the way I view and approach the world.

As 2012 rolled around, I began finding ways to practice the concepts I had been reading and discussing. Startup Weekend was one of my first practical immersions into the world of customer development and immediately became a habit. Since weekend hackathons are limited in scope, I also signed up for an online course on entrepreneurship taught by Stanford's Dr. Chuck Eesley. From February through June, I worked my way through the course with an amazing group of local classmates. After invalidating numerous ideas, one of my classmates and I decided to re-hash the discussion of why we wanted to build a startup. Among other things, two key drivers stood out: the ability to carefully craft a culture we were excited about and proud of, and to build a team we loved working with. From this, we began exploring the possibility of using these concepts as the seed for an idea rather than limiting them to being principles upon which we'd built the business.

With some thought, we identified the problem of bad hires as something we wanted to solve. Since we both have a passion for startups, we initially defined our target customers as hiring managers at high-tech software startups. While hiring mistakes were viewed as a problem by some of the people we spoke to, it wasn't generally viewed as a major concern. Instead, our conversations consistently and inevitably would turn into conversations about how companies couldn't get enough high-quality software engineers into their hiring pipelines. It was easy to recognize that this was a much sharper pain point than what we had started out with, so we decided to change course, likewise redefining our customers as recruiters of senior engineers at fortune 500 software companies.

At this point, we decided to participate in the local session of SWNext, which was headed by Andy Sack. With Andy's candid feedback and the support of our cohort, we slammed on the gas. In fact, by the third week, we were interviewing recruiters so aggressively that a director of recruiting at one of the companies told me to stop talking to his company's recruiters. While I was shaken by this reaction (our goal was to make their lives better, after all), I wasn't deterred and we continued sourcing interviews from other companies.

At about this time, I started to wonder whether VC firms centralized recruiting to provide their portfolio companies with some of the advantages of scale that large companies have. To find out, I reached out to someone from Madrona with whom I had become well acquainted over the past year to ask. Within a week, I was on the phone with my soon-to-be-manager, Robin Andrulevich. As we dug into the challenges she faces in her work, she mentioned that Madrona was considering opening a new role to help the companies with their technical talent needs. This piqued my interest and I quickly asked if we could have another conversation about it.

By this time, I had become fairly knowledgeable about recruiting, thanks to all the interviews I had done. Further, I had been experimenting with many of the tactics the recruiters had been sharing and had actually gotten fairly good at finding information about people. These factors were an important part of why Madrona was willing to take a risk on someone who hadn't done this type of work in the past.

Although it has been only two months since I joined, I can confidently say that Madrona is an exceptional firm, as are its companies. I really love the work I do and find it extremely gratifying to be helping amazing entrepreneurs grow their businesses. Robin and I get a lot of heart-warming, appreciative feedback from them and we get a lot of thanks from the engineers we connect since we genuinely care about their interests and do what's right for them. And the best thing about all this is that none it feels like "work" - it's a passion that lets me wake up every morning excited about the day ahead. With the knowledge, skills, and connections you make through customer development, it's pretty incredible where it can take you.

FYI, if you're interested in what Madrona's companies are working on, we just started a technical mailing list where we'll be sending a quarterly email with technical developments, invites to exclusive events, free swag, new investments, etc. You can sign up here: If you're interested in working at a startup, you can contact me directly at