International Expansion as a Growth Lever, Another Chat With AllTrails CEO

Episode 81 November 28, 2023 01:03:23
International Expansion as a Growth Lever, Another Chat With AllTrails CEO
The Breakout Growth Podcast
International Expansion as a Growth Lever, Another Chat With AllTrails CEO

Nov 28 2023 | 01:03:23

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Show Notes

If you want to know just how awesome AllTrails is, just ask Apple! Out of over 2 million apps in the App Store, AllTrails is one of just three finalists waiting to hear if they have been selected as Apple’s 2023 App of the Year. So, of course, we are delighted to welcome back to the podcast, Ron Schneidermann, AllTrails’s CEO. 

 

Ron first joined Sean Ellis and Ethan Garr for a chat back in early 2022. At the time, the company was riding Covid-driven enthusiasm for socially distanced activities and had recently raised $150 million in private equity funding. Now, almost two years later, we wanted to hear how it has been going for this hyper-growth app that helps people have fun exploring the outdoors.

 

After the pandemic, Ron and his team were determined to continue accelerating growth and that meant pushing in new directions while at the same time building on what was already working well. To keep moving forward, they made big bets on international expansion, invested in new areas like e-commerce, and kept the focus on improving mindset and execution. And the growth has continued. 

 

“Momentum begets momentum,” says Ron, and while the flywheel has accelerated and many of the bets have worked out, it hasn’t all been easy. In this conversation, Ron shares not just the wins, but the struggles and challenges that come hand-in-hand with managing rocketship growth. 

 

There is a lot to this episode. From valuable learnings when looking to expand across borders to a really important discussion on leadership and vulnerability. And you will find out what it means when Ron says at AllTrails “Authenticity is our currency.”AllTrails. 

So jump into this week’s episode of The Breakout Growth Podcast. And thanks for listening to the Breakout Growth Podcast. Don’t forget, to watch us and subscribe on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-K_CY4-IrZ_auEIs0j97zA/featured




We discussed:



* Obsessing on growth, not just maintaining the status quo (08:43)



* “Much harder than we expected;” pushing for international growth (14:40)



* Modern growth structure. Is “head of growth” obsolete? (35:43)



* Growth as a role of influence, not ownership (36:36)



* People challenges and hypergrowth; avoiding toxcity (44:55)



* Authenticity as a personal core value (52:16)




And much, much, more . . .

View Full Transcript

Episode Transcript

[00:00:08] Speaker A: Welcome to the Breakout Growth podcast, where Sean Ellis and Ethan Gar interview leaders from the world's fastest growing companies to get to the heart of what's really driving their growth. And now, here are your hosts sean Ellis and Ethan Gar. [00:00:25] Speaker B: You all right. In this week's episode of the Breakout Growth podcast, ethan Gar and I chat with Ron Schneiderman, the CEO of All Trails, an app that helps people get out and explore. So many of you probably recall that we had an awesome conversation with Ron in early 2022, which now seems like a long time ago, but at that time, the company was riding the COVID bump because a lot of people were desperate to get out and do some socially distanced recreation activities. And they were also on the heels of $150,000,000 private equity raise. So all trails was on a tear. Ethan, what do you feel like we learned from this conversation? [00:01:02] Speaker C: Oh, man, john, where do we even start, right? I mean, on the one hand, the rocket ship growth continues, and Ron and his team not only rode that COVID wave you mentioned, but they really figured out how to keep the momentum going even as the world opened up after that. And that by itself was a great story, and there's a lot of valuable growth lessons in that as well on its own. But if Ron wasn't such an authentic and genuine guest, that would be it. But the truth is that riding a rocket ship is actually really hard, as you and I have both learned along the way in our careers. The people you hired when you were small aren't necessarily the right people when you're larger. And the bets you make don't all work out the same ways that they might have. And the kind of bets you have to make change and often have more risk. So anyone can tell you the good stuff, but the real learnings are in both what works and what doesn't work to drive growth. And Ron's really great at sharing both sides of that and helping us know what to do with that information. [00:01:55] Speaker B: Yeah, he definitely is. And I love that Ron rejects the whole notion of regret. He makes decisions and he gives his team the latitude to try new things. And that's really what creates an environment where people aren't afraid to fail. And we know that's a critical component of success with growth. So a lot of our discussion was actually on building the right mindset for Breakout Growth, and Ron describes that as an evolutionary process, and that authenticity that you mentioned is what seems to make it all possible. Ron really personifies that and his willingness to be vulnerable, it just stands out. [00:02:35] Speaker C: As an incredible I mean, and we go into that because Ron made a post earlier this month, I think, on LinkedIn, where he was talking. Know, he has some close family connections to what's going on in Israel and the conflict there, and we chatted about what it meant for him to be vulnerable in public, which I think is a little bit outside of his comfort zone. But when you listen to that, I promise as a listener, you'll understand not just Ron's character, but what he means when he says that as a company, authenticity is our currency. I mean, it's such a know, just commentary and yeah, to be honest, I think that part of the conversation was one of the most meaningful discussions we've ever actually had on the podcast. [00:03:16] Speaker B: Yeah, it definitely was. We went super deep into the importance of vulnerability and shared some of our own experiences with that as well. But this is a Growth podcast, and while that's related to growth, we did talk a lot about the growth mindset and also just some super actionable stuff. We dug into the weeds on some super actionable stuff. And for me, what was probably most relevant to what I'm obsessing on Day to day is some of his conversation and insights around the challenges they face with international expansion. For anyone who's not familiar, the reason that I'm kind of obsessed on the international side of things right now is that I'm amp planning an around the world speaking tour and so spending a lot of time doing that. So it was fascinating to hear what has happened as they've worked to expand internationally. They're making progress, but it hasn't been easy, and those experiences were both telling and instructive. [00:04:13] Speaker C: Yeah, you're certainly going big with this plan of yours, but I think that's why listeners are going to really love this follow up episode with Ron. And if you've missed it, check out the first episode we did with him, like we said, in January 2022. I think listening to that in the context of this will give you some really great just awesome learnings and insights, and I think you'll have a lot of fun. I mean, he's a great guest. So look, this is what breakout Growth is all about, right? Big wins, facing challenges, learning from mistakes, and really finding your flywheel. And that's what we did in this conversation. [00:04:48] Speaker B: Yeah, we definitely did. And we should jump into it. But for anyone listening, I am warning you that if you weren't familiar with All Trails before, you're going to fall in love with the app as you hear Ron's story and what it is that they're trying to do. And if you do fall in love. [00:05:06] Speaker D: I wanted to give you a heads. [00:05:08] Speaker B: Up that Ron sent us after the episode, a couple of roles that he's recruiting for, and you may be able to get an early jump on applying for those roles. So he's looking for a director of product design and also a creative director. And so if you have the right skill set for those roles, I highly recommend that you reach out to [email protected]. They have not publicly posted those roles yet, so you can really kind of jump the queue and hopefully get your name and resume in front of the right people early on. But at this point, we should probably get started. What do you think, Ethan? [00:05:46] Speaker C: Yeah, let's do it. [00:05:56] Speaker E: Hey, Ron. [00:05:57] Speaker D: Welcome back to the Breakout Growth podcast. [00:06:00] Speaker E: Thank you so much for having me back. I had such a good time last time we did this. I do a decent amount of these. You guys are awesome. It's smart, engaged, fun. So I was very honored to be asked back, so thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here. [00:06:16] Speaker D: Yeah, it was a really fun conversation, and you're in such an interesting kind of category and stage that it was a good opportunity to check back in. But before we dive into it, I want to welcome my co host Ethan as well. How's it going, Ethan? [00:06:33] Speaker C: It's going well. Good to see both of you equally. Ron, we've been super excited to have you back. I loved our last conversation, so thanks for making the time for us. [00:06:43] Speaker E: My pleasure. [00:06:43] Speaker D: Yeah, so that last conversation was actually back in January of 2022, and we were big fans of that conversation. I think in our frequent chats that Ethan and I have, we often reference back to it. So, yeah, it's a good opportunity to check back in, but we have new listeners since then, and not all of our old listeners were probably able to tune into that one. So why don't we start with a little background on both you and All Trails and just kind of the highlights so people can understand what All Trails is focused on for those who don't already know all about it. [00:07:23] Speaker E: Yeah, sure thing. So All Trails is an app that helps people get outside and explore. So we've got hundreds of thousands of trail guides, trail content all over the world. So whether you're looking for something new to do locally or something for your next trip, we can help you find the right trail. One touch driving directions to the trailhead, photos and reviews from our 60 million and counting registered users. Really cool interactive maps so you won't get lost. You can see exactly where you are. So our whole Mo is just trying to get people to spend more time outside. It's really that basic. [00:07:58] Speaker D: That's great for you. Sorry, Ethan. Just want to make sure we don't miss the other part of that question to get Ron's background a little bit. So your role, how long you been in that role? A little of that would be helpful as well. [00:08:11] Speaker E: Yeah. So I'm the CEO. CEO of all trails. I've been here for a little over eight years now. I'm not the founder. I'm not the founder. I took over from the founder back in 2015 when it was a six person company. So this has been the absolute highlight of my career. It's been so much fun to be able to just grow it into what it is today and surround myself with really awesome people and have a great mission to spend my time and energy on. So, yeah. Very cool, Ethan. Yeah. [00:08:43] Speaker C: And I can vouch for what a good product it is. I actually sent Ron a picture last Wednesday from the top of Green Mountain in Boulder, where my friend was actually looking at all trails and making sure we were staying on the trail. So it's a great app, and I think probably most of our audience has probably stumbled upon it at one point or another because your SEO is so good. But yeah. So, Ron, when we last spoke, I think all Trails was just on a tear. You were running profitably. I think you told us you had over a million paying users. I know you had just raised, I think, $150,000,000 in private equity funding. So how have things been going since then? And what's the biggest thing you've learned as you've continued to scale? [00:09:31] Speaker E: I'm a big believer I probably mentioned this last time I was on here. I'm a big believer that momentum begets momentum, right? Momentum is just the lifeblood of a hypergrowth company. And since I got here at All Tools, I feel like I am just obsessing over. How do you not just maintain but grow on that momentum? So in that regards, nothing has really changed that much since January 2022. We've been able to maintain that 50% plus year over year growth rates and do it in a way that's capital efficient. I don't want to imply that's been, like, super easy or linear or anything last year has been crazy and there's been headwinds and crosswinds and stuff like that too. But I think that the foundation that we have in place the infrastructure, the culture, the strategy, it all feels kind of like it's really just sort of an execution play, which I like. It means our destiny is in our control. I can live with that. So it's been going great. It's been a ton of fun. [00:10:40] Speaker D: I have to assume that some of the headwinds that you may have hit were when we talked January 2022, there's still a lot of kind of pandemic stuff going on. Social distancing. I still see the signs occasionally. 6ft apart. My hairdresser finally took her mask off. So literally, like, I got my haircut today and she was just probably wearing a mask until about two months ago. And so you were at the perfect place when people wanted to get outdoors and space out a bit. Have you found that kind of the usage patterns have changed a bit as people kind of probably get a little bit more back to their normal rhythm of things? [00:11:28] Speaker E: We were fortunate. I don't think it's a secret that we had a big COVID bump. Right. There was nothing to do, like, all of 2020 and well into 2021. There just wasn't anything to do. You couldn't travel, you couldn't go to the gym, you couldn't go to church. People were just stuck. And so people were going to the outdoors, not just for physical health, for mental health, for emotional health, or spiritual health. So there was a huge influx of new people into outdoor recreation that maybe had never been there before or did it as a kid and kind of lost touch, and they came back, and that was awesome. But what was really important to us, again, through this lens of momentum, beginning momentum, we didn't want that to stop. We didn't want that to stop. Right? And so as the world opened back up, it was a key strategy point of ours, how do we continue to make the outdoors relevant? And so we spent a lot of energy on kind of trying to bring more people into the fold. There's still so much work to do there, but not just focusing on the people who maybe grew up spending time on trails or who had the luxury or access to do it. During the pandemic, keep reaching out proactively with intentionality to underserved groups in the community and more storytelling and things like that. And obviously doing this on an international scale was really important and just one of the bigger growth factors that we've had too. The usage patterns have shifted. During the pandemic, people were trading their commutes for midweek hikes. So pre pandemic, it was like a classic u curve, right? With like, Sunday, and it would dip down and come back Saturday. And during the pandemic, it flattened out. It was crazy. We actually sometimes saw more utilization midweek than weekend. Just, again, people weren't commuting. And then as the world opened back up, it kind of returned to normal. There's some weird shifts, and the normal seasonality bell curve over the course of the year has changed shape a little bit. So it's kind of fun trying to parse through the day. Like, what does this represent? What is the story underneath here in terms of society and on a per country basis? But I think one of the areas where we were fortunate is that even during the pandemic, it always felt like time outside was an and not an or to kind of your core routines. So as gyms came back, as travel came back, it didn't feel like you had to turn us off compartmentalize, put away time outside. It just got incorporated into the way that you travel or the way that you think about your weekend plans or whatever. So, yeah, the usage patterns have shifted, but because we were in a daily app and we weren't trying to replace the gym, we were able to weather it pretty well. [00:14:21] Speaker D: Yeah, and you just touched on the international expansion. I think that was one of the themes that we talked about the last time. You were just kind of kicking off a lot of that one. How's that going. And two, some of these usage patterns you just touched on, is it different in different parts of the world? Are you finding. [00:14:40] Speaker E: We could probably fill this entire podcast, just talking international and just everything that we've learned over the years. It's so fascinating. It's so much fun. It's so fascinating. Yeah. Gosh. Where do you guys want to start on this one? Because there's a lot of rich territory on this space. [00:14:56] Speaker D: I know myself, I'm one of those get super excited about a growth opportunity. And being an add guy, it's kind of like I'm 25% into that growth opportunity. It's not as exciting as I thought. And then the next one's starting to come up, and I shift everything to it. So why don't you start kind of at that beginning part? Did international play out the way you expected it to? Was it maybe bigger? Sometimes there's a little bit more there, and then we can kind of take it from there, but sort of like yeah. Your first steps, international, how did that work? [00:15:31] Speaker E: Yeah, so first steps was 2019. Soon after, we got bought by a private equity firm, spectrum Equity, in 2018. And one of their big growth theses was international, right? That we could create a global brand, a global community. And so step one was just trying to translate the platform into French, German, and Spanish. And it sounds so easy, right? On paper, in a strategy deck, it sounds so easy. And then we started doing it, and it was just like, good God, what did we just get ourselves into? This was so you don't just throw. [00:16:07] Speaker D: It into Google Translate. [00:16:10] Speaker E: Yeah, exactly. It's so gnarly. It was so gnarly. I mean, it took us almost all of 2019. And granted, we were a small company then. We probably had like 15 employees, 15 full time employees at the time. But it was all hands on deck, just trying to translate. And then you translate it, and then everyone hits with a feedback like, all right, Americans. This just looks like an American company that just been splashed with poorly translated copy. And then you get into all of localization, which is a whole different beast. Right? Because our goal is we want it to feel bilocals for locals. We're a community driven platform. Authenticity is really like our currency, and we have to get it right. It can't just be like a product page listing on Amazon where whatever is cheap enough, people are going to buy it. We're sending people outside, right in the back country, where there's sometimes no data signals. It's high consequence. There's a lot of trust involved in that. So that was a pretty big pass, figuring out how to continue to improve that. All these inflection points, when do you bring something in house? When do you need to start hiring someone full time who can speak German? We didn't have any German speakers. A few people I took high school Spanish, it was, okay, and then it's not good enough, it's not going to cut it. Right? And then one of the things I think I grossly underestimated was the cardinality that language support introduces all up and down your product development lifecycle. So starting with design, right. German is 40% longer on average. I don't know if that is actually like, a true stat, but I've heard that enough times. I'm just going to say it as if it's the truth. 40% longer on average. So all of your buttons break, right? Like, you get weird text wrapping, like, visually just like, well, what? And you have to keep so there's like the design element, obviously, on the coding side, on the QA side, on the customer support side, on the marketing side, on the App Store listing side. It's just like everything is now times the number of languages that you support, and that can really slow down velocity, right until you figure out how to operationalize it. So a lot of the last several years has been figuring and I should say too, I don't know if it's true or not, but to us, it felt like a one way door. It's like, all right, if we're going to do this, we're committing. And it'd be really hard to just turn off German or whatever. Right? Pick a language, turn it off. Right. So you're committed. We went full send. We committed it. So a lot of the last few years has been figuring out, okay, so now we're here. We signed up for it. We're on the hook for delivering a truly great localized experience. So how do we do this without slowing everything else down so that we're not just spending all of our cycles just trying to keep up? Because, again, the whole thing is momentum, right? Like, we got to keep shipping, we got to keep delivering, we got to go faster. So a lot of learning. [00:19:15] Speaker D: Yeah, I think that's one of the things I found is that as you kind of pursue a new opportunity, you pull attention and focus and some of your best people off of the old things. And as you were saying, momentum is such an important driver. If you're not continuing to feed the engine that got you there, you could kind of take your eye off the ball and maybe the new thing starts to play out, but then it's replacement growth, and that's not good either. Yeah, that's hard. If you could go back and do it sorry, I'll let you in in 1 second. I'm very international right now as I'm planning a worldwide trip. But if you could go back and do it over again, would you have maybe just started with one international language to know what you're getting yourself into and growing a region and then cut a sequence from there? Or do you feel like you probably went about it the right way? [00:20:15] Speaker E: I want this to come across the right way. I am not a regrets guy. I just I'm not right. Like, I never try and second guess decisions. The way I see is like, I'm really, really happy with where we're at today. And if it took all that pain and everything else to get us here, then it was worth it, right? We learned we had to make the adjustments that we did, so I wouldn't do anything different. [00:20:36] Speaker D: Okay, so take it as advice for other companies. If you can't go back and change time and someone is about to embark. [00:20:42] Speaker E: On a similar yeah, that's a different conversation. And then, yeah, I would maybe say start small. I mean, actually, I should have led with this. We started our international journey with like UK, Australia, Ireland, even. [00:20:59] Speaker D: Same language, different locations, given a few more years. And the spellings. [00:21:05] Speaker E: Totally. No, that's straight up. Yeah. We actually have like a language service for British English specifically to just add use in there. So kind of like figure yeah, getting a rotation or two in a cycle or two before you're fully committed with the hard stuff. Spanish is a pretty easy way, but then you're trading off like, monetization and again, different there's different strategy with different markets in terms of how you're going to actually make money off of it. [00:21:38] Speaker D: And when you're a community driven platform, sort of earlier is better in terms of building community, that's building content, that's reviewing content that's tweaking it, you can't just flip that on overnight and expect it to all be working well. It needs to sort of organically grow as well, I assume. [00:21:56] Speaker E: Totally. And I say it's similar to when every company decides it's time to kind of lean in a growth that first time. Like, all right, we're ready for a culture of experimentation and iteration and we're going to tear down cross functional barriers that's also like, there's a point in your maturation, in your company's lifecycle where it doesn't make sense. Right. And then where it does. And I'd put International 100% through that same lens. [00:22:25] Speaker D: Ethan, jump in here. Sorry, man, I'm squeezing you out. [00:22:29] Speaker C: No worries. No, what I was going to say is, Ron, one thing I learned at TelTech with a product we had called Tape a Call, was that the app stores make it super easy to go international, right? Like, you press a button and you're international, but you've just pointed out the fact that, yeah, it's easy to press the button, but the problem is you haven't put boots on the ground. You don't know what your product Market Fit looks like there. So do you feel like, especially with your product, where and you told us this, that you had channel Market Fit before you had Product Market Fit in the US. Do you feel like that's actually kind of dangerous? Because essentially once you put it out there in Austria or Germany or wherever, if you've gotten it wrong, you actually right away start creating negative bad will for your users. So do you think that's actually almost a danger for companies that are thinking about going international, that are app based and have that luxury of just pressing a button? [00:23:34] Speaker E: Yeah, there's no shortage of gotchas when you're going to go international. And to further complicate it, every market is different, right? So there's some markets where we have super clear product channel fit, but then there's a low willingness to pay, or they don't really like annual renewing subscriptions, which is what we offer. Right? We're having to get creative now with the way that we try and monetize some of these countries. And there's some countries that have really great product market fit and are willing to pay, but we struggle to reach. So we have to look at each market individually. And again, this is one of the lessons we learned along the way. You can't just think about Europe. There's no such thing as like a European strategy. Every single country is totally different and it's very complicated. And so trying to understand where in the funnel is it the most leverage or the most opportunity? Where are we the softest or the weakest? For example, like on the product channel fit side, domestically, we're fortunate in that we've been around since 2010, right? And we started as a website, and we have this amazing legacy SEO, and it's really great. And so much of that is rooted in community content, user generated content, which recency and unique keywords, and it just feeds the algorithm. And in new markets, when we're going into a new market, kind of like how I said earlier, momentum begets momentum. It's kind of the same thing in a community driven platform like ours, where UGC begets UGC, right? So that the trails, whether in the United States or in France or Poland or wherever, trails where we have a lot of content, it's so easy to get more reviews. We have trails with like 10,000 reviews, which is insane, right? But there's trails that have zero reviews. And it's really, really hard to get that first review because if you're a user who hits that page, like, no one's even checking this out, this party is dead, right? What am I going to waste my time here for? Something no one's going to see, right? And we have to throw more bodies at it. We just have to just totally widen the top of the funnel, which means sometimes doing unsustainable things around paid acquisition, which, rather than being an accelerant, we're having to lead a market with just like a big influx of buying users because we have to get that content flywheel going. And again, I don't want anyone to think we figured this out. We're still figuring this out as we go. But that's one of the lessons that we've kind of identified since our last chat, though, about the need to have, like, a country specific strategy and country specific funnel analytics and a country specific playbook for how are we going to get it to maturity. [00:26:30] Speaker D: You mentioned sort of some differences there like willingness to pay and annual subscriptions. Have you found the competitive landscape is different in some different. [00:26:44] Speaker E: You know, just speaking transparently, speaking candidly, we've had a really hard time in Germany. It's a really hard market for us. And I think one of the reasons why there's an entrenched competitor know, and they're good, they're good. I think we're better, but they're good, of course. And so we look at stuff like our aided and unaided brand awareness and again, we do a lot of surveys out there and it's like, gosh, this is really going to be a tough market for us to crack until we're ready to just throw a lot of resources at. So you know, things like that. It's probably like I don't know. Again, I'm still figuring this out, but I've heard from a lot of people say Germany and Japan are very similar in that they both tend to be a little skeptical of foreigners and tend to preference like the local homegrown solutions. You see it to lesser degrees in other countries. So there are very few countries where I would say that a local entrenched competitor is our barrier to growth. Very few. It's more like what don't we understand? What don't we know? What don't we understand? What are we not delivering from a product or value perspective? We haven't gotten pricing right. Or maybe we need to think about alternative monetization strategies. Very rarely am I willing to fall back and say like we can't get somewhere because of a competitor. Yeah. [00:28:06] Speaker D: And I could even see like, culture being something that in some cultures people are just more exploratory maybe than others and they don't want any aid in their exploration where others don't want to ever go without some guidance and help. I don't know which countries would be which, but preferences are likely to be different as well. [00:28:31] Speaker C: Are there any countries that you found to be super interesting because the nature of how AllTrails serves the customer there is different? Or is it more about just sort of those nuances of how they pay, what they like or dislike? [00:28:46] Speaker E: I can't think of any utilization behavior in one market or another that's like, wait, what they use us for motocross out here? I don't know. Right. It's pretty straightforward. And that's one of the things that I like about our space is that it's simple. It's a very simple value prop. We're just trying to get people to spend more time outside. You don't need any gear. It's very low barrier to entry. You just need information. Right. One of the things that we have been working to I'm very proud, I'm very proud of this one. Earlier this year we hit the milestone of having trail content in every country on the. Planet. And our last two were Sudan and North Korea. But there's like some open source heritage trails out there. So we have one. I've not checked it out. You know, that was cool, right? Because again, I think it is a pretty straightforward just, like, map the trails, instill confidence in our users, and they will go out and explore it. Right. So I haven't seen anything crazy, but there are questions that we're trying to figure out. One on the monetization side, like, we were talking about, like, all right, if people aren't willing to do an annual subscription, what makes sense? How can we still create value and then derive some value so we can continue to invest? And then there's somewhere, I don't know, like, some of the flatter parts of Europe, right? So then it's like, okay, so what's our cycling strategy? What does it mean to do cycling really well out here? And so there's just ongoing research right now at alltros to try and answer that question. And then part of the cardinality that I was talking about earlier and some of the complications, like, all right, so where does it fit on the roadmap, right? And we're trying to do it all centrally and globally for maximum impact, but we'll try and sprinkle in investments for It's global product development, but we know that we'll maybe have an outsized influence in a specific country here that can help us win the market, accelerate growth, whatever. So that's part of it too, is like, where does our feature set? I don't know if that's product market fit. Maybe that's just part of product market fit, but where does our feature set maybe come up a little bit short, maybe because of local competitors too? And how do we need to then augment it without fully I don't want to do a constellation of assets headache, and we don't want to have this whole crazy frankincense thing. There's elegance and simplicity, right, but how do you create space for maybe more use cases that aren't core to our core markets? [00:31:37] Speaker D: I want to touch on something that you or go back to something you touched on earlier about kind of the team evolution. You said it was like eight when you started there. [00:31:47] Speaker E: How many did you say it was? Six. [00:31:51] Speaker D: And what are you up to now? [00:31:53] Speaker E: 200. [00:31:53] Speaker D: 200. I'd imagine a team of 200 is very different than that early team of six. What have you found kind of challenge wise, opportunity wise, just like having an expanding team, how you approach things. Obviously you knew everyone really well when it was small. Some people you might not even recognize today. If you walk past them on the street, you'll probably deny that. But someone with less incredible memory might not recognize everyone. So how has that kind of changed how you maybe influence rather than directly lead and just organize teams and keep them on the same page? If you could give us some insight on that, that'd be helpful. [00:32:40] Speaker E: This is GCT. We could spend two podcasts talking about this. Actually, let me start with this. Okay. This is a Growth podcast, right? That's one of the reasons why I love this podcast. Before I was CEO, I was a growth guy. So I've been doing growth. Not as OG as Sean here, but I've been doing Growth for a long time. [00:33:00] Speaker D: Call me the grandfather growth. [00:33:04] Speaker E: I'm like nephew. I don't know. But anyways, it's been really cool to see the evolution of this growth mindset. It's not just like I think I don't know, maybe I'm broad generalization, but the days of a chief growth officer ahead of Growth are kind of behind this a little bit. And instead, this growth mindset, I feel like, has just been instilled across product and marketing, right? And everyone just has the same framework around Hypotheses. Spin up a quick test, get some signal iterate, and just evolve for rinse, repeat again. Like cross functional collaboration. Tear down the barriers. Just let's be data driven, let's be objective. And that's been awesome. So when I was doing all my prep work for this podcast no, when I was in the shower this morning thinking about what I wanted to talk about on this podcast, this was actually something I was really excited to bring up to you guys, because I feel maybe this is the hot take of the show here. I feel like the next dimension of growth is like the next level is honestly, it's org design and process design. That's fucking growth right there. That is the high leverage shit. And that's what I've been spending my last years doing, is taking that same growth mindset and applying it to our as if our is this living, breathing thing that can be optimized. And through this lens again, like manufacturing all that momentum and everything else. This is why I think if I were to distill down what's our narrative around how we've done what we've done, I think it's through that lens. I really think it's through that lens. And that's why I'm not a fan, like headcount or whatever. It's not a success metric in and of itself by any stretch. We've all seen the overfunded companies that raise a huge series a round and go to 20 to 500 people in six months. And that's pretty rough. A lot of bad things happen from that us. It's been more sustained. It's been kind of self funded. And it's just always been through this lens of like, what's the next highest leverage? Higher? How do we get more leverage total greater than the sum of its parts kind of thing. So that's where we've really been spending so much time and energy. And me specifically, I spend so much time and energy on momentum through the lens of HeadCount.org design, process design. Like I said, we could talk for days about this stuff. So I'll pause if you have any questions. [00:35:43] Speaker D: So, one question. You said that you kind of feel like the Head of Growth or Chief Growth Officer is sort of becoming more something of the past. Are you saying that you do not have a Head of Growth? [00:35:59] Speaker E: We have a growth product team that's kind of tasked with more like quick win experimentations. And their OKRs are through the traditional growth lens. But growth is not compartmentalized with them. They are not like the gatekeeper to our A B test or anything. [00:36:18] Speaker D: And instead, where are they able to experiment, for example, which parts of the. [00:36:24] Speaker E: Business, they have latitude to do it ever. But when we think through the lens of leverage, so much of it, it's the sign up flow, it's the checkout. [00:36:31] Speaker D: Flow, but they're not prevented from executing in any area of the business. [00:36:36] Speaker E: No. And this is where, again, I feel like through the design and everything else that needs to go into it. I hate fiefdoms, I hate sharp elbows. That was always one of my challenges as a growth guy, was just bumping up against brick walls and like, you can't touch this part of the platform. This is my part. And it's like, what are you talking about, right? And so instilling this culture where my CPO, my CMO, my CTO are super tight, no ego, and it's just all through the lens, like, how are we going to drive this business forward? And so the collaboration amongst the teams, that's the unlock. [00:37:12] Speaker D: That's how I come up against a challenge recently on a company that I worked with in the past where I feel like we had all of what you just said in place, where team was working super well, collaboratively, cross functionally, and then some new hires. I mean, again, that's one of the challenges. As you double team size and double it again, you bring new leaders in who have kind of a different philosophy around things. And someone had a philosophy of kind of like, oh, we need to have more of a culture of ownership. And so it's kind of like divide things up again. So instead of the cross functional, these are my metrics. These are your metrics. And I remember having a conversation with Ethan not too long afterwards and saying, I think people just really mess up this idea of growth where, particularly from the leadership perspective, that it's a role of influence much more than a role of ownership and that the role should be able to engage anywhere where there's opportunities and help to influence how the team executes within those opportunities. And so I'm curious about your take on that, if you agree or if you have a slightly different kind of take there. [00:38:23] Speaker E: No, I couldn't agree with that more. And this is why, again, I feel like focusing on when we're talking about a culture of momentum and momentum beginning momentum, we're really talking about culture within the right momentum. Doesn't just happen in a vacuum. And one of the things that we learned along the way was we were hiring people from startups and we were hiring people from big legacy tech and everything in between. Some people from outside of tech, everything in between. And it was probably like right around when I did your show, maybe like 120 people, something around there where I had this visceral feeling that we were losing our momentum, right? When I get these visceral feelings, I'll start waking up every day at three in the morning. Like, my gut just starts yelling at me, and I'm laying in bed at three in the morning for weeks on end until I put like, what the fuck's going on? Why are you doing this? What are you trying to tell me? And it was like, hey, alarm bells, we're slowing down, we're slowing down. And it took me a little bit to figure it out that with some of these new hires coming in, they weren't calibrated on what it meant to work at all trails. And we moved fast. I love moving fast. And we started unintentionally. And by no fault of any individual, but any individuals creating, we had a culture of risk aversion seeping in, right? And that's what it's like, oh, okay, we need to stop this in its track. So I made this whole culture deck and I did it out in all hands, and it was part of every new hire. We do these monthly new hire onboarding sessions, and it's like the first thing that they get from me is the culture deck. So it's like, what got us here? And what do we need to focus on? What are some of the antidotes to the traps in front of us? And it's stuff like progress over perfection. Don't let perfect get in the way of good. Embrace failure. Right? There's no playbook for what we're doing. So this is how we're going to learn. This is how we're going to get better by making these mistakes. So don't worry about making the mistake. Just go. I'll be much more angry about inaction than I will about, like, we moved fast, we had a good hypothesis, it didn't work. We didn't account for this, but we're smarter now, moving forward. I'll take that 100 times out of 100, right? So to me, really, when we're talking about momentum, really, we're talking about growth, mindset, all this stuff, it's culture. It's the culture. And that always, always has to start at the top. [00:41:05] Speaker C: It's so funny. I don't know if you're getting this too, Sean, but whenever you interview a bunch of customers, you start to think, you start to look for the trends. What did a few people say that was sort of the when, you know, when growth people start the hair on their neck starts to stand up. And I'm listening to you talk, Ron, and I'm starting to hear these repeating themes that have come through like, one the last person we interviewed for the podcast was Toddlesson of Pendo, and he was saying that in the future, every product manager is a growth guy. And I think it goes right into. [00:41:43] Speaker B: What you were saying about the gender neutral guy there. [00:41:48] Speaker C: Everybody fair enough. But the roles in growth here are changing, and how we approach growth is changing as well. And I do remember another interview that we did. I think it might have been with someone from Canva where she was saying that it was really important that their CPO and their CMO were, like, in lockstep. Again, you're saying that becomes super important. Take the egos out of it. And what you just said about how new hires are, new hires don't have the same connection to the mission. Sean, you might even remember who said this, but years ago we had a conversation and one of our guests was saying, like, the first person who joins the company, they come for the mission, right? They didn't come for the money. There is no money. The people who come a little later, they come for the opportunity and this chance to be part of something big. People come a lot later. Some of them are coming for the money. [00:42:42] Speaker E: Right. [00:42:43] Speaker C: And it's a different mindset. It's how do you get everyone connected to the mission? And I think all of these things are about how you make growth work. It's all about what you're saying. It's all about culture and getting people to understand that we have a shared mindset around how growth works in the organization. So it's cool to see all these things come around full circle. It was one of the reasons why I was excited to have you back on the show, Ron. I thought it'd be interesting to see what's changed over time. One thing I listened back to that episode, one thing you mentioned back then was that you still tried to interview every new hire. Is that something you're still able to do at your scale or I mean, that was 80 or so hires ago, so I don't know if that's still possible. [00:43:24] Speaker E: I'm still over 50% of our new hires. I'm still getting into the interview process. And anything manager or above, I'm intentionally getting into the interview process. And that's the thing. It's fascinating you say that, but at Ultras, one of the things we try to hold onto is that we won't hire anyone who's not here for the mission. Right? And it's hard. There are times over the last few years where we have these acute business needs and just like a big gaping hole in the chart where we needed someone with XYZ skill set and you run a process and we're like, you know what? If they're not about our mission and they're not of our culture, I don't care how talented they are, we won't hire them. And that was hard. I'm not going to lie. That was hard. I second guessed myself all the time. I'm sure people within all trails second guessed me all the time, but we held a line on that. And I look to where we are today and I think a big reason why we're able to sustain our momentum and again, the culture guardrails that feeds that beast and makes it happen and has allowed us to weather all of the craziness of the last few years is because of that unified commitment to the mission. And that's partly why I think I need to keep doing hiring, at least like, the strategic hires, because I think once you lose sight of that, that's to me, the beginning of the deterioration of culture. And, like, momentum, once you lose culture, it's really hard to bring it back. [00:44:55] Speaker D: Yeah, just based on what you're saying there, it brings me back to a thought that I have a lot of times. It's just that talent is actually pretty overrated. How can we live without that person? But if they're not on board to the mission a lot of times, if they're not a good person to work with, a lot of times the kind of the negative parts of their being a part of the company so far offset the positives that they're just good at a particular skill set. And I'd rather have people who really enjoy working with each other, who are really aligned in what needs to be done and can bring that ego down a bit and maybe a little less talented, but able to essentially work in concert a lot better. And I think it's a struggle that a lot of CEOs go through. [00:45:45] Speaker C: I think the danger, too, is sometimes with talent, you get addicted to the talent. I've worked with people I'm sure you guys have, too, where they are super talented. So it's like we can't let them go because they're so smart and eventually. [00:45:59] Speaker D: You do let them go. I've let them go in that K. And then it's like, god, why did I not do this a long time ago? [00:46:05] Speaker C: Yeah, if you can put a label on someone that's like, talented, something like talented coward, talented jerk, talented anything, unless it's like, talented mission driven, perfect, probably it's time to get rid of them. [00:46:18] Speaker E: Yeah, this isn't like a super nice topic or anything, but that's one of the lessons learned over the last few years, too, is, like, the importance of knowing when to transition people out and how. So often we kind of try and rationalize it or justify it or gloss over it, whatever. And again, this is where culture starts to slip. And I don't know, at the worst case, roots of toxicity starts seeping in. But I think the need, especially for us, it's hard. Right. There's amazing people we hired at 30, 40, 50 people that maybe aren't the right leader at 200 people. And how do you do it in a way that's, again, compassionate and kind and leaves them their dignity and gives them a soft landing and everything else. But still, we can't allow this to continue. I think that's also one of the key elements of this whole culture momentum equation. [00:47:15] Speaker D: I think it's one potential solution to that that I've heard in recent years, is the reason you go with head of for titles, because you can always have a new head of. Whereas I remember in one of my first companies, it was kind of like, first it's the VPs, and then the SVPs, and then the EVPs. And if you have hard titles, that's one that Ethan and I worked together with, I believe that was our first company together. And we called it Veep Creep just because suddenly everyone was a. [00:47:52] Speaker C: Do. Remember? I do remember there was a great press release, which I didn't write, Sean, but this [email protected] when Sean was the press release said, sean Ellis promoted to President of Europe. I thought, wow, that was a good. [00:48:12] Speaker D: Money around that. It was amazing. All the prime ministers coming to me. Cool. Ethan, there's a few more questions I know you and I discussed. Is there anything that's real pressing for you as we get closer to the end here? [00:48:28] Speaker C: Well, yeah, I was just curious, now that since we talked, I mean, obviously you have more resources, you raised some money, all of these things, they give you a lot more opportunities to do a lot of things. You've gone international. With culture as such a focal point, how do you make sure that the focus stays on the right things and it doesn't get too broad? Like when you and I chatted, we were discussing, you now have a store where you can buy all trails gear, which is great, but I asked you flat out. I was like, hey, is that good? Is it a distraction? And these are real problems that bigger companies have. How do you sync all that for yourself? [00:49:13] Speaker E: Yeah, that's a great question. I feel like there's a natural evolution of sightlines that happens as a company grows and mature. So in the early days, everything's reactive, right? It's a house on fire. You're triaging things, you're constantly reacting to whatever fire drill is taking up your attention. And then ideally, you try and move from reactive to a little bit more proactive. And maybe you can get into quarterly planning. And then you get into H one. H two planning. Maybe you can get into a full year planning. To be clear, at Alter, we probably got into annual planning, like 2022, maybe not that long ago. And just this year we did our first ever three year strategy session. We went off site. Eleven of us went to Yosemite for a few days. And it was amazing. It was the first time we had allowed ourselves to think so long term. And then we're able to view 2024 strategic planning through this broader lens and is what we're building, like, laddering up to the broader vision? Part of it is this balance between short, medium, long term initiatives and you want to kind of have a little bit of a balance. And it's a luxury to be able to allocate more capacity to the bigger bets, the longer term bets, that things aren't necessarily going to move the needle in this fiscal year. So that's what we try and do. And one of the things I say at all shows all the time is ideation is the easy part, right? I'm sure you guys are sitting here, you probably have like 30 different ideas for what we should build and when and why and all that. Everyone straight. I'll wear an alto shirt and people will walk up to me like, oh, dude, you work at Altros. Like, yeah. And they're like, oh, I have this idea. Hey, have you ever thought about this? Okay? Yes, I have. Here's why it's a bad idea. I never say that I don't have. [00:51:13] Speaker D: Much influence, but I'll talk to my boss about it. [00:51:17] Speaker E: Yeah, I don't tell them my title, but yeah, everyone has opinions about what we should build. Ideation is the easy part that makes it and to be clear, it's fun too. It's fun. So prioritization is really where it's what's going to make or break our strategy. So something like the merch store. Ethan's got a gripe with our merch store. It's funny. [00:51:39] Speaker C: No, I like it. I like it was just an interesting. [00:51:43] Speaker E: Point, the reason why it was self contained. And basically it lives under our chief marketing officer and it's like it just needs to pay for itself, right? And it's two people and we can use agencies and all that and it gets the logo out on the trail. All right, but there are product initiatives that are much bigger and are like our multi year laddering and we need to be very deliberate about when are we funding that versus all of the other shorter term opportunities. Anyways, long wind one is saying we try and strike a balance between short, medium, long term. Cool. [00:52:16] Speaker D: So I had another leadership question for you. I'll give you kind of from my own perspective of having been an early stage startup CEO, you're obviously further along than I ever was able to take in a CEO role. But in those early days, I was so worried about showing any fear to the team because it was like, oh, they're going to think I've lost confidence and then they're going to lose confidence. And so I just got to always look like I got it together and not panicking. But I saw something recently that you posted that made me think that maybe you don't kind of think in those terms as much. You had a post on LinkedIn talking about some family connections in Israel and it was a very vulnerable post. And I'm just curious in general, how you think about sort of CEO vulnerability, what are the risks and advantages of that? And how do you decide how to approach kind of the emotional side of things with your team? [00:53:24] Speaker E: I should probably start by saying I'm a very private person. I'm not on social media, aside from LinkedIn. I got off Facebook and Instagram back in 2014, and it was like, by far the best thing I've done. America, if you're listening, do yourself a favor. That stuff takes so much subconscious and conscious energy, it's not worth it. So. Anyways, I'm very private. I've never cared for virtue signaling. Words are cheap. Words are very cheap. And it's something I talk about with my kids all the time. It's not what you say, it's what you do. It's what you do when no one's looking. That really defines your character. And so I've tried to kind of run all trails through that lens, and we can talk about that too, because the last few years have been really interesting in that regard and sort of what the expectations are for leaders to make comments and for companies to make comments on things outside of their core mission and everything. So against that backdrop of being very private, I don't know, this is going to sound hokey, but I have personal core values, and I made them a long time. So one of them is authenticity. And I made a bow to myself a long time ago. I promised myself, no matter what happens, like highs, lows, everything in between, no matter what, I'm just going to stay true to myself. This is why I swear on podcasts, why I'm not polished, right? I'm trying to be as real as I can. That's it. And I like to think people respect that. Maybe some people don't. And so sometimes these two can be in disharmony. Again, being private. Because part of authenticity is vulnerability, right? And so in this case, it started actually with an internal I had to say something internally because that first Monday, monday the 9th, was October 9. It was brutal. It was brutal. I was struggling to show up and just like the mundanity of it, everything's just going to go the same as regular, but it's not regular. And I knew that other people like me, other Jewish people, non Jewish people, but a lot of people were just struggling. And I felt like, I have to say, the silence was deafening. And it was like, you know what? If I can't make a comment, who will, right? No one is saying anything. So I'll do it. I'll say something. I appreciate that you recognize that what a vulnerable place it came from. Honestly, I was very worried because, again, I don't want to speak on behalf this wasn't speaking on behalf of all trails. This was just me being real and honest and vulnerable and just trying to call for empathy and compassion and humanity and tell people who are also suffering, like, you're not alone. I see you, I feel you. I feel exactly the same and just trying to instill a sense of community a little bit and just like the greater good kind of thing. So anyways, I went to bed that night very nervous because there's just so much ugliness right now. It's very sad. But the next day I was very pleasantly surprised where it took off a little bit. It started getting like tens of thousands of views, and it was shared like dozens and dozens of times. And people were 100% of the people who interacted with it were positive and compassionate and empathetic and kind. And that was just like, okay, there's some goodness out there. And I think internally at all trails too, I think just being vulnerable, showing my I'm human, right. Like, I have good days and sad days like anyone else, right. And I think that hopefully, I don't know, I'm a believer. And again, maybe it's naive, maybe it'll bite me in the ass one day, but I believe that vulnerability is a strength. And just for myself, whenever I see vulnerability and authenticity from someone else, I respect them more because it's hard putting yourself out there like that. Yeah. [00:57:45] Speaker D: I'll share a quick story of me seeing kind of vulnerability in action and how I think it really helped a team and helped me a ton was about a year ago, I was working with Bounce and their CEO, literally the best CEO that I've worked with. And I got a couple of decades of experience over him and he was just so good. And one of the things he did is he got the executive team together. About before a retreat, we all went out to dinner in a private closed off room and basically all just kind of told our life stories from a very vulnerable perspective. But he started it off and just told some really tough things that he'd been through that kind of helped to shape who he was. And I was at a stage right then where I was going through probably one of the hardest times of my life and to the point where I almost quit the job just because I could not keep my head in it, even though I loved working with the team and loved what I was working on. And by him doing that, it made me just say, okay, I have permission as well. And I opened up about everything and it was like embarrassing, family shameful stuff that just so hard to talk about. But not every one of the executives opened up to the same level, but enough of them did. That where I saw it come into action over the next several months of working hand in hand is like, when you understand people on that vulnerable level, when you come up against a disagreement, you just give them the benefit of the doubt more. It's like this person is human. They don't have an agenda against me, they just see this differently. Let's figure this out. And just one thing after the other. I think we just worked so much better as a team as a result of that and just had so much more empathy and compassion for each other. So it's an interesting thing to see, not just from the CEO, but the CEO doing it that opened the door to most of the others also doing it and just me ultimately feeling just way closer with everyone and working better together with them. So it was a very interesting kind of connection there. [01:00:04] Speaker C: I think culturally the world is growing a little bit in that sense. I know Sean, when we started our know, especially when you're young in your career, there's all this pressure to play the part and I think we've gotten better as a society about saying it's less about playing the part, it's about showing up and doing the right thing for the people you're with and serving your customers. So again, I think it goes back to culture, and I think for me personally, since we're all sharing our personal stories here, when I was at TelTech, one of my close family members was going through a really serious health crisis. And I remember going into work one day, and I kind of had that same moment you were having Ron, where it's just like I didn't know if I could pull it together. And I was having this meeting with two of my designers and I actually couldn't hold it together because we were talking about something that was so inane, it just drove me crazy and I just lost it and I kind of broke down and I was so worried about what the impact of that would be. And then what I realized is that the impact of that was. [01:01:14] Speaker E: We were. [01:01:14] Speaker C: Closer and they respected me more and I respected them more because for the way they handled my vulnerability. So I think it's a lesson for everyone. It's a good thing. I mean, obviously there are limits to we'd have to show up and work, but on the other hand, I think leaders being vulnerable is actually a good thing. I think over time, people you work for and with just respect you more and more because they do see that you're human. So I'm glad we actually had an opportunity to ask that question and chat. I know we're kind of we're right. [01:01:48] Speaker D: Up against the time now, unfortunately, but yeah, Ron, we're just going to have to have you back on for a third time so we can. [01:01:58] Speaker E: I love this guys. It's so much fun being on this show with you both. Thank you. Thank you. Thanks for the great questions and all the support. It's awesome. It's fun. [01:02:06] Speaker D: Yeah, we really enjoyed it. Usually I like to kind of wrap things up at the end, but Ethan and I will take some time to put our heads together and highlight some of the key parts from this conversation to put into the intro. And then we're also going to ask you about hiring and so we can put that there, any of the key roles you're trying to hire, but we'll follow up by email and we'll get those all into the introduction. But Ron, I just want to thank you so much for sharing the journey with us and being human with us and not just somebody who's creating multi hundred million dollar companies, but staying true to yourself along the way. So it's a really great conversation and again, hopefully we'll get you back again. [01:02:53] Speaker E: Thank you both. This is great. Thanks. My day. All right guys, I'll see you both. [01:02:58] Speaker D: Awesome. Thanks everyone for tuning in. [01:03:05] Speaker A: Thanks for listening to the Breakout Growth podcast. 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