Oct. 10, 2022

Nan Meka | On Choosing a Startup That's Right For You

Nan Meka | On Choosing a Startup That's Right For You

Nan Meka is VP at Pet Circle and a Fellow at Afterwork VC.

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Content
00:00 Nan Meka
00:33 Transitioning from Corporate to Startups
07:45 Finding a good startup
15:45 Learning and Career Progression
19:58 Mistakes young people make
23:57 Nan's Advice for Graduates

Transcript
Nan Meka:

I think as somebody who's entering into a startup, you might get enamored with fundraising size, but having been in a startup, it's actually not an indication of a successful product market fit. Or commercial model or a great customer experience. So that's one metric I definitely ignore

James Fricker:

great to have you on the show. I wanna start by asking, you did, you worked in a lot of corporate jobs, right? You worked at kpmg, Macquarie, a bunch of other, like really corporate places, and now you are, you've been in startup land for a little while. So I wanna ask what was the initial transition there? What kind of led you out of the corporate world into the cor into the startup scene? Was there any sort of moment that trigger.

Nan Meka:

Yeah, earlier in my career I was on the other side, so I was assessing, investing in internet businesses. I was also in And gaming spaces and working on developing commercial models, supporting digital businesses on their strategies. Spent most of my like earlier career in consumer tech space particularly on the corporate VC side strategy m and a as well as, early stage startup and scale up company side in the LA years. As a nontechnical person, I really didn't think there was a pathway for me into early stage startups especially with someone with my random background And I found out that was the furthest thing from the truth because there was like a pent up demand for generalists who were like malleable. Learn fast, solve problems, have impact to scaling the business and effectively helping to create defense ability from both, internal and external shocks that an early stage constantly experience as through their journey and the way I transitioned. It wasn't so big, and I don't really wanna show my age right now, but it wasn't so big back in the day. I think a Blackbird uh, VC only just really started uh, coming to fruition around that time. And so it was a very nascent period for investing, early stage investing in Australia. And there wasn't much of a community or, or meetups around this space. For me, I had to just basically reach out to founders that I admired and identified problems that they were solving that deeply interested me. And I think it was hard, I'm not gonna lie, to make that sort of leap because from a very structured and well resourced environment to one that's gray, ambiguous, chaotic, all of the above, like crazy. And so luckily I did get my first For a, in startups. And that was about seven years ago when I joined a little online bus booking business which actually ended up scaling to about 200 million in gross sales a year and ended up helping, Yeah, millions of customers travel easier. And so I was in an area called business operations and. What is business operations? The purpose and the role of my team was to drive growth of the business by either launching and scaling new initiatives or just even optimizing day to day operations, or even just a mixture of both. I was fortunate enough to work on a lot of d. Problems across products and marketing customer success. And that was to ensure that the bus business is solving the right problems in line with the company level objectives. And so some of the pro projects I would work on. Would be, Hey, we need to, we've got a bit of backlog with our customer queries. How can we improve our customer experience? Which is deeply important in the online travel space. Getting that sort of real time ability to connect with somebody and have your query answered because you're about to miss your bus and it's gonna impact your journey and your experie.

James Fricker:

Mm.

Nan Meka:

So looking at streamlining processes to handle these queries and looking to at ways to improve, like nps. I worked with marketing to launch loyalty programs to improve, like retention rates and so there was a variety of stuff and I wasn't an expert in anything. But what I was. Deeply curious about how things worked and I had a very growth oriented and learning mindset like a baby just coming into the world. And then more recently I was the head of operations at Simply Wall Street, which is a B to C SAS app, and we helped over 5 million retail investors make better stock decisions. dunno if you've used it

James Fricker:

I have, I did have a little, I like a little bit of a player in the lead up to this but not, yeah.

Nan Meka:

Yeah, it's great, isn't it? It's and I think, like for me, I get attracted to not just any startup, but a startups that's solving a business problem or a, or a. Or a problem that really hits like a bit of a personal note with me. For me, like I was actually a user of Simply Wall Street before because it helped my personal retail investing journey. And I really had a lot of asymmetric information. I didn't have a clunky sort of Bloomberg terminal. Prohibitively expensive. I believe they're like 150,000 per terminal or per license. Something crazy like that, which, a hedge fund or a large company would have and as a result, not have that same sort of level playing field. And what I saw is that business and the founder Al deeply passionate about that space and he was leveling this access and he was simplifying the journey for the average Jane or Joe. So that's what really attracted me to that business. And then now currently I'm a VP in the finance team at Pet Circle which is obviously a leading online pet company in Australia. And it was a tough decision actually leaving simply Wall Street because you've gone from an early stage business startup solving super interesting problems to a business that is doing exactly the same thing, but it's in its scale up journey as well. And the decision really came to. My skill set, I wanted to level up, I wanted to expand my toolkit. I wanted to join a company during that journey. And I fell in love with the founder's stories and ambition to build a great enduring business that Aims to solve all of our furry and scaly friends needs. And that's what really excited me about it and hearing that vision through the interview process from Mike, our ceo and our cfo, and just the excitement really. Really brought me in. And what I do there and my team does, is help the business to make the best decisions possible and enable business leaders to make the right choices for the customer and the company and support, existing bus business lines, like optimizing them, help the business to plan better and look at New growth opportunities as well. So entering in new markets or adjacent businesses in the pet space.

James Fricker:

That's super cool. No, thank you so much for sharing cuz. Yeah, I think you've done some really cool things in your career and it's super cool to hear even there, some of the details of what you do on a day to day basis. But I want, I don't wanna ask one thing in a bit more detail, and so you touched on it a little bit through, through that. But if someone is looking to join a startup, and you mentioned there are some things. Attachment to the actual mission, how does it relate to your current skills and things like that. But I wonder, if someone's looking to make the leap, as you did, what kind of things should someone be looking for, whe when they're going to join a startup? There any things that perhaps if you were uh, like, you know, if you had to have one o'clock back and, and and be like, Okay, how would I do this? What kind of things now would I look for in, in a startup that would. That would maybe increase the odds. That's gonna be a good experience for me. What sort of things would you look for?

Nan Meka:

Yeah, that's a great question. I actually have started to do this a lot more in terms of, Interviewing the startup that's interviewing me or interviewing the business that's interviewing me. And I think it's important for people to spend the vast majority of your time like figuring out is this the right company for you to join above anything else, because that needs to be aligned. Otherwise, you're just not gonna be excited coming into work every day. Especially when things get really. And so it's really important. So I would ask some certain questions before joining startup. You could probably do bit of desktop research as well. But in particular testing the rigor of the business model, I, is it a big market size? What does the team look like? Are they strong executors? Is it diverse? Are they creative? Are they good operators? Cause diversity's super important as. And in my experience, I've optimized for companies that were operating in really big growing markets. So online travel is huge. Pets is a $15 billion market just in Australia alone. Retail investing like Simply Wall Street is tackling. There's about. 300, 400 million retail investors worldwide. So it, those are huge growing markets. More people are entering into that market as well. More people are taking note of it and also paying for services and in goods in those markets. I also tried to get a sense of how the product was doing before it launched. So before an interview, I would just go and do that desktop research that I mention. Dive into customer feedback. Your trust pilot or your Google reviews. And this would give me a sense of if the customer feedback was really telling me that they're solving a real pain point for a customer, or that a problem has just been invented because it sounds cool, but they're not really it's not really a sustainable. and I think it's also another thing which is what I've noticed about and drives me crazy is that there's a lot of marketing around fundraising. And so I think as somebody who's entering into a startup, you might get enamored with fundraising size, but having been in a startup, it's actually not an indication of a successful product market fit. Or commercial model or a great customer experience. So that's one metric I definitely ignore. So you see a lot of companies going, Wow, we've raised like a hundred million dollars, We've raised 150 million, and now you're seeing in the news, Oh wow, we haven't nailed our sort of revenue targets or some of the metrics that we had planned to hit. We're letting go of 15 to 20% of the work. And this is happening a lot now. Like I've seeing a lot of stories come up in in the local news. Just even yesterday there was a company that came out where there were sa letting go of 16% of the workforce after they had just raised 125 million led by the Atlassian, sorry, the Atlassian founders. Yeah it's important to just distinguish those two. And if there isn't any information or little information, because it's very hard with startups that they're private companies. By the time you get to the interview I would ask my interviewee actually about these topics. And I would ask them point blank, and I have done this in interviews where I've asked, Hey, what are your actual challenges? Is it activation? That's the issue? Is it acquiring customers? Is it retaining customers? And really deep dive and whatever information they are able to give me and if they try to like, gloss over it, I. I would be like something suspect there. So I think that's a really important for you to dig into that information and not be afraid. Just because they're interviewing you doesn't mean you cannot interview them back. It's a two way. And so for me I've been an angel investor. I'm also an operator in startups and scale up and. I also focus most of my attention on the founding and exec team because in early stage businesses, revenue might not be a metric that you can ascertain. Certain metrics might not be there. I tend to look at other founders, the right people that are building the product in this market. Are they customer, do they know the customer well? Or are they just doing it for bragging rights? Do they have passion that can be sustainable for decades? It's tiring building a startup. You like, there are more bad days than there are good days. So you've gotta have grit and big, bold ambitions to change the world and help the customer and not just optimize for, oh the financial return. I'm going to, I'm going to be a multimillionaire out of this. You've gotta deeply love what you're doing. And do they care, like beyond the product as well? So do they care about the people and do they care about building a business that's, a generational business that will transcend time and effectively have long lasting impacts for their customers? And so that's important to like distill. and one red flag for me really is if they are covering up these challenges and problems that I'd mentioned earlier I would just counter with what area of the business do you think that you can approve on? And look at their response. And their response is they've shown humbleness and real ownership of problems and that there's work to do. They're really grounded in reality. And it is about collectively getting together and solving that rather than, glossing it over and then everything blows up. And then finally for me, is this a team I can learn from and want to learn from? And even though a founder or a CEO. as different skill sets to you. There are these like important sort of meta skills beyond, the technical and those hard skills that you can learn just by observing how they communicate, how they prioritize, how they handle stress. And if you can observe those, then it's incredibly powerful to learn off them. And. Also, you don't wanna feel like the smartest person in the room when you're with, this team or the founding team. And if you are then you're not gonna learn anything. So I would avoid businesses like that as well.

James Fricker:

Yeah. No, I think that's really great. Yeah, I think like you were saying if the company is going really well and there are things to share, then they'll be more open to sharing them. Whereas if things perhaps aren't going so well, then maybe they won't be so forthcoming with like how things are going. So I think that's a great way of working out without like perhaps getting a response. But you can still get, have an idea of. What's going on? I think that's really cool. I think, yeah, there's a lot of good things in there, that I think are quite useful and things that I didn't think about looking up the reviews and and doing things that way to try and see what do people actually think about this? And an interesting point about funding, cuz I feel yeah, like you said, there's a lot of like media usually around like raises and stuff and it's easy to get, think, oh, they raised lots of money, must be a good company. Can to disregard a lot of the things that you did mention around is the customer having a good experience with this product? Like other founders like going to staying up for the long haul, things like that. Yeah, I like that a lot. Definitely definitely gonna use some of those tips there.

Nan Meka:

Yeah. And if all fails, watch a lot of true crime because. You get really good like

James Fricker:

Yeah. Oh, that's amazing. I wanna ask to, Yeah. You mentioned a little bit in there around you wanna be in a team that is going to help you grow and learn and develop. You don't wanna feel like the smartest person in the room. I feel like this is something that you do really well. You've done plenty of learning outside of. Outside of work you, you did a masters of finance, all these like different VC things. I know you've done a few of those kind of almost like boot camp style training things. I'm interested to hear how you think about developing your skills both in your role and outside of that and how you've used those like external things and perhaps your current roles as well to progress. I.

Nan Meka:

Yeah, it's a great question. I think for me, like university can only teach you so much. I think once you get into the workforce and you start actually interacting with customers, interacting with various functions and with your team, That's when the real lessons start to occur. And I think it's just about being open and being like, deeply curious and understanding why we do what we do. And so if there's any sort of skill that I would suggest getting is getting curiosity, and I think that encourag. Sort of the learning, the exchange of ideas we communicate better with one another in our team. It builds deeper connection and empathy to what a team mate or a different function is doing fuels innovation. And I think when we are curious we look at tough problems in a more creative light and try to sit in the problem till we deeply understand why it's, so challenging. So in, in my case I wanted to. Learn more about product management and growth because at Simply Wall Street, for example, I was interacting with a lot of those, the development of those strategies and building those teams and. And I didn't have any depth of understanding of it. Just what I've read online, but I didn't want that superficial understanding. So I started to invest a lot more time just learning from others. Setting up Catchups Coffee Catchups with people just to understand what do they do why does it drive impact to the business? Why is it so important? Breaking it up for me as well. And then doing my own sort of investment after hours in in. Training. So I started doing those Reforge courses, which are a great way to level up your understanding of product and growth and understanding things around, how product managers do their jobs and how strategies are set at that level. How they even interview their users. Even from a growth perspective, like how does, how do you build like a growth model in a tech business? What does that look like? How do you think about pricing monetization, like all these various. Tidbits of, that makeup sort of growth, which is like deeply complicated because it is very I would say a newer area and very different to your traditional marketing channels. And so yeah, for me it was just about investing a lot of time. In leveling up, reading a lot subscribing to a lot of newsletters following people on Twitter as well to learn and effectively, yeah, just being really deeply curious about things. And wanting to understand the why. Not because I wanted to execute that job, but because it helped me to build more empathy and understanding. Especially because I was on the leadership team and if we were supporting these teams in terms of growing them and building them, and. Helping to define, strategies with them. And I needed to have that understanding. Otherwise, yeah, it would just, I would add no value effectively.

James Fricker:

Yeah, I think It's interesting you mentioned earlier about aligning the company that you, or the startup that you're gonna try and join, or the company that you're working for with something that is like a personal pain point or something that you're actually interested in. A product that perhaps you use anyway. I think that really helps with the c curiosity piece, right? Is if you, if it's something that hits one of your pain points and you're actually interested and then you also work there, then I think that's then obviously you're gonna be much more interested than having some pain points or whatever. And then working somewhere that's completely unrelated it's gonna. You're gonna have better odds at being interested, right? If you work somewhere that's actually relevant to yourself. So yeah, I think that's super good.

Nan Meka:

Hundred percent.

James Fricker:

Nice. Let's continue on. I wanna, I know we've only got a little bit of time left, so I wanna touch on sort of your career more broadly rather than the day to day. And I wanna ask, Career advice. So you are I'm sure you've seen many sort of juniors or junior marketers, growth people whatever it might be, product come through different companies that you've worked at. And I wonder what is some advice that you see these people? What are some mistakes maybe that you see these people make that. You wish you could just tell everyone, everyone that's starting their career don't make this mistake. Is there anything there?

Nan Meka:

Yeah. I've had, this kind of common career advice come my way and it's really it's really a either from your parents or from, respectfully older people, I'm just gonna say. And they communicated this often Hey, you've. Gotta know your worth when going for a role. And when they talk about worth, it's effectively, your compensation, your total compensation. And I do understand that, it comes from a good place. And it's ensuring that you and others are valuing you and your time. But the biggest mistake I see people make, especially the ones that are trying to go from, a corporate job into into a startup or a scale up. Is trying to optimize sort of their salaries. And so I think early on in your career you should definitely optimize for learning over earning a high salary and even the role as well. And I strongly believe that if you invest in learning first, you are gonna develop that highly sought after skill set. Which. Translates into that valuable role, which a high salary is ultimately a byproduct of. And so just in my experience, recruiting and interviewing candidates and you get to the office stage especially new ones coming in around the two to four year experience mark. And they've come from. Large corporates and they think, Oh yeah, like therefore I should be earning even more, and so generally they wanna try and get maybe five to 10 K more, which, after tax is like totally immaterial. Or they want the role title in a startup because the one that they're going for isn't sexy enough for. And so it's all totally immaterial because you are forgoing, the valuable steep learning curve. The immense amount of ownership you get from day one. And also the conviction. You building yourself through many opportunities of being tested, failing consistently, and then learning and picking this off up and being stronger for. Which you just don't get that opportunity at a larger organization because there's just so much cushioning and protection. So I would really caution people to really think about why they're going for a startup role and not really like optimize for that earning. Because what might happen is because startups are resource constrained or scale ups are resource constrained. It might not be in the budget. And then you might miss out on a, an opportunity which you can't get back and an

James Fricker:

Yeah.

Nan Meka:

into an opportunity, which a lot of people are buying to get into.

James Fricker:

Yeah, definitely. I feel like you mentioned it, but yeah, today I feel like startups are this the new like sexy thing to do, right? And so you want the nice title. Things like that. But yeah I completely agree. I think sometimes the learning, particularly when you're young is just important. And I think you've said it quite well where you were saying, the learning and the knowledge that you gain will lead to a high salary like some time in the future. You don't necessarily need that right now. In fact, sometimes choosing a high salary when they're young might. Limit the growth in some cases where you're being like overpaid to do nothing sometimes. So yeah, I completely agree. I think it's important for people to recognize that. Cool. I've got, let's do one more. And this is a question for you about, if you could rewind the clock. It's a question I ask all the guests and it is. Nan where you are now. Rewind the clock back to when you were just graduating university heading out into the world. Knowing everything that you know now, is there anything that you would do differently or is there any advice that you wish you would've known then that you know now?

Nan Meka:

Yeah I think I've definitely. Put my foot in it a lot. I definitely made a lot of mistakes. And I'm also really grateful for that. So don't shy away from failure. Absolutely not. But having said that, there are things that you can mitigate at least the impact because it can often be Very often when you get hit it and you get constantly hit very demoralizing to your confidence. And it often does take you a bit of time to pick up. But realizing that things aren't personal, this is just the way of the world. you don't have the cushioning of the university. You don't have. That, that protection anymore. And so for me I wish I had developed, self-awareness about myself, my behaviors what I'm really good at, what I'm terrible at, and really being more open minded in trying to, unlearn the ones that were holding me back from growing. And sometimes it can be a little bit humbling. It can take you a steps back. But I think that's okay. But I think the way, university's been set up and the way society pits people against each other in terms of competition and all that kind of stuff. It really does get into your head and that you wanna move forward. And for me I wish I had just, taken a step back to address some of those areas. And I can give an example, but one, one thing that I one thing I did struggle with was going from being like a really strong. Sort of individual contributor to a people leader. And what I found is it's like a completely different job requiring, new abilities totally new set of problems that require completely different muscles skills and tools. And I had to really make significant changes from just, going deep into my work and being really. of Myopic and really good at like just executing the task or building that that skillset to looking at the bigger picture, understanding, communicating the context to the team in which we operate in. And I went from being, a master of my craft also. To taking a step to trying to train others to be good at their job. Cause that's when you are successful, when you've actually been able to help others. And I went from, solving with what tools and resources I had to allocating resources and influencing others, which became more important in this role. Going from like that, functional mindset where you're just thinking about your own function, what's required to do the job really well to what's actually good for the company of mindset. And often you have to unlearn a lot of these things. It takes a bit of time because it's like you're a computer you're programmed a certain way. Because of, society, external factors internally driven as well. And for me, like I sought a lot of help externally and I wasn't afraid that I was seeking help externally or internally or telling people I don't know how to do this and I need to get better at this. How do I go about doing this? And showing that kind of vulnerability and and some people. Might see it as weakness, but it isn't it's so powerful to just be vulnerable cuz this weight just lifts off you and you're like, Oh, great. I can learn without any sort of judgment. And they're probably thinking exactly the same thing. And so I think yeah, really focusing on trying to unlearn and having that self awareness about yourself a bit. Your internal engineering effectively, like your makeup, spending a lot more time on, on knowing yourself rather than knowing, the business externally. That can come of second. I wish I had done that a lot. I wish I'd done an exercise where I was trying to figure out what actually motivates me rather than what do my parents want me to do, Or when you graduate From a university degree, everyone goes into an investment bank or a big four or a consulting firm. And that's like a mark of success when it actually really isn't there are alternative career paths. And because I'd been so conditioned I only thought success was through that path. And It didn't bring me any joy, and that's probably why I changed so many times as well. Cause I was just getting deeply frustrated and I was like, Why am I getting frustrated? But I just didn't spend enough time on knowing myself, knowing the creative side of myself, knowing what problems I'm drawn to and now I'm more free and open about it. Very honest about it. Because I don't wanna, you. Hip switching, for example. I wanna just solve a problem that I'm deeply passionate about and that I love doing day in day.

James Fricker:

No, I think that's so important and it great to see it, like you go on that journey and, and you know, the self development journey that you've been on and learning more about yourself, The self-awareness, I think completely agree. I think it's almost like we're, we're all sort of somewhere you know, trying to chasing something and so I think, um, it's, yeah. Cool that you can now look back and see how far you've come. I think you, uh, I think you're doing some really amazing stuff. So, um, Yeah, really, really fortunate that we're able to hear your wisdom Um, so thank you so much for sharing that with us. Um, we might wrap it up there. So I wanna ask before we head off, where can people go to find more about you and connect with you after this, after? Is there anywhere that you'd like to send people

Nan Meka:

Yeah, look, I'm on Twitter. I'm on Instagram but that's more like my travel photos and food photos on LinkedIn. Yeah, do connect with me on LinkedIn. Always happy to connect with people. A lot of startup meets I'm deeply passionate about, the community and investing. So if you wanna get. I don't know, career advice, I dunno why you wanna come to me for career advice, but or any of my sort of mistakes or war stories, I'm happy to share those. And yeah, like that's the best place to catch me.

James Fricker:

Amazing. Well, yeah, thanks so much again for coming on the show now. It's been super like really, really interesting and insightful to hear your thoughts and your journey. So thank you so much for sharing it with us and yeah, we'll catch you around.

Nan Meka:

Great. Thanks James for the insightful questions. I feel like baby Yoda.

James:

thanks for listening to this episode I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. If you want to get my takeaways, the things that I learned from this episode, please go to graduate theory.com/subscribe, where you can get my takeaways and all the information about each episode, straight to your inbox. Thanks so much for listening again today, and we're looking forward to seeing you next week.