Jonathan Salama Talks Inclusion, Culture, and Why Many Startups Fail at AWS re:Invent

 

In December, Transfix’s co-founder and CTO Jonathan Salama took the stage at AWS re:invent 2022 with Bryan Coon, Area Leader of Startup Solutions Architecture at AWS. Facing an audience of engineers and entrepreneurs, Salama and Coon spoke candidly about the pitfalls of young startups, why 90% fail, and the importance of cloud-computing and diversity in the workplace. 

“25% of startups fail because of people or technology, and people build technology. People matter. It’s a high stakes game and you need all the advantages,” said Salama.

Here are some high-level takeaways from their talk: Startups at Scale: What to Expect when Building an Engineering Team.

Hiring

Often, young and well-funded startups lack clarity on what they’re working to build or which technology languages they’ll use. It’s imperative to “work backwards from the customer” – to literally sit down with customers in order to understand their needs, motivations, milestones, and deliverables. Consider how you’re going to invent and innovate with and for your customer. 

“We didn’t have the problem of not knowing what we were building,” said Salama. “I was lucky that my cofounder came from the industry. We knew we needed to build an awesome product and to sell it. We had to look at our skillset. I was more of a back end engineer, so we needed a front end engineer. We had to hire for the complementary skills we needed.”

For those first hires, it’s important to pitch to your candidates the same way you pitch to your customers. 

“Think about hiring for where you’re at today and where you need to go, as opposed to hiring for where you have been,” said Coon. “Focus on culture and things that are going to help you downstream.”

According to a Glassdoor survey conducted by the Harris Poll,  86% of women and 74% of men think that an employer’s Diversity and Inclusion policy is important when deciding whether or not to work for them.

Culture

It’s important to define and document your culture, so new people recognize it when they begin.  

“Culture is created with every hire that you make, every decision that you make, and over time. So you have to be very thoughtful and deliberate about what you’re doing,” said Coon.

According to the same Glassdoor survey, diverse teams make decisions 60% faster, and at startups, speed and bias for action is key to success. 

“Every other year we’ll look at who we are and who we want to be and put it on paper,” said Salama. “Culture evolves with every hire you make and every decision you make.”

Performance

If the team you hire isn’t performing, how can you deliver?

“At Transfix, performance is a lot about communication. We create a safe space where managers and employees talk often and practice active listening. Performance reviews should not be a surprise. We practice radical candor at a high level. When things don’t work out, we tell you why. We set goals and measure.” 

Retention

Companies at all stages should think about retention every day, which means celebrating the small and big wins, therefore building camaraderie. While tough conversations shouldn’t be surprises – neither should the good conversations. High performers want to be challenged, offered opportunities to mentor or pursue leadership programs. 

According to statistics shared in Coon and Salama’s presentation, new hires are 42% more likely to stay in an inclusive workplace.

“The most important thing we can do is keep our people and make sure they perform,” added Salama. “We return to our hiring principle of finding self- and customer-driven people. You want to empower them to make decisions and mistakes. It doesn’t matter if they change the color of a button or are designing a big feature, they should know why what they’re doing matters.”

 

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