Office Hours: I've helped the founders of MasterClass, GrandRounds, and Fertility IQ with their product releases. I'm partner and technical lead at Carbon Five and mentor at Techstars.Featured

Hi everyone! I’m Courtney Hemphill, partner and technical lead at Carbon Five, a digital product development consultancy where I’ve helped the founders of MasterClass, GrandRounds, FertilityIQ, and most recently Rhythm create the first releases of their platform as well as hire on and train their internal dev and product teams. I am also a mentor at Techstars, on the board of NatureBridge, an investor and advisor in several startups. I co-chair the QCon conferences and in non-COVID times have spoken at various conferences worldwide.I have a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Chicago. Ask me anything about starting a company, product development, technical leadership, hiring, advising, working on executive teams, and more!
Thanks so much for joining us @courtney!Elphas – please ask @courtney your questions before Friday, February 5th. @courtney may not have time to answer every questions, so emoji upvote your favorites 🔥👍🏾➕
Hi, Courtney!Congrats on your inspiring track record and thank you for taking the time to do this :)I'm a cofounder at Learnpine, an edtech. I'd appreciate some advice about the right time to raise the first check (pre-seed). We reached a startup competition finals at Google, where we lost due to not having enough traction (not publicly launched). Since then we haven't made efforts to raise funds as it is time consuming. We validated the need for what we're building with a waiting list and we're almost finishing the beta; If we focus on fund raising it may drag attention out of users' needs and iterating on the product. At the same time, having pre-seed money could help us to scale quickier and answer the market's demand. What are your thoughts?
Hi Mariana - Congratulations on LearnPine! I checked out the product and it is a good idea and timely. You sort of answered your own question about funding. If you want to scale quickly, then taking some time to raise will make the product development process go slower initially but then will go much faster if you can secure some seed investment. The questions you might want to ask yourself are: what are my goals for this company? Do you want to have a lifestyle company that you grow slowly over the next 5 years where you build a small team and wear many hats? BTW - one of the primary hats in this scenario is sales. Or do you want to focus on building a company that will in turn create a product that has meaningful market returns for your investors (in this case the hat you wear will require you to meet the demands of your investors in addition to the demands of your employees and customers).Happy to chat more if you want to DM me.
Thanks for your insight, Courtney. I've sent you a DM.
Hi Courtney, I have an amazing idea for an app I'd like to launch but I have no background in tech, and I have no clue where to start. I'd like my app to operate kind of like a social network, and I already have a vision of what I'd like it to look like. I'm based between the Middle East and the U.S., and I was thinking of initially launching my app in the Middle East as it'll be a smaller community (and then I could potentially branch out to the states). My biggest concerns right now, however, as I'm still looking for investors, are 1) protecting my app idea, how could I do that if I want to initially launch my app in a foreign market? and 2) how do I go about finding money to develop my app? I'd like to be very secure and protected for users, and I know without a doubt that this will be expensive. Would you recommend that I try to find investors, or should I just pull out a loan?Thank you in advance for your help :)
Hi Jackie - it is great that you have an idea that you are excited and passionate about. I realize when you have something you feel is highly valuable and unique it can be terrifying to think that someone will "steal" the idea. However, that instinct flies in the face of the exact thing you *should* be doing - which is testing out your idea with everyone you can. Market validation takes a ton of time and is the very first step to building a viable company. You can't develop a product in complete isolation from the customers you want that product to serve. Likewise, getting funding requires that you have proven the market value and business opportunity which is tough to do without some kind of verified proof. There are a lot of ideas. There are a lot less successful startups. I would recommend reading Steve Blank's "The Four Steps to the Epiphany", "Lean Customer Development" by Cindy Alvarez, Running Lean & Lean Canvas by Ash Maurya, and "The art of doing twice as much in half the time" by Jeff Sutherland.Bootstrap until you have a solid product foundation to pitch with - even if that is just a squarespace page with the product promise that 10,000 people signed up to be on the waitlist. Then think about getting funding, applying to an accelerator, or continuing to bootstrap. Regarding starting in a smaller, niche market, I think this can focus your product roadmap and allow for easier customer development.Finally, everyone chooses a different way to fund their first MVP. Some keep their current job and do this on the side, some save up enough to take time off so they can focus full time, some find friends that will work with them and both work for equity alone. The trick is to know when there is a real market signal and when to pivot or move on to another idea or opportunity.Good luck!
Hi Courtney! I'm the founder/ CEO at a B2B saas start-up. We're in hyper-growth mode and looking to expand our tech team. 2 questions- 1. my CTO is an engineer by trade and very difficult to get along with. He is short tempered, low EQ and NOT a cultural torchbearer. Many people have told me 'that's just engineers' but he's exhausting to manage and try to control collateral damage. Any advice? 2. How do I know which tech hire to make next- I thought a product owner should e next, my CTO has pushed for product designer. He's said QA should be next and them a junior engineer. How do I know he's right?
Sorry to hear you're have such troubles in a time which should be exciting.FWIW, I would agree with him that you want to hire a product designer before a PM (speaking as a prod manager).
I'm sorry to hear about the cultural differences you are having with your CTO. I have seen this and it is never a good place to be but it is NOT "just engineers". That thinking allows for bad behavior to persist. To be frank - differences in approaches and cultures is one of the absolute hardest things to fix. The only lever you really have is finding shock absorbers for the negative impacts of the behavior. The first thing to try is process improvements. Is the team running retros every week? Are they productive and captured somewhere? Are you able to check in with his team members and understand what the impact is for them? Are you able to connect with the CTO's peers through routine weekly one on ones? Is there someone on the engineering team that you have a good relationship with and can partner with for support? Can this person level up to take on a Director or VP eng role and help support a better culture within the engineering org?It would be almost impossible to advise on the next hires without understanding the goals you have for the next 6-18 months. Depending on where the gaps are in your current team and the product and technical needs I would create your product roadmap first and then drive your resourcing strategy from that. Regarding QA, I have seen a lot of ways to handle that need without a full time resource - particularly on smaller teams. If there are a lot of bugs there is perhaps an underlying issue that should be looked at first before trying to solve with a QA resource. Better automated testing? Better monitoring and observability? Using feature flagging for more complex releases? If QA is absolutely necessary, some companies have been successful using existing teams (marketing, sales, Ops, CSRs) to rotate in and play that role for major releases.
Thank you so much, @courtneyhemphill! This is incredibly helpful.
@courtney How did you find your way to the position that you are in currently? How did the path look like? How has your bachelor's helped or not helped you on the way to where you are at currently? :) And most importantly – how can I become your mentee? Do I need to apply to Techstars first? 👀
Hi Anna - Thanks for the question. I would say that my bachelor's degree has not necessarily helped with my career in a tactical way but the methodology you gain from a STEM education as well as the foundational math definitely was applicable. I took a couple computer classes my senior year that also gave me some confidence with programming. My path was accelerated early on by purely putting the hours in. Lots and lots of time programming both independently but then more importantly on teams and pairing. I joined a startup with a friend from college (which became and learned a ton working to build a from scratch e-commerce platform in 1999. I went on to join Carbon Five where I learned test driven development and because of the nature of consulting (high variability, fast paced, lots of exposure to new technologies) was able to get much better as a developer. Later in my career, learning to effectively communicate to leadership teams was the biggest boost. This required developing skills around facilitation, putting together proposals, then crafting execution roadmaps, and hiring and developing teams. My role now is less hands on coding and more working on the strategic product and technical decisions that our clients are faced with.Happy to chat with you about mentorship. Separately, if you have a startup that is far enough along to see some traction I would be happy to put you in touch with the Techstars folks.