Office Hours: I founded Evite, was president and CTO of SurveyMonkey, and founded Gixo. I'm Selina Tobaccowala.Featured

Hi Everyone! I’m Selina Tobaccowala, chief digital officer at Openfit. I was previously the co-founder of Evite, VP of online product and technology at Entertainment Publications, SVP of product and technology at Ticketmaster Europe, president and CTO of SurveyMonkey, and co-founder of Gixo, which was acquired by Openfit. I am on the advisory board of HubSpot and on the board of Redfin. I have an undergraduate degree from Stanford in computer science. Ask me about founding startups, leading technical teams, product design, being a board member, or anything else!
Thanks so much for joining us, @selinat. Elphas: please reply in the comments with your questions for @selinat before this Thursday. She may not have time to answer every single question, so please emoji upvote the ones that interest you most.
Hi Selina, first I want to say I really enjoyed your interview on NPR's How I Built This. Second, how has your founder experience differed between Evite and Gixo? How was being a first time founder different than the second time around and was there anything that really surprised you? Is there any common start up advice you disagree with?
Hi Allison -- Thank you :). When we were doing Evite we had no idea what we were doing. I had no prior business experience. We also had nothing to lose and our risk tolerance was extremely high. We tried to make up for our lack of experience with pure hard work. We at one point had 3 different products out there and were just going to see what stuck. The second time around we focused first on prototyping, quickly gathering customer feedback, and throwing out ideas much faster. We also had more opportunity cost, so set a timeline for ourselves to get to certain traction to move forward. We also were a lot more explicit about the culture of the company we wanted to build, and hired a great team. The most surprising thing about the second time around, was despite having a family, and coming from being President & CTO at SurveyMonkey, the both pleasure & stress of it being your startup is great. So when you are picking your idea make sure its something you are truly passionate about.
I also loved this interview!
ooh! Listening now. Thanks for the recommendation.
Thank you for taking the time to answer questions. My question for you is -as a non-technical founder of a startup, how do I go about hiring and leading a technical team?
Hi Sarita -- For short-term you can build a prototype with an outsourced firm. You will need to find a strong technical partner. It doesn't need to be a co-founder but can be a strong senior engineer/early CTO. First network through every avenue possible to see if you can find someone. Once you exhaust that if you have the capital then it is often worth linking with a strong search firm (Riviera, Daversa, etc) who can help hire. Spend lots of time with the person before hire; do backdoor reference checks. Make sure you are clear if you may layer them with a person more focused on people management later.
Thank you so much for this advice. I am on the lookout for someone with technical expertise. I like the idea of an early CTO.
Hi Sarita. Finding a long term technical partner and CTO will take time and if you end up outsourcing/off-shoring the MVP, you have to make sure that you have a good process in place on your end to communicate with and manage the development team, otherwise, you will waste a lot of time and money. Feel free to reach out with any questions and also check out this resource:
Hi Selina - thanks so much for taking the time to do this. I would like to know how you have found leading technical teams when there are so many different skills and languages involved? I ask as I will soon start managing a team of frontend, backend, DevOps, designers, test engineers etc. and it's impossible to learn enough to check, and therefore manage, the quality of all work. Thank you, Lauren
Hi Lauren -- There are a few keys. Your job is to decide process, goals, priorities, and motivate the team.1 - I really think its important that every engineer and team knows why they are doing what they are doing. Its important to put "the why", and what you are going to measure in each ticket. If you aren't managing product, its important they add this discipline. Similarly its very important that there are read outs for how projects did. 2 - You can't know every tech so what you need to focus on is what things are going to be standard, what are the goals, and how are you implementing that. For example, will you set 100% code review? What about unit testing? What are the app/site performance benchmarks you are asking people to hit? 3 - You need to make sure you are setting clear priorities, the team is giving you estimates on the work, and you are looking back at how you did. I like having quarterly priorities and also a top 10 list that everyone shares. Hope that helps!
This is really helpful advice. Thanks and have a lovely weekend :)
Hi Lauren,It will be really important for you to get familiar with the technical stuff on the high level...enough to be able to freely have discussions with your team. The key is to know enough to be able to ask the right questions and understand why certain technical decisions are being made.This resource might be helpful to you:
Hi Selina! I am wondering how you navigated the acquisition offers both at Evite and Gixo. How did you initially get in touch with the buying companies, and how was it integrating both afterwards? Thank you!
Hi Soph -- In the case of Evite the dot com had bust and so we did something crazy and put an ad in the WSJ and said "Evite is for sale". We ended up with 2 bidders and went with the highest one. I was one of the key people who integrated into IAC which was really a tech integration and migrating everything to LA (at the time you had datacenters to stack and rack!). With Gixo, we were starting our fundraising process for our Series A round and in that process met the VC arm of a firm who had a holding in Beachbody. Once I had one interested party I quickly worked to get a second and potentially third party to the table as that helps with price. With Gixo we set out a 100 day plan to integrate the 2 platforms (Gixo & Openfit) and hit that timeline. We made some tough choices on features to lose but we wanted to quickly get the integration done and consumers on the same product. I am excited to be watching Openfit thrive today. At Ticketmaster, I was also multiple times on the other side of the transaction. Because we had the venues using our products, we had to have a much slower integration. We needed to understand what were the product requirements from the company we bought, integrate it in, and move customers over slowly. The integration is really different if its a pure consumer or any two sided marketplace/enterprise. Thanks
I can't believe you could just sell a company on WSJ back then! Thanks so much for the detailed response. It's interesting how different it was each time. I hope I get to learn from you in the next Female Founders Track! Have a great 4th.
Can you tell us a little about what it's like being a board member for Redfin? How does a job like that compare to your previous positions both in general and on a day-to-day basis?What advice might you have for others who may want to end up in a similar position?
Being on a board has been a fantastic experience for me. I am a very detailed oriented person, and I tend to make decisions by reviewing a lot of data, qualitative information, and the market. When you are on a board you start to learn that a lot of leadership is making sure the executive team has the right resources and no obvious blind spots in their decision making. I found that the board work really helped me in my day to day. Also as a CEO by sitting on another board, it helps you learn how to run an effective board and what is important to them. The day to day depends on the company, but most of the time the commitment is about 1.5 days per quarter that is official. Then if you build your relationship withe the CEO then you will jump on a couple calls between board meetings. My biggest advice for choosing a board is make sure you have a huge amount of respect for the CEO. Spend real time with him/her before you join, and ideally audit one board meeting to make sure its functional.
Selinat,I would like to found a social startup that is environmentally inclined. It would focus on projects and products that help slow global warming.I was a former aerospace engineer working at a large defense company in New York. I changed to business when there were no jobs in the industry (government contracts were nil and I wanted to come back home to the SF Bay Area) locally.So many parts to my journey I won’t say more. Now I’m focused on something closer to my heart -> preserving the local environment in and around San Francisco (my home).I was in startup school 2xs. I’ve got to get myself in gear and move forward on my company. Any tips (steps to take) would be appreciated!
Go for it! :).What is the biggest risk? Think about what that is and how you then prototype / learn on that quickly. For example, if the biggest risk is getting new customers, how can you do customer research or quick ad tests to see if its interesting. If the biggest risk, is if the tech/science is possible how do you get enough dollars to do the research but set a timeline for yourself.
Hi @rosie105, just wanted to say 👋🏼 as I'm currently working at Planet, our company mission is to "Use space to help life on Earth". We are in Earth Observation (EO) space and climate change is a huge focus of our work & use cases. Planet is based in SF & our Space Systems team is hiring - check it out and I'd be happy to chat if you are interested in any of the open roles!
@selinat would love your advice on setting up the ideal Board of Directors for a startup. How many members should you have, what are key skill sets needed and any ideas on where to research board governance? Thanks
@suzanna23 Always happy to talk board governance. One of my expertise is governance for public and private companies. I focused on it for years as a lawyer. Now I advise startups and high-growth companies on a range of matters including leadership which encompasses how you interact with your board.
Thanks for your time, Selina!I'm curious to know: what were some decisions you almost made during your time at Evite that in hindsight, you're glad you didn't? For example, did you ever think of quitting on the product or did you almost make a decision that would've hurt the business?
Hi Meryam -- At Evite, we had a very early offer to sell and I am glad we didn't. That company ended up going belly up and we wouldn't have had the great experience in building a company. That said, at Gixo we ended up taking a pretty early (3 years in) acquisition offer. Thanks
Hi Selina, I would love your advice on the best place to look for a technical cofounder. I have posted on Angelist, Cofounders Lab, and Upwork but have not yet found someone with the founders mentality. I would love to find someone passionate about my project who is willing to take on the risk of an equity position. I look forward to your thoughts!
This is a very common problem. That's why I have a saying: You don't find a technical cofounder, you earn one. Here is the thing…a good technical person who wants to take a risk and work in a startup is probably already busy doing a startup with their own idea. So you have to convince other great technical people why they should take a risk on you and your idea by showing to them that you are not just an idea person…but that you can actually get stuff done…. that you'll be able to deliver as the business co-founder.Great technical people who are not already working on their own ideas, don’t have a problem earning a living in today’s environment. In fact, there is a shortage of great developers and companies are willing to pay top dollar to hire great talent. So developers have plenty of choices. And 2 out of 10 startups fail in their first year, so there is a LOT of risk involved. One way to get the potential technical cofounder to say ‘YES’ to YOU is by showing them that you have taken some of the risk out of their time investment.Here are some things you can do to earn a technical co-founder and mitigate the tech person’s risk: 1. Validate the idea & build the prototype2. Build a following3.Invest some of your own money to build the MVP.Having these 3 things will shift the conversation from “I Need You” to “Here is a Great Opportunity” and you should feel lucky to be a part of it. You’ll be able to say, look what I’ve been able to achieve without you…Imagine what we can do together!This resource might be helpful for you:
Hi Selina, Thank you for being here I’m building a tech company, its been over a year of details, an exciting year. Now I’m at the point to build the MVP, have the UI design, but need to get to market Question: I have an offer from a good tech company to build for 70k and 5% equity, (take care of bandwidth, storage etc) then I have an offer for a tech person to build under 20k ( then myself takes care of storage, bandwidth etc) and was introduced to build with no code at even cheaper. Also was advised to hire a CTO advisor- is that worth it? Will look good in deck and in front of investors down the road. Money is scarce, and don’t want to spend all on building MVP, but know this is next step...What road would you take? What is best way to take care of bandwidth, storage etc? AWS? Appreciate your timeGina
Hi Selina,I'm not sure if you're still need an answer to this question. If you still need advice, please feel free to reach out and I would be happy to provide my perspectiveNelly
I would like to learn more about your involvement in TimesUp. What is happening there with regards to the tech industry?
@selinat Thanks for sharing! I'm curious about how to connect with larger companies like you've worked at, as it has been difficult from my perspective. Ideas?
Can I clone you and have you as a technical co-founder of my re-engineering shopping startup? :) Thx for doing AMA... If not you, I'd compensate for referrals!
@selinatI help women entrepreneurs scale businesses. What were some of your biggest challenges, whether or not female specific? Female specific I find, beyond funding, it is networks, work/life balance and confidence. For all founders generally managing teams and transitioning into a CEO. What am I missing? What was your experience like as a Founder? What is one piece of advice you would give founders trying to scale?Thanks!!
Wow! This is awesome. Thanks for joining our community and welcome. I hope I'll have an opportunity to work/partner with you.
Hi Selina! Thank you for sharing. I'm Masaaki Furuki, a trans woman founder, UI/UX designer, and full-stack engineer specialized in prototyping at Sokett, based in SF. I also dropped out my collage to start my tech career in Tokyo back in 2005 and took me a decade to find my track. After failing a career building in Tokyo, I decided to explore the world and be a digital nomad for a year and then moved into SF in 2014.It's been such an intimate journey since then as I failed a couple of idea stage startup, experienced social network crisis, and coming out as a transgender person so on.I'm now pursuing my idea for financial wellbeing automation at my company Sokett which I wanted to have in my 20's. It's not only about money but life with money.Sokett analyzes your banks, cards, investments, and automatically generates budgets based on our financial freedom algorithm. Sokett gets you out from debts and helps you build emergency savings. Best of all, you can always start investing with Sokett while you are paying off debts and making emergency savings or pursuing your dream startup because we know how much you can afford to invest, and we want you to focus on your growth.It's like Tesla automating driving to solve human errors. I wanted to get advice from you about founding a startup. Please reach me out if you can spare me your time for a quick intro call. Thank you!
@selinat - I love the digital concept of OpenFit and bringing health and fitness directly to consumers. This is especially timely with the Covid crisis many gyms closed and people are looking to stay fit(and sane). I was wondering if OpenFit is looking to hire and how can I apply? My background is in healthcare in promoting and engaging consumers in preventative health activities such as healthy eating and fitness. Thank you!
Hi Selina! I was curious if you had any specific role models growing up?
Hi Selina! My name is Tanya Ramesh and I’m currently a rising Junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying Management Information Systems and Marketing. I’m very interested in the start-up world and was wondering if you had any advice on how to get started? It’s so amazing to see all that you have accomplished and I can’t wait to learn so much from you! Thank you so much!