20VC Biggest Lessons From Scaling Houseparty To Millions of Users, Why Today's Metrics Are Insufficient To Determine Product Success & What Breaks with Scale From Team To Product with Ben Rubin, CoFounder @ talk & Houseparty



In this episode of "20 minutes vc," host Harry Stebbings interviews Ben Rubin, founder and CEO of Slash Talk, an antimeeting tool designed for quick, decentralized workplace conversations. Rubin, who previously co-founded and led Houseparty to millions of users and substantial funding, shares insights into the architecture of digital spaces and the importance of product adaptability. He discusses the critical role of broadcaster retention in live video platforms, as evidenced by his experiences with Houseparty and Meerkat, and the need for companies to pivot strategically when growth plateaus. Rubin also emphasizes the value of self-awareness and process over fixed outcomes in the early stages of a startup. The episode concludes with a reflection on the future of work and the evolution of team dynamics as companies grow.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Slash Talk and Ben Rubin's Background

  • Harry Stebings introduces the podcast and expresses his excitement for discussions with world-class product people.
  • Ben Rubin is introduced as the founder and CEO of Slash Talk, an antimeeting tool for fast, decentralized conversations in successful workplaces.
  • Prior to Slash Talk, Ben Rubin co-founded Houseparty, scaling it to millions of users and raising over $70 million from notable investors.
  • Rubin's additional roles included a scout at Sequoia and an entrepreneur in residence at Benchmark.
  • Acknowledgment to Avi at Entree Capital for question suggestions for the episode.

"Welcome back. This is a 20 minutes vc with me, Harry Stebings, and I don't know about you, but I love discussions with truly world class product people. And today I'm joined by one of." "The best, Ben Rubin, founder and CEO."

The introduction sets the stage for the conversation, highlighting Ben Rubin's significant experience in the tech industry and his current venture with Slash Talk.

  • Amplitude is introduced as a product intelligence platform that helps teams understand user behavior and build better product experiences.
  • Harness is presented as a digital wealth platform that offers best-in-class advisory firms and technology to maximize finances.
  • Hello Sign, an e-signature solution, is mentioned as a successful company that was acquired by Dropbox for $230 million.

"That's where amplitude comes in. Amplitude helps the top product and growth teams at companies like PayPal, Instacart, Peloton, and Atlassian build product experiences that convert and retain customers." "And speaking of incredible products, there harness is a truly modern digital wealth platform that leverages technology and bestinclass advisory firms to give you access to the best experienced human advice to maximize your finances."

These quotes highlight the importance of technology and advisory services in building successful products and managing finances, showcasing the podcast's partnerships with Amplitude and Harness.

Ben Rubin's Journey into Tech and the Founding of Houseparty

  • Ben Rubin studied architecture and found joy in creating spaces that facilitate encounters between people.
  • Realizing the limitations of physical space in architecture, he turned his attention to the digital world as a new frontier for creating spaces.
  • Rubin founded Life on Air with the premise of mobile-first live video experiences to connect people in a human way when physically apart.
  • Houseparty is likened to a digital building with millions of users daily.

"So I studied architecture. And what I really find interesting in architecture is the opportunity to create spaces that create new encounters and new opportunity for encounters between people." "House party is a building with hundreds of thousands of people every day. If not, sorry, millions of people every day."

Rubin's background in architecture influenced his approach to digital space creation, leading to the founding of Houseparty, which he describes metaphorically as a digital building with a vast user base.

Key Learnings from Houseparty Experience

  • Product companies traditionally measure success using growth accounting metrics like MAU, DAU, and user cohorts.
  • Houseparty faced challenges in growth due to the unique behaviors of high school users, including a code of conduct and synchronized schedules.
  • The team had to go beyond traditional metrics and talk to users to understand microseasonal behaviors tied to life changes like moving to college.
  • Rubin emphasizes the need for custom tools and thought processes to fully understand unique product challenges.

"One of the things that I think is very important for people to take from this as a product company, you measure your success on traditional, what is called like growth accounting." "Only when we did that and rebased, then we started seeing, oh, that's the problem. People are moving from a different state in life, different mindshare, to a new type of environment, either it's college or a different school."

These quotes reflect Rubin's insights on the importance of understanding user behavior beyond standard metrics, which led to a deeper comprehension of Houseparty's plateau in growth.

Thought Process Tools in Product Development

  • Rubin defines thought process tools as mental models used to analyze user data and metrics.
  • He discusses the importance of understanding the customer's journey to the "aha moment" and the steps involved in user activation and engagement.
  • The conversation highlights the necessity of customizing tools to address specific product development challenges.

"From that standpoint, thought process are basically mental model tools in which to count and account the metrics or the data that your user has." "There is a set of tools in the thought process of how do I get a customer to activate more or activate better and be better engaged?"

Rubin elucidates on the concept of thought process tools, explaining their role in tracking user engagement and the necessity of tailoring these tools to fit the unique needs of a product.

Customer Conversion and Engagement Strategies

  • Identifying strategies to convert unengaged customers into loyal users is crucial.
  • Different approaches should be tailored for already engaged customers versus those who need to be converted.
  • Thought process tools are necessary to understand user behavior beyond two-dimensional metrics.
  • Metrics on dashboards are limited and cannot capture the full story behind user interactions.

"do I get the customers that are not yet convinced that this is the right product for them to actually convert into a customer that falls in love with a product?"

This quote highlights the challenge of converting skeptical customers into committed users.

"what are the things you want to do for the people that are very much engaged and what are the things that you should do to convert people to engaged users."

This quote suggests the need for differentiated strategies based on customer engagement levels.

"it's not enough to just throw metrics on a dashboard."

This quote emphasizes that simple metric tracking is insufficient for understanding user engagement and behavior.

The Limitations of Traditional Analytics

  • Traditional analytics can be too simplistic, lacking depth in understanding user experiences.
  • Real-life stories and experiences provide context that metrics alone cannot convey.
  • Analysts need to look beyond the surface level data to understand the true story.

"Metrics, unfortunately, are in. All our dashboards are two dimensional."

This quote points out the inherent limitations of traditional metrics being unable to capture the full complexity of user behavior.

"there's something poetic about it because it also reminds you that the depth in which, between that depth and the data, there is the story of what's actually happening with the user."

This quote suggests that there is a deeper narrative behind the data that needs to be uncovered to fully understand user behavior.

Personal Anecdote on Problem-Solving

  • Personal experiences can illustrate the importance of thinking outside the box.
  • The story of an eye irritation problem demonstrates the need to step back and look at the bigger picture.
  • Even experienced professionals can miss simple solutions if they are too focused on traditional processes.

"the traditional way of looking things is only one dimension. There is always your story and your perspective in how to diagnose a problem."

This quote stresses the importance of personal perspective in problem-solving, suggesting that traditional methods may not always be sufficient.

Market Timing: First to Market vs. Best Market

  • Being first to market allows a company to learn and understand important metrics before competitors.
  • Retention of broadcasters is critical in live video platforms, more so than viewer retention.
  • Early market entry provided insights that influenced strategic pivots in product development.

"it's incredible to be first to market because life on air released live video products to the market since 2013."

This quote indicates the advantage of being an early entrant in the market, gaining valuable insights ahead of competitors.

"the only thing that matters, the only thing that is sustainable, is broadcaster retention."

This quote identifies broadcaster retention as the key to sustainable growth in live video platforms.

Insights on Live Video Market and Strategic Pivot

  • Market insights revealed that only certain types of users (celebrities, media, news) had sustainable broadcaster retention.
  • Recognizing the limitations of competing for a small segment led to a strategic pivot towards a broader audience.
  • Twitch is cited as a successful platform due to its focus on broadcaster retention.

"we have to pivot. And we don't know what we're going to pivot yet, but we're going to focus on the 99% that are not celebrities, media and use."

This quote explains the decision to shift focus from a niche market to a broader audience, acknowledging the need for a strategic pivot.

Convincing the Board to Pivot

  • Demonstrating the discrepancy between watcher growth and broadcaster retention was key to convincing the board.
  • Detailed data analysis helped illustrate the underlying issues with the current strategy.
  • The decision to pivot was based on market insights and a clear understanding of user engagement.

"we have cancer in our body. And I know the body feels great and I know that you feel healthy, but here's the cancer."

This metaphorical quote conveys the urgency and necessity of a strategic pivot, despite seemingly positive user growth metrics.

"I know that you feel healthy, but here's the cancer."

This quote reinforces the idea that underlying problems may not be immediately apparent and require deeper analysis to identify.

Preparing for Board Meetings

  • Pre-meeting strategy involves briefing key individuals to diffuse potential emotional reactions.
  • The importance of managing investor relations, particularly after significant changes like a pivot.
  • The value of gaining support from board members before formal meetings.

And when I walked into the board meeting, they already were briefed. They knew, they had their thought, they had the ability to digest.

This quote emphasizes the tactic of pre-briefing board members to ensure they are informed and have had time to process information before the meeting, which can lead to a more constructive and less emotional discussion.

Building Teams from Zero to One

  • The significance of the team in a company's success.
  • The challenges of advising founders on team building in early-stage startups.
  • The importance of focusing on the process rather than a fixed outcome during the early stages of a startup.

When you think about building a team from zero to one, what have been your biggest lessons?

This quote is about the lessons learned in building a team from the ground up and the advice given to founders during the early stages of their startups.

Aim vs. Origin Framework

  • The concept of "aim versus origin" as a framework for understanding focus and direction.
  • The importance of process over speed in achieving goals.
  • Reflecting on personal experiences to inform business philosophy.

If I may, I can give you another example from my life, if you have a minute.

This quote introduces the speaker's personal anecdote which is used to illustrate a broader philosophical point about the importance of process over simply aiming for speed or a fixed outcome.

Self-Reflection and Team Dynamics

  • Self-awareness and reflection are crucial for understanding personal strengths and weaknesses.
  • Building a team involves recognizing areas where help is needed and hiring accordingly.
  • The continuous improvement of relationships and processes is vital for product development.

But that's what's great about the ability of having a team.

This quote highlights the advantage of having a team where different members can complement each other's strengths and weaknesses, allowing for a more effective and self-aware approach to building a company.

Product Development Philosophy

  • The iterative nature of product development.
  • Rejecting the notion of a "finished" product version.
  • Emphasizing the importance of enjoying the process and being open to various outcomes.

The product will never be perfect. And it's always going to be an iterative thing.

This quote conveys the idea that product development is an ongoing process that should focus on continuous improvement rather than striving for a perfect version.

Growth and Hiring Challenges

  • Hiring during rapid growth introduces a different type of employee with different expectations.
  • The challenges that arise when growth stagnates and the team's response to it.
  • The dichotomy between early team members willing to take risks and newer members who may be more risk-averse.

Well, one thing is the intention of the people that you hire when you're on a rocket ship and you grow really, really fast.

This quote discusses the shift in team dynamics and intentions when a company experiences rapid growth and the type of employees it attracts during such phases.

Managing Expectations and Company Growth

  • The difficulty of managing a diverse team with varying expectations during periods of uncertain growth.
  • The complexity of addressing "gray areas" in company performance.
  • Balancing the desire to innovate and take risks with the need to preserve existing success.

And then the people who took a bet on you are looking around and say, well, Mr. Rubin, what's your plan?

This quote reflects the challenge of meeting the expectations of employees who have joined the company during periods of growth and are looking for direction during less certain times.

Bridging Company Culture During Growth

  • Ben Rubin discusses the challenge of maintaining a consistent company culture while a company grows and the team composition changes.
  • He acknowledges the difficulty in bridging the gap between the initial team that is used to iterating and pivoting, and those hired during periods of immense growth.
  • Rubin reflects on his own experience, admitting he could have done better but has learned from it.
  • He emphasizes the importance of considering the intentions of people he hires and how he communicates with them in future endeavors.

"We have to protect this one. We can do things that will hinder that one. And I think bridging between those two cultures of the people you hire as you're iterating and pivoting a lot, and to the people you hired after you started the immense growth, it's hard culture to bridge, and I don't think I've done a good job there, but I think I learned a lot from that."

This quote highlights the challenge of merging cultures between the original, adaptable team and the new hires who join during a growth phase. Rubin admits his shortcomings in this area and recognizes it as a learning experience.

Hiring from Big Companies

  • Rubin addresses the question of whether to hire individuals from large corporations for a startup.
  • He believes that people from big companies can be valuable hires because they have experience scaling businesses.
  • Rubin emphasizes the CEO's role in setting expectations and fostering productive conversations that benefit the company beyond just financial metrics.
  • He underlines the importance of early attention to cultural differences and intentions as a company grows to prevent future contention.

"I think that for every stage, you have different hires. And I think there's incredible people in big companies that know how to scale shit up."

Rubin suggests that hiring strategies should be adapted to the company's stage of development, and acknowledges the expertise that individuals from large companies can bring to the table.

The Value of Reading and Philosophy

  • Ben Rubin shares his favorite book, "Seneca on Shortness of Life," and explains how it teaches the value of being present to extend the perceived length of life.
  • He connects the teachings of Seneca to the timeless issues people face in society.
  • Rubin appreciates the philosophical approach to understanding life's challenges.

"Seneca on shortness of life. Life is long, as long as you know how to use it."

Rubin highlights the key message from his favorite book, emphasizing the importance of using one's time wisely to make life fulfilling.

Benefits of Meditation

  • Rubin practices Transcendental Meditation (TM) and discusses its benefits.
  • He describes meditation as a means to become a better observer and reactor by being more aware of thoughts and feelings without immediate reaction.
  • Rubin sees meditation as training for mindfulness and improved response to situations.

"I do tm. I go in and out in waves of clarity. Like sometimes it's really hard for me to get into that transcendental state. I think essentially what I think it does for me, it trains me to be aware of my thoughts and my feeling almost as a bystander to them before I react."

This quote explains the personal benefits Rubin experiences from TM, particularly the increased awareness and controlled reaction to his thoughts and feelings.

Entrepreneur in Residence Experience

  • Rubin discusses his unique experience as an Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) with Benchmark.
  • He had the freedom to explore market opportunities and was supported by Benchmark's resources, including access to a network of successful remote companies for research.
  • Rubin's EIR experience was akin to incubating a company with the guidance and support of a venture capital firm.

"Basically, Peter Fenton was hire who you need to hire, start hacking around. Here's benchmark credit card. And I trust you."

Rubin shares an anecdote that illustrates the trust and autonomy he was given during his EIR tenure, allowing him to explore and build with substantial support.

Misconceptions About the Future of Work

  • Rubin believes that the future of work will not be entirely remote, but rather a synthesis of opposing forces.
  • He draws from Hegelian philosophy, explaining that evolution occurs through the synthesis of thesis and antithesis.
  • Rubin also addresses the misconception that there will be large-scale products based solely on presence, suggesting that the future will involve a blend of different approaches.

"I think another misconception is from the world that we're at in our company, is the idea that there's going to be pure presence, large scale product that are only based on presence."

Rubin challenges the idea that future work products will focus solely on presence, predicting a more nuanced evolution that combines various elements.

Vision for Slashdoc

  • Rubin outlines his vision for his company, Slashdoc, focusing on understanding the value of conversations and meetings within organizations.
  • Slashdoc aims to deconstruct and reorganize the components of these interactions to improve the way conversations are conducted.
  • He embraces the uncertainty of the outcome but is committed to continuously improving the company's approach.

"We're trying to understand what is the unit value of a conversation or a meeting in an organization. And then we actually map it as a funnel, and we walk back from what is the value to what are the building blocks, the atomic building blocks that make that value."

This quote describes Slashdoc's methodology in analyzing and enhancing the productivity of workplace interactions by understanding their fundamental value and structure.

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