20VC How To Deliver Feedback with Compassion and Clarity, WTF Are Values Really and How To Instill Them & Raising $50M+ From Index and Greylock but Remaining in Stealth for 12 Months with Linda Lian, CoFounder & CEO @ CommonRoom



In this episode of 20 VC, Harry Stebbings interviews Linda Leanne, co-founder and CEO of Common Room, a platform that unites organizations and their communities. Linda discusses her journey from Amazon, where she learned the value of customer-centric, community-driven product development, to venture capital and ultimately founding Common Room. She emphasizes the importance of aligning with core values, the ability to pivot based on customer feedback, and the strategy of hiring experienced talent for a remote startup environment. Linda also touches on her unique approach to competition, viewing it as organizational inertia rather than other companies. Throughout the conversation, she underlines the significance of persistence, customer pain points, and the role of intuition in decision-making. The episode also features endorsements from notable figures like Dylan Field of Figma and insights on fundraising during the COVID era, highlighting the $50 million raised from top VCs and angels.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Podcast Episode and Guest

  • Harry Stebbings introduces the podcast "20 VC" and the guest, Linda Leanne, CEO at Common Room.
  • Linda's background includes raising over $50 million for Common Room and experience at Amazon and Madrona Venture Group.
  • Acknowledgements to Linda's cofounders and Chris at Index for question suggestions.
  • Advertisement for Carter, Secureframe, and Cooley law firm.

This is 20 vc with me, Harry Stebbings, and I'm very excited to say we now have transcripts for many of our episodes. And so if you want to sign up for them, you can on the Twentyminutevc.com. But to the show's day and the charisma and energy that this person brings to every meeting, every interaction, it's just incredible. And it's been such a pleasure to get to know her over the last year. The company has been in stealth for the last year, raised three rounds of funding in that time from some of the best in the business. And just yesterday they made their unveiling to the world. So I'm very, very excited to welcome Linda Leanne, cofounder and CEO at Common Room, the place where your organization and your community come together. To date, Linda has raised over $50 million with common room from the likes of Danny Rhimer at Index, Sarah Greylock, Dylan Field at Figma, Dick Costello, and of course, 20 vc fund. Prior to changing the world of community, Linda spent close to three years at Amazon as a senior product manager on AWS and Alexa. And before Amazon, Linda was on the other side of the table in venture as an associate at Madrona. I'd also have to say a huge thank you to Linda's cofounders, Francis and Veraj, and then also Chris at index, for providing some fantastic question suggestions today. I really do so appreciate that.

The quote introduces the episode, the guest Linda Leanne, and her achievements, including raising significant funds for Common Room and her previous experience in tech and venture capital.

Linda Leanne's Founding Moment for Common Room

  • Linda's journey to founding Common Room involved a gradual realization rather than a single "aha" moment.
  • She highlights three key ingredients: a transition from a late-stage startup to early-stage investing at Madrona, learning about open-source and developer spaces, and working at AWS on serverless computing and community engagement.

I think one of the biggest things for me is when I was starting out as a founder, I scoured podcasts and articles, reading stories about aha moments. And kind of now being on the other side of it a little bit, I've realized that aha moments aren't really a moment. And for me, I think there were really three ingredients to my aha moment in building common room that happened over the course of probably years.

Linda explains that her founding moment was not instantaneous but a series of experiences and insights that led to the creation of Common Room.

Impact of Amazon Experience on Linda's Approach

  • At Amazon, Linda learned the importance of aligning an organization around core values or leadership principles.
  • She discusses the impact of these principles on company culture, decision-making, and providing a framework for disagreement and debate.
  • The values act as an equalizer, giving a voice to employees at all levels.

I think one of the biggest learnings I had from Amazon was the way in which an organization can align around a set of core values, well, Amazon calls them leadership principles, to really permeate every aspect of the company's culture and decision making.

Linda shares her key takeaway from Amazon about the importance of core values in shaping a company's culture and operations.

Instilling Company Values at Common Room

  • Linda emphasizes that values need to be integrated from the beginning of a company's journey.
  • She explains that it's not just about displaying values but about embedding them into the organization's practices and behaviors.
  • The challenge of instilling values in a remote world is acknowledged.

Yeah. So I think there's two pieces to this. The first is people need to k

The quote is incomplete, but Linda begins to address how to truly instill values within a company, suggesting that it's a multifaceted process.

Interview Process and Company Values

  • The company conducts a core values-based interview, sending candidates their values beforehand.
  • Candidates are asked questions to assess alignment with the company's values.
  • Values are incorporated into everyday language, especially when making difficult decisions.

We do a core values based interview where we send the candidate our values, and we say, we're going to ask you questions as part of this interview process that map directly to figuring out whether or not you have these values, whether or not you share these values with us.

This quote explains the company's interview process, which is designed to evaluate if a candidate's personal values align with those of the company.

So when we have a difficult decision to make that has trade offs, we speak in the language of our values.

This quote emphasizes the importance of using company values as a framework for making challenging decisions.

Importance of Simplicity and Excellence

  • The company values simplicity and strives to avoid overcomplicating problems.
  • They aim for crafting excellence, which involves launching product features quickly with a high standard of quality.
  • Values are meant to be interpreted and can evolve over time.

Strive for simplicity. So this conversation is starting to overcomplicate the problem. Let's strip it all down and think about the most simple solution.

This quote illustrates the company's commitment to simplicity in problem-solving and decision-making.

Crafting excellence can mean different things at different times. And for us right now, it's around launching amazing product features quickly and at a very high bar of quality, including stability and reliability.

This quote defines what crafting excellence means for the company at the current time, highlighting the dynamic nature of their values.

Flexibility and Adaptation of Values

  • The company is open to changing its values if they are not actively used or referenced in day-to-day operations.
  • Values should be living and breathing, adaptable to the company's evolving needs and practices.

You have to be willing to change your values. Right now, we're actually thinking about changing two of them because we don't use them very much in our day to day life.

This quote underscores the need for flexibility in a company's values, allowing them to change in line with actual practices and discussions within the company.

Defining Effective Values

  • Effective values should be fundamental points that the team and leadership can align on.
  • Values should be simple enough to be universally understood but specific in their application to the company's operations.

It's about a core fundamental point that you can all, as a team and as leadership, align on as being like a primitive.

This quote explains that good values are those that resonate with everyone at a basic level and provide clear guidance for the team's actions and decisions.

Transparency and Compassion in Leadership

  • Transparency and directness are seen as crucial aspects of leadership, but they should be balanced with compassion.
  • Compassion involves speaking the truth transparently, even in difficult situations like letting someone go.
  • Compassionate communication is challenging but essential for effective leadership.

One of the most compassionate things you can do in life or in work is to speak the truth and to speak it transparently, even when it's as difficult as letting someone go.

This quote reflects the belief that honesty and transparency are forms of compassion, especially in tough situations.

Being compassionate is the how. And that's something that's incredibly difficult, much harder than simply speaking directly.

This quote differentiates between the content of communication (what is said) and the manner of communication (how it is said), emphasizing the importance of compassion in the latter.

Feedback and Communication Strategies

  • The company avoids the "shit sandwich" approach to feedback, preferring direct and honest communication.
  • Celebrations and acknowledgments of failures are done collectively as a team.

We're not going to give feedback as a shit sandwich. We're just going to give feedback directly and transparently and honestly.

This quote describes the company's straightforward approach to delivering feedback without sandwiching it between compliments.

Hiring Strategy: Focus on Experience

  • The company currently prioritizes hiring experienced individuals.
  • The remote nature of work due to COVID-19 and the need for rapid progress influenced this decision.
  • Early career learning often happens through observation, which is challenging in a remote environment.

We did not want to put a super ambitious person who's just starting out their career into an isolated room and put the onus of reaching out to folks on the team and getting help on them.

This quote explains the company's rationale for hiring experienced individuals who can work effectively in a remote setting without the need for close supervision or the benefit of in-person learning.

The "Long Poach" Talent Acquisition Strategy

  • The "long poach" involves reaching out to potential candidates and maintaining contact over time.
  • Initial outreach may not receive a response, but persistence and progress can lead to successful recruitment.
  • The strategy was used to form the founding team and is indicative of a patient and strategic approach to building a team.

I reached out to Francis and Viraj on LinkedIn, and they ignored me. I didn't hear back from them at all.

This quote describes the initial stage of the "long poach," where the outreach does not immediately yield a response but sets the stage for future engagement.

Persistence in Customer Discovery and Co-founder Engagement

  • Linda discusses the importance of persistence when engaging potential co-founders and updating them on progress.
  • Persistence is coupled with demonstrating continual progress to gain interest and commitment from co-founders.
  • Linda describes her experience with co-founder Francis, which was organic and quick, and with Viraj, who was initially skeptical and required months of updates and progress sharing.

"And when I felt like I had a new level of insight or I had reached kind of a plateau in terms of progress, I reached back out to them and I would update them."

This quote highlights the strategy of re-engaging potential co-founders by sharing new insights and progress to maintain their interest and potentially secure their commitment.

Motivation for Persistence

  • Linda attributes her motivation for persistence to her upbringing as an immigrant and the values instilled by her hardworking parents.
  • She compares persistence to sports, where practice and learning from failures eventually lead to success.
  • The concept of learning from each 'no' and not having a scarcity mindset are key factors in her persistent approach.

"It's almost like sports, right? You practice and then you lose. You practice and one day you win."

This analogy conveys Linda's belief in the power of persistence and learning from failures as a pathway to eventual success.

Delegation vs. Persistence

  • Linda reflects on the importance of recognizing personal strengths and weaknesses and being comfortable with delegating tasks that are not within one's skill set.
  • She shares personal anecdotes about her difficulties with administrative tasks and how she came to accept the need for an executive assistant.

"I am horrible at administrative tasks and logistics and everything there... I realize that I'm bad at those things and I'm okay delegating."

This quote illustrates Linda's realization of her limitations and her decision to delegate tasks where she does not excel, allowing her to focus on her strengths.

Ability to Change One's Mind

  • Linda discusses her method of processing data by organizing and filing information in her mind until a critical mass of evidence prompts a confident decision.
  • She emphasizes that while her decisions may appear sudden to others, they are the result of a meticulous internal process.

"So I process data in this way where everything that I receive as inputs, I file away... it's almost impossible for me to not ignore it."

This quote explains Linda's rational approach to decision-making, which involves accumulating and organizing data until the evidence is too compelling to ignore.

Head vs. Heart in Decision-Making

  • Linda explores the symbiotic relationship between rationality and intuition in her decision-making process.
  • She describes how intuition accounts for both hard data and a wealth of subconscious information.

"Intuition is the summation of that hard, logical reason, plus a lot of subconscious things that you may not really fully understand in the moment."

The quote captures Linda's perspective on intuition as a complex interplay of rational analysis and subconscious insights.

Fundraising Success Factors

  • Linda credits their fundraising success to a relentless focus on solving customer pain points and building a product that delivers real value.
  • She highlights the importance of building relationships with innovative organizations and the strategic alignment with investors who have a deep understanding of the space.

"We focused on that maniacally. So I think with respect to funding, we just wanted to, first of all, both of our rounds have been opportunistic, and we're working with investors who had a deep, deep experience and thesis in the space."

This quote emphasizes the strategic approach to fundraising, focusing on customer needs and leveraging opportunities with investors who share a vision for the company's direction.

Structuring Customer Discovery Questions

  • Linda emphasizes understanding the customer as a person and their team's needs, as well as identifying their pain points.
  • She downplays the importance of perfecting the wording of surveys, focusing instead on the substance of the questions and the insights they can reveal.

"I focus on two main things. Who is my customer as a person? What do they want for their team and their work? And then secondarily, what are their pain points and what's getting in the way of the things that they want to do."

Linda's quote underscores the importance of a customer-centric approach to discovery, prioritizing an understanding of the customer's desires and challenges over the precise wording of questions.

Customer-Centric Innovation

  • Companies should focus on understanding customer problems rather than seeking feature requests.
  • Innovation should be driven by the company based on customer problems.
  • Solutions can manifest as product features or shared knowledge across organizations.

We want to listen to the problems, and then we need to go and innovate on behalf of our customers to figure out and propose a plausible solution.

This quote emphasizes the importance of listening to customer problems and the company's responsibility to innovate and find solutions on their behalf.

Personal Reading Preferences

  • Linda Leanne has a complex relationship with reading, stemming from an extensive history with literature.
  • Preferences for books are subjective and can be influenced by personal experiences at the time of reading.
  • Overexposure to reading can lead to a decreased desire to engage with books.

I hate reading books now. I don't really read because for most of my childhood and all through college and even beyond, I read like five books a week.

Linda explains her current aversion to reading, which is a result of the intensive reading habits she developed throughout her academic and personal life.

Perception of Competition

  • Linda views competition not as other companies but as inertia and existing business practices.
  • The challenge lies in organizational change and encouraging a community-first approach.
  • Companies sharing a mission are not seen as competitors but as potential allies.

I genuinely don't think for what we're trying to do, any company at all is the competition.

This quote conveys Linda's belief that their true competition is the status quo rather than other companies in their space.

Angel Investment in Common Room

  • Dylan Field, co-founder and CEO of Figma, was the first angel investor in Common Room.
  • Dylan's investment stemmed from his passion for community-building and his belief in Common Room's potential.

I think the first angel was Dylan Field at Figma.

Linda attributes the first angel investment in Common Room to Dylan Field, highlighting his support and passion for community-driven growth.

Personal Dislikes

  • Linda has specific aversions to bananas and cheese due to sensory and cultural reasons.
  • Her perspective on cheese has evolved since moving to America, leading to a gradual acceptance.

I don't like bananas because of the way that they sound when they're being chewed.

Linda describes her dislike for bananas based on the sound they make when chewed, indicating a strong sensory response.

Challenges in Leadership

  • The gap between the potential for greatness and the effort required is a significant challenge.
  • Linda must evolve from individual achievement to leading and inspiring a team.
  • Rapid team growth and maintaining customer trust are current priorities.

The most challenging element is the space between the greatness that I know that we can achieve and the work that it's going to take to get there.

This quote highlights the challenge of bridging the gap between the vision for the company and the practical work needed to achieve it.

Coping with Stressful Moments

  • Linda uses meditation to manage stress and maintain presence.
  • She believes that current struggles will become humorous stories in the future.

The horrible situations of today will be the kind of happy hour stories of tomorrow.

Linda presents a positive outlook on difficult situations, suggesting that they will eventually be looked back on with humor.

Vision for the Next Five Years

  • Linda aims to inspire more organizations to adopt a community-driven approach.
  • Success is defined by enabling companies to build authentic customer relationships and empowering advocates.

I think in the next five years, we'd love to inspire, encourage, challenge more organizations... to become more community driven.

Linda expresses her five-year vision for Common Room, which involves promoting a community-first ethos among organizations.

Equity and Compliance Solutions

  • Carter helps companies issue equity to employees efficiently.
  • Secureframe streamlines compliance with SOC 2 and ISO 27001, reducing the time required for compliance.
  • Cooley is a law firm with extensive experience in venture capital and startups.

Carter makes it as easy to issue equity to your employees as it is to issue payroll.

This quote introduces Carter as a solution for simplifying the process of issuing equity to employees, highlighting its ease of use.

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