20VC The 4 Phases of Effective DecisionMaking, The No 1 Quality of Good Decisions, How To Approach Effective OKR Setting, & How To Optimise and Improve Your Operating Cadence with Shishir Mehrotra, Founder & CEO @ Coda



In this episode of "20 minutes VC," Harry Stebbings interviews Shishir Mehrotra, founder and CEO of Coda, a startup revolutionizing document creation by combining words and data into a flexible, all-in-one doc. Mehrotra, who has raised over $140 million from top-tier investors and has a rich background with six years at Google and Microsoft each, discusses the journey of founding Coda, the importance of a clear thesis in product development, and the challenge of balancing power with simplicity in scaling his company. He shares insights from his time at YouTube, highlighting the significance of a strong, simple idea that shapes a company's direction and strategy. Mehrotra also delves into his personal operating cadence and the impact of having kids on his work, emphasizing the need for structured time and maintaining a beginner's mindset. Reflecting on his relationship with the late Bill Campbell, he stresses the value of building trust and viewing the success of others as one's own. Looking ahead, Mehrotra envisions the next five years at Coda as an exciting period of growth, aiming to transform software creation in the same way YouTube revolutionized video content.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Shishir Mehrotra and Coder

  • Shishir Mehrotra is the founder and CEO of Coder, a startup that consolidates words and data into an all-in-one document.
  • Coder has raised over $140 million from notable investors like Greylock, Kleiner Perkins, General Catalyst, NEA, and Homebrew.
  • Mehrotra has a background at Google, where he worked on YouTube monetization and later as VP of engineering, product, and UX.
  • Before Google, he was with Microsoft for six years, holding the position of director of program management.
  • Mehrotra serves on the board of Spotify and has been recognized for his insights and contributions to the tech industry.

"To date, Shashir has raised over 140,000,000 from some great names, including Greylock, Kleiner Perkins, General Catalyst, NEA and Homebrew, to name a few."

This quote highlights Mehrotra's success in fundraising for his startup Coder, indicating strong investor confidence in his vision and leadership.

Shishir Mehrotra's Path into Tech and Founding Coder

  • Mehrotra's journey in tech began after graduating from MIT, where he turned his grad work into a company called Centrata.
  • His career includes a six-year tenure at Microsoft, working on various projects including Office, Windows, and SQL Server.
  • Mehrotra joined Google due to unexpected circumstances, contributing to projects like Google TV, Chromecast, and Google Home.
  • At Google, he spent most of his time working on YouTube, transforming it from a questionable investment into a major online video platform.
  • The idea for Coder emerged while brainstorming with a friend and former colleague, leading Mehrotra to pursue the concept passionately.

"After that, I ended up joining Google and working initially on a project called Mosaic, which became a Google TV and then Chromecast, and then the Google Home team. But I spent most of my time at Google working on YouTube, responsible for sort of the tech side of YouTube."

This quote outlines Mehrotra's significant contributions to Google, particularly his role in developing YouTube into a successful platform.

Management Lessons from Google and Microsoft

  • Mehrotra views his experiences at Google and Microsoft as educational, equating them to business school.
  • At Microsoft, he learned the fundamentals of building teams, product design, and establishing a strong team culture.
  • Google taught him the importance of having a clear thesis for products, which has been a guiding principle in his career.
  • He cites Google's ability to focus on a simple idea and see it through to its natural conclusion as a key to successful product development.

"I think Google, the biggest thing Google taught me was the power of a really clear thesis."

This quote emphasizes the significance of having a clear and focused product vision, which Mehrotra learned during his time at Google.

The Importance of Whiteboards in Operations

  • Mehrotra has a unique preference for using whiteboards as a tool for organizing thoughts and operations.
  • He believes in the power of diagrams to clarify ideas and facilitate discussions.
  • The concept of "eigen questions," which represent the most important question that, when answered, also answers many other questions, is central to his decision-making process.
  • Specific pen colors are used consistently to represent different stages of thought, aiding in communication and understanding among team members.

"My whiteboard obsession is fairly deep. Every office I'm in, I spend more time designing the whiteboard layout than often any other part of the office design."

This quote demonstrates Mehrotra's deep appreciation for whiteboards as a tool for visual organization and decision-making.

Decision-Making with Imperfect Data

  • Mehrotra believes the best decisions are those that stick, rather than being fast or well-informed.
  • He references Amazon's concept of one-way and two-way doors to describe decisions that are irreversible and those that can be reconsidered, respectively.
  • The eigen questions process helps in making decisions that stick by focusing on the most critical question.
  • Mehrotra values a decision-making process that involves generating ideas, establishing the most important question, proposing solutions, and making a decision that is likely to be final.

"My view, the number one quality of a good decision is a decision that sticks."

This quote captures Mehrotra's philosophy on decision-making, emphasizing the importance of making decisions that are durable and do not require revisiting.## Decision Making: One-Way vs. Two-Way Doors

  • Understanding the difference between one-way and two-way doors is critical for decision making.
  • One-way doors represent decisions that are not easily reversible and require careful consideration.
  • Two-way doors are decisions that can be reversed or adjusted without significant consequences.
  • Before making a one-way door decision, it is important to "Wallow, frame, bows close," which involves identifying the right questions and ensuring everyone is on the same page.

"One way doors versus two way doors is very helpful. When you get to those one way doors. Wallow, frame, bows close, identify the right icon questions."

The quote emphasizes the importance of recognizing the type of decision at hand (one-way or two-way) and the process of careful deliberation required for irreversible decisions (one-way doors).

The Paradox of Choice and Eigen Questions

  • The paradox of choice suggests that having too many options can be overwhelming and less optimal than having a refined set of choices.
  • Identifying the right "eigen question," or fundamental question, is more important than enumerating extra options.
  • The eigen question helps to clarify the decision-making process and can lead to a series of subsequent decisions.

"It's identifying the right eigen question... Spend enough time there to know that you have the right question before you're forced into a up down vote on a option."

This quote highlights the significance of pinpointing the core question that will guide decision making, rather than getting caught up in a multitude of options.

  • YouTube faced a dilemma in 2008 regarding whether to link out to content not hosted on its platform.
  • The product and engineering team favored linking out to serve user queries, while the business development and content teams opposed it to protect business prospects.
  • The debate was initially framed as a binary choice between serving the user or the business, which seemed like a no-win situation.

"One side of the team basically came to the conclusion that we should just link out... And then on the other side was a group of people... that said, wait a second, if you do that, then we're never going to get anybody to put real content on YouTube."

The quote describes the conflicting perspectives within YouTube on whether to link out to other content, highlighting the tension between user experience and business interests.

Reframing the YouTube Debate: Consistency vs. Comprehensiveness

  • The debate was reframed from a binary choice to a question of whether consistency or comprehensiveness was more important for the online video market.
  • The decision to prioritize consistency led to several strategic choices for YouTube, including not linking out and taking control of the YouTube app on the iPhone.
  • The reframing of the question facilitated clearer decision making and aligned future decisions with the company's principles.

"Do we believe that the online video market is going to play out where comprehensiveness matters more or where consistency matters more?"

The quote reflects the reframing of YouTube's strategic dilemma, shifting the focus from a binary choice to a broader question of market dynamics and user experience.

The Onion: A Framework for Product Evolution

  • The Onion is a framework used to help founders think through product evolution.
  • It involves drawing a quarter of an onion with a center and rings representing features and value propositions.
  • The center of the onion must be an existing product, with each ring adding features that lead to new value propositions.
  • The exercise reveals differences in founders' visions for the product and helps align the team on the product's true north.

"You draw kind of a quarter of an onion, and the idea is a center. And then there's a set of rings, and you have kind of two axes, and one is generally something like features or capabilities."

This quote explains the structure of The Onion exercise, which is used to map out a product's evolution and strategic direction.

Aligning Teams with The Onion

  • The Onion can expose differences in how team members view the core of the product (the center of the onion).
  • Different centers can lead to vastly different priorities and roadmaps for the product.
  • The tool is a means of driving clarity and alignment within a team or board regarding the product's direction.

"What's the center of our onion, it's just helpful for what's the true north of our business."

The quote underscores the importance of identifying the central concept of a product, which serves as a guiding principle for the business's direction.

Creating an Environment of Open Debate

  • Trust is foundational for open debate; it allows team members to focus on ideas rather than personal attacks.
  • An environment that supports the growth of great ideas over time is essential for fostering open debate.
  • Tools like sentiment trackers can help facilitate open discussions and capture team members' opinions effectively.

"You have to build the environment that allows ideas to not be labeled too early... Great ideas take to grow."

This quote emphasizes the need to create a culture that nurtures ideas over time without prematurely judging them, allowing for a more open and productive debate.## Establishing Trust and Fostering Idea Growth

  • Trust is essential for open and honest communication within a team.
  • Creating an environment for ideas to thrive requires removing groupthink and incentivizing individual input.
  • Tools and environments that encourage personal expression can help combat the natural tendencies for groupthink.

"I think you have to establish trust, how people either say or ignore their implied sentences. You create a culture where great ideas can thrive over a long period of time, not just over a short period of time, and create the tools and environments where people can actually express those things and remove all the natural incentives for groupthink and ganging up and so on, that lead to ideas being squashed too early."

The quote emphasizes the importance of trust in a team and the need for a culture that allows ideas to develop without being prematurely dismissed due to group dynamics.

Balancing Speed and Idea Maturation

  • Fast decision-making can conflict with the need for ideas to mature.
  • Operating cadence is crucial to the culture of a company.
  • Macro, micro, and personal cadences are key elements to consider in operations.

"In terms of that kind of maturation phase of ideas, I'm really interested because I totally understand that's important, but it also seems to kind of go in the face of fast decision making and speed and iteration."

This quote introduces the tension between the need for quick decisions and allowing ideas to develop fully, highlighting the importance of finding a balance.

Macro Cadence

  • Macro cadence often refers to planning cycles.
  • YouTube and Coda adopted a six and 26-week planning cycle instead of a quarterly cycle.
  • Long-term vision is considered during the 26-week cycles, while the six-week cycles are for concrete commitments.

"And instead of running a quarterly planning cycle, we ran a cycle that was every 26 weeks or twice a year. You would do what we called h one and h two planning, and you'd spend some time looking far out and where should we really be headed?"

The quote explains the decision to move away from quarterly planning cycles to a biannual and six-week cycle, allowing for both long-term vision and short-term commitments.

Micro Cadence

  • Micro cadence refers to the weekly schedule of a company.
  • Designing a meeting operating system with clear objectives and rules can improve effectiveness.
  • Meetings should be structured to facilitate engagement and equal participation.

"Design your meetings and design your cadence like you design your apps."

This quote suggests that meetings should be thoughtfully structured with clear objectives and participant engagement in mind, much like how one would design an app.

Personal Cadence

  • Personal cadence is about managing one's own time effectively.
  • Executives must be both physically and mentally available to support their team's success.
  • Techniques like Des Traynor's method can help align one's email, to-do list, and calendar to ensure priorities are addressed.

"Your email is what others think you should work on. Your to do list is what you think you should work on, and your calendar is usually what you actually work on."

The quote from Des Traynor highlights the importance of aligning what others expect, personal goals, and actual work done, which is crucial for personal cadence management.

Setting Goals

  • Setting goals is an art that balances being ambitious and practical.
  • OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) started well at Google but later became a method to avoid commitment.
  • Leaders should inspire their team to think bigger and set examples through aspirational goals.

"The spirit of how OKR started at Google were a really good attempt at it... A lot of it comes out of the example that gets set."

This quote reflects on the initial success of OKRs at Google and the importance of leadership in setting the right example for goal setting.

The Billion Hour Bet

  • Setting a long-term, audacious goal can provide clear direction and motivation.
  • The Billion Hour Bet at YouTube was a goal to reach a billion hours of watch time per day.
  • Contextualizing goals for each team member helps in understanding and committing to the overall objective.

"So for YouTube to get up in November of 2012, and I made the statement that our goal will be to get to a billion hours a day of watch time in a four year period."

The quote describes the ambitious goal set by YouTube to reach a billion hours of daily watch time, illustrating the concept of setting a clear and challenging long-term goal.## Growth and Motivation at YouTube

  • YouTube's ambitious goal was to grow from 100 million to a billion hours of watch time in four years.
  • The infrastructure team's task expanded to growing the entire Internet, not just making YouTube more efficient.
  • The goal seemed unattainable; projections suggested reaching 400-500 million hours, not a billion.
  • Achieving the goal was internally and externally motivational and set a clear focus for the team.
  • The strategy involved setting inspirational, articulate, and aspirational goals that were still practical.

"Quick math says that if we're going to get from 100 million hour to a billion hours of watch time in that four year period, we're going to use up more bandwidth than the entire Internet times two."

This quote emphasizes the scale of YouTube's ambition and the challenge faced by the infrastructure team, which had to consider the growth of the entire Internet to achieve the company's goals.

"It was incredibly motivational inside the company and outside."

This quote highlights the motivational impact that setting and achieving such a bold goal had within YouTube and the broader community, inspiring both employees and onlookers.

"How to pick goals that are inspirational, that articulate what really matters, articulate the size of the prize that you're going after, are aspirational enough to motivate, but practical enough that you're actually going to hit them."

This quote provides insight into the thought process behind setting effective goals—those that inspire and motivate while remaining within the realm of achievability.

Mentorship and Influence of Bill Campbell

  • Bill Campbell's impact was profound and often understated in literature.
  • His ability to give time to many individuals left a strong impression on those he mentored.
  • Bill's mentoring style focused on the importance of trust and the right people dynamics.
  • His sense of accomplishment was derived from the success of those he mentored.
  • Campbell's approach to equity and compensation was altruistic, prioritizing impact over personal gain.

"His funeral was simultaneously one of the saddest and one of the happiest memories I have."

This quote reflects the deep emotional impact Bill Campbell had on those he worked with and the dichotomy of mourning his loss while celebrating his impact.

"Bill's view, the whole world started with getting the right people in the right spots, with the right motivation, and building the right level of trust."

This quote highlights Bill Campbell's philosophy on the importance of team dynamics, trust, and motivation in achieving success.

"His ability to view other people's success as his success is something that was so obvious to him, and that's just not how most people think."

This quote underscores Campbell's unique perspective on success, where he measured his achievements by the accomplishments of those he mentored and coached.

The Power of the Book "Switch"

  • "Switch" by the Heath Brothers is regarded as a highly impactful book on change management.
  • The book provides nine techniques for enacting change, applicable to both business and personal life.
  • The advice is to make a list of changes you're trying to implement while reading the book and to note the techniques used.

"It's about how to change things when change is hard."

This quote succinctly describes the core concept of the book "Switch," which is about overcoming the challenges associated with making changes.

Transitioning from Application to Platform

  • The transition involves being open to surprises and understanding the different motivations between product and platform creators.
  • Platforms can lead to both positive surprises, like new models of education, and negative ones, showcasing the range of human behavior.
  • Accepting and adapting to the unexpected is crucial in platform development.

"Being comfortable with that is really important because sometimes you're going to be surprised in a very positive way."

This quote emphasizes the need for adaptability and openness when managing a platform, as user behavior can lead to unforeseen outcomes.

Scaling Coda

  • The challenge lies in balancing power with simplicity, making a doc as powerful as an app while remaining user-friendly.
  • Another significant challenge is building and maintaining the right team, keeping them aligned and motivated.
  • The focus is on creating a product that serves both simple and complex use cases effectively.

"Balancing power with simplicity, but developing that perfect team is, I think, what you spend most of your day doing."

This quote captures the dual nature of the challenge in scaling Coda—creating a powerful yet simple product and simultaneously cultivating a strong team.

Impact of Parenthood on Professional Life

  • Having children introduces structure and boundaries into one's life.
  • Parenthood reminds professionals of the beginner's mindset, which is beneficial for learning and empathy.
  • The experience of teaching and learning with children enriches professional interactions and personal growth.

"It forces structure in your life... and then the other thing I think you learn from kids is you remember what a beginner's mindset is like and what it's like to learn a new thing."

This quote highlights how parenthood can positively influence professional life by enforcing discipline and reviving the experience of learning from scratch.

Future Outlook for Coda and Personal Goals

  • Coda has just begun scaling, with significant growth and potential ahead.
  • The vision for Coda is to democratize software creation, similar to how YouTube revolutionized video content creation.
  • The speaker plans to continue working on Coda, aiming to see the platform's vision become a reality.

"We're just getting started on. I think the interesting parts of that are still to come."

This quote expresses optimism for the future of Coda, indicating that the most exciting developments are yet to be seen.

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