[01:02] The moment Amy realized she was ready to lean into the fear and start a company
[05:40] How she handled the discomfort of early startup life and leaning into the unknown
[08:35] The importance of acknowledging fear and insecurity and using it to fuel your success
[15:01] The moment at Google that inspired Accompany and Amy’s mission to improve relationship insights
[17:55] Amy shares advice to new entrepreneurs about getting through challenging moments
[21:06] Amy discusses the M&A process with Cisco
In 2012, Amy Chang founded Accompany, a relationship intelligence platform that used machine learning and AI to help business professionals enhance and grow their most important relationships. Prior to starting Accompany, Amy was best known for building Google Analytics from the ground up into one of the most widely used web analytic products on the internet. While at Google, Amy discovered the power of data to help people create faster connections; her goal at Accompany was to democratize this knowledge for everyone. Accompany was acquired by Cisco for $270 million in May 2018 and became the foundation for Cisco's machine learning and AI platform inside of its collaboration suite.
In our latest Founders Helping Founders episode, we talk with Amy about growing up as an outsider to Silicon Valley, her initial inspiration to start a company, and why every founder ends up taking out the garbage at the end of a late night at work.
I grew up in Texas and moved to Silicon Valley for college. At the time, I didn’t have any relationships in the tech industry, and without my network from Stanford I don’t think I would be sitting here with you today. As an outsider, I never took anything in my network for granted and in the back of my mind I always had the idea to start a company that could help people build better personal connections using data and relationship insights. It was surprising to me that the more successful our business became at Google, the greater the itch I had to start something from scratch all over again. I didn’t realize my idea had become all consuming until my husband eventually pointed out that I stopped sleeping and couldn’t stop talking about building my new product. He was the one who ultimately encouraged me to take the leap and become an entrepreneur.
In the beginning, hiring is a big challenge for a startup and I think most founders believe they can build a perfect executive team. At Accompany, we hired amazing people but also made a significant hiring mistake early and it’s still painful to remember. When your team is small, it affects everyone when someone is either not performing or is not a cultural fit, but you have to address it as quickly as possible. Most founders might take too long to make this decision - I know I obsessed about it for much longer than was healthy. Now, I coach founders to count to three and on the third time that they are thinking that it’s time to let someone go, they should make the move.
Transitioning from a large tech company to a small startup is a challenge for everyone, and I still remember what a difference it was for me. I always warn people that you need to be ready to get your hands dirty, and I mean that literally and figuratively. In the earliest days of Accompany, I remember we were celebrating some great customer momentum with a sushi dinner in the office. After the meal was over, everyone went back to work and was sprinting to finish an important release. The trash was already overflowing and the office started to stink of fish. This was the moment when I learned that founders need to do whatever it takes to make the team successful, including taking the garbage out at the end of the night.
The M&A story is often as unique as a founding story. When founders ask me for advice, I spend a lot of time asking questions to understand their specific journey. There is no one-size-fits-all approach but I do encourage people to think hard about criteria above and beyond shareholder value. For me, there were three important criteria. First, I had always wanted my product to have the greatest impact as possible and at Cisco, Accompany would reach 300 million users – that's an amazing feeling for a founder. Second, I wanted to be a part of an organization that shared my culture and values. For two years, I served on the Cisco board, spent time with the leadership team, and felt that our company shared very similar views about making a positive impact in our communities. Finally, I respected that Cisco gave autonomy and leadership opportunities for founders and executives of the companies they acquired. This was very unique among large tech acquirers and was a big reason why I was excited to partner with Cisco.
If I could go back, I would tell my younger self to worry less about things that might come to pass and to be less fearful. I got great coaching later in life that I try to pass on to others - we need to lean into our fears and turn them to our advantage. The reality is that every founder has fears. Fear of not getting funding. Fear of not growing. Fear of losing to competitors. Fear is everywhere in a startup but the key is to make it a tailwind, allow it to focus you, to motivate you, and make it work for you. I try to help people own their fear as opposed to having fear own you - it’s a small but powerful shift in mindset that can bring out the best in a founder.