“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African proverb
Company culture goes deeper than catered meals or ping pong tables. So, how do we go about creating open, collaborative organizations? In this candid podcast interview with Chris Finneral, CEO and co-founder of SketchDeck, host Steve Urban goes inside SketchDeck, the software powered design service, to discuss culture, remote work, startup life, and professional and personal growth advice.
Listen to the full audio version below
Steve Urban: On today’s podcast we have Chris Finneral, the CEO and co-founder of SketchDeck, Chris thanks so much for joining me today, I really appreciate you calling in. Why don’t we start with you telling the listeners a little about yourself both personally and professionally?
Chris Finneral: Sure. So I can start with my time at University. I’m from the UK, as you can probably tell from my accent – I was there studying engineering. And when I left, I joined a startup – that was my first of taste of the startup world, a company called Breeding Buildings that was in Cambridge in the U.K., and that’s where I first got a good feel for what a startup was like.
After that, I went to McKinsey, where I really got insight into how businesses work and things like strategy and operations. I learned a ton there but I thought it wasn’t quite the right fit for what I wanted to do with my life at the time. So after being there for a few years, I left and started my first company in the U.K. along with my co-founder, and we tried that one for about a year and it didn’t really work out in the end. We were trying to combine data and surveys and provide automated insights into that data and it was pretty tough, we didn’t quite get to where we wanted, but I learned a lot from that first experience.
We then started SketchDeck and had a lot more success this time around. Very early on in that process, we were funded by Y-Combinator- they’re based in Silicon Valley – and that’s what got us out into the U.S. and we’ve been working on that for the past five years now.
Steve: Great, great. Sounds like that entrepreneurial bug has been in there for a long time from early on.
Chris: Yeah, it has been!
Steve: So Chris, tell us about what SketchDeck does and how it benefits companies?
Chris: SketchDeck is a software-powered design service; we focus on businesses’ everyday design needs. So things like sales decks, marketing materials, and presentations – all the things that go on every single day inside a business. And typically these everyday design needs are worked on either by people marketers or salespeople, who aren’t designers – all these projects get queued up for four days or weeks waiting until the internal design teams have some capacity or the agency is free to work on them. This slows things down or leads to bad design, and ultimately hurts the brand.
We have built this awesome platform which makes starting a project super easy and really fast – like automated pricing as well as handling invoicing and billing in a really seamless, hassle-free way. And we have an amazing group of designers that are based all around the world, that are working on these projects and delivering really great design and making sure all of your brand guidelines are followed and getting you the design you need quickly and efficiently. So yeah, pretty awesome stuff.
Steve: That’s great. Can you tell us a little bit about the culture at SketchDeck? What it’s like to work there, what kind of candidates you look for in general to join your team?
Chris: So, we have a really open, honest, smart, collaborative culture. We definitely want people on the team who care about culture, who are really nice people to work with – we really want to make sure everyone here is good, we want people who want to help other people out. So, we have a set of values, five values that we work to as a company: helping each other succeed and grow, achieving ambitious outcomes, taking responsibility, sharing on progress and feedback and being inclusive.
We look for people that have those values and come work within those values, and that’s helped us having that clear set of values that we’re working towards – that helps us get a really great team together. We’re very lucky we have an incredible team today of really smart people who work well and have fun together
Steve: You guys have done such a great job of identifying who you are from a cultural perspective on your website, a matter of fact better than probably any company I’ve seen, and I’ve dealt with a lot of companies. You really just go to great lengths to make sure people understand ‘hey this is who we are, this is our culture, these are our values.’
Chris, You’ve interviewed a bunch of people in your career so far, and hired a bunch and doing it on a regular basis. Do you have a favorite interview question that you love to ask?
Chris: Yes, absolutely. So, this one is relatively simple but I like the question: tell me about something you’ve worked on that you’re proud of? It’s a pretty simple question, there’s not much to it. But I think you get a sense of someone’s character based on what they’re proud of – it tells you a lot. And you also get to hear about something that they’ve done that they’re excited about, and I think that can provide a whole host of other follow-up questions that you can really dig into something like that.
Steve: You know based on that on that question, I always look to see if they complement somebody besides themselves, like a team member, or ‘hey you know me and my team did that,’, or something like that. I just look for that humble factor a little bit just to make sure that it’s not all about them.
Chris, what other common interview mistakes do you see?
Chris: At the end of the interview, I always try and leave a good amount of time for the candidate to ask questions back at me.
One of the common mistakes I see there is, either I hear people have no questions, and that’s a red flag right away – if you have no questions about a career change you’re about to make, what does that say about that person? Or, you get the people who have clearly just spent five minutes on the website and don’t really care that much about the job without doing more research themselves.
So that’s one area where I’d say anytime you’re interviewing for a job, make sure you really read through what the company is – what the role is and have some good questions to ask, because it is important. I definitely take note of those people who ask questions.
Steve: I couldn’t agree more. That’s why the podcast was started – because of all the things people do wrong in interviews, and one of the podcast episodes recently was, I called it top mistakes people make, and the title of it is People Just Don’t Prepare. I’m just constantly amazed at how candidates simply do not prepare – they don’t do their homework on the company, they don’t do their homework on the person they’re interviewing with, they barely read the Job Description enough to ask good questions, or they don’t prepare questions – it blows me away on a regular basis.
So now I’m curious, what was it like to walk away from McKinsey? Can you tell us about some scary moments or some maybe some big hurdles that you overcame early on?
Chris: I reached a point there where I was basically deciding if I wanted to go to business school or if I wanted to do a corporate internship. So I was getting to a point where I needed to make a change anyway, so actually departing McKinsey was not the hardest part. But deciding rather than taking one of the more traditional paths to try and start something myself – yeah that was was pretty scary. And early on figuring out what I wanted to do that was kind of hard and scary. The spoiler here is that actually coming up with something to do is easier than you think – once you’re forced to figure it out.
One thing I would definitely advise people is to make sure you either have a good amount of savings, so you’ve got a couple of years like the runway, or the thing I ended up doing, was finding some freelance consulting on the side, something which you can spend one or two days a week, doing a few blocks of time just to get some income coming in, because you need to live during a start-up.
Steve: That’s great, that’s a piece of great advice.
Chris: Yeah. So yeah those are a couple of things that were pretty scary early on.
Steve: What would you, if somebody asked you, what would you say If they said ‘hey I have to put my house on the market, I have to use all of my money – basically, I have to put all of it on the line for my startup, or I can’t do it. What would you say?
Chris: Well, yeah it’s hard to say in the general case. I think I’m scared to say to someone I know to put everything on the line – especially if you’ve got a family and kids and a lot of things. So, one of the fortunate things for me is that I started working on a startup early before I had many faced responsibilities. And that’s certainly something I would encourage any young people listening. It’s often easier to do sooner rather than later before you have loads of commitments.
For most people, if a startup doesn’t work out, the experience will teach you something and you should you should still be able to go back and get a job again. You have to make sure you’ve got that runway, to be able to spend a year to two years on it. And then make that jump and then you can you can always come back if you try it and it doesn’t work out.
Steve: In fact, the stats would say that most people are going to fail one or two times before they get it right.
How about this question: you know what’s it like to be a first-time CEO, and can you talk to or maybe give some advice to somebody entering into that level for the first time? It’s just such a different position than being at a manager or supervisor role where you’re doing lots of tactical work.
Chris: So, the first thing to know there is that the CEO title is an interesting one because actually, it’s very different depending on what size of the company you’re at. So, when I think of my role as CEO, it’s changed over time. Every time that you progress the company progresses and you’ve got a bigger team or more clients. And so I’d say right at the beginning the CEO title itself actually doesn’t really mean much – you’re primarily founder or co-founder, and that means you’re doing everything you can in the scrappiest way possible to get this idea off the ground
The way that I see the role is: you have to have a clear idea about what the company’s doing and where it’s trying to head, and you’re trying to make decisions so that the company can operate well, and then you’re making sure you’re getting good people on the team, and people know what they’re doing and are excited to be there.
Steve: You know one of the things that I’ve talked to a few CEOs about is that scary moment when you’re handing your brand reputation to employees that you’re having to bring on, when you get big enough and you’re scaling and all of a sudden you’re handing those responsibilities to somebody else – you’re handing your brand, your reputation, you’re putting it in somebody else’s hands, and you know that can be scary, which is why it’s so important to bring on the right people. It’s just absolutely critical.
Just a few more questions Chris. If you had had to identify a couple of key contributing factors to your success so far as a professional what would those be?
Chris: Yeah, good question. I think there are a few things. I think one is just taking time for yourself to know what’s important is a good place to start, and I think too many people just fall into something and then just keep doing it because they fell into it. So knowing what you want is important, and then taking risks – there’s no way to get to what you want without taking risks, like leaving a stable job and starting something. It’s so important that you’re prepared to take the risks, And actually doing what you enjoy is important as well – I definitely wouldn’t put the energy and the time into this if I didn’t enjoy it!
And then finally – work with good people. Very quickly you’ll you move beyond what you yourself can achieve. So if you’re not working with good people then you’re not going to get very far.
Steve: The one thing I think people should realize is you know when they’re when they’re wondering whether or not to leave the cushy W2 job at that big company, I do think people sometimes think ‘’oh I’m safe here.’ They think this is permanent, and they’ll have their job as long as I want to. That’s really not the reality and if you live long enough professionally you learn that. So, that’s a perfect reason to go ahead and step out and take the risk on a startup, because there’s risk everywhere.
Last question Chris: I usually ask everybody this question to everyone on the podcast – I like to push beyond the standard questions. Thinking about it professionally, what is Chris Finneral’s purpose in life, right now? We’ve all had those moments where you’re laying in bed and you’re staring up at the ceiling sometimes and you’re thinking, ‘what exactly am I doing here?’ So, what’s your core purpose in life professionally as of today?
Chris: It’s a great question, and one that I feel I’m searching for the true answer to be transparent. I want to make sure the thing I’m doing is having a positive impact on the world. That doesn’t mean in a cliché “save the rainforest” way. It’s doing something where I feel like this business is having a positive impact is first. I think we’ve touched on this already, but working with good, smart people and helping them be better and more successful is also important to me. And then finally, I think the world is going to continue to evolve significantly with regards to software and technology. So, finding ways to have that impact on the world through the lens of software or through technology, it’s a personal area of interest for me. So I think those three things – they’re not necessarily a purpose, but they are meaningful to me
Steve: Chris, I really appreciate everything you shared today, thank you so much. I am super proud of what you’re doing, and I really appreciate our relationship. Thank you for that opportunity and I wish you nothing but the best of luck.
Chris: Thank so much Steve!