Getting to Know Airkit’s Newest Board Member, Laura Yao
Part I: Introducing Laura Yao
Question 1: You have experience in quite a few realms, from journalism to entrepreneurship to venture capital. Can you provide us with a brief overview of your background?
Laura’s Response: “I wrote for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, then went to business school and founded a tech-focused media startup. After we wound that startup down, I became a global macro investor at Bridgewater for a few years, and I was intrigued by Bridgewaters’s culture of radical transparency and feedback and how they viewed the economy as a machine. I eventually returned to the Bay Area and owned the strategy for a startup that focused on mitigating the effects of climate change. Most recently, I joined EQT Ventures as an investor in 2018.”
Question 2: What are the last three books you read? Any key takeaways for our audience?
Laura’s Response: “The last three books I read were Empire of Pain, Vanishing Half, and Imperial Twilight. I like to alternate between nonfiction and fiction. Empire of Pain is a history of the Sackler family and their role in the current opioid crisis. It paints a terrifying picture of how innovations can be used for ill and how money can corrupt. Vanishing Half is a story about color in America and how people find different ways to survive in the face of racism. Imperial Twilight is about British-Chinese relations leading up to the First Opium War and is a fascinating study of cultures colliding and, again, the depredations of greed. And, in our current time of China as a rising power, it’s an ominous reminder of how Chinese-Western relations began.”
Part II: Investing in Transformative Tech
Question 3: When you’re looking at an investment, how do you evaluate new technology?
Laura’s Response: “I first try to understand the problem a startup is tackling to make sure it’s not just a cool technology in search of an application. I look for the unique, earned insight the founders have that underlies not just why they’re building what they’re building but also how they’re building it. Then, I talk to as many customers as possible to understand the value they experience as well as people who are not customers, but in similar positions, to understand how good the status quo or substitutes are.”
Question 4: Are there any notable transformative trends you’ve observed within customer experience?
Laura’s Response: “If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and if you’re a technology investor, every industry trend looks like a transition to digital! I think this is especially true for the customer experience industry. As consumers become more and more digitally native, brands are having to meet consumers wherever they are and whenever they want to engage — to adapt with more digital customer experiences, more personalization, and more channels.”
Question 5: What made you and the EQT team decide to back Airkit?
Laura’s Response: “In short, Airkit is building at the intersection of two trends we really believe in: 1) the low-code movement and 2) the digital transformation of customer experience. We were totally blown away by the product the Airkit team has built. We were also impressed by the glowing reviews customers provided not only regarding Airkit’s ability to reduce costs but also to actually increase revenue. We have a lot of trust in and respect for the founding team, as I’ve known them for a long time. For a more in-depth description of our investment thesis, check out my blog post here.”
Question 6: What is your leadership style? How do you anticipate working with Airkit as a Board Member?
Laura’s Response: “In general, I assume everybody knows more than me, and I try to be a really good, respectful listener and learner. Though this approach dates back to my journalism days, I think it’s really applicable as a board member because the leadership team has so much more context than I do. Where I hope to be helpful is in pattern matching. In my position, I get to look at a multitude of market trends and signals, learn from other startups’ journeys, and meet a lot of smart people.”
Part III: Building a World Class Organization
Question 7: What lessons have you learned in your startup life about building successful businesses from the ground up? What are some challenges small companies face when scaling?
Laura’s Response: “There are a lot of growing pains that come from scaling fast. Everything is changing so quickly, and it all needs to change quickly: communication, alignment, decision-making, customer strategy, KPI setting and measurement…It’s challenging to balance staying close as a team (which was easy when there were only 10 people) with giving people more autonomy as the company becomes bigger. It can be difficult to transition away from rapid, inclusive decision-making (i.e. just the founding team) to figuring out how decisions get made, who needs to be involved in them, and what the decision-making process should look like. It’s also hard to go from founder-led sales to building a scalable go-to-market machine, from having a handful of early promoters to servicing a growing and more diverse customer base, and from having a laser focus on product-market fit to having 100 things to think about. The list goes on! Every startup is a small miracle.”
Question 8: The Airkit team has tripled in size in the past year. As we continue growing, what advice do you have for maintaining the culture?
Laura’s Response: “People may love or hate Bridgewater’s culture, but, whatever the specifics, it’s strong and steady, and the entire company really does live it daily. I learned there that it’s vital to have a set of guiding principles that everyone on the team is aligned to. It’s also necessary to have public examples of what is in line with those principles, and what is not, and to see leadership really follow through on those principles, even if, and especially when, it’s hard.
Communication and transparency are also always critical in growing teams – not just sharing what’s happening but also sharing the why behind decisions being made. Otherwise, bad assumptions and information silos make it easy for any group of people to fracture into tribes and subcultures, whether it’s Sales vs. Engineering or new people vs. old people, and so on.”
Question 9: What advice would you give to our leadership on how to navigate this exciting period of growth?
Laura’s Response: “At the end of the day, every problem is a people problem. I learned that from someone who’s been in the startup world for a lot longer than I have, and everything I’ve observed has really reinforced this lesson. Fortunately, I’ve known Airkit Co-Founder and CEO, Stephen Ehikian, for a long time and have trust in his ability as a people leader, manager, and hirer.”
Airkit is looking forward to benefiting from Laura’s advice and experience as we navigate the growing pains of startup life. Thanks to EQT and our other investors, Accel, Emergence Capital, and Salesforce Ventures, we successfully raised a Series B funding round of $40M, which you can read about here. And, if you’d like to get in touch with our team about using Airkit to improve your CX, contact us here.