Interview with Kevin Hsu, Early Product Manager at Carta
This article is part of a series revealing the stories of early employees from the most successful tech companies of the past few years. You’ll walk away having learned about what these individuals experienced, what they wish they knew, and the advice they’d give to others joining high-growth startups. Key takeaways are at the top and you can find the full interview below.
This interview is with Kevin Hsu. Kevin joined Carta in 2015 as an early product manager and stayed until 2018. Kevin built a number of key products at Carta including the Setup Guide, eShares for Founders, and the Carta SAFE. Below is an edited version of a conversation he had with us here at Compound.
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- How Carta scaled their culture – “On principles, we made them simple and memeable at Carta, like: “hire for strength, not weakness”. The simplicity enabled us to easily take action on them. As an example, in interviews instead of asking where there might be skill gaps or finding holes in their resume, I could hone in on what made them amazing. What were they obsessed with? What did they work on in their free time? Where were their peers impressed with them? Ultimately this is what made a great employee, and remembering the principle changes the way you would even think about evaluating someone.”
- On using “producers” vs product managers at Carta – “One quirk about Carta was that we didn’t have product managers or product designers, but instead we had “producers”. It’s actually a term that David Sacks created at PayPal, he called the product managers, producers. Instead of separating the product management and product design roles and having this waterfall, step-by-step process, the producer is a single person who's responsible for producing – similar to a movie. From beginning to end, they make sure the product is launched on time, but they also make sure to get into the details.”
- On the opportunity to solve problems at Carta – “Carta is Disneyland for anyone who likes to solve problems. Lots of companies will talk about this but I genuinely believe and have experienced a place where future founders want to work at. [...] You're not joining a company that is already solidified in their ways. You’re joining a company where you can grow. My favorite example is a good friend of mine who started as an office manager and went on to become a key product manager at the company.”
- On how Carta prioritized what to build – “The way we decided how to build was pushed down to the people who were actually doing the work. Carta was very unique – you were given a lot of autonomy. How we decided to build things was very much bottoms up. As a new product manager, I would make proposals for what I thought the team should be doing in a week and in a month. Carta operated in a “trifecta” model. Every level of the business had a product, engineering, and business lead. So I would work with my engineering and business counterparts to figure out what problems to solve and how we were going to solve them.”
- On Carta’s north star metric – “In terms of priorities, Carta had a single north star that everyone was driving towards. It was called “securities accepted”. It was defined as a certificate, option grant, a warrant, or a convertible note. And it needed to be accepted by someone on the other side. The simple goal we had was to beat the previous month.”
How did you first hear about Carta and what made you interested in joining?
While I definitely met with Henry [Ward, Carta CEO] in the interviews, I wouldn’t say that he was the main reason I joined. Instead, I joined because of the people he hired.
Three friends of mine from college who I really respected had joined Carta (eShares at the time). Not only did I trust their judgment, but I realized that Henry was a pretty unique leader if he was able to recruit people who were this good.
What was your first day at Carta like?
My first day was at the San Francisco office on 2nd street in Soma. Every Tuesday and Thursday at 8am, the whole company hopped on a Zoom and would do a “show and tell” about what they were working on. My first day happened to be on a Tuesday during this and I just remember being very intimidated – I couldn’t imagine presenting in front of 40 people. It was a very memorable first day. By the time I left Carta, this was hands-down my favorite company ritual.
Imagine we're back in 2015, you're responsible for building out Carta’s team, and I'm a candidate. Pitch me on why I should join Carta
The people and culture are my selling point. Instead of me pitching you, here’s what I would recommend you do: go find 10 people who work at Carta and ask them why they joined. I would bet that the top reasons are the people and culture.
Also, Carta is Disneyland for anyone who likes to solve problems. Lots of companies will talk about this but I genuinely believe and have experienced a place where future founders want to work at. As long as you are good at solving problems and being helpful to others, the doors will open for you. If you’re more of a learner than an expert, or have high trajectory (these are from Carta’s How to Hire blog post), that's going to be compelling. You're not joining a company that is already solidified in their ways. You’re joining a company where you can grow with the company. My favorite example is a good friend of mine who started as an office manager and went on to become a key product manager at the company.
It seems obvious today, but pitching the mission of allowing anyone to buy and sell private company equity was harder to grasp with where the public and private markets were at the time.
How did Carta scale their culture as the company grew?
Writing, principles, and company rituals. When I went on to become a founder, these were the highest leverage things that ended up strongly influencing me.
On writing, Henry did a phenomenal job of this. I recently went back and looked at Henry’s Medium and it basically time-stamps key moments when Henry wanted to plant a flag for his thinking on topics like culture, hiring, or managing. It also happened to be great brand building for the company.
On principles, we made them simple and memeable at Carta, like: “hire for strength, not weakness”. The simplicity enabled us to easily take action on them. As an example, in interviews instead of asking where there might be skill gaps or finding holes in their resume, I could hone in on what made them amazing. What were they obsessed with? What did they work on in their free time? Where were their peers impressed with them? Ultimately this is what made a great employee, and remembering the principle changes the way you would even think about evaluating someone.
This made things really easy to scale how interviews are done at a growing company. If my job is to figure out what this person is great at in 30 minutes, I’m going to ask questions that get to the heart of what makes you special. You could be interviewing for any Carta role (engineer, customer success, etc.), and the main thing I’m trying to figure out is what you’re going to be great at. It's also a more enjoyable conversation for both sides because we’re both aligned on answering the question of what you’d be amazing at.
The principles were opinionated, didn’t change, and were used often. We even named our conference rooms after principles like “What’s the MVP” or “Always be helpful”. As silly as it sounds, I think this really helped. This is actually how I still evaluate principles today.
On company rituals, we had three things that would happen rain or shine. eShares 101, show and tell, and company day.
eShares 101 – Henry would personally come in and give an hour talk on how he envisioned the culture of the company to be. You asked me earlier about what made me want to join Carta – eShares 101 was when I confirmed I was working at a special place. He wrote about it here too.
Show and tell – twice a week, you would have the entire company's attention to share what you were working on. It was daunting at first, but it became the most memorable company ritual for many people.
Company day – once a month, we would get the entire company together in one of the offices, spend time working together, and Henry would usually give a state of the union and a talk on a topic. The topics he chose to talk about ended up becoming blog posts which would double as marketing and scaling his thinking for the rest of the company.
What was the hardest part of the transition from being an onboarding manager to a product manager? What set you up for success?
Carta was really a special place – the transition wasn’t blocked by any obstacles besides myself. We had a ton of folks transition internally to roles they weren’t originally hired for, so honestly the hardest part of my transition was just the 6am commute from San Francisco to Palo Alto (where the engineering team was).
There were three things that helped me transition successfully between roles.
First was getting lucky and joining a company where they had a culture of promoting from within.
Second was having a culture of “being helpful”. This sounds simple but I always felt like I had access to anyone at the company, regardless of who they were, they would make time to help me. This was infectious and was very empowering to me.
And finally, I had mentors at the company across departments who opened doors for me in ways that I could never thank them enough for.
Was there anything you struggled with as Carta scaled?
The main struggle was adapting to all the changes happening, particularly with the specialization of my role. (I wish I could’ve read this blog post from the founder of Brex back then).
One quirk about Carta was that we didn’t have product managers or product designers, but instead we had “producers”. It’s actually a term that David Sacks created at PayPal, he called the product managers, producers. Instead of separating the product management and product design roles and having this waterfall, step-by-step process, the producer is a single person who's responsible for producing – similar to a movie. From beginning to end, they make sure the product is launched on time, but they also make sure to get into the details.
When the Series C came around, there was a lot more external pressure (particularly from investors) to implement more standard practices, like having product managers and even a roadmap. To be fair, there were a lot of things that were starting to break and specialization was definitely a way to solve these problems.
An easy example of this was hiring. Try hiring a candidate who’s able to talk to customers, design, write a spec, rally stakeholders, work with engineers, etc. You get the point – it’s hard. We realized that the initial product team was the exception to the rule. We ran into walls when we tried to hire and train new product folks in the producer model.
But for the small group of early producers, it meant that we had to adapt to the changing structure. Specifically: in the new structure, were we going to become product managers, product strategists, or product designers? It became blindly obvious to me that I prefered the earlier stage and I needed to reinvent myself or leave. Before I could decide, I was let go from Carta.
In the early days, how did you decide as a team what to build?
I thought about this question a lot. It’s an interesting one. An internal saying we had was that we didn't believe in roadmaps. The more time I've had to reflect on it, the more I think it’s pretty crazy how far Carta got without a lot of these processes. Carta was very anti-process. We had a principle: structure, not process. I think Henry even banned the word “process” at one point.
The way we decided how to build was pushed down to the people who were actually doing the work. Carta was very unique – you were given a lot of autonomy. How we decided to build things was very much bottoms up.
Carta operated in a “trifecta” model (you can read about it here). Every level of the business had a product, engineering, and business lead. As a product manager, I would work with my engineering and business counterparts to figure out what problems to solve and how we were going to solve them. In terms of priorities, Carta had a single north star that everyone was driving towards. It was called “securities accepted”. It was defined as a certificate, option grant, a warrant, or a convertible note. And it needed to be accepted by someone on the other side. The simple goal we had was to beat the previous month.
Henry did a good job of saying, “here's the north star, here are the KPIs and levers to pull, go and drive those things up.”
What was the first moment you realized that Carta was going to be successful?
I always believed in the business, but there were a few key moments I became a lot more confident that we were going to succeed.
About six months into joining Carta, we shut off sales (stopped taking sales demos) and converted the sales team into an onboarding team to implement new customers. Whenever someone asks me about product market fit, I usually think back to this feeling.
It also became very clear to me that we were building a company (not just a product) anytime Henry would publish and go viral on Medium. As mentioned before, a lot of those moments were very impressionable on me. He wrote a blog post called Broken Cap Tables that went viral after Fred Wilson wrote about it in avc.com. When my co-founder and I launched Standard Metrics, one of the first blog posts we wrote was called Broken Investor Relations which was definitely a nod to Carta.
There were also a number of smaller anecdotes that made an impression on me.
I remember when we started seeing well-known technology companies (that built software tools I used everyday) use Carta or when notable people were in the office. One time I was in the San Francisco office and saw Eric Ries walk in. He was probably in the office because of his company, LTSE (Long Term Stock Exchange), but I remember getting super excited that Eric Ries, the guy who wrote The Lean Startup, was in the office talking to Henry! He cares about this stuff? Whoa, that's cool.
Were there any moments where you were scared and thought Carta might not work?
The first time was when we changed our pricing model to become a true software-as-a-service company. It was a really high pressure time with a lot of angry customers but really cool to see the team leading this initiative navigate through really choppy waters.
Another moment was before Carta entered into the Fund Administration business. Before this, there was an R&D team going 0 to 1 figuring out what products we could build for investors who already had a Carta account. I learned a lot about taking long-term bets from this experience and Carta’s fund admin business is now one of the fastest growing fund admin businesses ever.
What were you most proud to have worked on while at Carta?
The thing I’m most proud of is the reputation I was able to build within the company as someone who just gets a bunch of stuff done and is a good person to work with. I wouldn’t have been able to start Standard Metrics if that wasn’t the case because I ended up hiring a lot of the people I worked with at Carta. I’m very proud of that. And although I knew I wanted to eventually start a company, Carta was the perfect place to train for it. This section from eShares 101 I think is fitting:
I know how strange it sounds for me to say this, but I hope you will stay at eShares for a decade or more. I hope eShares will be a significant, if not majority, part of your career. My fantasy is not that eShares will be a great company. My fantasy is that when you eventually decide to leave eShares, you will go on to do even better things. The greatest thing Paypal gave us was not online payments. It was Peter, Elon, Reid, Jeremy, Max, and many others. The greatest thing eShares will produce is you.
Aside from this are products I built. If you think about what Carta is doing, they are in the business of converting spreadsheets into databases. Literally, that’s the product. I’m proud to have built something called the Setup Guide that’s used to guide every company onboarding into Carta through this process (it can get pretty complex!). It’s a self-serve way to use Carta. My favorite part of this story is that I actually used it as a customer when I started my own company.
When did you know it was the right time to move from early employee to founding your own company?
I grew up around entrepreneurs in my family and knew pretty early on that it was something I wanted to try. I also like wearing different hats and sweating the details of things, so starting a company was a great way to do that.
My advice is to join a high-growth startup as an early employee and use it as a training ground for yourself. Know that the people you are working with will likely be the people you build your future business with. When I started Standard Metrics, people who never worked directly with me at Carta reached out to chat because they knew that from my time at Carta I had a reputation for building quickly and getting stuff done.