Harvard in Tech Spotlight: Joanna Lee Shevelenko, Founder and General Partner at f7 Ventures
I spoke with Joanna Lee Shevelenko, founder and general partner at f7 Ventures. Joanna graduated Harvard in 2006. After graduation, she was initially planning to enter investment banking but quickly realized that she wanted to be in tech, so she joined Facebook in summer of 2006 and stayed with the company for 9 years, taking on a wide range of roles in user operations, platform operations, global expansion (founding Facebook’s India office), eCommerce (where she launched Facebook Deals), and mobile (leading go to market for Facebook’s mobile initiatives).
After almost a decade at Facebook, Joanna wanted to experience the other side in the venture capital world, so she joined Social Capital, working with Chamath Palihapitiya as entrepreneur in residence. From there, she joined one of Social Capital’s portfolio companies, Premise Data, as their VP of growth and people operations and then as their COO. After Premise Data, she joined Atrium to work with Justin Kan as COO of the legal tech startup.
In founding f7, Joanna brought together 7 former Facebook women. She wanted to see more women on cap tables early on in company’s journeys. As a former operator, she saw first hand how inducing lasting change at a company had to start from the very beginning: the first seat at the table. Diversity has to be instilled from the start, and f7 seeks to be a part of that process through their position on the cap table of early stage startups.
With f7, Joanna also wanted to bring operators together to empower founders to make strong decisions from the beginning. As Joanna had seen throughout her career, the key decisions you make in the early days of a company, department, or product have long lasting effects. Having product market fit is not enough to guarantee success. You also need a strong set of guiding operating principles.
f7 started with Joanna, her co-founder Kelly Graziadei, and their team investing their own money as angels, and has now invested in 19 companies to date.
Joanna shared her advice for early stage team building, operator decision making, and skill and career growth.
Be intentional about who you surround yourself with. Too often, founders and founding team members come together opportunistically. A technically strong person finds a go to market specialist, and they team up because of their complementary skills. However, the best teams have worked together for years, much like a marriage. Joanna and her co-founder, Kelly, for example, have known each other and worked together since 2010. While complementary strengths are important, knowing how to collaborate well and understanding each other’s working styles is equally important and much less obvious for founding teams who have not previously known each other or worked together before.
Avoid vanity metrics. For many years, the overwhelming narrative in Silicon Valley was one of growth at all costs. Many startups focused solely on driving topline revenue without consideration for margins, which ultimately led to numerous downstream problems. It is crucial to pay attention to unit economics from the very start, even well before you have achieved scale. Instead of prioritizing vanity metrics like pure growth, aim to deeply understand your cost and operating structure and how you can achieve sustainable growth.
Be thoughtful in the precedents you set. Operating decisions in the early days can have immense downstream impacts. For example, the compensation plan you create for your first sales hire may seem like a minor decision but can actually have major impacts on the future go to market team’s productivity and incentive structure, which in turn impacts your company’s growth. An incorrect decision on the compensation plan is hard to reverse and can present major challenges for future sales team recruitment and promotion.
Always make decisions with an eye toward the long term. Oftentimes, teams are only thinking about what they need in that moment or in the near future. For example, pricing models in your go to market plan may seem like an easily reversible, minor decision but can have long term ramifications. Once a contract is sent to and signed by customers, it is incredibly difficult to alter it for them and for future customers. Whenever you make a decision no matter how seemingly inconsequential, always think many years ahead on how that decision may impact each aspect of your company.
See everything as a learning opportunity. When Joanna first started at Facebook, she was on the user operations team, answering customer questions. She could have merely answered the customer questions and thought nothing more, but instead, she took the opportunity to gather customer insights from these questions and share these with the engineering and product teams to inform Facebook’s product roadmap.
Ultimately, every learning and every experience is connected. For example, at Atrium, Joanna was exposed to 500+ early stage startups, many of which were raising money, which has now proved incredibly valuable for her work with f7.
Step outside your comfort zone. Throughout her career, Joanna has always been very intentional about what she wants to learn next. Once she felt comfortable with one area, she always identified what more there was to learn and do, from operations to global growth to business development to legal tech to enterprise sales.
Design your culture from the start. With any number of people, even with 2 co-founders or a solo founder, there exists a culture. The culture has to be organic and has to come from the founders. Early employees who later become the company’s leaders will do anything to please the founder, so the founder’s preferences, actions, and philosophies set the tone for everything that comes later. Culture is not something that suddenly starts mattering at 100 people or at the Series B but is something that exists and must be intentionally positively cultivated from day 1.
Understand people. Ultimately, any leader is running a business of people, regardless of their sector. At Harvard, Joanna studied psychology and conducted psychology research. In the business world, she has seen how truly everything comes down to psychology, from designing drip campaigns to enterprise sales cycles to engaging customers and prospects to designing compensation plans. Everything comes down to understanding people and their intrinsic motivations and instincts.
Have confidence in your work. Be confident in your abilities, your experiences, and what you can contribute. You know more than you think you do.