Path to Success → Create ‘Deliberate Actions’ w/ Josh Elman (Greylock Partners)

Meet The Operators: Josh Elman, Partner @ Greylock, and Silicon Valley veteran has spent the last 15 years building products & teams at great companies. It’s rare to have someone work at all the top social networks prior any going mainstream of our time — LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter!

Elman currently invests in social networks, new media, platforms & communication messaging apps, such as @Medium, @AppMeerkat, @Operator, @Nextdoor, @discordapp to name a few.

#MTO (conducted by Zaw Thet) had a chance to catch up with old friend & colleague Josh Elman.

3 Fun Facts About Josh Elman

  1. Favorite Recent Book: The Outsiders (how the best CEOs manage companies)
  2. If you could have dinner with anyone in history, who would it be? Benjamin Franklin. He would have so much insight about how one would think about setting up a new world.
  3. Favorite Superhero? Plastic Man because I felt like he was somewhat attainable.

Listen to the interview in its full-glory here

Top 5 Questions #MTO Asked Josh

  1. Background: Having one of the most fascinating backgrounds in the Valley. Can you expand a little bit on how you got started?

I graduated from Stanford in ’97, and majored in Symbolic Systems which was this awesome mix of computer science, linguistics, philosophy and psychology. I wanted to learn, “How to build products that would affect hundreds of millions of people in their lives?”

That was my goal, and that was what I wanted to go work on. I didn’t feel like a founder back in 1997, so I kept saying, “What companies do I think can get really, really big that were still smaller and private?”

I decided to go back to my hometown Seattle, and worked for RealNetworks. They were still called Progressive Networks when I joined. I worked there for 6 years, starting as an engineer and running a larger engineering team. Over time I started to wonder if the company was making the right business decisions and I didn’t feel like I had enough understanding from the engineering and product side to make those decisions and learn the right business skills. So I decided to go to Berkeley for the MBA program, moved back down to Silicon Valley, and realized “Oh, what I’ve learned can be used to drive business decisions as long as you focus on getting the products just right.

As I started business school. I got really excited about social networking. I sent some cold emails to both LinkedIn and Friendster. Eric Ly, CTO of LinkedIn at the time, responded because of the Symbolic Systems at Stanford connection. I ended up dropping out to be one of the very first product managers of about 15 people at the company. (Reid Hoffman, Founder of LinkedIn was also a SymSys major!)

We were in the office on El Camino Real in Mountain View behind a Pizza Hut. I got to work on a ton of early growth stuff. It was an incredible experience. After a couple of years, I realized software in an HR network, in a recruiting network wasn’t quite my passion. I decided to follow my passion to go back something more consumer-y. Found a company called Zazzle, doing on demand custom products. I end up spending two and a half years there. I was running product by the end, and the company grew 4–5X in revenue and did tens of millions in revenue, by the time I left.

I thought, “Man, I kind of want to go work at a bigger company because now Zazzle had been 20 when I joined. LinkedIn had 15 when I joined. I was like, “Let me go big. What about Facebook?” It was about 500 something people.

They had to figure out what the next things were. Sheryl Sandberg started the same day. I got to watch this massive cultural change happen at Facebook when the business side just became really, really effective. It kind of went from like, “What are we doing?” to, “She just built a new, incredibly effective organization.”

In 2009, one thing I realized is I missed working on core product. Facebook was an incredible company so I didn’t think it would be smart to leave though. But I started thinking, “Where can I go to do great product work that has at least as big an opportunity?”. Twitter was the one company I found where I just thought, “If I can’t quite do the work I want to at Facebook, maybe I can go to Twitter and be part of a much bigger story.” I got really excited about Twitter.

Over the six months, I got to know the team a bit more, and joined later that year. They said, “Come over and help us figure out how to make Twitter grow.” When I started, “Everyone signs up, but not many stick around. How do we fix that?”

2. Product: How did you help Twitter define its product market fit in the early days? What were some of the questions and challenges you faced?(9min)

At the time, what I thought about was bloggers and media people love to talk. When they were not doing blogging or media, they were talking on Twitter. When they were doing blogging and media, they were, “On Twitter…I heard this.” They were already spreading it, even if it wasn’t quite as big as it is now.

It was really fun. We tried to figure out (doing a bunch of industry analysis) “Why do people who use Twitter, use Twitter? What is it that hooked them?” One of the challenges was a lot of people heard about Twitter as a place to broadcast. They had nothing to say, didn’t want to broadcast. They’re not people like you going out doing podcasts and interviews and writing lots of blog posts.

Most of the people didn’t want to do that, especially in 2009; but they love to listen and hear from people they cared about and be in this flow. It turned out that when we got you following the right things on Twitter, I call it Tuning Your Twitter — People loved it. (9:20 min)

This is the Ladders of Engagement. How do we get you to understand that Twitter’s this unique thing with a Tweet that comes from a person. If you follow people, you get better Tweets. If you check your timeline pretty often, every time you come back, it’s new. It’s fresh. That was kind of step three. Step four was take it with you — Can we get you to take Twitter with you? Then it was , “Can we get you to participate, reply, favorite, like?” Step six was “Can we get you to Tweet?” We need to get you to understand all these things about Twitter before we even try to get you to Tweet.

The last step was, “If you really love Twitter and you’re Tweeting with us; how do we help you gain followers?


Twitter Ladder of Engagement: (read Josh’s original post)

  1. Understand what a Tweet is
  2. Start following people you are interested in / friends with to make a basic timeline
  3. Start checking and reading your timeline to see what’s new
  4. Make sure you have mobile apps installed so you can go back and forth with the web app. (this may have been more relevant in 2010 when mobile app wasn’t default, but we saw most addicted users were checking from both web and mobile)
  5. Begin to engage and participate — @ reply, retweets, favorites (now likes)and even Tweet yourself
  6. Run your first searches and see what other people are saying on Twitter. And learn how to search (this was a hard task for many people since it is so different than traditional search, and a lot of information to parse through)
  7. Learn to build your following (we didn’t expect most users to get here, but we expected power users would care and want to)

It was an eight step ladder, or a pyramid of engagement. My goal was, “How do we just get people over the first few? How do we get them to understand what a Tweet is, understand that following makes it better, understand they’re coming pretty often if you’re following the right people, Twitter’s amazing. I spent most of my time at Twitter trying to work with the team to build features to drive that.

3. Operating: Taking a step back, can you walk us through how the team operated. What was your day to day, week to week as you were figuring these ladders out? (11:20 min)

There were really two different things going on. I started with a growth team that was really me, a designer and three engineers. We eventually got, to 10-12 engineers (Over time it grew a lot more than that). We focused on building one feature at a time. Let’s try to build the highest order feature or set of things that will help move the needle on growth, and that will set us up for the next experiment.

For example, SUL (Suggested User List) was a project we worked on that helped with user retention. When you first joined, Twitter would show you 20 people to follow, and almost all of them were random. It wasn’t curated, and created noise.

The first thing we did was we changed the model that when you sign up you had to self follow. We’d show you interesting people. We’d try to organize them around topics. We tried to do a lot more algorithmically. We went through and created these new algorithmically generated topics where you could follow individuals.

Basically, we had this roadmap of multiple years of tools we needed to build to better match you up. We just tried to do one at a time and knock ’em down. We had to build better email … Twitter didn’t send many emails. I’ll come back to that because we actually did some interesting stuff where we tried to build big projects.

4. Culture: As you think about the culture of those teams; as you look backwards to Facebook and LinkedIn, did you have something different at Twitter? (17 min)

The first thing I’d say is the exciting part when you’re working on these problems of like, “How do we get the scale?” Was actually really consistent at all three companies. A word that I’ve used to describe is what I call Deliberate action, which is every time we went and were shipping a feature, deciding to build something, deciding to invest in something we were very deliberate about it.

For example, “we were going to try X because we thought this had the best chance of Y having this kind of outcome Z.” Because we could describe the outcome and describe what we hoped to gain from it, we’d say, “Let’s go give it a shot.” Then we’d take lots of actions. The reason I call it deliberate action is yes, we’re taking lots of actions. We do these things. We would ship them. We would push them out.

The second thing that was really important at all three companies was looking back. We always asked, “What happened?”, regardless if it turned out well or not. If you don’t do the look back two-weeks later. You’d say, “Okay. We actually made these assumptions going in. Did it work or did it not?” You’ll never learn. (18min)

5. Hiring: What do you look for in “growth” type of candidates? When you’re interviewing, what’s the first thing that stands out? And what are some questions you would ask?

The best people who do growth understand how to build good products, how to want to put products in the hands of users and how to understand data to help them deliver how to build new products. What’s interesting about this growth term, (It feels all new and fancy), is it’s really traditional marketing with the recognition that building new features connects you to product marketing.

We used to live in a world where products that we know best were going to use a little bit of data and mostly our instinct and just build a great product. Then somebody over in marketing is going to make sure they put it in the right hands. Marketing people then say, “Oh. We need a feature. We need a landing page.” The engineering team would grumble and give them a landing page. Then Marketing would say, “We need another landing page.” The engineering team would grumble and say, “Okay. Well, this is your last one”.

That’s the shift when you combine these skills, when you combine product and engineering, thinking about building features, building new software, building things that matters to users and separates it. Ultimately, I really look for the same skills I want to see in a great product manager which is: Do you understand user needs, data that tells you about user needs and how to work with a team of engineers to build something great? If you understand that, you should be able to build great work at growth and great work at building the next cool feature.

The next piece I look at, is case studies. When I’m doing interviews, I really look for how they talk through case studies and how they think and how they analyze problems. Some of my top questions I like to ask are…

“What product do you like? How did you find out about it? How did you onboard? What do you think could have made that happen faster, sooner, better? What was perfect? What’s great with on-boarding?”

The second thing is, raw understanding of the big scope of business. One of the key things of understanding growth is understanding what habits are actually driving users to you and how that ended up generating revenue.

What’s funny in growth is if you’re A/B testing, a lot of the tests will hit because they’re in micro-optimizations. If you’re working on big features, that you think will have an impact, when you get one right and it causes a real lift, you’ve made such a bigger difference that you want to keep swinging. You know, baseball … A great baseball hitter hits 300. That’s like one third of the time they get a hit; and over 300, you’re excellent.

BONUS: What’s it like working for some great leaders? Reid Hoffman (Founder of LinkedIn), Ev (Co-Founder of Twitter), etc. Any commonalities and recommendations on what works and doesn’t when you’re working for someone like that?

When you’re working at a company. What is hard to realize is you’re actually working to help that founder, that CEO, that set up board everything else. You’re working to help them realize the dream of why they made the company, why they founded it, why they did it. I don’t want to say you serve at the leisure of the president, but in some ways you do, right?

If you really want to go and make your own company and your own ideas, do exactly what you want, you should found a company. If you want to go and realize that somebody started a company, and a bunch of people had already joined before you to go work on their vision. Collectively, everybody’s great work can help that vision be achieved is exceptional. The thing that really inspired me about people like Ev, Reid and I got to work under Mark (Zuckerberg) at Facebook, is they set the vision of where we were aiming in the world and laid it out how important it could be; how important we all were to helping that become that vision.



Find Josh Elman below.
Follow: Twitter / Invest: Greylock Partners / Read: Medium Publications

Thanks, as always, to Brian Ko and Gina D. for the help!

Suggest guests for the show on Twitter, and we’ll do our best to track them! Reach out to Zaw or Brian for any requests.