“Always Have A Yin To Your Yang” 5 Leadership Lessons with Amy Buckner Chowdhry CEO of AnswerLab
“I firmly believe that two opposites working together can achieve more than one individual working alone. In this sense, I think it’s important for young entrepreneurs to find their valuable counterpart. What has been beneficial for me, is finding a right hand partner opposite in all the ways that matter most. Though we are aligned in our business goals and vision, we have differing views on how to achieve those results. Rather than pulling our business in two directions though, our opposing processes and ways of working combine to open up powerful pathways that move our business forward.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Buckner Chowdhry, CEO and Co-Founder of AnswerLab, a leading UX research firm based in San Francisco working with major tech companies like Google, Amazon, and Twitter. Amy founded AnswerLab more than a decade ago to develop a complete UX toolkit and help the world’s leading brands build better digital products. Under her leadership, AnswerLab has grown to become a trusted UX insights partner to companies in the tech, financial services, retail spaces and beyond.
What is your “backstory”?
I moved to the Bay Area from Tennessee (by way of Japan for 3 years) in the midst of the dot com boom. At the time, we were only just beginning to navigate the internet, and companies were learning how — and most importantly why — to build an online presence. There were no such things as digital companies, and the phrase “user experience” certainly didn’t exist. Growing a business back then was done through traditional methods with the interests of sales, marketing, and C level executives top of mind. It was during this time where I began to see the growing disconnect between what companies and consumers valued, and how that played out in business development and growth.
I co-founded AnswerLab 13 years ago, bringing with me the expertise that I honed in customer and user experience at Ziff-Davis and Vividence (acquired by Keynote). As CEO, I drive our mission of solving user experience challenges for the world’s most innovative companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook. Nothing is more gratifying than seeing our insights positively impact the digital experiences of hundreds of millions of people.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The most interesting story about AnswerLab is the one we are creating and living at this very moment. It’s the story of unlocking unlimited potential of businesses to grow and expand into new user experience frontiers of voice and artificial intelligence. Recently, our team has been immersed in all things voice assistants — from learning what it will take for consumers to repeatedly engage with skills, to how brands must incorporate this platform into their digital strategies. It’s not an easy space to conquer because discovery is a major challenge. We’ve learned that brands have one chance to get their experiences right, as consumers will not return to skills that previously failed to deliver on their promise.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
AnswerLab’s culture is the primary cause of our success and growth over the last 13 years. We have made strategic decisions along the way to provide transparency, promote authenticity, invest in benefits, and make people the priority. In fact, Fortune has selected AnswerLab as a Top 25 Great Place to Work for three years in a row. I strongly believe that investing in our team, helping them become their best possible selves inside and outside of AnswerLab, leads to a better working world and better outcomes for our clients. This means having a thoughtful design to the entire employee experience — from the kinds of drinks and food around the office (no sodas!) to gifting every employee a FitBit on their first day to organizing exercise challenges with prizes. It also means investing in families, which we do through four months of fully paid parental leave and a reproductive stipend to help families who encounter challenges in getting pregnant.
Having this carefully planned approach to culture has also enabled us to attract and retain some of the best talent in the industry and makes us particularly attractive to women. While many companies are struggling to implement gender balance quotas, we have been balanced from the start. In fact, our executive team is two-thirds women, reflecting the our full team, which is also two-thirds women. By recognizing that there is no work/life balance but rather simply life, we lay the foundation for our team to thrive.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
Rather than a single person, several CEO peer groups come to mind. First, the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women initiative helped me think bigger and connect with incredible advisory board members. Second, Vistage helped me learn that there’s no one right way to lead a business and that CEOs with leadership styles completely opposite of my own could also achieve success. This particularly has enabled me to reframe problems and see challenges from different points of view, allowing me to arrive at better solutions faster. Lastly, my YPO forum experience has taught me the perspective that we all go through cycles of what feel like insurmountable challenges only to beat them and charge on the next great thing in as little as a month’s time. Being a CEO can be a lonely place but having these peer groups for support, mentoring, and friendship make all the difference.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I built AnswerLab to be a platform for social good. We know that companies and products succeed most when a diverse set of voices are at the table. In fact, as a recent study has shown, for every 10% increase in diversity in executive leadership of US companies, EBIT improves by .8%. Day in and day out, our researchers are helping clients understand the diverse needs and perspectives of their customers so they can build better digital products that improve lives. We help people get information faster, complete online transactions with ease, and ensure their voices are at the table when tech leaders make decisions. By listening to these voices, digital leaders hit their business goals faster and drive product success.
We also contribute our time and money to organizations that drive gender equity. For two years we have supported the Global Fund for Women through their digital redesign efforts and have raised money for the organization’s programming. Currently, we are investing time in developing a new company mission statement and business plan that will incorporate our social mission into everything we do — from how we select partners to how we engage with clients and to how we brand ourselves. Gone are the days when corporate social responsibility was a checkbox for companies to feel good about themselves. A company’s social mission must be woven into the fabric and soul of the company. It’s not only an moral imperative but also the foundation for attracting talent and customers of the future.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Focus, focus, focus
When you’re launching a company, you begin to see opportunity in everything, but it’s also easy to see more of what you don’t have than what you do. It can be very overwhelming!
What I learned was, yes, everything needed to be done, but it wasn’t until I began focusing on tasks one by one that I was able to check things off the list. Successfully scaling and growing a business takes time and cannot be rushed. With concentrated focus, however, it’s easier to see the individual building blocks that will eventually sustain your business. Through baking this level of concentrated focus into the business as a whole, and each particular role, we’ve been able to grow tremendously year over year.
2. Always have a yin to your yang
I firmly believe that two opposites working together can achieve more than one individual working alone. In this sense, I think it’s important for young entrepreneurs to find their valuable counterpart.
What has been beneficial for me, is finding a right hand partner opposite in all the ways that matter most. Though we are aligned in our business goals and vision, we have differing views on how to achieve those results. Rather than pulling our business in two directions though, our opposing processes and ways of working combine to open up powerful pathways that move our business forward.
3. Build the business, then the office
Similar to the lesson on focus, I learned a valuable lesson when first opening our New York office. We made the mistake of launching everything in that market from scratch at the same time — business development, research, operations, and office space. While that market is now thriving, we initially struggled to manage the weight of all of the resources at the same time thus detracting from business development. Our playbook for entering new markets now involves building the book of business to a healthy level first, and then bringing the team and space to support it.
4. Someone has done it before
When you’re a startup, it’s easy to adopt a “go, go, go” mentality. At some point though, you have to take a step back to realize that someone, somewhere has been in your shoes before, and has successfully accomplished what you’re aiming to do.
Rather than spending valuable time trying to reinvent the wheel, you’ll scale faster if you look for someone with a track record of success and incorporate them into your business. Those who have scaled companies before can offer a fresh perspective, bring the previous lessons they learned to help grow your business and give it the edge it needs to succeed.
5. Balance speed with accuracy when making decisions
We’ve all fallen into the dreaded analysis paralysis trap. But rather than spin your wheels over contemplating potential outcomes, it’s important to realize that — in most cases — any decision is better than no decision.
I’ve learned that often, done is better than perfect. While assessing your to-do list, prioritize items that are most important to check off and just get off your plate. Not only will this free up time to focus on more pressing items, it will give you clarity and peace of mind knowing that you’re making progress toward your greater goals.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I find the most inspiring leaders to be those who use their companies as a platform for social good — either through the works of the business or by leveraging their position to take strong stands and make meaningful contributions. In this way, I see Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, as a true hero. Last year he gave an interview saying, “You have the opportunity to set up companies that do good in the world. It’s easy. There’s all this incredible energy in your company and you can unleash it for good. If you’re not unleashing it, you’re missing something. I really think people are inherently good and want to give, I think companies are inherently good and want to give. The ability to do it is relatively straightforward. All you have to do is open the door.”
Marc has been a champion of LGBTQ rights, activley pulling business from Indiana and Georgia in 2016 when both states brought forth anti-LGBT legislation. The company has also made sweeping adjustments to equalize pay for women, spending $6M over 2016 and 2017. Perhaps most notable, though, is the company’s pioneering and innovative 1–1–1 model, wherein it gives 1% of its technology, people, and resources to improve communities throughout the world. This model of integrated philanthropy has continued to gain success as a now standalone company, Pledge 1%.