“The team is more important than the idea. The idea is going to change. Most probably you’re going to be shifting around when you hit the world. What you don’t want to change is your team. You want the team that will go all the way with you.”
When we met Einat Orr on a Monday morning, she had already been up since 5 am and swam 4.5 kilometers. A StartUp nation veteran with over 20 years of experience, Einat is no stranger to leading technology teams. In this edition of Founder Stories, Einat tells us of her journey from tomboy, to getting her Ph.D. in mathematics, to chief technology officer of a company with over 400 employees. With a collected serenity, Einat talks about teamwork, methodology, what good leadership is, and what it’s like being a woman in a male-dominated tech world.
This is the fourth company where you’ve built and led an R&D team. What are the differences between working at a startup as a founding employee versus joining a company that already has scale and traction?
The search for product-market fit is completely different than hitting product-market fit and building for scale. It doesn’t matter whether there are 10 or 100 employees, it matters if there’s product-market fit. Before reaching the product-market fit, it’s all about the thrill of shifting very quickly, working very closely with the business, and coding on the way to a demo. It’s a different state of mind once you reach product-market fit. You need sustainability, quality and scalability to retain your customers and grow your business. This requires a focus on good engineering and infrastructure.
How many people are on your team right now?
There are a hundred and fifty people on my team, and over four hundred at SimilarWeb.
The product at SimilarWeb includes a vast data operation which makes us more R&D intensive than other companies our size.
What do you think makes a good team?
Excellent people working in cooperation.
Just as a reference, Google wrote quite a lot about it. A team with people who are very talented but do not work together don’t bring the level of results that a team of cooperative people do.
Cooperation is at the heart of the success of any team. When you hire people who are team players, you inspire teamwork. It creates a very open culture, where people can contribute and be heard. Basically, everyone can make decisions. The managers give context, but they don’t take control. Managers give context and information to lower levels so that they can make decisions themselves.
So it’s very much about good leadership. What do you think makes a good leader?
Yes, good leadership is very important. But the role of a leader is to foster the right culture and frame of mind. A good leader in a technology company must also be a domain expert. The leader’s role is to ask the right questions, and provide the tools for others to actualize their talent.
Most importantly, a good leader has a vision, and remains true to it. A long term, constant, vision serves as a compass and allows people to better evaluate their initiatives. Secondly, the will and the ability to pass on context and listen as much as possible. It’s very hard if you’re a control freak like me who loves solving problems. When I see a problem, of course, I have a solution but I have to keep it to myself. In suggesting solutions I fail to clearly state the problem, and thus do not allow others to fully utilize their talents to solve it.
The other thing that makes a leader is the ability to see oneself. Being a good manager means that you’re not perfect, and you constantly own up to your mistakes. It means that you might preach things and not always set the example for them. But you have to own it. I’ll say “yes, you’re right, I made a mistake, I should have managed it differently”. The moment you own it, people feel that they can also make mistakes, which is very critical, you can’t succeed without them. And they’ll also feel that they too will be accepted even if they make mistakes.
How do you deal with employee retention?
When teamwork is the culture and people feel like they are true partners, they have a sense of belonging that keeps them around.
Throughout your career, what are the biggest mistakes you have made?
The list is so long. I chose the wrong technology, hired the wrong people. You name it, I did it.
I was successful at the things I did not because I didn’t make mistakes, but because I owned them and asked other people for help in fixing them. It’s best to make a lot of small mistakes rather than one huge mistake. You could do that by working in a way that is agile. Dividing the work process into smaller cycles allows you to monitor your mistakes, and to fix them as quickly as possible. There’s a methodology around that in development and in product – but I think it could be translated to business. Companies can make smaller mistakes in their business models if they test the waters, gather data, and then take decisions. This isn’t merely a product development methodology, but a philosophy that can guide you through your everyday activities. A philosophy that I have taken to heart.
You could write a book about how to manage a team with all this methodology.
I can’t spell so I don’t imagine I would ever write a book. I’m totally dyslectic. It was very difficult for me at a young age to read and write. I could run and swim pretty well but I couldn’t really spell.
How did you navigate this challenge and become successful?
I can’t tell the difference between left and right, it’s ridiculous but I can’t. The frustration of not being able to do things that other people perceive as simple is a very strong motivator. It puts you in a position where you need to prove yourself. The need to work at things that came quite easily to some people taught me to overcome challenges, which is a very useful habit in reaching goals.
When you were younger, did you ever have people tell you that you can’t succeed?
No, I was very lucky. It seems to me, that diagnostics and boxes focus on the problem. If you’re labeled problematic, teachers and parents will want you to spend 10 hours a week doing spelling and reading exercises, instead of doing what you like to do. Instead of focusing on the things you’re incapable of doing, you should focus on the things you want, and can do.
I think children with challenges should be left to do what they want. Then, when they need to invest in something they are bad at, they have the self-confidence they gained from doing the things they are good at.
R&D is notorious for having long hours and sleepless nights. How have you managed to juggle motherhood with this?
You should ask my son, he’ll tell you he’s not very happy with the juggling. There are trade-offs. The “you can do it all” thing is bullshit. You need to be ready to pay the price. To be honest, I’m not sure I chose in the sense that I didn’t see what the trade-offs were at every point and decided that it was the right thing to do. I am who I am and I did the things I was passionate about. I may not have been a good enough mother and at some point in my career, not a good enough employee. It’s not something I managed optimally. I was invested in it, and I made choices.
What do you think makes the Israeli startup world so special?
I buy the “Startup Nation” thing. For good and for bad, we know how to improvise and we really think we know better. It doesn’t matter that the solution already exists or that there’s a two hundred billion dollar company already doing it. We believe we can do it better. The arrogance together with the creative mind has brought a lot of success.
What advice would you give a CTO or founder starting out?
The team is more important than the idea. The idea is going to change. Most probably you’re going to be shifting around when you hit the world. What you don’t want to change is your team. You want the team that will go all the way with you.
You’re very much a woman in a man’s world. Can you tell us about that experience?
Being a woman in tech is a challenge, there is prejudice, chauvinism, and inappropriate sexual conduct. You need to find your way through these. There are also open minded and supportive people who help manage the difficulties. I have a strong personality, and have always been stubborn and competitive. It’s helped me to overcome discouragement.
What is the male to female ratio in your R&D team?
We have 20% women. Unfortunately, it is hard to improve this ratio. There aren’t many women in the pipeline, and I don’t usually receive their CVs.
Did your competitive nature come from somewhere?
I have an older sister and a younger brother. I am a middle child. The frustration of being a middle child is there. Frustration is a very good motivator. I think the fact that parents are now denying their children of any frustration is a huge mistake. That’s not to say that you need to neglect them. But you deny them of being a full human being if you don’t allow them to feel disappointment, failure or struggle.
Are you happy? Do you want to change anything?
I’m leaving SimilarWeb and I do want a change but I’m still not sure what yet. I really enjoy not knowing. I don’t want to commit. I think I’ll go trek in Nepal, spend 20 days without speaking to anyone. Slow down a little, then I’ll see what’s next.
You’ve accomplished so much and you’re not arrogant at all.
I have no reason to be arrogant. I understand the role that luck plays in success. I know my achievements were always accomplished with others. Together with them, I share credit for these achievements.