Why I Joined Talla and Became the COO They Didn't "Need" Yet

Posted by Catharina Mallet on Aug 4, 2017 2:11:07 PM

A few months ago, I joined Talla as Chief Operating Officer -- even though Talla didn't "need" a COO yet. Why I chose Talla, and why Talla chose me, says a lot about the kind of company, and the kind of solutions, we're trying to create here.

In late 2016, after nearly a decade in London, I decided to move back to the US, and I wanted to join a technology startup. I had spent the past seven years building video games and studios for EA and King during the global transition to mobile games, and wanted to find a young and similarly fast-paced, talent-driven, technically demanding, and innovative company that I could help grow.   

I chose Boston over San Francisco -- both tech startup hotbeds -- to be closer to family and friends, and because Boston had been home during my university years at Harvard and MIT Sloan. I had hoped to ease back in "American life" and slowly suss out the right job for me -- but Boston was too welcoming and enthusiastic for that. Every meeting I had led to three more, and every founder or venture capitalist I met wanted me to meet several more of their friends and colleagues.

The problem was that many of the opportunities derived from these meetings were for the "wrong" kind of startups.  

First, coming from video games, I was an "obvious" match for consumer-oriented app startups, and Boston has relatively few of those compared to Silicon Valley. Boston is a B2B town. One very seasoned venture capitalist  gave me some great advice in regards to this problem, which completely changed my approach.

I had been looking for companies in a specific stage of growth. He suggested instead that my skills would be valuable anywhere, and so I should focus on choosing an industry that is intriguing, transformative, and growing. Thanks to his advice, I realized that being a “consumer person” in a B2B town was actually a great asset -- employees increasingly expect the same delightful user experiences they have in their personal apps and tools from their workplace software, and my experience building products people love to use was valuable.

Whether you are building a consumer company or an enterprise company matters a lot to your sales model but, for the other parts of the business, there are many more similarities than differences.

That advice led me to artificial intelligence startups, which are plentiful in Boston. The creative application of large data sets resonated well with my background, and I loved the idea of being back in the relatively early days of an exploding industry. AI is a broad, potentially transformative industry (not unlike video games), and that gave me a target to focus my job search. That led me to my second problem, because AI and machine learning startups (like commercialized AI itself) are very new.  

Many startups don't know they need a COO, and the ones that do know are pretty far along in their growth and maturation. I wanted to get in early and make a difference, but startups that are looking for a COO are usually well past the "solve the big problems" stage. COOs are brought in simply to help startups scale after you get those fundamental questions figured out. Virtually no AI startups are far enough along to be ready for a traditional COO.

Fortunately, I met Rob May, the CEO of Talla. Rob likes people from non-traditional backgrounds, and video games are a fairly non-traditional place to look for any high-end business executive.

Second, Rob believes that real talent finds a way to be useful, so even if he didn't "need" a COO yet, he knew that someone with broad operational experience could do a lot for a young startup like Talla. He understood that my experience building teams and managing businesses through hypergrowth had given me a good foundation in making important decisions under great uncertainty, and that the development process for new video games is itself is one of the best educations in the world for learning how to decide whether to iterate or pivot on ideas with extremely limited data. My experience was going to be relevant -- and valuable -- to Talla across growth stages.

So, the CEO thought I was good match for Talla, but I had to decide if Talla was a good match for me.

Rob talked about solving a very big problem -- actually building the interactive assistant for business that everyone has been predicting for the last 20 years. To take what Siri, Cortana, and Alexa do for smartphones and shopping and apply that to the real, complex, and vital needs of everyday knowledge workers.

That was the kind of big, interesting problem I was looking for. And the fact that Talla wanted me to help solve that big problem however I could, without being bounded by the traditional role of COO, made the prospect of joining Talla even more interesting.

I came on board as a consultant at Talla in January of 2017, and joined full time in June. Since then, I've done everything from overseeing product development and our customer relationships, to refining our hiring and talent practices, to opening mail and ordering coffee, and everything in between. Along the way, I think I've made a real difference in how we solve the big problem of building the world's first AI business assistant. And if Talla keeps growing the way we have since I joined, I might just get to become a "normal" COO again someday, too.

So that's why I joined Talla, as the non-traditional COO for a non-traditional company looking to solve a problem that traditional tactics aren’t quite ready for.

If Talla's mission and culture sound interesting to you, maybe you should join Talla, too.