We recently hosted Stuart Wilson, Senior Director of BizOps & Strategy at Hotel Engine, for a speaker event focused on his career journey from Investment Banking to BizOps, and his learnings as an operator in tech. If you’re a member of The Commons, you can view the recording here. For everyone else, we enlisted the help of ChatGPT to summarize the transcript into key takeaways below 👇
PS - if you want to unlock full access to workshops like these - past and future - apply to join The Commons private community.
Advice for navigating a pivot into tech
Trying to determine if startup is early or late-stage? Here's what to look at:
- Look at the company's LinkedIn count and funding history on Crunchbase to get a sense of their size and funding
- Consider the type of investors the company has, as different investors have different risk tolerances and reputations for investing in early-stage vs. growth-stage companies
- Look at the types of roles the company is hiring for on their career page to get a sense of how specialized their teams are and how mature the company is
- Always ask for revenue and financial metrics during the interview process to get a better understanding of the company's financial health
How to evaluate the risk of moving from investment banking (or any other industry) to a startup:
- Determine what you are solving for and what you want to learn ➡️ Consider if you can achieve your goals in your current role or if you need to look elsewhere
- If you want to learn a new skill, assess the level of risk you are willing to take to achieve it. Joining a startup is typically thought to be riskier than remaining in industry (eg. banking, consulting, F500, etc).
- To do this, use a two-part framework:
- What is the most important thing you want to accomplish in the next 12-18 months?
- What is the level of risk you are willing to take to achieve that goal?
- If you want to learn from the best and the brightest, you may consider joining a more established player that has built out leadership and development experience and coursework. You typically won't find many built-out processes or formal L&D opportunities at smaller companies.
- Regardless of your decision, continue to learn and grow your skills as much as you can.
If you're looking to pivot into a company in a different industry than your background, will you have to down-level your role or title?
- Whether or not you have to take a step back when pivoting roles into a new industry really depends on the situation
- Generally, it is easier to level up when you go down in size of company than it is to do the opposite, from a title or role perspective
- Building a brand with years of experience and different companies under your belt can make it easier to be seen as an expert in a particular area and to double down in that area, but it can be more challenging to switch to something completely different after building a deep bench of experience in one area (i.e. you may risk pigeon-holing yourself if you stay in one field for too long -- unless, that is, you're confident you want to continue in that field)
- Some companies may be willing to give more freedom to someone with high potential, even if the candidate doesn’t have the exact experience they are looking for. The most successful paths to finding an opportunity where someone would give you a chance may be at the earliest stage where both you and the company are taking a risk, or at the very late stage with defined rotational programs for learning and development.
- Sometimes when transitioning into a new industry, it's hard to know what level of title to target, especially if coming from a non-tech background (tip: check out peers on LinkedIn, who work at other similar sized companies)
Thinking about an opposite move ... What are the key skills or experiences needed to move from an operations role in tech to a VC or private equity firm?
- Working for high-performing and notable companies with strong businesses and talented people
- Building a valuable network of connections through your previous employer, as the ability to tap into a network of great new companies is a critical value proposition for a venture investor
Under the Hood: Stuart’s pivot into tech
Given your background in finance, why did you choose to pursue BizOps rather than Strategic Finance when you pivoted into tech?
- When Stuart pivoted into tech, he considered going into strategic finance and corp dev roles before deciding on operations
- He felt that operational finance was the easiest transition to make from a banking or investing background
- However, he chose not to pursue corp dev because it felt like banking at half the price (i.e. he was finding he'd be paid less in a Corp Dev role in tech)
- At the time, strategic finance mainly involved budgeting, forecasting, and spreadsheet analysis, and didn't seem as strategic or dynamic as it does now
- BizOps was the most interesting and nebulous role, allowing him to connect the dots across the entire organization and work with different departments
- He was not set on one particular department and wanted to work with different areas of the company
Landing and succeeding in a BizOps role
What are the critical skills you need to be successful in a Business Operations role in tech?
- Strategic mindset: ability to provide structure and make informed decisions
- Analytical horsepower: proficiency in working with data and providing insights/recommendations
- Project management: ability to manage cross-functional projects and drive outcomes
- Relationship building: capability to build cross-functional relationships and influence without direct authority
What are some common pitfalls to avoid when interviewing for BizOps roles?
- Spending too much time talking about experience and trying to convince the interviewer that you can do the operational role if you don't come from an executional background
- Spending too much time on your intro - interviews are meant to be conversations. Give a quick 2-3 minute pitch on your background, and leave time to dig deeper.
- Not being able to demonstrate that you can flex well into working with others, especially if coming from a more individual contributor role such as banking or investing
- Not being able demonstrate that you can do hard analytics work or think strategically, especially if coming from a consulting role that relies heavily on frameworks
- And from the interviewer side: Stereotyping candidates based on their background rather than assessing their individual skills and fit for the role
What are some of the different career tracks for someone working in an operations role at a tech company?
- Option 1: Continuing down the business path and becoming more senior, such as a COO, CEO, CFO, or GM
- Option 2: Carving a path into product management, strategic finance, or the data and analytics team
- Ultimately, you can create your own route and career path, as there is no direct defined path to any of these roles
- Take a look at examples of people who have successfully moved from a business function to a C-suite position, such as the former CEO of SurveyMonkey who started in BizOps and became the CEO in less than eight years
How might a BizOps role and skillset differ at a large versus small company?
- There are three pillars of work and value that a business team brings to the table: strategy and planning, data and analytics, and cross-functional execution.
- The amount of emphasis on each pillar will vary depending on the needs and scale of the business. This will flex throughout various stages.
- It's hard to find someone (especially someone junior) who excels in all three pillars, so individuals typically lean more towards one or two and grow in the other areas if needed. As a hiring manager, you'll be making a bit of a growth bet here. For example, if you come from banking, your immediate value-add is likely going to be more on the strategy, planning or data analytics side and less so on the cross-functional execution. Alternatively, a consultant who has spent time implementing, maybe be more geared towards excelling at cross-functional execution.
- Business operations role exists in both large and small companies. In small companies, the BizOps role may be a one-person team reporting to the CEO versus at larger companies, the role may be part of a larger team.
- As the company grows, the BizOps team may expand, and there may be debates on whether to centralize or decentralize the team. For example, does the CMO or CPO want their own dedicated strategy person or chief of staff? Or will those roles continue to sit under the BizOps function?
- Different models of BizOps teams include centralized, centralized but embedded, and decentralized and fully embedded, with the choice depending on the growth stage and structure of the company
- The benefit of being centralized is the ability to load balance and provide exposure to different types of projects.
- It's important to remember that the value of the BizOps team is the ability to work on different parts of the business and to provide quick analysis and project planning for high-priority projects
- Stuart follows a centralized but embedded model and he says "I try to take the approach of not having more than 80% of any one on my team's time spent within one particular project or one particular department,. That's for two reasons. The first is that the 20% will fluctuate over time, as priorities change. The second is to ensure you're giving your team broad exposure to the business, because that's part of the value of a BizOps team to begin with - that you get to work on different types of projects across different parts of the business."
How can you bring yourself up to speed quickly as a new hire when joining a high growth company?
- Research the space as much as possible
- Learn as much as you can in the first 30 days, with the expectation that you'll be quizzed on your understanding of the business (you might not actually be quizzed, but set yourself up well by acting like you will be)
- Having one-on-ones with different people across the organization is a key performance indicator (KPI) for new hires
Any advice on “building the plane while flying it”?
- Think long-term and consider building the right foundations for scalability
- Focus on driving short-term value while keeping an eye on future growth
- Be open to giving up responsibilities as the company evolves and takes on new functions
- Embrace new challenges and avoid holding onto responsibilities for too long
What are some best practices for driving alignment with stakeholders in a cross-functional setting?
- Communication is key for driving alignment with stakeholders
- Early alignment on the project's Northstar goal is critical, especially in the early stages of a project
- Avoid scope creep and continually remind stakeholders of the project's purpose and goals
- Repetition of the project's goals and objectives can help reinforce alignment and ensure everyone is on the same page
- Don't assume everyone is aligned; draw it out of stakeholders, especially in the early days
Can you share an example of how the BizOps team at Hotel Engine has an impact on overall business outcomes?
- Improved the claims and dispute process around chargeback issues, which was a poorly run operation at the time
- Identified signals of opportunities to save money and built scalable solutions and processes
- In about 6 months the team's efforts resulted in saving Hotel Engine millions of dollars by being more efficient in the claims resolution process and collection of information and money.
Interested in a career in BizOps? Join The Commons Strategy & Operations Sprint to get hands-on experience and coaching from a mentor in the field.