How do you CEO? / Thomas Brunskill @ Forage

A learning journey of how startup CEOs work.

Over the past 9 months, I’ve interviewed 15 CEOs to learn how to do my job better.

It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for my own professional development and I hated the idea of keeping all the insights to myself. They all kindly agreed to share our candid conversations so that we can all learn from each other.

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#2 Thomas Brunskill / CEO @ Forage

Thomas Brunskill @ Forage

How do you CEO?

My role has changed quite significantly over the years and I had to get comfortable with it. There’s been a big change from Seed vs Series A vs Series B.

They are almost incomparable roles.

Now I see my role as

  1. Attract great people and keep them here
  2. Set the destination of the company with a degree of specificity
  3. Maintain team morale — measure through Culture Amp and Attrition

I reflect on this at the end of every quarter.
What can I do to affect these?

In the early stages, everything you do is IC work — close deals, and customers.
Now, I do not measure productivity by being an individual contributor.
Now, it is all about “Am I setting the right goals? Is the team hitting them?”

How do you set strategy?

I’ve stuffed up so many times.

We first implemented OKRs in 2020, this is the third year we’re doing them.
In the first year when we set OKRs, we had seven headline objectives.
We had goals along the lines of — scale, marketing, solid XP, and products that student love.

I realised in retrospect, that the goals were just not specific enough.
You could sub in any company and it could have been them.

Now, I start with the Vision and Mission and what that looks like.
We’re trying to climb to the top of Mount Everest, this is what it looks like.

How does the world look different when we succeed?

We’ve levelled the recruitment field.
We’ve flipped the hiring model and it looks fundamentally different.
We’re creating a category-defining product.

Let’s will this into existence.

I don’t focus on 3 and 5-year goals.

Now let’s talk 12 months ahead.
We just need to get up to the next camping spot, what does that look like?

Our goals are highly specific for the next 12 months.
We have two levels of goals with 6 metrics each.

  • Annual KPIs — 6 metrics.
  • Enduring Metrics — 6 metrics.

Our annual KPIs are about how we measure progress for 2022.
They are goals about what’s most important that year:

  • US entry
  • Entry-level talent only
  • # of US student enrollments

Enduring mentors are the long-term metrics that never change.

  • Revenue
  • Contribution margin
  • # of students hired

The mission and vision don’t require a lot of work.
People are joining the company because they fundamentally believe that our product needs to exist. I don’t need to do a ton of work here.

A challenge in our business is that we make our money from employers.
We charge employers to post jobs.
For students, it is entirely free.
Sometimes we can over-index on the employers as they are paying us.

So we keep refocusing the team at All Hands and with Shoutouts that we care about student victories rather than serving the employer to put the student at the heart of our journey.

How do you set goals?

We set 1-year metrics.
We do that closely with the board and direct reports.

We look at what we did last year, what progress did we make, what did it cost and project it forward. The goal is to be more efficient, assuming that some of the experiments pay off. How much further can we progress this year?

The two headline metrics that we really care about are:

  1. Revenue growth — is the ultimate lagging indicator of success.
  2. Hire share — how many students do we place — our product metric.

Then we backsolve these numbers,

The leadership team writes mini briefs.

“It is December of the following year, you’re proud as punch and you have to prep a presentation to the board — how did you get there?”

You backsolve what it would mean for the upcoming 12 months.

We break that down into components.

At the end of Q2, we do a forecast.
If we’re wildly off we calibrate numbers and burn.
If we’re absolutely smashing it we ratchet the numbers up.

For the first two years, everyone set a consistent set of goals — company, team and individual level. Everyone had goals, but they didn’t work.

Now, we have these 6 core metrics that matter and each one has one person responsible for it. I don’t care how you set goals for your own team, you know your number to hit.

The goals are all different — it reflects the nuances of the team — if that delivers on the headline, I don’t care how you get there. I used to think you had to have one way for everyone, at the end of the day what matters is the end result.

How do you communicate?

We have a big writing culture.
The fish rots from the head.
I personally much prefer writing.

It is the nucleus of our team of all ex-lawyers and bankers.

We use Notion for most of our briefs.
We use Loom too but writing is DNA.

It is super important to us as we’re a globally remote and distributed team from Perth to London. Async communication is the key to that and writing is how we show it.

How do you do meetings?

I’m a light touch CEO.
I tried to come up with a process that works for everyone. Something that works for GTM, product, and engineering. I now don’t believe there is a universal structure, a meeting cadence that works for every function. Painfully, it doesn’t work.

What you have to do is facilitate communication through the leadership team.
Communication and meeting structure is up to the VP. They can do it in whichever way they want to do it.

Given we’re remote and distributed we try to maximise quality conversations, that’s the leading indicator of trust. When you don’t have quality conversations trust breaks down.

If you overweight too heavily on asynchronous communication, there are no quality conversations. You need a healthy mix of sync and async. We went too heavy on async and now we’re trying to calibrate back. Sometimes that requires a 6pm and 8am call. That’s something we do have to do to build trust for the teams.

Our leadership team meetings are fortnightly.
My CoS holds the pen at the team meetings.
Our framework is for me to provide an update on what I see, two deep dives, rest of the team input and talk through dependencies.

The Leadership meeting is very similar to our board meetings.
The point of the meeting is not a reporting update, the point is to get into hairy existential exercises in the business.

They are usually 1.5 hours, sometimes they go for 2.5h. People bake in time on either side, usually, we’re good with time. I’m not a stickler for time with the Leadership Team, because we have so little synchronous time between Denver, SF, and Perth. Once everyone is on a Zoom, every second is so valuable.

How do you communicate sensitive information?

Try to be as transparent as possible.
Part of it is having adverse reactions from black boxes of previous environments.
I’m really candid and open with the team.
The Great CEO Within is a great book for transparency.

I know that everyone talks and everyone is an adult.
This happened.
It is unfortunate.
But this is what we’re doing about it.

I have the same approach with the board.
What is the upside to hiding anything from the board?
They are smart people and I need their help to solve problems with them.
I get feedback from US investors all the time about the honesty of our “goods” and “bads”.

That’s a superpower of Australian founders.



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