Catherine Spence – Co-Founder of Pomello

Ludicrous, aggressive goal-setting and brutal assessment of success.

With a passion for helping companies cultivate their unique cultures in order to find and retain top talent, CPO Catherine Spence co-founded Pomello. Pomello is a San Francisco-based company that utilizes people analytics to determine company culture and predict employee engagement, performance, and turnover.

Founded at Stanford University, Pomello’s technology is based on 30 years of research on organizational culture.

Where did the idea for your company come from?

When I graduated from college, I was lost. But, in reality, I had rent to pay in New York, and I had to make a decision. So I took a job as a paralegal for an investment bank. It was not the right fit. My second job was working for a magazine, and the third a nonprofit. By the time I took my fourth job in four years, I was pretty convinced that applying for jobs might be my one true skill.

By luck, my fourth job landed me at a company that was a good fit. I worked with great people, and I advanced quickly. But it left me thinking that there has to be a better way to find great people to work with. That idea simmered for several years until I met my co-founder Oliver in business school. In talking with him, I realized that we had the same beliefs about how important it was for people to find and share a mission, values, and motivators at work. This is how you build a company culture, and we decided we wanted to help companies be more successful by building better cultures and better employee experiences.

What does your typical day look like, and how do you make it productive?

My typical day begins at 7 a.m. and ends around midnight. I start out by checking in on development progress with our remote engineers. I answer any questions and test new features. Then I head to the office where I switch into sales and marketing mode, sending out marketing campaigns and scheduling sales meetings. Late morning, we tend to have team meetings where we keep each other up-to-date on what everyone is working on. Midday, I try to skim relevant content and flag it for reading later, or sharing via our social feeds. Afternoons are often occupied with customer meetings and customer engagement activities. I look at how our customers are using Pomello and how we can deliver the most value.

By late afternoon, my brain is usually running on fumes. So I make it habit to take a break around late afternoon to work out or grab a bite with friends. This is my secret to productivity (also known as maintaining my sanity). I have to have outlets outside of work, or I become a worse version of myself at work. After my sanity check, it’s time for the evening check-in. I prep any issues for our remote developers to tackle when they come online around 9 p.m. I also use the relatively quiet hours in the evening to write. Lastly, I am trying to learn how to sign off a glowing screen at least 30 minutes before I try to go to sleep. I am told this helps, but it’s a work in progress.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Hmm, tough question. I think the best thing about working on Pomello is that it is a highly accessible idea. Almost anyone can understand on some level that culture and values matter in the workplace. So it’s really a matter of tapping into people’s experiences, asking questions about what has worked and what people would do differently. We’ve found that people want to talk about their experiences at work (the good and the bad). That fuels our ideas and provides an endless resource for creativity.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I think we are about to see human resources go through the change that marketing went through a decade ago. The adoption of data and analytics to make decisions will turn HR from a cost and risk management center into a function that drives top- and bottom-line decisions. Analytics tools for understanding people will begin in HR and will spread throughout organizations to make management science accessible and understandable to more people.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive?

Take the path of least resistance. I do the work that makes the most sense for where I am mentally. I don’t try to write during the day when there are many people, issues, and emergencies interrupting my train of thought. I save repetitive chores for times when I am tired. I block off time for creative brainstorming sessions, and I insulate the team from devices so that they don’t get distracted.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I spent a fair amount of time working in restaurants in college as a hostess, waitress, and bartender. These were both the best and the worst of jobs. I had so much fun with the people I worked with, and I came away with some great stories. But it was exhausting physically (I worked on my feet for 10 hours at a time) and emotionally. (I got yelled at a lot.) The most important thing I learned? I learned how to talk to almost anyone.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Start my career again? Or this company? I’ll assume it’s the latter. I’d be less afraid of doing things wrong. Actually, that applies to both.

What is the one thing you do repeatedly and recommend others do, too?

I’m not sure I’m always great at this, but I take the time to think and talk about the emotions that I am experiencing with my team. I also ask about their feelings. Most big disagreements we have are about our different approaches to a problem, and not about what the problem is or the fact that we care about it. Once you realize you care about the same things, it’s easier to hear their arguments without getting entrenched in your own.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Ludicrous, aggressive goal-setting and brutal assessment of success.

What is one failure you had, and how did you overcome it?

There was a point in our early days when we were too focused on growth. It probably sounds funny to say that out loud, so let me explain. Being in the Bay Area, fast growth is considered your lifeblood. We wanted to get as many companies to sign up for our product as possible, and so we decided to allow a “freemium” version. We did indeed get hundreds of new customers. But what we quickly realized is that very few of these companies were ready to pay us for our product, and they were taking too much of our bandwidth to service. The lesson we learned was that the growth we want is highly motivated customers who are ready to pay for Pomello on day one. We’ll even accept a lower growth rate overall if it means we have revenue and highly engaged customers from day one.

What is one business idea you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Can someone create a geo-location app for conferences that is integrated with Salesforce? I want to know which of my leads/sales opps are attending a conference, and I want to be able to find them or arrange to meet them efficiently on those huge conference floors. It should be like a microsocial network and mapping/location tool combined.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I bought a new pair of slippers. It’s hard to do anything well when your feet are cold. Small luxuries are a way to survive a grueling schedule with good humor.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

Streak for email snoozing — it’s impossible to keep up with various email threads otherwise.

Buffer for social media sharing — it makes it so easy to share relevant content with our audience.

Yesware plugin for Gmail — for updating lead data in Salesforce directly from a Gmail conversation thread.

Snappa and Canva — for making nicely designed images and graphics. (When your eye is as bad as mine, you need all the help you can get.)

Post-it notes for everything else — I like my lists.

What is one book that you recommend our community read, and why?

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work” by Matthew B. Crawford. A man leaves corporate America to become a motorcycle mechanic. This is a man who believes that learning a trade and learning to work with your hands is an endeavor of higher integrity and value to the person doing it than a high-paying corporate job.

Even if you don’t buy his premise, he accurately describes the way “corporate culture” at its worst obfuscates what it means to perform well versus perform poorly. In contrast, he finds the clarity of trade work more honest and more valuable. I remember there is a description of how a plumber knows whether he has messed up: the entire house smells like sh*t when he does.

Striving for this level of clarity is meaningful for me in leading this company. How do we measure success? Is it a real measure of delivering value to customers, or is it a vanity metric like getting press? Do employees have clarity on performance as a whole and individually?

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Charles O’Reilly — We based a large part of our model for company culture on Charles’ work. But even if that were not the case, I would admire Charles for his curiosity and his generosity.

H. Irving Grousebeck — I took his class at business school (he’s a legend). If I could summarize what I learned from him: Treat people well, and practice having hard conversations.


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