The cavnessHR podcast – A talk with Darren Austin
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The cavnessHR Podcast can be found at the following places or you can just type in cavnessHR on the respective app.
Google Play: https://cavnesshr.co/786d9
Pocket Casts: https://cavnesshr.co/thecaaf85c
Social Media links for Darren Below!!
The Better Show podcast: www.bettershow.io
Darren’s Book Recommendation!!!
“Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” by Yuval Noah Harari
Resources from Darren!!!
Contact us on the Better Show, we are the Better Show on twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Let us know a topic you want us to cover on the Better Show. We will select one of those submissions and we will send them a productivity planner.
Jason: Hello. Welcome to the cavnessHR Podcast. I am your host Jason Cavness.
Jason: Today's podcast is brought to you by audible. Get a free audio book download and a 30 day free trial at www.audible.com/cavnessHR
Jason: Our guest today is Darren Austin. Darren are you ready to great today?
Darren: I am indeed.
Jason: Darren is a consumer product executive who has helped pioneer many of the innovations in technology that we take for granted today. Including e-commerce. Mobile apps. Social messaging location based products and cloud services.
Jason: Between 1999 and 2010 Darrin helped start Amazon's on first mobile product initiative in 1999. Cofounded two more tech companies. Introduced the first instant messaging app for the iPhone in 2008. As a product lead mobile aim and ICQ at AOL. Help start the mobile product team at Expedia in 2010. More recently Darren served as a VP of products for Seattle based startup Glympse. And in 2015 was recruited by Microsoft . To help accelerate the culture change to the company. As product lead for one note.
Jason: Darren is active in the Seattle startup community and recently began co producing a podcast called a better show with two of his close friends. Darren once again thank you for being here.
Darren: Hey thank you for having me on the podcast. This is great.
Jason: Well, Darren what's keeping you busy now. What's your main focus right now.
Darren: Yes. So I got to say I'm I've been doing pretty well. It's a beautiful week here in Seattle. Yesterday it was absolutely gorgeous what's been keeping me busy this week is golf. I got to play golf twice this week. I went on a quick bike ride this morning. It's just a beautiful time and so I'm just looking forward to spring and summer literally. As we're recording this I'm watching we have a hummingbird. I have a hummingbird feeder right outside my window here watching three hummingbirds sort of take turns diving into and feeding at this hummingbird feeder. It's pretty cool. So I love this time of year. That's the thing I guess I'm most excited about is spring and summer. The things that I'm working on things keep in my mind occupied lately. You mentioned the better show podcast so I cohost with the Mike and March. That's something we started a little less than a year ago and it's been a blast. We're learning as we go so none of us have ever you know we don't. Ian actually has some history doing a podcast but we're sort of figuring this out because when he did one it was maybe 10 or 15 years ago and podcasts were first coming out. So we're learning as we go and I love the process of learning. The other thing I'm doing is I'm helping a good friend of mine own his investor pitch for a company that he's recently started. I learned recently that I absolutely love that I love working with founders. I love working with startup product teams. There's just an energy and an electricity to the opportunity that these companies pursue and the vision that these founders have. It just really excites me. So that's those are two things that are sort of occupying my mind of course I have my day job at Microsoft where I focus on higher education and I'm sort of developing a new product strategy for higher education for Microsoft something that's a little bit off of the traditional beaten path. So I'm pretty excited about that. But yeah that's my life.
Jason: Of all the great products you worked on in the past. Which one excited you the most and why?
Darren: Yeah. So there's probably two answers to that question. I have the time I had in my career where I just really had some of the most fun and I was really the most excited was when I was at AOL. You mentioned my time at AOL where I was product lead or mobile. So if those listening to the podcast might remember AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ are like the two first instant messaging applications the running man who actually they just recently shut aim down which was which was a sad thing. I was a big fan of the running man. But. Yeah I think that was one of the products I was most excited about because we were transitioning the business from the old world pre iPhone into this new world we were building aim for iPhone. Aim for iPhone was a completely different animal it was much richer experience. It was direct consumer. We weren't supporting it through carrier fees. We were doing a new business model and we knew we were sort of on the cusp of something really exciting. We were fortunate enough to have Apple bring us into the fold very early in the process of the iPhone release So we were granted early access to some of the iPhone developer assets. So that was a lot of fun. The other thing was. A company I worked for before Microsoft glimpse. Glympse was pretty exciting as well. I just really loved working with the team at glympse. I just sincerely enjoyed that. It was a location based service. So for those that may not know glympse is a location based service. It's a way that you can share your location with somebody in real time so they can literally see you moving on a map.
Darren: But then it has a time to live. So it expires kind of like Snapchat for maps. We were building this a longtime before snap chat and the whole concept was people should be in control of really sensitive private data. We started out with this idea of location and there's instances maybe when I'm driving or when I'm in a crowd or something where I want someone to know where I am right then. But I don't necessarily want that person to know where I am. Like an hour from now or two hours from now. So we had this concept of sharing your location and setting a time limit on it. So I could say if Jason if you and I were going to meet at a coffee shop I would say hey Jason I'm on my way. Stuck in a little traffic here you can watch me. Enroute to the coffee shop. That way I don't have to text and drive. You could see me enroute to the coffee shop but then I could set that to expire when I arrive at the coffee shop. So you no longer see where I am afterwards. So that was a really exciting product then and it brought. Some new concepts around user control of their data and privacy that I think recently only become really relevant. So I love the team at glympse. I'm still a huge fan even though I don't work there they're doing great. But yeah that was what was the other. That was the other product that I really enjoyed working on
Jason: Darren, can you talk about the process you use when building out products.
Darren: Yeah. So I am a big fan of Eric Reese's lean startup process. So he describes in that book for those that have not read that book I highly recommend it. He describes a method where you start out with well take a step back. The traditional way people build products is they invest a lot of time and energy in research and they think they have the exact right plan for what they think their customers want. They spend months sometimes you know quarters or even a year building a product and release it. Then they find out that what they thought they knew was not probably exactly correct. Eric's perspective in this lean startup is. You know rather than spend all that effort in investment to just learn at the end of a year that you are wrong about something. What if you could accelerate the learning cycle. What if you could build a smaller product that was very narrowly focused on a specific problem and release it to the world. The hypothesis using sort of the scientific method is saying okay this is what this is who my customer is this is the problem I think they have and this is how I'm going to solve that to them.
Darren: Release that as fast as you possibly can. The goal is really just speed of learning how fast can I learn about what my customers want and how I can make them happy. I love that method because it optimizes for speed learning. I would probably modify some of the things that he has in there. Because people tend to use the Lean Startup method as an excuse to just throw things over the fence like you know well let's just build it really quick and get it out there. Which isn't completely wrong. But you want to build a quality experience. But you just want to build a quality experience that's very narrowly focused for your user need. It's not about putting out unpolished products. But it's about putting out products that have narrow set of use cases and then expanding on them over time. So I like that project of that process and I would recommend it anybody.
Jason: Yes I have an intern helping me out this summer. Named Kate Moley. She wants to open a bakery. Yesterday we were talking about the MVP process. You know instead of doing all baked goods. Maybe just do Chocolate Cupcakes. So it can be applied to anything
Darren: I think so. You know I mean if you're going to if you're to start a bakery. Think about the capital expense involved in getting a bakery going. You've got to get a commercial kitchen if you want a retail space. Maybe you're renting a place or a storefront. You don't know what the traffic is like at a storefront. You're probably better off. You know renting commercial space commercial kitchen space making your baked goods and selling those to individual bakeries as a reseller or restaurants and seeing what products have the most traction. Then once you figure out what has the most traction and where you know where your pastries where you're baked goods are going to sell the most. Then you could start narrowing in on a location and whether you want to invest in a full commercial kitchen. So yeah I totally agree. You can apply this the same sort of thing to any business
Jason: That is great advice. I will make sure to pass it on to Kate
Jason: Darren how has working at Microsoft and other large corporations helped you become a better startup advisor.
Darren: Yeah it's interesting because my career sort of had you know I sort of alternate between startup companies and larger companies. I have to say I do love my job at Microsoft. I'm really bullish on the company. I love the turnaround that they are undergoing. But my heart is always with the smaller teams are just really get a lot of energy out of working with small teams and young companies and new ideas. It's just where I drive my energy. The perspective from having been at larger companies is actually been pretty helpful. All with the way I help advise either startup company that I'm currently with or friends or colleagues that are starting their own companies and it's basically given me a different perspective. You know when you're starting something from scratch you're struggling with a different set of problems than when you scale up and get really large. It's having a perspective on the types of things that will change once you begin to gain traction and once you begin to scale that I think has been helpful for me. The other thing too is. If you're a small company a lot of times you want to forge a partnership with larger companies and the best way to get a fruitful partnership in my opinion is to have a sense of empathy with a partner that you want to work with.
Darren: You know see things from their perspective understand what their needs are understand what their business drivers and their goals are. So having spent some time inside larger companies like Microsoft. I can actually get that perspective and so when I have a company that comes to me and says Hey I would really love to forge a partnership with Microsoft. I could pretty quickly tell them like okay well here are the things that matter to Microsoft or her are the things that matter to a company the size of Microsoft. If you can provide these sorts of things then they're going to be interested in doing a deal with you. Conversely. Your interest ought to be you know these are the things Microsoft can provide for you if those are the things that you need at your stage of the business. This is probably a great a great fit if those are not the things you need if you need something else. Then you might be wasting your time. So I think having that diversity of perspective and it's helped me develop a bit of empathy for being in both situations.
Jason: When a founder comes to you and asks you to be a startup advisor. What do you look for to say yes and what do you look for to say no.
Darren: Yeah that's a great question. Interesting backstory is, about a year and a half ago maybe two years ago. I got a cold call or cold e-mail through LinkedIn from a young startup founder who said he was in sort of the real estate business. He had seen some of the work I had done at a previous company I started cofounded called Seattle rentals .com. He said I would love to pick your brain about you know what I'm doing. I kind of looked at what he had and saw his background he looked like he was a go getter. Anyway I was happy to give him some time and we chatted on the phone. This is guy completely impressed me. He was energetic he was passionate and committed about what he was doing. He had done his research and he had done it. He'd literally put his heart and soul into this new product that he was its new business really that he was building. Now he didn't have all the perspective of somebody that had been 20 years in an industry and made all the mistakes. But that's why he was calling me because I made more mistakes than I can count. He was so open to listening and learning and he was engaging in the conversation. You know sort of asking clarifying questions and probing for more insight and riffing with me on certain ideas about where what he could do how he could take some of the ideas and the thoughts that I had and incorporate them into his business. I think that was one of the best exchanges I've had with a founder and I think what it boils down to is it boils down to energy and commitment and preparation.
Darren: But then also this sort of open mindedness and humility that comes with the type of person that wants to learn more. That takes a certain type of person to say to themselves like I don't know everything. That's OK because I bring a certain set of values and experiences to the table. But I can be better. By incorporating knowledge from other people and I want to help and leverage other people at that really is a turn on. I just I love working with people like that. I think probably the opposite would be true if somebody came to me and said hey I want you to work as a startup. You know just need you kind of on paper. But I'm not particularly interested in what you have to say. Not that anybody would do that. But you could sort of get the vibe of how people engage with you know or if they kind of are really stuck in a certain mindset and they're not willing to see things from a different perspective. It doesn't mean that they have to agree with me. In fact, I prefer when people disagree with me because it causes me to sort of question my own set of assumptions. But, someone that is incapable of sort of looking at a different perspective. I think is the type of thing where I would say this might not be a good fit and or if I frankly just don't believe in the business or if it runs counter to values or something like that. I probably say no to that as well.
Jason: You talk about a time you were successful in the past. What you learned from your success and what we can learn from this.
Darren: There was an instance when I took a job at Expedia in 2010. I took a job to help start their mobile division or their mobile product team I should say. They had just sort of dabbled a little bit in mobile. One of the things that we did was basically we were we were doing the basics. I came in and we built a mobile Web site. We started building mobile applications and this is 2010. So this is pretty late, I thought in terms of an e-commerce company to adopt mobile. But the thinking at the time at Expedia prior to my joining was this. You know mobile seems big and it is growing. But are people really going to spend hundreds of dollars on their phone booking a hotel or flight. It doesn't seem like that's likely to happen. But then they sort of came around to the idea. That this actually is something people are going to do. I sort of evangelizing this idea of mobile as an existential threat to your business. If you are not engaging in it in a big way. Because these little phones these are cash registers in everybody's pocket. If you're an e-commerce company you've got to be able to have a wonderful experience on these devices and a differentiating experience on these devices. The success I had was. we grew revenue through the mobile channel at Expedia from just a few million dollars when I joined to over 100 million dollars a year run rate. We did that in just under 18 months. This was astronomical growth.
Darren: The funny thing about it was, there wasn't any magic involved. It wasn't like I came in with some great big insight. It was grinding it out. It was basically developing a good positive engaging mobile experience. It boiled down to the basics of what makes a good product. Usability and reliability and throw trust in there as well. But trust you get from the brand that you're dealing with and Expedia is a trusted brand. Like just getting the basics right really enabled us to just you know experience astronomical growth in mobile. What I learned from it was. A rising tide floats all boats. So it's really another way to say that it's really good to be in a growing market. I didn't have to come up with some magic to grow revenue that high. What I had to do was do a basic good job. It had a product that is already in a growing segment. Well a different example would be when I was at amazon.com. We started the mobile division there 11 years earlier which was way early for mobile commerce. You know it took us a year to get to 1 million dollars in revenue from 99 to 2000 at Amazon.com. But that was huge at the time. We thought we were amazing you know fast forward 10 years and it's literally 100 x. I guess what I learned is being in a growing market is super powerful. When you're in that scenario the most important thing you can do is get the basics nailed. Once you get the basics nailed then you sort of earn the right to do more innovative interesting stuff/
Jason: The follow up question about a time you failed in the past. What you learned and what we can learn.
Darren: This is this is an interesting one. I took a job earlier in my career where I was primarily motivated by the money that I was offered. I didn't spend a lot of time researching the culture of the company. Because I didn't think about that. At the time I was younger my career and I was thinking about what's the next step on the ladder. How can I make more money. How can I add another sort of you know notch in my belt in terms of achieving more things and learning more things. I was really fixated on the career progression and the money. I didn't spend any time really researching the culture. I found out it was a terrible fit for me at that company. It was just a cultural mismatch. I'm much more of a team player I'm very collaborative. This environment was not quite like that and what I learned from that was CEOs set company culture as much as HR departments. Team building events and stuff like that contribute to company culture. The CEO really does set company culture in sort of a way that it's this ripple effect throughout the company. What I learned is the personality and the values of a CEO are pervasive throughout a company. So pay attention to the leaders and they're going to give you a sense for what it's like to work at a company. I also learned a lot about myself and I learned about what values are important to me. It changed the way I made decisions about where I spent my time and where I wanted to work in the future. It was a hard lesson to learn. But it was a really valuable lesson. I wouldn't give away that experience for anything because I came out of it a lot better
Jason: Darren, it always amazes me how many people say culture belongs to HR. Like no, it belongs to the CEO. HR can help lead the culture change and be an advocate. But that's the CEO.
Darren: You probably know this better than anybody. I mean this is the world you live in. It's funny I like it it's you know you see. You see the transition that Uber is in the middle of going through which you know when they had their founding CEO Travis Kalanick. Probably mispronounced his last name there. He embodied the culture that was pervasive throughout Uber. Now they've got Khosrowshahi who was the CEO at Expedia and I had an opportunity to have some engagement with. He's phenomenal. He's exactly what they need. I was very bearish on Uber for the long time. Until I heard that they brought Dhara on the CEO and I said. If that company has a chance of turning things around. That's the best decision that could have been made. I think it's a really good choice and I'm curious to see where he takes it. I've already noticed on YouTube that they're running video campaigns around a different culture that they're working on. It's a listening culture to their drivers to their customers. Which I think is exactly the mindset that you've got to have
Jason: Sometimes I don't think people realize how important your employer brand is as well.
Darren: Yeah absolutely.
Jason: Dan next tell us about someone who has helped you in the past and how they helped you.
Darren: Yeah that's a good question too. I had a colleague of mine that was actually a really good mentor. She and I were peers and she gave me such great candid feedback. She was able to share with me feedback and observations and act as a sounding board for me. In a way that I think was probably difficult for a lot of other people to do. So for example there's a concept called Radical candor that I don't know Jason if you ever come across this concept radical candor.
Jason: I haven't. First I'm hearing it.
Darren: It's a concept where you basically share very transparently and very honestly with the person that's asking for feedback or advice. It's basically it's a little bit of tough love. In terms of like OK you're seeing it from this direction. Here's how I'm seeing it. Anyway I had a colleague that was like that and provided me some great feedback. She later became my boss and I was thrilled. I made a decision to work for her because of the great feedback and the great sort of mentorship and guidance that she gave me. That is probably the most valuable interaction that I've had and I continue to value that relationship today.
Jason: Darren can tell us something about yourself that most people don't know. Of course, close family and close friends know this. But most people who see you day to day don't know this about you.
Darren: I'd say I have a lot in common with a lot of other people in this particular aspect that people wouldn't guess it. There's a thing called impostor syndrome which you may have heard about or read about or some of your listeners may have. Which is this idea of like just the level of insecurity that you sort of go through when you reach a certain point your career. You start thinking wow I've had some success here. But like I have really been lucky. One of these days these people are going to figure out that I'm faking it. This whole way, I'm not really not as good. I struggle with that continuously. I really really do. I'd like to think that it comes from a sense of humility about the types of things that I've been able to do. So maybe it comes from a good place. But it's the type of thing that I'm actually working on. You know I'm working on my own level of self-confidence. It's been alternatingly scary frustrating and like inspirational. It's sort of like reflect on that a little bit. That's the bit about me not all people know. I think for whatever reason I have managed to fake it pretty well.
Jason: Thanks for sharing that do I mean a lot of people have that imposter syndrome unfortunately.
Darren: It's a tough thing. I took up I took up a meditation practice maybe a couple of years ago and it's been helpful to sort of focus on that a little bit.
Darren: Because it sort of helped me a little bit to get outside of my own head and say wait a second like you don't pay attention to that little voice in your head. Pay attention to those other voices. It's been helpful.
Jason: Darren, I understand you have a book to recommend for our listeners.
Darren: Yes, so it's a book that I'm reading right now. I'm not completely done with it so I don't know how it ends. But so far so good. It's called Homo Deus. It's a brief history of tomorrow. It's basically a sequel to his original book which I think was called Sapiens. Sapiens was about the history of the homo sapiens. The history of the species and sort of how it evolved over time from single cellular organisms all the way to where we are today. Homo Deus takes up the story from where we are today and where we're going to go into the future. By the way I've not read sapiens that's next on my list. I'm sort of doing these out of order but homo Deus is really about what happens when humans advance their own. The technology that we use. Because we're a species of toolmakers, that's what we are. We make tools to make our lives easier and more productive and more efficient.
Darren: Everything from the discovering fire to inventing bicycles for more efficient modes of transportation. All the way now to genetic sequencing and things like that. As a species of toolmakers when our tools become so good that we can actually alter the direction of our evolution. It becomes fascinating to think about what happens when we eradicate disease. Because we've already started doing that with smallpox years ago. What happens when we're able to extend life not infinitely. Although maybe that happens. But what happens when we can extend life 50 years. We've already actually done that as a species right. We're living to our 90s or longer. When not that long ago the average life expectancy was you know 40s 50s that type of thing. So what happens when we extended another 50 years or even longer. What are the changing roles of society and the family unit and things like that. It's just a fascinating investigation of what happens as we get more and more advanced. So I recommend it. I'm enjoying it right now I'm not quite done with it but it's been great so far.
Jason: Darren, I understand you have something to offer our listeners.
Darren: Yes so we mentioned a little bit about the Better Show. I mentioned that you know Ian in March and myself have started this thing a year ago. So for those that don't know the Better Show is, it's a show that explores ways to improve at all different aspects of life. So in the show we delve into specific to a specific topic each week and our topics range from all different aspects of life. We cover topics like sleep or stress management or how to be better at giving gifts. To one that we just did the other day was how to be better grocery shopper. It's just part of every aspect of life. We did an episode one of our most popular shows was we dug into productivity tips. How do you manage your time better. How do you be more productive. We covered a physical planner tool that I have here. We cover this physical tool called the productivity planner. It's by a company called Intelligent change. This is a method for managing your time and planning your week.
Darren: I adopted this thing and I have to say Jason this transformed the way I manage my time in the way I plan my week.I cannot live without the without the productivity planner today. I'm a huge fan of it. Our listeners are big fans of it and I actually have a couple of extra copies of the productivity planner. I wanted to offer one of them to the podcast listeners here. If you send a tweet to our podcast the Better Show. We are at the Better Show and that's on Twitter Facebook Instagram. But tweet us at the Better Show and let us know a topic or something that you'd like to get better on and something you'd be interested in hearing us talk about. We'll pick one of those one of those submissions at random and I'll contact you reach out to you. Somebody is going to get a productivity planner. With my heartfelt recommendation on how this really does help you manage your week. I love it.
Jason: Thank you Darren that is very valuable. Can you provide your social media links so people can reach out to you?
Darren: I just mentioned the Better Show so on Facebook Twitter Instagram. Personally, my Twitter is @darrengaustin. The best way to reach me professionally really is LinkedIn. Those are my contact information. If you want more information about our podcast the Better Show our address is Bettershow.IO. But you can also find us on iTunes and Stitcher and all the other places.
Jason: Thank you Darren. We are coming to the end of or talk. Can you provide some last minute advice or wisdom on any subject you'd like to talk about.
Darren: You know I think one the last thing that I could think to share is and this is a popular topic now so I'm not breaking any new ground. But the importance of this growth mindset that you hear a lot of people talking about. The importance of curiosity and maintaining a willingness to learn and discover. I think that's the most important trait that we can have today. When you think about the way our society is changing. The way our business environment is changing the way our technology is advancing. We're all on the cusp of learning something brand new almost every single day and something revolutionary. I spend a lot of time reading. I spend a lot of time reading. I like quantum physics a sort of a weird little hobby of mine. So I love reading about quantum physics and astrophysics and I also love reading about sort of what you call it brain science and neuroscience. So there's this interesting intersection of these things where they're literally discovering. Like quantum physical connections with human consciousness. It's a fascinating field. So the point of it's like when you get down to looking at the types of things that we're learning. Having that level of curiosity and continuously being hungry to improve and to learn and to discover more. I think is just the best characteristic that we can foster in ourselves and our children for that matter.
Jason: Darren, thank you for your time today.
Darren: Yeah I really appreciate it. Thanks for having me. It's good to see you again.
Jason: Yes. And for listeners thanks for your time as well and remember to be great every day.