This interview is part of our entrepreneur interview series.
Some might assume that becoming a leader is straightforward, but what they don’t know is that not all things come naturally. Unfortunately for many entrepreneurs, leadership has always been more of an art form than a science. Empowering people to become the best versions of themselves, to work together to become more than the sum of their parts is challenging to say the least.
Onboardly had the chance to catch up with Kate Matsudaira, founder of Popforms, to chat about leadership, career development and the growth of her business.
1. Every entrepreneur needs a great origin story. Why did you start Popforms?
I started my career as an engineer and when I was promoted to being a manager I did everything wrong. I won’t lie, I was a terrible leader at first. However, I didn’t want to fail so I put every ounce of myself into learning what it took to be great leader. I picked up most of what I knew from business books, mentors, and learning from mistakes. I started blogging about my journey on my personal blog and traffic started going up, and I realized that I wasn’t the only person struggling with these things.
I knew I wanted to start my own company. I knew I wanted to make the world better. And I knew that people needed help to level up in their careers. And so I came up with idea of Popforms.
The idea has evolved from being forms to help people, to tools, to content, and it is still evolving! However the vision has remained the same – we want to make it easy for employees to shine at work.
2. What’s the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur?
Being the bottleneck on everything!
We are a self-funded startup which means that we sometimes do consulting and grow based on our profits. Sometimes this means taking on tasks, or learning things, that are out of my comfort zone.
In my corporate life I was managing teams of 50-100 people and had help from top MBAs, designers, and engineers; so it was easy to delegate and leverage my time. Now I find myself doing things like learning the basics of photoshop, programming, and then writing a blog post all on the same day. It is a great learning opportunity, and a lot of fun to be in the details again, but I am looking forward to the day that I am not the person holding things up.
3. Who has been your greatest inspiration and why?
Oh gosh, this is such a tough one. I have so many mentors, advisers, and helpers that picking out just one person is impossible.
I will say that personally my husband is pretty fantastic – he always inspires me, supports me, and motivates me.
Professionally, Felix Anthony, a mentor of mine from when I worked at Amazon always pushes me to think bigger. He is my definition of a great leader.
And when it comes to my business, I lean heavily on my friend Hiten Shah. He is so smart and so helpful, and I am always inspired by his creativity and great ideas.
4. You’re an advocate for self-directed career development. Traditionally, career development has been very top-down. How can driven employees take control of their professional lives?
When it comes down to it, the fact is you are the person that cares the most about your career – why would you ever put that in the hands of someone else?
Sure, you can wait for someone to recognize all your hard work, and if you have a great boss it might just happen. However, most people aren’t that lucky. I can remember the time I worked on a project with a group of people and was sure that I would be recognized for my awesome contribution — but I wasn’t.
Work isn’t just about what you do, but it is about how you do it. I think learning to recognize the reality of today’s workplace, and then making changes on the things you can control (your contribution, your communication, and your attitude) is the best recipe for career success.
Don’t you want to be the one in control of your career and your future?
5. “Intrapreneur” is a popular term right now. Why do you think the term has gained such popularity? What does it mean for leadership and company culture in 3 years? 10 years?
I don’t think the idea itself is a new concept, but I do think that companies are trying to empower their employees and give people more autonomy over their work.
If you are familiar with Daniel Pink’s book Drive (this is a great video to watch on the topic), he talks about how motivation comes from three things autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Many companies are starved for innovation and have trouble retaining employees (and/or keeping them engaged), and so the idea of intrapreneurs helps them give individuals autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
When you hire smart people, most of them don’t want to just be told what to do, so you have to come up with ways around it. In the next 3-10 years I imagine that more teams will move away from the “cog in the machine” mentality and start empowering people to take control and be the CEOs of their jobs. In my mind, this is a very good thing.
6. You offer leadership sparks and courses at Popforms. What’s the one spark or course that all of our readers (entrepreneurs, marketers and PR professionals) can’t afford to miss? Why?
I love the chance to sell what we do. :)
Although to be honest, our courses aren’t for everyone. Sparks are really designed for people who are overachievers and who want to be superstars. We have all sorts of courses to help people elevate their careers and we are adding new ones all the time.
I would encourage people to browse our sparks and select one that focuses on an area they want to grow. And if they can’t decide, the Year of Leadership is our flagship spark and has a full year packed with leadership lessons.
And everyone should sign up for our free newsletter, because each week we send out leadership tips, exercises, and ideas to help you be awesome at your job, and everyone can use a bit of that.
7. In understanding what Onboardly does and what our readers are interested in (PR and content marketing), how have you used either strategies (or both) to grow Popforms?
We are big on the content marketing side of things. We launched our website the last week of July 2013, and grew monthly traffic to over 10k unique visitors in less than 6 months. And we did it all by producing and sharing great content that was relevant to our audience.
We spend a lot of time thinking about what our users want to read, what problems they are trying to solve, and what keeps them up at night – and then we try to create high quality, relevant answers and solutions. Our goal is to give 98% of everything we do away for free, because we want to make it possible for anyone who is motivated to improve at work to do so.
8. Any tips or tricks you have never shared before that have helped you launch or grow your company?
Here are some of my favorite lessons from starting Popforms:
Build your audience first. One big thing that we did was launching our website right away, even before we had things to sell. That allowed us to start building an audience around the topic. As we have created our products, that audience has been fantastic for feedback, support, and product validation. In other words, we focused on building our audience first.
Focus on finding a small niche, instead of a large quantity of users. You hear lots of big numbers thrown around when people talk about early stage startups, but you don’t need millions of customers to build a viable business. Focus on finding your niche (your tribe, if you will) that really wants what you are offering.
Initially we wanted our product to appeal to anyone who had a job, and over time we have culled that down to something really specific – top performers in technology companies. We target all our content and offerings at those people and as a result we do a much better job serving them.
Treat your startup like a marathon, not a sprint. When I first was working on Popforms I was so scared to fail that I worked 7 days per week for 8-12 hours per day. After about 7 months, I burnt out from the crazy schedule I was trying to maintain.
Now I see us growing our business in a multi-year horizon instead of days or weeks. This also gives me the ability to think more strategically and long term about the future. Jeff Bezos said it can take 7 years to build a business, so I think it helps to look at things in multi-year horizon instead of the “months of runway” most startups face.
Kate Matsudaira is an experienced technology leader. She worked in big companies like Microsoft and Amazon, 3 successful startups (Decide acquired by eBay, Moz, and Delve Networks acquired by Limelight), before starting her own company Popforms. Having spent her early career as a software engineer she is deeply technical and has done leading work on distributed systems, cloud computing and mobile. However, she has shown herself as more than just a technology leader by managing entire product teams, research scientists, and building her own profitable business.
She is a published author, keynote speaker, and has been honored with awards like Seattle’s top 40 under 40. She sits on the board of the ACM Queue, maintains a personal blog at katemats.com and helps curate the Technology and Leadership newsletter (http://www.techleadershipnews.com/).