This post is part of Accel’s Secrets to Scaling series, where leaders from across our portfolio share their learnings and advice with the next generation of European entrepreneurs building global winners.
As a company designed to create better collaboration among distributed teams, Miro became a mission critical platform in 2020.
Miro’s technology enabled real-time co-creation as never before, with some virtual whiteboards being used simultaneously in more than 40 countries. 2020 was a year of hyperscale and huge innovation for the company, which passed the milestone of 10 million global users and more than doubled its team to nearly 700 employees across six hubs.
In the wake of a momentous and challenging year, and as the company celebrates its 10th birthday, Miro co-founder and CEO Andrey Khusid shared his thoughts with me on growing up in an entrepreneurial family, building a viral product, expanding as an avowedly global organisation, and being a ‘spherical’ company where momentum grows and grows.
You founded several companies before starting Miro. What attracted you to entrepreneurship?
My father was an entrepreneur, he ran a small printing salon with three or four people. His office was very near our house, so I would be in there about once a week watching him work. It was the kind of business where he was involved in everything – ordering paper, collecting it, buying old printers and working on the weekend to fix them. So I’ve seen my whole life what it’s like to run a business and the kind of commitment you need to have.
Growing up, I also started to do a lot of entrepreneurial stuff myself. When I was seven or eight years old, someone came to our school with newspapers that we were allowed to resell at the tram station. I wouldn’t be able to sleep some nights because my sales pitch was going round and round in my head.
Then when I graduated from school, one of my classmates and I saw there was a market for producing videos of graduation ceremonies, and we created a tiny business around it. The money wasn’t much, but it showed me how to take an idea, understand the market opportunity and convert it into something real.
One of the special things about Miro is the customer love you have earned and the enormous viral growth that has produced. This is what every business is trying to achieve, so what’s the secret?
“You don’t build a product customers will love by accident. You have to plan for it and set goals around it, starting at the end and working backwards.”
Having a viral product means you built strong word of mouth and you developed viral feedback loops within the product or your marketing strategy. To reach that point, you need to pick your metrics carefully and be very specific.
For Miro, we focused on how many new people each individual user brought into the product. We knew that was key to organic growth, so we were relentless about it, setting high targets and experimenting with different ways to improve it. That’s the way you plan and develop your way to virality.
Of course, that only works if you have built a product worthy of being loved by its users. From the design and development perspective, you need to set the bar really high in order to build something great. Also, you have to have a very low – if not zero – tolerance for bad design and bad product decisions. Be ready to change something five times if it’s going to make it five times better.
It’s also important to find inspiration and keep the ideas coming in. I love Amsterdam because the architecture and design of the city helps me to think about design-oriented solutions and the design of the product. I want people to be as passionate about exploring our product as I am about going around the city and discovering new parts of it.
2020 was a huge year of growth for Miro in terms of bringing more customers on board and scaling the team. How did you manage that and make sure nothing broke in the process?
We believe in long-term thinking, and for growth to be sustainable it needs to have the right foundations in place. That means building the right systems, tools and processes, and hiring the right people who care about these things.
You can’t just bring a load of people in and hope to figure out how it’s all going to work later on. So I’m pleased by the hypergrowth we’ve seen, but even more proud that we have tried to do it in the right way, building the foundations that will serve us well for the long-term.
Equally important has been the commitment from our team. Miro is at the heart of how our customers have adapted to the challenges of the pandemic – reinventing how they work, communicate, collaborate and innovate as distributed teams. That’s a huge privilege and a responsibility, and everyone on our team has had to make sacrifices to ensure we could help customers in all the ways they have needed.
You don’t go through a period of huge growth and change without lots of individuals going the extra mile, and we’ve been lucky to have a team who believe in our mission and show amazing commitment to supporting the community every day.
Tell us more about the hiring process at Miro. What do you look for in people?
As the pace of hiring has picked up and the team has become more distributed, we’ve changed our recruitment process quite significantly. We now do a cultural assessment to see if people are a fit with our four values, and we have done a lot to optimise the candidate experience as well as the speed of hiring.
When I am involved in the process, it will be at the last stage of several interviews and I will have the summary of feedback so far from the hiring manager. I’ll have insight into the areas I should focus on, but it’s important I make my own judgement too. At that point, my job is to make sure we are keeping the standard high and always hiring above the mean. Everyone we recruit should be a bar raiser.
As the CEO, you also get to change the brief when the situation calls for it. There have been occasions when we were recruiting for one position, had two amazing candidates at the last stage, and I’ve said let’s hire both of them!
“When you’re growing fast, you shouldn’t pass up on brilliant talent, even if you have to create a new role to accommodate someone.”
How have you evolved the leadership of the business as the headcount has grown from tens of people to hundreds?
It’s about making sure we bring in the right people as leaders. We need leaders who can be trusted not only by the people they are reporting to, but by the team they will be managing.
So our commitment is always to involve the team who will be reporting to someone in the recruitment process. Their feedback is a massively important part of making sure we bring the right people into the leadership and management of the organisation. I trust their judgement and I want those people to be excited about the individuals who are being brought in to lead them – to make sure there is a personal connection as well as a strong resumé.
I also ask myself whether I would want to work for that individual. If you fired me tomorrow, would I be getting on a plane the next day to ask them for a job? Those are the kind of leaders I want to bring into the company.
International expansion has become an important part of Miro’s story, especially in the US, where 50 cents of every dollar on software is spent. How have you approached that and what are the key success factors in the US?
The US is different, especially for European founders who don’t have a first language in common. Coming from Perm to San Francisco, I was entering a market I didn’t understand, in a country I didn’t know and hadn’t lived in, with customers and people I couldn’t immediately empathise with. So I realised from the very beginning of our US journey that I had to get out of my comfort zone, find people who were deeply knowledgeable about the market and its customers, and hire individuals who could bring a new and diverse perspective into our organisation and our leadership.
“A global company needs a global mindset, with people who can intuitively understand a whole range of different cultures, customer profiles, business models and user expectations.”
When you expand globally, you’re building a different kind of company, which means you need different kinds of people and diverse experience. You can’t just export what you did in your home market and hope it will work everywhere. You need a global heart and strong local roots in every key market.But it is a balance, because you’re not building an American company. I have always been clear that Miro is a global company. We have a third of our team in the US, a quarter in Russia where we started, Amsterdam, which is growing super-fast, and new offices in Germany and the UK.
In practical terms, that comes together with a global leadership team, with a leader in every major office working as part of what I call a distributed headquarters. It’s important for people to recognise they are working as part of a global organisation in which every office is an equal partner, not one that is still being driven by people in the original home market.
Let me take you back to your Series A fundraise in 2018. What do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
I wish I’d understood more about how hypergrowth happens and the things an organisation should do to prepare for scale. In retrospect, I would have built more capacity into our product engineering team earlier to help us compete with the big players that were about to enter our market.
And I wish I’d known how important it is to build solutions that scale for all aspects of your business and provide the platform for hypergrowth. Everything you do should be tuned for this level of expansion – infrastructure, people, hubs, systems and processes. The whole organisation needs to have capacity and agility to absorb the effects of growth. I understand that better having been through a period of hypergrowth than I did at the Series A stage.
Finally, in building the business what turned out harder than you expected and what was easier?
For me, the business itself is easy but the people element is hard. I really want to see people thriving at Miro, see them grow in their careers and be happy. It’s hard for me that I can’t give everyone what they want all the time – I always feel bad when someone feels like they’re not in the right role, or when something goes wrong. I find it hard personally, and I want to get into the small details of why one person is thinking of leaving, or why another is unhappy with how a project is going.
The fundraising side has gotten easier. It can be difficult, but it’s also something that follows naturally when you do the right things in terms of product vision, culture and business model.
The analogy I like to use (one I borrowed) is that you have cube companies and sphere companies. A cube company is hard work – every move from one side to another needs a big push. A sphere company gathers momentum as it goes: once you’ve got it started, it keeps rolling. Everything I do is designed to try and make Miro a spherical company, one that will gather customers, investment and awareness as it goes.
The exception to this rule is your own team. Everyone on it is an individual and their problems don’t get solved by the momentum of the sphere. That’s a problem that is as hard with hundreds of people as it was with your founding team. But it’s also what makes running a business and being a founder truly worthwhile.