Big Companies Versus Startups

Engineering at Redfin

Big Companies Versus Startups

Large car on the left facing a small car on the right
Photo by Miguel – https://www.flickr.com/photos/miguel77/

There I was, summer of 2015 in Seattle, feeling comfortable. I was a product manager with years of experience working at big companies. I learned what it means to be a product manager at Microsoft, joining the company right out of college. After years building software for productivity (Office) and gaming (Xbox), I transitioned to Amazon to build digital devices and services. I knew how to get things done at places where there are thousands of engineers, PMs, and designers.

 

So, one day during that summer of 2015, a friend called me up from Redfin and asked to grab a coffee with me. He had a PM position to fill, and wanted to tell me more about it. “Redfin?” I asked myself. “The little real estate startup?” Sure, I had an amazing experience buying and selling my home with Redfin a few years ago, but did I really want to move to a smaller company? Was it worth leaving my comfort zone?

 

I met up with my friend for coffee. That meeting led to another meeting, which led to an interview. A month later, I was in new hire orientation at Redfin! I was ready to get out of my comfort zone and join a late-stage startup. Here’s why.

 

Impact

The first reason I moved to a smaller company is to have a bigger impact. In big organizations, I usually owned a tiny piece of a big puzzle. While I learned a lot, sometimes it was hard to see what my contribution meant to customers and the business in the end. At Redfin, teams are small, and each person has a huge impact on the success of each project. The people building a new product like Redfin Estimate, Shared Search, or a new tool for agents can often be counted on one hand. These small teams figure out what features are important, how to architect the product, how to ship it on time, how to measure its adoption, and how to iterate in order to make it successful.

 

How do small teams make an impact at Redfin? They’re scrappy! They get stuff done without needing a lot of outside help. They’re creative, they try things, they fail fast, and they’re always focused on the goal. Most importantly, they have ownership.

 

Ownership

At Redfin, each team is responsible for figuring out what to build, and why. We do this by focusing on a set of metrics. Metrics are numbers that show us how our products and services are performing. For example, how often a home tour gets rescheduled (lower is better!) or how long it takes to call a customer back when they request something online (again, lower is better!). Surely there’s some big, smart executive looking over the shoulders of everyone on the team, telling them what to build to move these metrics, right? Nope! It’s up to the team to figure this out.

 

At big companies, sometimes you have product planning teams setting the strategy, or customer research teams talking to customers, and you get all of their learnings second-hand. At Redfin, everyone on a team talks to customers, comes up with feature ideas, gets feedback on ideas, and decides what will ultimately move their metrics in the right direction.

 

Can our executive team suggest ideas? Yes! Can developers? Yes! Can interns? YES! Anyone can come up with an idea. But, it’s up to the team to decide what ideas will move their metrics the most, and it’s up to the team pull together a plan to make that happen.

 

Access

Speaking of executives, it’s much easier to get access and time from senior executives at smaller companies. At Microsoft, I only saw Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer at all-hands meetings with tens of thousands of my closest colleagues. At Amazon, I was fortunate to be in some meetings with Jeff Bezos, but you can bet that lots of senior people were there to drive the conversation.

 

At Redfin, we see our senior leaders at least once a month during company meetings. Each team meets with Glenn (our CEO) and other senior executives every quarter to review what we’re building and why. I’ve stopped by and chatted with Glenn, Bridget (our CTO), and Adam (our CGO) at their offices numerous times, because their doors are (literally) open. All of these interactions with senior executives are super valuable; not only do they help you with your work, but you learn a ton from getting input from experienced leaders in your organization.

 

Mission

Many small companies have focused missions. Redfin’s is to redefine real estate in the customer’s favor, and to help people during a very important, emotionally-charged, stressful point in their lives: buying or selling a home.

 

And I can tell you: the process is not easy! My family and I were trying to sell a home and buy a home at the same time, with two kids and 3 cats in tow, right when the market was starting to heat up. Talk about stress! But, Redfin’s technology, combined with amazing agents, made the process so much better. Unfortunately, not everyone has an amazing experience buying or selling a home. I joined Redfin to build things that make other customers (and their agents) feel the same way I did when I bought and sold my home with Redfin.

 

Taking the plunge

There’s nothing wrong with working at a big company. I did it for years. But last year, it was time for me to take a risk, leave my comfort zone, and try a smaller place like Redfin. The result? I’m happy to say it has paid off! I’m part of a great team, I’m learning something new every day, and I’m working on things that will get us closer to achieving our mission.

 

If you’re at a big company and thinking about joining a smaller company, I highly recommend it! Just remember to find a place that gives you a chance to make a big impact, own your destiny, gives you access to senior leaders, and has a mission that excites you.

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