SV Angel Founder Profile: Madeleine Nguyen — Talentdrop

As Women’s History Month draws to a close, we’re thrilled to launch the first installment of the SV Angel Founder Profile series by highlighting one of the the amazing female founders in our portfolio, Madeleine Nguyen, Co-Founder and CEO of Talentdrop. We hope that you’ll enjoy learning a bit about Maddy’s journey and perspective as a founder, and stay tuned for future installments of the ongoing series!

Madeleine Nguyen, Co-Founder & CEO of Talentdrop

Name: Madeleine Nguyen

Hometown: Atherton, CA

Role: Co-Founder & CEO

Company: Talentdrop

Company Location: Atherton, CA

Year Founded: 2019

A bit about Talentdrop: You can think of us as a talent lab, experimenting with new ways to understand the talent market. We provide solutions to forward-looking companies that span the end-to-end talent process — from recruiting, to compensation, to performance.

Founding & Mentorship

Q: When did you realize there was a need for your product/service? What was the impetus for starting your company?

A: At Snapchat, I was on the Talent Acquisition (TA) team, and things were really heating up in 2016–2017 growth-wise. It was during this time that I saw just how much time we were all spending on talent efforts, but how, when you zoomed in, most of it was honestly just shooting in the dark. This is very, very expensive. Yet, TA had access to so much information on the inner workings of other companies: who’s good, who’s not; key compensation structures; strategic culture initiatives; D&I efforts that just don’t work; intangibles that keep top talent there, or that drive top talent away. The things that were coming up in the pre-hire process were actually about the post-hire environment. Sadly, we had neither the time nor the tools to act on any of this juicy information!

Q: How does your original business plan differ from what you’re working on today?

A: Our original plan was to essentially build the all-in-one holy grail talent software: applicant tracking system (ATS) + performance management + compensation data. This is a monster build. We decided that you can’t really understand where your talent bar is without being able to assess your current team, so we started with the performance management side of things as our “wedge”. This has definitely pulled us pretty squarely into “HR world,” which many days can feel far off from my own background in TA, and can make it feel like we still have so far to go to reach the all-in-one Promised Land.

Q: Was there a pivotal moment that felt like “failure” at the time, but actually helped to propel your company forward?

A: Can I pick only one?? A big one was when we were testing our very first version of the app with a few pilot partner orgs. This version felt very slick, pretty consumer-y for HR software, and we had a lot of great feedback on the design from our network. We shared this more broadly for a bottoms-up SaaS approach. Unfortunately, only one of these tests converted into a more serious private beta pilot. (Although, this would become our first sale! Semi success story!) The problem was that, while the app was fun and satisfying to use, it didn’t actually produce anything useful. People were still confused as to what to do with their people. It didn’t help them make hiring or managing decisions easier. After some founder-moodiness about our initial testing not going as well as we would have liked, we went back to the drawing board and redesigned and rebuilt the entire app for a version that has more traditional enterprise functionality but with a Calendly-inspired nimbleness to it. It’s not as pretty (YET!), but we learned to prioritize automation of the data collection and analysis process BEFORE the UI, so that customer problems were actually being solved. If we hadn’t tested, failed, and listened, we would have sunk a lot more time into a version of the app that just didn’t work.

Q: When you’re feeling stuck on a problem or idea, what helps you to progress?

A: Going back to old ideas often works for me. It sounds counterintuitive, but just because information is new or recent doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. I find it so productive to go back to notes I have from a brainstorm conversation from a year ago, or thoughts or research I did when I was in ideation stage (1.5 years ago now). It helps me keep myself in check and remember how easy it is to get side-tracked from my original vision. Then I can filter out any of the newer info or ideas that aren’t relevant or useful. That and… to be honest… making fun of stuff. First of all, it’s pretty liberating to pause and laugh about your industry with your peers. Second, it’s great for identifying all the broken pieces and hearing new perspectives from people who are being genuine (not writing a blog or tweets for clicks, not pitching).

Q: Any advice you’d give yourself when you were starting?

A: It’s okay to have too many ideas. Also decision fatigue is real, so maybe cap how much advice you seek. Also, maybe keep your legal docs better-organized.

Q: Did/do you have a mentor and how were they most helpful?

A: I would be nowhere without my original investor (Shana Fisher). I have amazing mentors in the talent space, but really not many at all who are business people. I’m not the serial entrepreneur, business school, or engineer type of founder — I’m coming at this as a practitioner who got tired of the status quo in her field, and would rather try to make it better herself than wait around for someone else to do it. I have many gaps in my knowledge and skill set, and need a lot of help. Shana is a tough coach but I learn a TON. She’s all action over words and nothing moves me forward more.

Q: Who or what were/are the best sources for support and advice as you develop(ed) your business?

A: My investor(s), other founder friends, my husband who’s done the startup rigamarole. Kind of Google, but I’m more of an ask-a-real-person person. Actually, I learn a lot from our lawyers. (Do lawyers ever get shout-outs here? Brutal.)

Q: Was there an unexpected piece of advice, or something you heard or read, that stuck with you or reframed your thinking as you built your company?

A: “Don’t listen to investors.”- most investors :) Also, many founder friends encouraging me to consult and provide my own talent services as a way of learning (versus the doing hundreds of customer calls/interviews thing). One quote in particular from one of these conversations was, “the thing that people say they would use is often not what keeps them on the product.”

Q: What’s a really difficult part about being a founder that no one talks about?

A: One thing I find that can feel super uncomfortable yet is so impactful is just… abject abuse of my network. A lot of asking for and accepting favors, often without anything you can do in return; asking for their time and network and brains; asking them to expose themselves willingly to the awkwardness of giving you business or product feedback as a friend, or putting their own rep on the line to vouch for you; hiring their friends who might hate working for you; maybe making kind of a fool out of yourself amid lots of rejection but still asking that they respect you as a professional. I don’t really know how to go about accepting this weird place in society, where you’re kind of both at the top and bottom (status-wise). Maybe this is also something personal to me...!

Q: Do you have any thoughts about supporting other founders?

A: I always like meeting founders who are working to bring their ideas into the market, but I love meeting female founders and Asian female founders. We had good ideas before now and will have good ideas after now. (I mean, we have bad ones too.) The best thing we can do is support each other, tangibly — hire each other, fund each other, buy from and sell to each other, feature each other, intro each other around. Don’t just talk, do!

Fundraising

Q: Were there any important lessons learned during your fundraising process(es)?

A: Funds / firms / investors often have specific theses and areas they want to see explored, so while rejection sucks, it’s not always about business fundamentals, wrong stage, or personalities; it can often just be a misalignment in theory to be tested (and how). I learned this toward the end and started to ask investors what theirs were upfront. It helped us both talk about the same things sooner. Also learned: memesis is a thing :)

Q: Why did you choose to partner with SVA?

A: SVA’s model means that they have a broad reach and network of potential advisors, talent, customer connections, startup resources, and general proven experience in seeing what makes companies successful and understanding what help each one needs at each stage (and often being able to provide it directly). Because talent is so key for startups, I did feel that they saw the value and potential in the space we’re trying to improve. More specifically, Beth and Topher just seemed like smart, thoughtful, nice people to work with, and came highly recommended.

Team & Culture

Q: What are your company’s top three core values?

A: Transparency, resourcefulness, humor.

Q: Can you share any valuable lessons about recruiting and scaling a world-class team?

A: So many… but off the top of my head: (1) Hire fast, fire fast! You’re rarely going to really “know” or feel like you have enough information on someone, so just keep moving. (2) Don’t worry so much about specific experience. Top talent doesn’t want to lateral or repeat job experiences, so if that’s what you’re offering them, they won’t take it (would you?). Find smart people and give them a lot of rope. (3) Compensation matters a LOT. (4) Employer brand matters a LOT.

Q: What are your go-to tools for productivity?

A: I feel like I’ve tried it all and I always come back to Google suite… so maybe don’t listen to me…

Q: How has COVID-19 affected your company? How are you supporting company culture and employee engagement through the pandemic/remote working?

A: Ugh. Yes. We had two pilots set for March 2020 that cancelled. We spent two months with zero email responses, new conversations, learning points.. and what felt like zero movement forward (we were building but sort of in a vacuum). By now, we’ve all tried to make lemonade out of lemons and use the flexibility to do things like move / work from new places that we otherwise wouldn’t have. I also think we’ve been excited to see that we’re taken more seriously by customers across the country, since now everyone is on Zoom.

Q: Is there a social cause or organization that you’re particularly passionate about? How do you think about integrating philanthropy into your company’s culture?

A: Anything that helps women get more into technology and into starting companies I am super passionate about. I just joined a new one called Girls Get Funded, but still overall trying to find the best organization to get involved with on this.

Inspiration

Q: What are you reading, listening to, or watching for inspiration right now?

A: Piranesi (book). Listen…it’s super dorky. But it’s just the most awesome book. Reminds me to never stop being curious, embrace being stressed sometimes, but to try to not take things too seriously!

Q: As we move toward some return to normalcy following an unprecedented year, what are you looking forward to doing or seeing the most?

A: Meeting our customers and new team members in person!! Also, very curious how the talent landscape will continue to play out. What will happen with remote work, and especially, what will be the effect of geo-agnostic compensation?

SV Angel is a San Francisco-based seed fund.