Heidi Gibson, Direct of Product Management at GoDaddy, also runs a small local restaurant chain in San Francisco-- The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen. More so, she has written two successful cookbooks, won the National Grilled Cheese Invitational, been called the grilled cheese savant, and for eight years plus she's taught entrepreneurship and small business finance at The Renaissance Center, a non-profit entrepreneurship hub that serves women and minorities.
WOAH HEIDI. She's climbed so many mountains, we needed to know what the air was like from up top. Does it smell better?
How does one manage everything as a tech expert at GoDaddy and as a business owner? Her answers might surprise you. What also comes as a bit of a surprise is that GoDaddy encourages their employees to have other jobs. Yep. It shocked Heidi too, who was used to having to sign all kinds of contracts preventing her from working on other projects.
Read more to find out how she does it all, keeps her head on, and what 60 pounds of onions has to do with it.
How she builds products for small businesses:
My job is to figure out what small businesses want and need. Which you can do in a variety of ways, my favorite being, talk to them. Then you start with user needs and wants to get your insights.
We work with a lot of small businesses, those with 1 - 5 employees, and the majority of our customers are women. Our fastest growth areas are outside of the U.S., so we have exploding user bases in India and Africa and South America.
There are a lot of small entrepreneurs starting businesses. An example insight is, a lot of these folks think, if you build a website, it’ll show up. Right? Build it and they will come. So it’s a common thing here, historically, that small business owners build a WIX website and then call up support complaining because they’re not getting any traffic. From that insight, we’ll generate lists of hypotheses from additional research. And we’re like, okay, how do we help small businesses understand that they’ll actually need to market their website in order to get traffic? Then, how do we help them execute on that marketing in a completely seamless way, meeting them where they’re at? So, we’re not targeting developers. Most of our customers don’t know what SEO is, they’ve probably never even heard the term. And I would argue that there’s no good reason a baker should understand what SEO is.
On how she's breaking down the barrier between creative and tech:
Part of the reason I ended up at GoDaddy is because I have a unique background. I worked in tech for 20 years building consumer facing products and I am a small business owner. I've also have been volunteering and teaching entrepreneurship to women and minorities for the past 9 years at a local non-profit. I won the SBA small business of the year award, and so I am part of the San Francisco small business community. And very few people in tech are…
Why this matters, as both an employee and an employer:
What’s very unique about GoDaddy is that they actually encourage that in their employees. As a restaurant owner, every other place I’ve worked I had go through all these hoops with legal-- from conflict of interest forms and all this nonsense to have my other business on the side. And when I went to GoDaddy I asked, 'Okay, where’s the conflict of interest form?' And they said, 'Are you kidding? Run your business, promote your business, we want you to promote it inside, can we hire you for catering? Like, conflict of interest my ass, you know? Your business is a critical part of your success here.' GoDaddy actively encourages it’s employees. Support agents are encouraged to have a side business, even consulting and building websites for people. Even those directly competitive to GoDaddy. You’re not allowed to fully poach customers directly, of course. But you can be direct competitors and apply what you learn on the job. It's no problem, whatsoever because they’re such believers of you really living in your customer's shoes. It’s really refreshing.
So cheesy. Above: bites from the American.
Her standard piece of advice on launching a small business:
Figure out how to start small with what you have, and test your idea. It’s the same thing I do with software. You identify an opportunity, you gather insights, you form a hypothesis and then you ask yourself, “What is the piece of test I can run? How can I prove out my hypothesis in the fastest, cheapest, easiest way?” Your ability to do that is really gonna vary on your business. If you’re interested in marketing consulting, it’s pretty easy to hang a shingle out there, go do some networking, and find yourself a client or two. You’re probably already doing that work pro-bono for friends and family, right? It’d be pretty easy to say, alright, I’m gonna find someone to do this for and charge them and see how this goes and take a step into it without having to give up your day job. Then wait and work it to the point where you just can’t do both. I would say you can do that and that’s where it starts. It gives you freedom to learn and adapt as you go. You can really approach the whole thing in a really scientific way. You know, come up with a hypothesis and test it and think about what worked, what didn’t, and then adjust. Then test again. You have to be objective about your business. It’s hard because you get so caught up in it, and you feel like it’s you and you being the face of your business is also so critical for the success of small businesses. But you have to be able to step back and be like, what’s working, what’s not? Is my price right? Am I talking to the right clients, is this the right product? What’s the fit here and what is really the longer term opportunity and how does this grow? Also, write a business plan.
On whether you need a business degree and dealing with the numbers:
I’ve heard so many people saying “Who needs an MBA?” This one woman said to me, “I went through bankruptcy and I did write a business plan and I think that’s so much more valuable than an MBA” I gotta say I don’t entirely agree. I do question the value of an MBA for a lot of people too, but that old adage of failing to plan is planning to fail, I think is still true. Even if you’re constantly adjusting along the way, you still need to have this vision of where this thing is going and work backward from that vision. Instead of just playing around and hoping something sticks.
Force yourself to go through the act of writing the business plan, even if not a single number in there will ever come to pass. If you’re lucky, you’re 50% off, and that’s fine! It still gives you this benchmark for success, and now you’ve got a plan for success. If you go through the effort of doing the math and doing the research, you will learn so much along the way of putting together that research by forcing yourself to write a marketing plan and the financial projections. Yeah, it’s tedious but what you’re going to get out of it is so much more than what you’ll be putting into it. And another critical part of what that process makes you confront is realizing what you’re good at, what you know, and what you’re not good at and what you don’t know. And also, forcing you to think through, “What am I going to do? Okay, I don’t anything about finance and bookkeeping.” For more common scenarios, you’ll have some artisans who may not know marketing or bookkeeping or finance, which, good news, there’s plenty of people who do. But recognize that and plan for it and budget for it. When you’re starting out, you’ll probably have to do it yourself as best as you can and that might mean you might be uncomfortable. But understanding that long term you’re gonna need to budget for an accountant and a bookkeeper to help you figure out what your pricing is or how much you need to sell and to do that calculation of when to quit your job and go fully into it.
What she encourages young entrepreneurs to do:
I tell a lot of young people to go out and get an internship with a business owner. Specifically with the kind of business you want yours to be and what you want to do.
Yes. She did this herself.
Here I was, a VP of product and I went out and knocked on doors of cafes and sandwich shops until I got a little bagel shop to hire me-- they didn’t even pay me. I just worked for free. And we told him what we were doing. That we wanted to our own sandwich shop. It had been 15 years since I worked at a restaurant. I told him, 'I want to follow you around. Here’s what you’re going to get out if, I’m going to work for you for 6 months, which is longer than most people stay in restaurants. I’m going to rewrite all of your training documentation for you, update your systems, all of your ordering paperwork and do all this admin stuff, if you allow me to use that as a template for my own business.' Certain entrepreneurs will bite at that and realize, here’s the most motivated person I’m ever going to have and they’ll understand that you’re not a threat, you know? You’re not opening a sandwich shop across the street from you. I’m across town! People aren’t going to be deciding whether to go to my place or your place.
You can do it almost anywhere. You’d be surprised at how often, if you go through the owner, the amount of people who have gone through this journey at some time in their life. Usually they all say yes! What do they have to lose?
And she does it for others.
There’s a woman who owns an Indian wine bar in the city who was a system engineer and took my business planning class and was writing a business plan for her wine bar and she had no restaurant experience. She’d worked in tech her whole life and I let her know it's way harder than you think. And she goes, 'I get it, I get it.' So I said, 'Okay, come work at my restaurant.' And she did. And I told her, 'Okay break down these 50 pounds of potatoes and 60 pounds of onions.'
For women trying to find their voice. Gibson says:
Find an excuse to stand up during meetings. Walk up to the screen and gesticulate, assign people follow-up work – everyone will pay attention to you if you're standing, it's like a miracle has occurred. Suddenly you're in charge. It's now a joke in the office every time I do it (“Ha! Heidi's hijacking the meeting again!”), but it still works!
Expect that you'll need to 'socialize' your idea, no matter how fantastic it is. You'll likely have to pitch it to all the stakeholders separately and talk it up repeatedly for it to 'stick.' Don't get discouraged if, initially, people are interested but nothing happens. Also don't get discouraged if, after a while, nobody realizes it was originally your idea.
Let's say it again, WOAH Heidi, you superhero.