Laura Lu planned to take a three-year sabbatical from working. A mere year and a half later, she became Quala’s Head of Engineering.
We’re fortunate that Laura cut her break short to join us. After working at well-known companies like CarGurus, she negotiated deals with SaaS startups as an angel investor with Launchpad—and now we’re benefiting from her incredible experience.
I was excited to talk to Laura about:
- How failing helps you streamline the product development process.
- Why B2B SaaS companies can’t do this without customer success.
- What work-life balance looks like in a startup with experienced founders vs. a less mature company.
Laura has so much useful information to share; read on to soak it all in.
What’s your philosophy on how engineering and customer success work together to create great products?
“You can dream all you want about what can be made, but you have to listen to the voice of the people who are actually using the product.”
Engineering takes work from sales and marketing, and from strategic initiatives and internal needs—but these are more about future revenue. Customer success brings in the voice of customers who are driving our current revenue…people who are actually using the product. You can dream all you want about what can be made, but you have to listen to the voice of the people who are actually using the product.
It’s also motivating for us to see the product being used by people. We want to know not just how people use it, but also why people use it in a certain way.
If you’re a B2C business, you can instrument your code to look at how users use your product. But for B2B, sometimes it’s better to simply ask customers why they use it the way they do.
How do B2B and B2C SaaS companies differ?
“My personal philosophy is ‘Fail more, but learn everything.’”
As a startup, running experiments and learning from them is crucial. My personal philosophy is “Fail more, but learn everything.”
If you’re B2C and you have a large volume of customers hitting your website every day, you can easily run experiments on a percentage of your web traffic. But if you’re B2B, it’s harder to run an experiment because it’s affecting how your customers get their work done.
So for a B2B SaaS company, it’s nice to be able to spitball with the customer on whether or not something is needed. It’s also great to be able to pilot initiatives with customers, which is all about just experimenting and failing before you put too much effort behind things.
In that sense, I’m very grateful that Quala’s Co-Founder, Sonci Honnoll, and the team have built a very strong relationship with our customers. We can easily find a wide range of people to collaborate with. And I also look forward to pilots with our customers because they’ve built a very active channel of communication with the Humans of Customer Success community.
What are some of the ways B2C companies iterate that B2B companies can’t?
“Development effort is very expensive, so you want to vet and reject ideas as early as possible.”
B2C businesses can run what’s called a “page not found” test. If someone is interested in a feature, they would click the button…and get a page that says the webpage is broken right now. Really, there was nothing built behind it—the company just wants to see if anybody clicks on it.
When you have millions of people hitting your webpage every week, you can just present that button to say, 0.1% of your users and see how many people click on it to figure out if it’s even worth building anything behind it. Development effort is very expensive, so you want to reject ideas as early as possible.
When people are just browsing for products and they get the “page not found” error, they just think, “Oh, whatever…I’ll go back to what I was doing before this.” But in B2B it’s a little bit harder. You can’t do that for testing—things have to be high quality when you roll it out, because it affects customers’ daily work. And we also have to care about the safety and compliance behind all the work we put out. So you want to reject your ideas by brainstorming with a customer.
You retired to become an angel investor. How did you end up working again…and why did you choose to work with Quala?
“More mature founders with previous experience know that it’s about long-term, sustainable effort and a good cadence.”
I quit my job in late 2019 because I wanted to take a break from working. I get energized by talking about startup challenges and talking to founders, so I then got into angel investing. I worked with a group called Launchpad, which is one of the more serious angel groups in the Boston area. I learned so much from them and really enjoyed my time there.
I originally wanted to take a two- to three-year sabbatical, but I made it to a year and a half. I was ignoring the recruiters and the executive search people. But my passion has always been building a strong engineering team to make products that make an impact, and at Quala, I saw a product with a lot of potential and a group of people that work really well with one another.
Also very important: I found an environment that lets me do what I want—which is building a strong engineering team. The people here believe in building an inclusive culture, empowering employees, and supporting employees’ work-life balance. I want that for me…and I also want that for the team that I would be building.
I think some newer founders have a more simplified view of how engineering works; they want an engineering leader to be all about the hustle culture. But more mature founders with previous experience know that it’s about long-term, sustainable effort and a good cadence.
What does the work-life balance look like for you?
“The people at Quala are open to experimenting with different ways of making it work for each other.”
Quala is remote-friendly. We’re flexible not only in terms of the hours you work, but we’re also flexible in that people understand it if you need to take care of things at home before you can focus on work. The people at Quala are open to experimenting with different ways of making it work for each other.
My day is all blended together. I wake up around 5:30 to 6 am, then come to my desk and write down any thoughts that are “sticky” so I can move on. I do a three-minute breathing meditation before I look at my calendar and my previous plans to see if anything has changed.
My son wakes up around 7 am, and I feed and dress him. He’s obsessed with trains, so I make a paper train for him every weekday using precut paper models from a book. This gets him to sit still eating breakfast while he picks a train out from the book, and makes it easier to get him out the door (“Mama only make the train when you’re at preschool!”) and leave the daycare (“There’s a train waiting for you in the car!”).
Once my husband takes our son to preschool, I exercise, shower, and sit down at my desk again to start working. We have a virtual engineering stand-up at 9 am every day…and on Monday, we have a meeting with the whole team for updates.
My work day isn’t very structured. In general, I put my meetings on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and try to block bigger chunks of time for coding on Tuesday and Thursday. That’s not always successful because I’m also doing hiring, and I’m trying to be as responsive as I can when it comes to talking to candidates.
I leave home around 4:40 pm to pick up my son from daycare, and then we have dinner.
What do you do when you’re not working…and what would somebody be surprised to know about you?
“People are surprised when they discover I do a lot of big picture strategy.”
The year and a half that I did investing, I also chased my passion in AI. I took a few AI classes and data science classes online and networked with data scientists in the industry. I learned Python through those projects, and used that to get into data science.
My son is four, so I take him places…or when it’s too cold outside I keep him busy at home.
As for surprises, there are people who assume that as a woman with the experiences I’ve had, I’m good at managing but bad with technology. They assume I can’t write code, or I don’t understand a lot of technical concepts, or I won’t be able to learn new technical concepts.
I’ve had people who assumed that I’m more of an “execute on the directive” type of person, and they’re surprised when they discover I do a lot of big picture strategy and actually understand a lot about the business. This is why I’m so excited about Quala — I get to do all this and more.
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