How to Grow a Strong Team Culture, a Candid Conversation with Co-founder and CEO of AVA Technologies
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On this week’s episode of the evolution podcast, host and entrepreneurship@UBC’s Creative Specialist MJ Araujo speaks with Valerie Song, Co-founder, and CEO of AVA Technologies. AVA strives to let anyone grow anything, anywhere, shifting society’s preference away from cheap, mass agriculture to more local, nutritious, and sustainable options with their smart indoor gardens. Learn how Valerie grew AVA from 5 to 15 people in the last year, scaling AVAs team culture to match their values-driven principles and the new innovations coming down their pipeline.
About Valerie Song
BC 30 Under 30 winner Valerie Song, CEO of AVA, a startup making smart indoor gardens to help people get growing. Valerie is a passionate and bold leader that loves growing both plants and people. While working in brand management at blue-chip consumer product companies, she found a passion for brand building. She launched and marketed products from organic granola to craft beer. Under her leadership, AVA has gone to file 3 patents, raise $3M in funding, and win 15 different awards. Outside of work, Valerie is a proud advocate for diversity in STEM and youth entrepreneurship.
To read a full transcript, see below:
MJ: Hi, Valerie, thanks for joining us today. I'm excited to have you here. First, I'd like to ask you to tell us more about the journey that you took to bring the AVA byte to the public.
Valerie Song: Bringing AVA byte to life and shipping has been such a challenge for someone like me, who is not a technical founder. I don't have an engineering background, and I've never launched a product or company before. And similarly, my co-founder was a fine-dining chef turned product designer. So he had a lot of the conceptual things, but neither of us had actually built a hardware product before. So early on, we had to do a lot of learning. We went through some of the entrepreneurship@UBC programmings to figure out “hey, how do we actually survey customers, and make sure before we build a very expensive product, that it is the right product for the right customer, and we know exactly who we're building for?”. So that was kind of the first I would say a year of discovery was really, hey, we have this idea, are we building the right product? Did we find the right people? And after that first year, we really started to nail and hone in on, okay, this is the persona, this is the type of person we want to build for, and we started to build some prototypes, tested, iterated, and essentially, we were able to launch a crowdfunding campaign that was good validation for product-market fit. And once that was successful, raised some funding, and built a team, and fast forward to today, we've shipped the product as of last year, and started to work on new innovations as well. So it's definitely been a process and a journey to bring that to life.
MJ : How did you find funding for this process?
Valerie Song: We found funding from many, many places, leaving no stone unturned. We first started with just our own personal savings here and there. Some small friends and family and UBC graciously gave us a grant as well, which really helped to kickstart things. It was the first time we were able to use a significant amount of money to match with salary grant funding. So it was our first big venture into having some staff which was great. And from that point on, we have found a lot more venture capital funding as well as nondilutive funding through the process, whether that be debt or grant financing. On top of getting raising money from investors and angels,
MJ: What were some of the major challenges in this process and things you learned?
Valerie Song: It's hard to choose just one thing because I feel like the whole journey is about fires to put out and challenges you face and how you overcome those things. I think as a startup, a lot of times in the news, you hear the good things, but there are so many challenges behind the curtains that you don't get to see. I think I feel like we're not alone in that a lot of companies in 2020 faced some major challenges with COVID-19. I think it has changed the world, of course, in so many different ways. But especially with the supply chain and tourism industry and food industry, I think it's changed a lot of our fundamental habits. And through that process, a lot of companies faced bankruptcy and figuring out how to pivot. So during that time, we really needed to figure out how our supply chain was going to work. We were very close to shipping very early on in the year. And then all of our shipments got stuck at the border with quarantine and were also coming from China, the plastics and metal. So we weren't quite sure if we needed to do anything to sanitize them if they were gonna get blocked. And we already had this pending order that we had to ship out. So there was a lot of uncertainty during that period. I think what helped us persevere and what we learned through that process was that you can get over the toughest of challenges if you have that perseverance. And if you can take things to the cool head and just keep going. That really helped us get through a really tough phase in our startup lifecycle for sure.
MJ: Could you tell us about whether you had some strategies or coping mechanisms that helped you stay centered and helped you to keep going? I'd love to hear what some of those could be.
Valerie Song: Yeah, you know what? I can be pretty bad at this sometimes where I tend to want to bottle things up a little bit. I think as a CEO there is an unnecessary expectation to be perfect all the time to your investors to the public to your team. And I think the vulnerability is actually something that is important not to the point where you have to be breaking down or anything like that, but it's okay to show, you know, some more vulnerable sides to you, in your day to day whether that's saying, “Hey, you know what, I'm not feeling 100% today, but I'm gonna do what I can take a little break and work on myself today and I'll get back to you guys,”, I think that's totally fine. I think that, again, a lot of what the media portrays is you have to be in your garage working 24/7. And if you're not working that hard, something's wrong, like you're not a hard-working or competent CEO. But I think we really need to change that mentality. Because if you're working yourself to the ground, you're not going to have the energy to be able to lead the team the next day, you're not going to have the mental capacity. So being able to recharge, replenish, and get back out there the next day and reset your state, so to speak, is so important to be a good leader.
“I think as a CEO there is an unnecessary expectation to be perfect all the time to your investors to the public to your team. And I think the vulnerability is actually something that is important not to the point where you have to be breaking down or anything like that, but it's okay to show, you know, some more vulnerable sides to you, in your day to day.”
MJ: Thank you for sharing that. Can you tell me a bit more about what exciting new innovations you have coming up in the pipeline?
Valerie Song: Yeah, so we have some really exciting innovations coming down the pipeline. So as you know, we have AVA byte, which is a smart indoor gardening device. The way we've built it is that there are pieces that could be swapped out, so you can grow a whole new set of items. So for instance, right now, the tray is designed to grow leafy greens and herbs, our next upcoming innovation is microgreens. So being able to grow three sheets of microgreens in the system, by swapping out the tray, those micro greens actually can be grown by themselves as well. So you can also take them outside of the tray with a little catcher, and you can grow individual microgreens, you can also put those onto a stand to grow vertically. So we've designed many new ways for customers to be able to grow food and all sorts of different shapes and sizes, and price points. And next, we are also working on some really cool pod pack innovations. So we have some exciting edible flowers, tomatoes, strawberries that we're working on. Also some of the more I guess, aspirational things that we're working towards are mushrooms in our innovation pipeline. So again, the same system, different trays being able to grow mushrooms are there. So pretty exciting stuff. We're excited to launch those soon.
MJ: That is so exciting. When can we all expect an update on the launch date for these new products?
Valerie Song: Yes, so you can expect updates on the microgreens side this year, very soon.
MJ: It seems like you and your team have a very exciting year ahead of you. What else are you looking forward to in 2021?
Valerie Song: So for 2021, what I'm really excited about is that we have some hopefully good partnerships to announce this year, which will really help us expand our offerings much more quickly than we could alone. So that's pretty exciting. And that will lead us to our fundraising. So we have a couple of bigger items in the works. I won't share too much about it. And hopefully, you can see the news later this year. But of course, the new innovation launches as well. We're aiming to be able to partner with another farm to develop some new crop types and actually have c- branded materials and pod packs to be sent to our customers. So we're just really excited to be able to offer new plants and develop new types of crops to be able to be grown in a hydroponic system and just continuing to push the boundaries of hey, what can you actually grow at home with limited resources and just an AVA byte sitting on your countertop? So yes, very excited about that.
MJ: Tell me a bit more about your team and the people that you work with? How big is your team?
Valerie Song: Yeah, so we're just about 15 people including full and part-timers and Co-Ops, interns, that kind of thing. I am really grateful for the team. We've been through a lot together. And last year, just about a year and a half ago, we were only five people. And that was already a challenge from a capacity perspective. And when we were at a low and needed a lot of help, we were able to tap into some really great networks to find people to join the team and that has really helped us grow through COVID as well. And we have such an incredible team super diverse. We have lots of people who are bilingual and for a team that has a lot of technical staff, we have 70% women on the team. So really proud of the diversity and representation on our team, for sure.
MJ: That's awesome. Tell me how you and your team organize and prioritize for the day.
Valerie Song: Yeah, so for our team, as we started to grow, we started to learn that, hey, we might need better processes now. So we started doing this thing called the quarterly town hall, in which a lot of bigger companies have to set the direction for the upcoming quarter to set some strategies and goals and metrics that we measure upon. And that has really helped to steer the direction into a more focused timeline, having a clear budget and clear expectations. So I think that has really helped in every quarter, we kind of reset and say, hey, what did we like? What do we not like? Do we meet our goals, so we do not meet our goals? What's blocking our way? So that has been super helpful. We also did an annual reset for building the 2021 strategies. So what are some of the things that we as a company want to accomplish in the next 1, 3, 5, 10 years? And what is the team going to do to make sure that we're achieving that every step of the way? So I think it's a lot about those bigger reset strategy sessions, as well as the weekly check ins, the daily standup updates, just keeping on that rhythm of reaching our goals.
MJ: Tell me more about how you ensure culture and values alignment within your team?
Valerie Song: Yeah, so I think this is a big discussion for us. And as 2020 kind of happened, there were so many things that could be challenging for teams. So I think the town halls were a really good way to reset, get everyone involved, everyone built their own slides and presented their own things and justified why and what they were going to do. So I think that was really important for the team to feel a sense of buy into the whole strategy, instead of me saying, hey, like, I'm just gonna set the strategy and tell you guys what to do. So I think the buy-in comes from the team being able to have their voice be heard, be able to have their input in a very important strategic plan. And that is really the fundamental trust of hey, I trust you, even if you're new to build the strategy that will go into the overall strategy of the company. So that's one big thing. Another big thing is when we hire, there's a very specific process that we've honed in on to hire to make sure we're looking for the right culture and values fit. And what we do is we ask for a 16 personality test. So kind of like the Myers Briggs test. And that's the first good indicator of a fit for that role. Next, we will look at, of course, from a resume perspective, some very key things that we're looking for. But ultimately, we think that it's more important to have values alignment over just all the technical skills. So values, alignment being the most important one for us, is get growing. So you have to have that attitude of always willing to learn to get better, roll up your sleeves, and get your hands dirty. That attitude is very core for every one of us. And we all love to learn, we all love to eat and to improve every day. So yeah, the hiring process is very important as well. And the third thing is also just checking in with the team, making sure that we're doing team activities. Sometimes when we're doing virtual or in-person activities. It's about making sure everyone's voices are heard and kind of getting some creative ways to get people involved. So yeah, I do like to make sure that from a culture perspective and alignment perspective that the team is always on board and sharing from their perspective.
“So I think the buy-in comes from the team being able to have their voice be heard, be able to have their input in a very important strategic plan. And that is really the fundamental trust of “hey, I trust you, even if you're new to build the strategy that will go into the overall strategy of the company”.”
MJ: What would you respond to the question, what makes such a strong team?
Valerie Song: I think what makes a strong team is all the people that make up the team for sure. And of course, the exec team. I'm really lucky to have them on board. We've been through a lot of challenges together, and they make me stronger as well. So there's actually a Chinese thing where if you have one chopstick and you break it in half, it's super easy, but when you have a bundle of chopsticks, it becomes very hard and I think that's a really good metaphor for a team where stronger together is definitely one of the things that I found, especially going through last year where sometimes when I wasn't feeling the best, my team members were able to share something that really uplifted me. And most recently, one of our co-ops actually won the outstanding co-op of the Year award as well. So I think it just goes to show that when you have a strong team, it'll start to reflect the results that we achieve and in the collective as well. So yeah, really proud of them.
“I think it just goes to show that when you have a strong team, it'll start to reflect the results that we achieve and in the collective as well.”
MJ: Thank you so much for your time, Valerie. And my last question for you is do you have a lot of plans at your house?
Valerie Song: I don't think we have a ton of plans to the point where it's like hundreds of plants but we definitely have a couple AVA bytes at home that we cook with. And then we have a few ornamental plants as well. So yeah, we're really excited once the next batch of micro green stands are released. We're excited to have even more!