Startup advice from a Forbes 30 Under 30 tech CEO

Emilie Cushman thought she was going to sell her company Kira Talent two years after founding. Now back in charge of the company she started six years ago after two years not in the CEO role, she has a new appreciation for the adage that things always take longer than you expect.

Fresh off her Forbes 30 Under 30 win and on the verge of company profitability, Peerscale sat down with Cushman to learn about her experience growing Kira Talent and the lessons she’s picked up along the way. She not only shared advice for entrepreneurs but explained why she believes tech needs to change its tune when it comes to what it means to scale a company.

How did Kira Talent get started?

A lot of startups start with a grand vision – but not us. I was admitted to the Next 36 accelerator, matched with my co-founder through their speed dating process, and had nine months to come up with a business, build an MVP, and launch.

We came up with the idea of timed interviews for corporate hiring. It came from talking with mentors who had business experience – one mentor was the former CEO of Blacks Photography – that said they had trouble differentiating candidates based on resumes. And the admissions process for Next 36 had a video component, so we thought of timed videos.

Our first client was the Rotman School of Business at UofT. A year in, we had a lot of university clients using us the same way. We had corporate clients, but they were not using us how we intended because we were built for EdTech. We had to do a lot of customization work for our corporate clients.

Over time, clients dictated our path. We found a niche in EdTech and have been there ever since.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far?

It takes years to build an ‘overnight success’. Coming into this, I thought “Oh, I’m going to do it for two years, flip it, then do another company”. But no, it’s a lot of hard work.

For example, it took us a year to figure out our niche in EdTech, but then we had to convince a lot of people. Some of our investors didn’t think EdTech was the way to go, so that was another year getting them on board.

Once in EdTech, we found a sweet spot in business and engineering. When we branched out into medical or law there was a lot we didn’t think of like security protocols or regulations. It forced us to become more sophisticated and that takes time.

What does achieving the Forbes 30 Under 30 mean to you?

All I can say is that I’m thrilled. It’s a cumulation of six years of hard work.

It’s special because there was a time where I was replaced. Our investors brought in an experienced CEO to run the business for a couple of years. It didn’t work out and I took the reins back in Christmas of 2016.

Two years later, having the Forbes 30 Under 30 honour and seeing the business turn around is amazing. It showcases the team effort over the last six years but more specifically the past two years to bring the company to a new level.

What responsibility should a scaling CEO always keep?

One thing to never drop off your plate is sales. You will always be the chief salesperson, even if you have an entire team.

The other thing, I think in part, is culture. A lot of people will hire HR or head of people and then say, “they will figure out culture”. The head of HR can help execute the vision or put together meetings and events, but that’s not culture. You’re the one the company is going to look to for setting culture.

As a company scales, what should a CEO remove from their plate?

We have a quadrant that we follow. The top left box is ‘Great at it and love it’. The top right is “Good at it and like it’. The bottom left box is “Hate it but good at it’ and the bottom right box is “Hate it and not good at it’.

Anything in the bottom right box you should delegate.

What should founders pay more attention to?  

Ignore when everyone in tech says that you’re either building a billion-dollar company or you’re a lifestyle mom-and-pop shop. I think that’s ridiculous.

If more people went in with the attitude of how to build $50 million or $100 million companies consistently, we’d see more successes.

What’s the most underrated advice you’ve ever received?

Honestly, I think the biggest thing is not raising money from VCs. It’s something extremely glorified. Very few companies, in my opinion, need venture capital.

With VC you get injected full of cash, you grow artificially and at a speed that isn’t good for your company, and then you crash.

I’m not saying VCs are evil. I think there’s a time and a place for VC. If you’re in a position where you have a healthy, profitable business churning cash then maybe look at VC because the machine is working and well-oiled. Otherwise, take the absolute least money you need and focus on making the business work.

Why did you join Peerscale?

I joined this year – in April – because we are finally at the place where I can invest a little more time in founder development.

Until now, I was heads down. Especially when I came back after the former CEO left, there was a lot of work to do. My peer group has been very supportive. I love the fact that there’s diversity in experience. Every time there’s a pressing issue, there’s another tech leader who’s been through it or who can show you a different lens.

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