Creating physical products and getting feedback from toddlers — KiwiCo’s Sandra Oh Lin
Episode 38

Creating physical products and getting feedback from toddlers — KiwiCo’s Sandra Oh Lin

Today’s episode is with Sandr Oh Lin, founder and CEO of KiwiCo, which creates hands-on learning kits for children. Sandra started KiwiCo over ten years ago, after a career with executive positions at PayPal and eBay.

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Today’s episode is with Sandr Oh Lin, founder and CEO of KiwiCo, which creates hands-on learning kits for children. Sandra started KiwiCo over ten years ago, after a career with executive positions at PayPal and eBay. She was looking for ways to give her own kids more hands-on projects to exercise their creativity, which led her down the path to become an entrepreneur and create KiwiCo. Today, KiwiCo has expanded to include 8 different lines of crates that are shipped out monthly.

In the first half of today’s conversation, we excavate some of the thornier challenges that come with creating a physical product — and Sandra’s biggest aha moments as a first-time founder. She talks about creating the first KiwiCo crate, including the product development process and spinning up a supply chain and shipping department. Sandra also walks us through how KiwiCo approaches new product lines, particularly in the last year when KiwiCo demand skyrocketed. She also discusses how the team gathers quality consumer feedback when your customer is often a toddler.

In the second half of our interview, she talks about some of the cultural practices at KiwiCo that all sorts of companies can learn from. Sandra’s a big believer in manager training for everyone from folks that manage just one person, to executives that have been managing for decades. She outlines the specific management training modules they leverage at KiwiCo and makes the case for having everyone at the company fill out a motivations spreadsheet. Finally, she discusses the specific tactics she leans on for creating a feedback-rich environment for herself as a CEO.

You can follow Sandra on Twitter at @sandraohlin.

You can email us questions directly at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @ and

Sandra Oh Lin: Whenever it's relevant, we always adopt best practices. So we don't believe that there is a need to reinvent something, particularly if it's not going to be a competitive advantage, we can ask for best practices around multi-touch attribution or 401k providers, or hire a PR agency. And you could certainly spend a lot of cycles on these things, but really.

There's no reason to do that. And so we try to save those cycles for things that are going to be at a competitive advantage for us.

Brett Berson: Welcome to in depth, a new show that surfaces tactical advice, founders and startup leaders need to grow their teams, their companies, and themselves. I'm Brett Berson, a partner at first round, and we're a venture capital firm that helps startups like notion, roadblocks, Uber, and square tackle company building.

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For today's episode of in-depth. I'm really excited to be joined by Sandra Oh Lin. Sandra is the founder and CEO of KiwiCo, which creates hands-on learning kits for children. Sandra started KiwiCo over 10 years ago, after a career with executive positions at PayPal and eBay, she was looking for a way to give her own kids more hands-on projects to exercise their creativity.

Which led her down the path to become an entrepreneur and create KiwiCo. Today KiwiCo has expanded to include eight different lines of crates that are shipped out monthly. In the first half of today's conversation, we explore some of the thornier challenges that come with creating a physical product and Sandra's biggest aha moments as a first time.

She talks about creating the first KiwiCo crate, including the product development process and spinning up a supply chain and shipping department. Sandra also walks us through how KiwiCo approaches new product lines, particularly in the last year when KiwiCo's demands skyrocketed. She also discusses how the team gathers quality customer feedback.

When your customer is a toddler. In the second half of our conversations, she talks about some of the cultural practices at Kiwi co that all sorts of companies can learn from Sandra is a big believer in manager training for everyone, from the folks that manage just one person, two executives that have been managing for decades.

She outlines the specific management training modules. They leverage it KiwiCo and makes the case for having everyone at the company, fill out a motivation spread. Finally, she discusses the specific tactics she leans on for creating a feedback, rich environment for herself as a CEO. I really hope you enjoyed this episode.

And now my conversation with Sandra, Sandra, thank you so much for doing this with us. I am super excited to get to talk to you.

Sandra Oh Lin: Thanks so much for having me.

Brett Berson: I thought a fun place to start given the uniqueness of KiwiCo is maybe to talk a little bit about how the product design process looks like at KiwiCo and maybe how you invented it or how you landed on this.

I think a lot of the times we tend to explore product design in the sense of creating pure software. But obviously you do a whole lot more. So curious to maybe use that as a jumping off point and learn about what you figured out there.

Sandra Oh Lin: Sure. I think ultimately there are some things that are quite similar, but also some differences when you look at software relative to a physical product.

And so from a similarities perspective, certainly for both, you're trying to define the product vision. You are defining the recs and writing up the spec. You have the team engineers to bring those features to life. And of course you're constantly making trade-offs whether it's scope or timelines quality, but ultimately for both, I think you're trying to build a great product and you're trying to keep that customer from.

As you're building out that product. And so we definitely have that at KiwiCo we have a software technology team. That's building out a robust commerce and content platform, but in addition to that, we have our physical product design team. And I think that's what you're asking. So on that team, the engineers are really mechanical engineers or industrial designers or even educators.

And what we've built at KiwiCo is a vertically integrated process and system to be able to bring these physical products to life for kids and for families. And some of the things that I think are different when you look at a physical product, certainly the process at KiwiCo relative to a soft.

Product launch is one. When you're looking at things like quality timelines and costs, we can't really afford to let any of those things slip. And typically when you think about launching a product, whether it's actually digital or physical, you might be able to tweak those. You might be able to push out a release date or a timeline.

Maybe you reduce scope. So it's not as quite as robust as you may have intended originally, or you might even raise prices. But given we're actually a subscription product that gets delivered to kids. We actually set a price upfront when somebody is actually purchasing this thing, the subscription people count on it coming every month.

So it's a fresh new experience. And so we have a very, very set timeline and then we've established the customer. Around that experience. And it has to be delightful for kids and valuable for parents. And so we can't afford to let any of those things slide. And one thing that we do is that we have to make sure that this actually happens every single month, across several different product lines.

And that's something that we have managed to actually figure out and do. In addition to that, a couple of more things maybe that are a little bit different are with a physical product. Do you have to invest upfront to get things right? You can't iterate nearly as quick. As you can with software. If you look at our lead times, sometimes they're six months, sometimes they're nine months or more.

And so it can take awhile to see something, get to market and to see if it's actually working. And then the other thing I would say is data. And so if you think about software, what's fantastic is that you have such quick iterations and cycles where you're collecting feedback. The analytics is right there, kind of at your fingertips.

And when you're dealing with the fiscal. You just have to look at collecting that in much different ways. And again, the cycles can be longer too.

Brett Berson: You talked a little bit about the, how you do it. And some of the things that you figured out in balancing the quality, timeline and cost, and the fact that you have to nail each one of those every month and you've been scaling rapidly for many years.

And so what are the systems and processes are, if you were to look at the overall process and the way in which it all happens, what does that look like.

Sandra Oh Lin: Yeah, absolutely. So I'd mentioned that we have our engineers, so that is really our product design team. So they are at the core of ideating prototyping, putting products in front of kids.

So. Every week pre pandemic, we would have probably six to eight live sessions where the noise level would go up a notch in our offices. So making sure that these prototypes were spot on in terms of being fun and being enriching and being engaged. So all of those things are really key and core to the quality piece.

And as they're developing these products, they're also taking, look at the materials that are required, the build. And so they're working in tandem and in a very strong partnership with our sourcing and supply chain team. So as the products are becoming more of a reality, they're constantly assessing and seeing if this is something that actually works in terms of the economics of the unit, that's going to be going out the door.

And at the same time too, we are using a lot of different kinds of processes to ensure that things are up to snuff. So for example, one of the things that we do is we have a number of different checklists, and this is something that we've built over time. Something we didn't realize that we needed upfront.

But if you think about what people use in operating rooms or in. Cockpits, there are these complicated processes, but they're replicated time after time. And that's basically what we ended up doing as we're building out these products. And so we have several of these different checklists that we use throughout the process to make sure that the products are going out and we're paying attention to that equation of quality cost as well as timelines to ensure everything is going out the door and that we are delivering something that is ultimately really delightful for families.

Brett Berson: what's an example of one of the checklists or the contents of a given check list.

Sandra Oh Lin: The different types of checklists include, for example, instructional checklists ensuring that certain types of materials are included or are not included in a given product, especially given the fact that we have safety measures and constraints that we have to operate under because we are delivering a children's product.

So there are certain types of materials that can and cannot be included. There's also different checklists when you're dealing with suppliers that we're constantly looking at too. So this is especially related to costs. So taking a look at not only the material composition, but the actual crate build-out that gets put into how things are actually inputted into a given space and then delivered to our fulfillment center.

Brett Berson: What have you found as you've been building this process for a number of years, what have been the trickiest parts to getting it right? And maybe some of the other problems or things you've had to figure out to get this end-to-end process to where it is today.

Sandra Oh Lin: It's interesting. So my background has actually been in consumer products and e-commerce so I spent years at Proctor and gamble.

Most recently I was at PayPal and at eBay on the consumer products side, I was working in R &D. And so I hadn't really touched the physical product. And so when it came to the fulfillment supply chain, the operations, that was definitely an area where I was not well versed. At all. And one of the things that I think is really important as you're building a business is just being very, self-aware what you know, and what you don't know, but remaining very, very curious about those areas.

And so what I ended up doing is I ended up kind of surrounding myself with certain experts and not really being afraid to ask. For help and trying to learn those areas. So for example, on the operations side, one of the first people who I ended up getting connected to was Mike Smith, who was the COO of Walmart.

Most recently he was the COO at stitch fix, and he was so helpful in guiding us in the beginning. He interviewed all of my VP of operations candidates when we were getting started on the digital product side. I had been a product manager before, but I really wanted to make sure that our technology was robust.

So I asked someone who I knew who was an engineer and a co-founder at PayPal to be an advisor, and I convinced him to help. And then ultimately he ended up joining us at KiwiCo. And so I think that was really key in helping me figure out things that I didn't know. Upfront. And the other thing that I would say is that there are some areas where we actually very intentionally were very hands-on and mainly it was because we wanted to learn and we wanted to learn very, very quickly.

So an example of this was that we intentionally got spaces, office spaces that we could use as joint office, as well as a warehouse. So. Literally hands-on when it comes to packing out the deliveries to families. And I think what that did is it really helped us learn very quickly. We were able to identify what good quality was and how to respond to differences in quality.

We were able to get much higher back into the supply chain address issues at the core, and we knew that how to avoid these issues when we can no longer have our hands in everything as we got. Too. So I think this was all something that was really helpful for us, just knowing where and when to actually invest in diving a bit deeper for that understanding so that we were able to manage it effectively, as we continue to grow,

Brett Berson: How do you think about inventing something new versus adopting best practice or talking to somebody who knows a thing and then basically copy and pasting it into what you're doing at KiwiCo?

Sandra Oh Lin: I think we think about it as. Wherever and whenever we can, and whenever it's relevant, we always adopt best practices. We don't believe that there is a need to reinvent something, particularly if it's not going to be a competitive advantage.

And so a number of us who started KiwiCo came from. And eBay, and there were best practices that we were able to adopt around performance management or around some parts of our people ops. We also have found a lot of great resources. I mean, even if you consider first round has been fantastic, we can ask for best practices around multi-touch attribution or 401k providers, or hire a PR agency.

And you could certainly spend a lot of cycles on these things, but really. There's no reason to do that. And so we try to say those cycles for things that are going to be at a competitive advantage for us. And so, as I mentioned, the product design process, there was no playbook. Out there for that to be able to create something that was both a combination of super fun for kids, but a value for parents.

So we couldn't look to anything else. So we had to design that ourselves. We had to define what makes a great crate. We had to get a ton of feedback there, trial and error. So ultimately I would say definitely steal or borrow as much as you can elsewhere and save their reinventing for where it gives you the biggest advantage.

Brett Berson: Going back to some of the early days. And you were talking about how, the way in which you worked with Mike Smith to grow your knowledge base, are there specific ways that you approach these learning journeys or figuring out these new things? That you found increase the rate of learning or helped you rapidly close these different gaps in terms of maybe going from an executive that was operating in the pure software world to one that's now operating in both physical products and software.

Sandra Oh Lin: I would probably turn to the fact that I. Talk to the customer a lot. And I think that provided a great deal of insight and feedback that helped us define where we wanted to be from a product standpoint at the beginning. And then certainly has helped defined the business ongoing. So in the beginning, I had sent several surveys for more qualitative feedback via survey monkey, and try to get feedback from across the us.

I had focus groups with moms in my family room. These days, as I mentioned, we do a ton of in-house. Testing. And that goes from putting concepts, coming up with product concepts, with our kid product counsel, through to doing instructional testing and all that helps shape the product experience. The other thing is.

Gathering data by asking through survey. So we actually have a crate score. So we have a score for every experience that we've sent out the door from customers. And we use that and we have been able to actually define. What the loyalty and retention looks like for each crate. And then of course we know the gross profitability of a crate.

And then what we're able to do is actually send crates to customers at a given point in their life cycle. So I'd say this willingness to do research, to reach out to customers. Leveraging data and building out a data analytics platform that for us, has been able to extend retention, boost satisfaction, and just leverage these feedback loops in ways that have been really valuable to the business has been a great way to kind of get up the learning curve very quickly and also help shape the business.

Brett Berson: What are the types of things that you ask in surveys that have been really useful? I don't know if there were early surveys that you remember back to, or maybe how have you designed a survey today that has been useful for you?

Sandra Oh Lin: Early on. When I refer to the focus groups and survey monkey, it was really about trying to understand if there was ultimately a need and a pain point for our parents in particular, because what wouldn't work so well is a solution that worked for an equals one, which was me because when we were getting started, Basically I had this personal need where I really wanted my kids to get hands-on.

I wanted them to see themselves as creators and makers. I thought that these hands-on projects could help them exercise their creativity and hopefully help them build their creative confidence. And so there's this question of, is this something that would be relevant to a bigger audience? And so the questions really centered around trying to answer that.

And then also putting out there, like here is a possible solution. So first of all, asking the questions around the need and then putting a solution out there. So there's different ways to frame a concept statement, but basically I would describe. The product that we were building the different features and then why the reasons to believe that we were going to fulfill this need that I thought that they might have.

And so that's basically what I'm put in front of parents, and we've been very fortunate to see that parents are looking for fun and enriching products and experiences for their kids. They're busy and well intentions of it comes from a trusted brand and it comes to them in that convenient format.

That's something that they're really. To buy into in our crate surveys these days. It's basically, how has your experience with this crate? A lot of one to five scoring, we actually have a crate NPS that we measure for each and every crate as well. And then we asked specifics around the different elements of the crate.

So for example, we have editorial and content that goes in the crate. We want to know how valuable that. For the consumer, et cetera. So always trying to make sure that we're gathering that learning and those insights so that we can continue to build something that's even better for them.

Brett Berson: In sort of this process of really understanding the customer. Do you think of the parent and the child as two separate customers, or are they the same in your eyes.

Sandra Oh Lin: We think of the kids being front and center. And then we refer to the parents as the grownup assistance, but we do think of them separately, because if you think about the needs of each, they are. Different the way that we approach the solutions is similar though.

So when we think about our brand pillars, right? So things being deeply engaging or genuinely accessible or seriously fun, we want these attributes to actually apply to whatever we put out into the world, whether it's for parents or whether it's for kids, for parents, though, they are looking for things that are.

Like I'd mentioned just convenient that something that will engage their children, they want their kids to learn. They want things that are educational. And ultimately if you take a step back, I think where parents are today is that they really want T their children up so they can be productive. They can actually envision a better world and make that happen.

And so. That's really what parents want. And so we have to keep that in mind, as we are developing our products and as we're developing our positioning and our messaging, I think for kids, it's really about having fun. They want something that is. Really engaging. They love those moments of discovery. Those aha moments are something that definitely the kids and parents appreciate.

They take a lot of pride in their creations. And so what they want is a little bit different. It definitely intersects. So I wouldn't say that these things are completely disparate sets of needs, but they are different. And it's pretty important for us to. Both in mind. And in fact, I'd say that that is one thing that makes what we do pretty special is that we have to be able to cater to both because ultimately if the kids don't have fun and they don't engage, then we are not going to have a satisfied customer.

That's going to stay on for a long period of time with us. And then on the parent's side, they need to see that this is something of tangible value. For their child and for their family too. And so we're constantly trying to make sure that we're providing that value as well.

Brett Berson: When you zoom all the way out again, there's been lots of different companies that are sort of stylistically similar to what you've created, but you've obviously operated or grown the business in a unique way.

Because I think most of those companies haven't worked out and you've built an enormous customer base and an exceptionally large business. What did you get, right? Or what did you figure out in building this business that maybe other people got wrong or didn't quite understand?

Sandra Oh Lin: The way that we built the business is a lot of what we just talked about.

So being incredibly customer centric, being very responsive to feedback and to data, I think we built it in a way that was very disciplined. So we certainly have not chased growth at all costs, but while being with. To invest and test in the business. And we have been pretty good at executing across a lot of different areas.

And so I think when you look at this business, Everything needs to work well. So we talked a lot about the product design side and developing an experience for kids and families. But then we talked a little bit about the idea of having robust commerce and content platform on the technology side, the market.

Has to work as well. So if you think about the acquisition costs, if you think about retaining customers, we have to be really good at performance marketing in particular. So that's another area mentioned a little bit of the fulfillment. So we run our own fulfillment and our own warehouses to ensure the crates kit to our customers and the supply chain piece of the puzzle.

As well, there's just a lot of elements of this business. I think that have to operate in tandem. There's so much overlap. There's so much that needs to actually work together well, and that's something that we've really tried to focus on is around that execution. I'm curious

Brett Berson: if you could unpack that in any way or diagnose it in the sense of, you said it very well.

You've developed the knack for basically being very good at executing across these different parts of the business. Is there something that you've done or a way that you hired or a way that you organized the business that has enabled you to do that?

Sandra Oh Lin: I think that there are a few things maybe that have helped us.

So I think one is we have been. Disciplined around our goal setting and ensuring that there's alignment around priorities and focus areas for the business. And so I think what that does, then it enables people to understand how they fit within the bigger context of where we're headed. And it sets a little bit of a map for folks.

And so I think as you think about execution and thinking about how each individual and how each functional. Ends up laddering up to that bigger goal. I think that's something that is really, really important. I think the other part of it is, I think you kind of had alluded to this as is making sure that you have the right people and the right team in place.

And I think we have been fortunate and being able to hire some real experts and folks who are able to make things happen. So they may have some level of experience in area, but then they are also able to take. KiwiCo understand the unique business that we have and be able to make that better. I think the team is absolutely critical in this as well.

Brett Berson: Maybe we could talk a little bit more about that in terms of the team that you've put together. And is there something that you look for across all of the folks that you hire or potentially there's a type of person that you really love to have?

Sandra Oh Lin: We definitely look for folks who we think have potential around our value.

In particular. So some of our values center, for example, around taking initiative and being able to handle ambiguous situations, another one of our values, we describe it as caring about the house. So how, as well as the, what so the what being, being results driven. But in addition to that, really caring about collaboration and teamwork and how.

We can actually get the work done. We also look for folks who see the glass as half full. Not that we want to sweep things under the rug, but ultimately it's, it's better to work with positive people who see the possibilities and see things as an adventure versus an ordeal. And so I would say in general, if you were to take a step back.

These are all qualities and characteristics that we're looking for. So someone who tends to say yes, more than no, someone who tends to be more optimistic, someone who takes ownership over what they do, we do really appreciate. As well. So people who are able to do multiple things and also people who have great operating range.

And what I mean by that is people who are able to bubble up and think very strategically, but also can dive way down and really care about the details as well.

Brett Berson: For a couple of those. Can you talk a little bit about maybe taking initiative, sweating the details, et cetera, how you look for that in your interview?

Sandra Oh Lin: We actually have each of our KiwiCo values listed. We have questions that can be asked that align with each of the values. And then as we're actually looking at the hiring, we map up the hiring process and we often assign different people who are interviewing different values that we'd like for them to actually dive into.

And then they have a repository of potential questions. That they can ask to give you an example of maybe a question and a value. So one of our values is around remaining curious and humble. And so we. Really appreciate when people are wanting to grow, they believe there's room to grow. They're trying to learn, they're trying to improve.

And they're self-aware because ultimately if you're not, self-aware, it's difficult to grow. And I think it's also very difficult to coach that person. And so one of the questions that we might ask then is tell us about something that you're always going to have to work. So maybe it's like a flip side of a strength or something that is inherent to your personality.

What is that? And that gives us an indication of how self-aware they are. And it gives us an indication of how well they might align with or how much potential they have around that particular value.

Brett Berson: Are there any other examples of questions or ways that you get at some of these different values? Maybe you think back to a couple of interviews you've done.

Sandra Oh Lin: I like to see inflection points and a person's journey. I love trying to understand their motivations because I think ultimately that helps us understand where they might be coming from and at the core of who they are and how it is that they end up being engaged in a particular job. And so a lot of my questions end up getting to the core of that.

So telling me about why. At a particular point in time, they made certain decisions. What was the reason for that decision and really what I'm trying to get at again, is that idea of what is it that motivates you and why is it then that you made these changes? Or why is it that you pursued certain opportunities?

And a lot of times that ends up happening when somebody has actually switched jobs. So I think those are always very, very interesting. And then when it comes to the piece around. Ownership. I think that's where it's always great to get into tangible examples of asking if they can actually illustrate times when they demonstrated it, that kind of ownership or have taken initiative over a particular area or made something happen because they saw a problem or they saw an opportunity.

Brett Berson: Switching gears just a little bit, as you were talking about people at KiwiCo, I know one of the things that you've worked on over the years is developing new managers inside of KiwiCo and designing your own system and training around that. And I was interested. Can you talk a little bit about what you've done there and what that looks like today?

Sandra Oh Lin: Absolutely. We've actually created our own manager training. It's seven different sessions or modules. And we run this managers training these days probably quarterly. And we do this because we consider our managers to be so critical and so important to an employee's experience. And also to ensuring that the.

Continues to grow and that were oriented around the types of results that we'd like to see. And so we use it as a real opportunity to teach and train, but also to just level set around expectations of a manager. So we have everybody who is a manager at KiwiCo. Go through manager training. So it could be someone who was internal to KiwiCo and they've been given the opportunity to manage.

It could be someone external to KiwiCo who just came into KiwiCo they may have been a manager several times over, but they need to go through manager training at Chirico. So first-time managers sees managers. C level folks, they all go through manager training. And so there's a ton of information sharing.

Each of the modules has pre-reading number of the prereading things that came from first round review, the sessions, encourage discussion and debate. There are different ways of doing things. There are different ways to manage, but we want to explain here's how we do them at QE co. And this is. We do these things.

And I think what's great is that for the folks who go through the training again, there's the meat of the training part of it. But it's exposure to the execs who run the sessions. So each of us takes a session. It actually builds a level of camaraderie and community amongst the folks who actually attend the session.

And it also reinforces the fact that this is an important one. So one of the things that I always do is I always think the individuals who are at the training for taking on a managerial role at the company, I mean, ultimately one of the first steps to being a good manager is to want to be a good manager.

So I thank them for investing the time and the training.

Brett Berson: Can you share a little bit more about the different modules or I guess a different way to phrase it would be when you think about what it means to be a great manager at KiwiCo what are those things or what are the core pillars.

Sandra Oh Lin: Sure. So it's a number of the things that you might imagine that go into the manager training.

So I mentioned they're basically seven different sessions. So one is basically the manager training overview. We talk about people's experience. We ask what questions they might have. Hopefully those are questions that we end up addressing kind of throughout. There's a module on performance management.

There are actually two modules on developing and coding. People there's a module on interviewing candidates. There's a module on hiring at KiwiCo and then there's kind of a wrap up module as well.

Brett Berson: And do you find that being good at management is very similar regardless of your job as the CEO where you do management versus a director, or do you distinguish different skill sets and capabilities and management across the different levels of senior?

Sandra Oh Lin: I think we recognize there might be some differences. I mean, certainly if you are at a more senior level and you have three levels of folks under you, it's a little bit different than if you're a more junior manager and you have a couple people on your team. So we recognize that. But the way that we actually do this training is it applies to.

Everybody. And it's really interesting. I think being a manager, there are a lot of similar threads and challenges that you end up coming across. I mean, it reminds me of, I know at first round you all do these sessions where CEOs can come together and it might be. Uh, CEO of a robotics company, hardware, a CEO from SaaS, a CEO from a consumer software, right.

All these different CEOs. But then when you start talking, you actually find out, oh my goodness, the types of things that we're coming across are actually very, very similar. And so I think what is really interesting is that when it does come to management and managing. Yes, of course there are different flavors or different challenges that different managers will come across, maybe depending on their function or area or where they are in terms of seniority.

But there are also a lot of similarities where you can actually share ways of doing things, how to address certain challenges and even compare best practices.

Brett Berson: Do you find having developed. Talent internally at Kiwi co and your own journey as you've been a scaling CEO, do you find that there are most common traps or mistakes that you see people make over and over again, as it relates to the topic of general management?

Sandra Oh Lin: A couple of things that I might point out. So one is hiring. Environment is tough. I mean, there's definitely competition for talent. And when we're hiring, we often feel like we should have hired this person months ago. And so I think the notion of really knowing what it is that you're looking for and maintaining that bar sometimes is pretty difficult to do.

And so I think that that is one thing that is tough. And then maybe another thing I think, as a manager is really just understanding that. People are different. And so you individually may have a certain set of motivations or ways of working and realizing that others are not necessarily teed up exactly the same way as you are.

And trying to figure out how it is that you can be a good manager to all of these different people is something that's always important to try to keep in mind.

Brett Berson: Have you learned anything about how to take action on that insight other than just kind of being mindful of it?

Sandra Oh Lin: So the insight around different people, having different kinds of personalities and different motivations,

Brett Berson: exactly. That also may or may not be aligned with exactly the way that you think about.

Sandra Oh Lin: Yeah, we actually have a tool, a tool, meaning kind of a spreadsheet where we have different motivations. And then we encourage managers to actually as part of a career development conversation that we hope happens roughly once a year, we encourage them to sit down with their directs and actually have the directs kind of fill in what's most important.

And it's a fascinating exercise. I mean, like I mentioned, some people might be more motivated by scope of role. Some people more motivated by titles, some people more motivated by work-life balance. I mean, it can be very different and you basically tell your direct, you have a hundred points, please distribute these a hundred points amongst these different kind of motivating factors.

And. What that does is first of all, I mean, the first thing you need to know is you need to have visibility, right? You, you have to have some level of knowledge that this is actually the case, that you have different people with different kinds of motivations and different personalities. And so we encourage that to prompt the discussion and to gain a better understanding of the individuals on your team.

And then sometimes people also do fun things like Myers-Briggs and other things like that, which also really emphasizes the fact that. People are different too. And so again, it can help prompt that conversation with your direct.

Brett Berson: That's really cool. I really liked that idea of having that little tool that people can personally express sort of how they would allocate points across the different factors.

What's been your own process for going from founder and CEO is you were talking about, there's some companies that are thoughtful and intentional about how you develop managers, for example. And it's one of the areas that you as a company have spent a lot of time, but there's not a lot of similar experiences for people who are growing as a CEO and, you know, going from you and a few people to now you and a couple of hundred plus people, what sort of your own process for personal growth in the role of founder and CEO.

Sandra Oh Lin: I think it's been a lot of learning by doing, I kind of equate it to being a parent. So you can't really practice. Being a parent, it requires really kind of on the job training and sure. There might be some resources out there that may help you prepare or help you on the journey.

You really have to be willing to put yourself out there and be ready for feedback. Be open to feedback and be very self-aware. And so I would say a lot of my journey has been by doing and other things that have been really helpful to me are these forums to connect with other CEOs, because I think there is a shared experience that we have, and definitely lots of areas to be able to compare notes.

So I've found that to be incredibly helpful. And then I would say just surrounding myself with people who I can learn from, and that can help me build a business. So I rely a lot on my executive team. I mean, I truly see it as a partnership. I really count on them to be my thought partners as well. And so I think that collective wisdom that.

Energy helps make me and helps make the company better. And definitely just so much more learning to do as well.

Brett Berson: Do you think people can develop self-awareness and become more self-aware or do you tend to think people are either innately self-aware or not?

Sandra Oh Lin: Hmm, that's a great question. I do think that, and this is just my opinion.

I'm being very curious to see. I imagine that there's actually probably some research out there about this. I tend to think that this is an area that's harder to develop. And so I do think that there are people who might be able to build that up, but I think it's hard. And I think that it can take time.

And it would take effort in some recognition as well to actually address it. And so, as we look sometimes at, for example, individuals on the team and an evaluation, for example, it's much easier to say, okay, there's a certain set of skills that need to be addressed, but when it comes to things like self-awareness, we do find that it's just more difficult or that it's going to take a lengthier amount of time to be able to see the type of change that we might want to see.

Brett Berson: I guess on that point, one of the inputs of self-awareness is high-quality feedback and that increases the chance that you'll have a more complete picture of the way the world experiences you. And I've always found that the more senior you are, and to particularly if you're a CEO at different phases of a company's life, it's actually very hard to get.

Actionable and specific feedback and I'd be interested sort of what's your experience with that? Are there things that you've done? It sounds like one piece is the specific culture of your executive team is a piece of how you get really, really high quality feedback that enables you to grow and learn over time.

But curious if you have any other thoughts or experiences creating a feedback rich environment for you specifically as a CEO.

Sandra Oh Lin: Sure. I think certainly from execs, like you had mentioned, you have a good relationship with our board as well. So I think that's another place for feedback where I get a lot of rich feedback is through a 360 review process.

So we do 360 reviews for everybody on the team on an annual basis as a minimum. And so I also get 360 feedback. And I have found that to be incredibly helpful for me, as on my journey as a first time CEO,

Brett Berson: have you structured that in a specific way that you found works really well for you or the company?

Sandra Oh Lin: Yeah.

So we do 360 feedback, as I mentioned, at least once a year. And so we essentially, for every individual have a group of folks who provide feedback to that individual through a confidential process. So there are specific questions that we ask about their contributions, about their strengths, about their development areas, about their alignment with our values, and then the manager for each individual takes on.

And actually compiles that feedback and presents that feedback to that individual. And so that 360 feedback is really valuable tool to have the conversation. I mean, I think as we all know, ideally you have feedback that comes regularly, but sometimes using those types of moments and these types of forums to be able to kick off conversations or continue a discussion is really helpful.

And so we find it to be super helpful. Like I said, everybody on the team ends up getting that 360 feedback.

Brett Berson: Do you remember back to years past in this process in unlocks that you've had through this feedback process?

Sandra Oh Lin: Oh for myself personally, kind of what kind of feedback that I've received? Yeah, absolutely.

For example, there's been feedback in the past about some level of maybe vulnerability or authenticity, or maybe come across, coming across a little bit more brittle. And what I mean by that is whenever it comes to feedback, it's one of those things where you always have to keep in mind that your intent may be one thing, but then you're presenting yourself in a certain way.

Someone's taking that presentation and then relaying back the way they see it. And I think for me, where that comes from is that I tend to be someone who likes to internalize. Things. I like to think through things. And then I like to present what I think out into the world after I've done all that. And so what that means is that there are probably opportunities where I could bring the team in closer, by being more vulnerable or by not being afraid to share where I am in terms of process.

And, and that's really an opportunity for. For me. And I think what's been interesting is that this past year, right? Or since last March with a pandemic, I think it's been a real forcing function. For me, because the fact of the matter is information was coming at us and we didn't have all the answers. And it was so important for the team to be able to hear where we were at any given time.

And for me to put myself out there, that would be an example of kind of a piece of feedback that I had and that I was trying to work on. And then I think. And unfortunate, unfortunate circumstances, but I do think that it was something that has helped me actually grow in that particular area.

Brett Berson: One of the things I wanted to loop back that we touched on a little bit about the beginning of the conversation, but didn't fully explore is as you've grown the company you've launched additional products for different kids.

And I'd be interested to learn more about how you've approached figuring out. When is the right time to launch new products and how do you go about doing that as a physical products company?

Sandra Oh Lin: Absolutely. So there's a number of different ways where that can actually prompt a new line for us. So for example, early on, when we had one subscription line Kiwi crate, and then we ended up launching tinker crate, doodle crate, and Koala crates, a Koala crate for preschoolers, tinker, crate, and crate for the preteen.

And then we had Kiwi crate already in place for elementary aged kids. Part of it was responsiveness to our own committee. So we were just hearing that they wanted products for their entire family. Some of the kids who started with Kiwi crate were getting older. We also saw some interesting opportunities and trying things.

Um, so new subject areas. So we also saw from an industry perspective that there was a heightened interest in stem. So there are a number of different ways that. It can actually prompt us exploring a new line more recently, actually, and this is something that will be happening. We're actually got inspiration and we put certain products into our e-commerce store.

So in, in, in addition to subscription, we have one-off products in our e-commerce store. And what we saw is that there was really interesting traction around that. And so we're actually building a subscription line around the fact that we saw that tracking. Too. And so we were able to leverage that e-commerce store as a test.

For launching a news subscription line. So that will be happening later in Q4. Once we have these ideas, which can come from our insights team, it can come from our product design team. It can come from kind of our strategy team. We ended up flushing out the concept. We do concept testing with parents to see how well it actually resonates.

And we do benchmarking to see what's in the market, and then we end up evaluating the impact. So for example, these days we have a number of different product lines. So we want to really understand the incrementality. We also take a look at things like cannibalization to make sure that the return is there on the investment to build out a new line.

And then. Once that actually passes. We come up with our specific point of view around that line. Like, what is it? That's differentiated that we're going to be putting out there, whether the key tenants to the actual product. And there's a ton of designing and prototyping and testing. As I mentioned, a lots and lots of testing with kids.

And then we put it out there and we see how it goes. And, you know, I'd mentioned when we launched three new lines, at one point, we actually launched them thinking, you know what, we're going to see which one does well, and then we're going to double that. On the one that does well. And we happen to be very fortunate.

We launched those three lines during the holidays. They actually all ended up selling out. And so we had a very quickly scale the team to be able to bring all three lines to our customers. Ongoing.

Brett Berson: What have you learned about what makes a given product really connect with kids and how often are you surprised?

One of the things that has been reinforced as we've been talking is there's a lot of people talk about when you're building software, that you have to get close to the customer. And it seems like that is an enormous part of the way that you operate. In every facet of your business. And in this case, one of your primary customers is kids.

How often are you sort of surprised as you're doing all of these product testing with kids where people like something or don't like something, and is there a formula that you work on that underpins? What makes a great experience for kids? You named? One of the outcomes is that it's fun, but then I'm interested in, well, what are the ingredients of.

Sandra Oh Lin: So maybe what I can describe is some of the, you know, I'd mentioned kind of in passing some of our brand pillars and then how these are things that we are constantly assessing when we're designing products. So when it comes to something. Fun. If I were to kind of break it down, I'd mentioned some of these things around discovery and enjoyment and pride.

I think there's combination of several things, but it ends up being something that doesn't seem like a chore and frankly is. We'd like to start with fun rather than starting with learning kind of embedding learning in there. But again, kids won't engage unless it's actually fun, but getting back some of these brand pillars.

So these are things that we are always thinking about when we're designing. So. Absolutely want to make things that are enriching. So this idea of profoundly enriching. So how is it that we bring something that's deeper that encourages kids to understand at a level that is not just cursory. And so they're actually active in the way that they are engaging with a particular product or experience.

And so. Relatedly. So we talk about things being deeply engaging. So when we're doing testing product testing with kids, some of these kids are not going to tell us. I mean, it's not the same as doing testing with grownups. They're not going to tell us, but we can tell by observing them, like how engaged are.

In the actual project. So being deeply engaging is really important. We want things to be genuinely accessible. So if we're bringing something to life, let's say we're demonstrating some concepts around chemistry and polymers, the wrist, slime, crate. We want that to be accessible. So we're not going to be like, okay, this is a polymer is a monomer.

And like, basically what we say is, Hey, there are these different units and guess what? They're holding hands. And then it makes a polymer and that's what your slime is. So we're very, very careful about the way that we present things to kids and we make sure that it's done in a really thoughtful and creative way as well.

And then ultimately we have this one brand pillar that we call well, awesome. And that's really the bar for our product designers. And you know what, it's that moment when a kid sees the role. That they built walk it's that moment when they can hear a heart, there is that the scope that they built, it's just like that moment of surprise and pride and joy.

And again, discovery that happens and that ultimately is what our product designers are going for.

Brett Berson: Super cool. Are there specific crates that you all have created over the last 10 years that stand out in your top three or one that you have a specific soft spot for?

Sandra Oh Lin: Brett. You're asking me to choose amongst my children.

Brett Berson: Absolutely. Now you'll ask us of all the founders. You've had the opportunity to invest in which is your favorite. And I would say Sandra .

Sandra Oh Lin: You know, for me, one that really stands out is the first one that we put out into the world. It was a color crate. And at the time we had to use things that were available to us, but we had to make sure that it was creative and it was a little bit different.

And so we worked really hard because it was the first thing that we're putting out into the world to make that formula. Right. Because it was also going to serve as a template for the additional crates that we are going to be developing. And obviously at that time, I was the key product designer in addition to everything else.

And so it definitely really stands out to me. And I think what's really neat by the way about just reflecting on that is there's no way I'd be hired as a product designer on our team now. And so it's pretty neat to be able to say like, okay, the team has really evolved and grown in some pretty amazing ways.

Since that first crate that we launched,

Brett Berson: what was the experience like? You have this idea and you. Scrape together this first box. What was that experience like for you?

Sandra Oh Lin: We spent a lot of time trying to get that formula, right. So I think we talked a little bit about focus groups and surveys, and also just testing and iterating on the actual projects of the crate to get that formula.

Right. So that it was creative. It was unique. It still had that element of. In there. And so just a great deal of attention and dedication to putting out a product that we thought would meet our bar and hopefully. Be great for the consumers and the kids that got the crate. We truly have a garage startups that we started in my garage.

I remember when I had ordered our first set of physical crates, meaning the boxes that the projects were going to go in to. And it turns out, of course they couldn't ship a pallet to a residential home. And so I had to have a friend accept the delivery of, to their business. And I remember going. And just being so surprised by the amount of space these pallets required.

So it was a very tight squeeze in my garage. And I remember our first alpha shipment. I think we shipped out something like 19 crates. It took five of us all day and we all looked at each other and we're like, oh my goodness, we are really going to have to figure this out because there is no way this business is going to succeed by shipping out 19.

A day. So I'm very happy to report that we figured that out, but just, you know, lots of lessons and learning along the way and you reflect on it now. And it's definitely been a journey and those moments were incredibly fun too. So lots of learning, lots of times when you thought, like this is going to be an, a challenge that we might not be able to overcome, but now looking back on it, I think it was really a fun time.

Brett Berson: It's funny that our remembering self is very different than our experiencing self. Yes, it is. Right. It's like the classic, you know, the, our remembering self tends to like these vacations where something goes horribly wrong and our experiencing self does not seem to like it as much, but in retrospect it tends to be those things.

We look back on most fondly for whatever reason.

Sandra Oh Lin: Yeah, no, absolutely. In fact, I remember sitting in a session when I went back for a reunion and business school and it was about. Having a meaningful life. And what's really interesting is that the times that give your life meaning are actually the difficult ones, the ones where you're really challenged, it's an ordeal.

And when you look back on it, those are the moments that you actually end up wanting to hold on to because they really define you and your life.

Brett Berson: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for spending this time with us. I had a lot of fun. Thanks for sharing Sandra.

Sandra Oh Lin: Of course it was great. Thank you, Brett.