Supercharging Teams with Collaboration SDKs - Startup Stories with Nimrod Priell

Article by:
Anton Oparienko
15 min
In a new episode of "Startup Stories", Upsilon talks to Nimrod Priell, CEO at Cord, an SDK and API for adding chat and live collaboration to your product. From Nimrod's story, you'll learn about the importance of aligning teams with KPIs, why it doesn't make sense to build every feature in-house, why it's worth building minimum lovable products to test ideas, and much more.

Keep reading for the transcript of our talk with Nimrod.

Anton Oparienko (COO, Upsilon): Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode of "Startup Stories". Today, I am delighted to have Nimrod Priell, an investor, startup advisor and CEO at Cord, as our guest. Welcome, Nimrod.

Nimrod Priell (Co-founder and CEO, Cord): Thank you, Anton. Great to be here.

Anton: Let's dive right in. Nimrod, could you share a bit about your background and how you entered the startup community?

Nimrod: Certainly. I started in tech 20 years ago in an Israeli military unit, a common starting point for many Israelis in tech. After that, I pursued my master's in math at NYU and worked at a couple of failed startups.Β 

However, my luck turned around when I joined a startup that secured a Series A funding stage from Sequoia. This company was eventually acquired by Facebook in 2013. I stayed on as the PM and oversaw the original team's operations, including product management and marketing. Additionally, we developed an internal service used by thousands at Facebook. During my time there, I also assisted with critical acquisitions as part of the M&A team.

Following my departure in 2018, I began advising successful startups founded by friends from my military unit. I shared my knowledge on how to choose your startup KPIs, run product teams, and manage product people. I noticed a lack of resources on product management practices at the time, so I shared my learnings and best practices with these companies.

Now we have a lot of product management resources: Reforge, Lenny Rachitsky's blog, Twitter, podcasts, blogs, but back in 2018, nothing existed. There was this magic moment in product management that coalesced the whole community of product managers, and they started teaching each other and sharing their knowledge. I had experienced the playbook of how Facebook ran their product and picked up all the best tips.

I told my friends who had startups that if you have a team of a few PMs and they want to scale from 3 PMs to 20 PMs, I can help by sharing the best practices. So I did it with companies called Snyk, Riskified, and one more in MarTech.

I learned a lot from them, took all of these learnings, and I started Cord. We raised funds in 2020 just after the pandemic started. That's what I'm currently focused on.

Nimrod Priell, CEO at Cord
Nimrod Priell, CEO at Cord

Anton: That's a great story. You mentioned luck in joining the startup that was acquired by Facebook. Do you think it was purely luck, or were there other factors at play?

Nimrod: In mathematics, we distinguish between necessary and sufficient conditions. Sufficient conditions make something happen, while necessary conditions don't make it happen on their own. If they don't exist, it can't happen. Making good choices, working hard, and possessing certain traits are necessary conditions, but they are not sufficient for success.

I know amazing people who have worked hard for years, but it was only when luck came their way that they achieved success. For example, the founder of Riskified, whom I worked with in two failed startups, continued to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams despite setbacks. Eventually, his own startup became a multi-billion dollar success. It's remarkable how luck can play a significant role in one's journey.

I don't believe that luck alone determines success. It's a combination of luck and having the right processes in place. As Annie Duke writes in "Thinking in Bets", having the right processes doesn't guarantee success, but it increases the likelihood of success. I don't consider myself lucky in the sense that I randomly stumbled upon a successful startup. I had a good network, a successful career, and multiple opportunities to choose from. I made a decision based on personal preferences, and it turned out to be the right one.

There is more luck involved in success than we like to admit. It's difficult to accept because it challenges the notion that successful individuals are inherently superior. I believe there are many talented individuals out there, perhaps even better than Elon Musk or Steve Jobs, but timing and luck play a significant role in propelling someone to success. Once you have that initial success, there is a momentum effect that helps you further. It's not about being a better person, but rather about having the right opportunities and leverage. ‍

Anton: I understand. Luck certainly plays a role. Moving on, how did joining Facebook influence you personally? Was it a completely different environment from what you were used to? Did you have to make significant changes in your behavior, approach, and perspective?‍

‍Nimrod: Yes, 100%. It was... Look, I've never worked at a corporate company. Also, Israel is a tiny country with mostly homegrown companies. When Americans or Europeans say a company with 200 people is small, in Israel, that's considered huge. The startup culture is ingrained in our DNA. So, when I joined Facebook, I had to learn the American corporate culture, which had its own set of skills and processes. However, I had to unlearn some of those skills when I started my own startup, Cord.Β 

It's a challenge for people who come from big companies to adapt to the startup culture and environment. Both skill sets have their benefits, but they are different. I had to learn a lot during my time at Facebook, and I believe that staying open-minded and adaptable is crucial for success

Anton: I see. That's interesting. After leaving Facebook, you started advising and consulting early and growth-stage companies, helping them apply your experience to their own journeys. Could you share some advice or general problems that these companies face, and how you approach solving them?‍

‍Nimrod: When working with these companies, I focus on their product teams. A good example is my work with Riskified. I provide them with a series of tips and tricks on product management, organizational structure, and scaling the startup team. One key aspect is aligning the team around key performance indicators (KPIs) that connect to the company's overall goals. Finding the right KPIs and creating visibility and ownership within the engineering team is essential. We also emphasize the importance of impact and ensuring that engineers understand how their work contributes to the KPIs. This approach helps create a sense of purpose and motivation within the team.

Many startups struggle with engineers being given work without a clear understanding of the bigger picture. This leads to demotivation and missed details. By involving everyone in the pursuit of reaching KPIs, we create a cohesive team that is focused on moving the needle and constantly iterating through experiments. It's a natural way to divide the organization and foster a sense of ownership and accountability. This approach has proven effective for scaling B2B startups, although it may not be suitable for pre-product-market fit startups.

It's about aligning the team around clear goals, creating visibility into progress, and fostering a culture of impact and ownership. While there are nuances to executing this approach effectively, I believe it can drive success in scaling B2B startups.

Nimrod Priell's post on LinkedIn
Nimrod Priell's post on LinkedIn

Anton: Yes, having a talented and capable team is crucial for understanding and making sound decisions in a startup. When it comes to early-stage startups, it can be challenging to attract top talent, especially if there are limitations in terms of budget or resources for hiring highly skilled individuals who can think alongside the founders.

‍Nimrod: I completely agree. Finding exceptional talent, especially outside of one's own area of expertise, is one of the biggest challenges. Non-technical founders often seek my help in finding developers for their startups. With over 10 years of experience as an engineer and having interviewed thousands of people, I can see the difference between those who have experience in interviewing engineers and those who don't. It's not just about algorithmic skills or knowledge of specific programming languages. There are other important factors to consider when evaluating potential tech talent.

Anton: Absolutely. How did you approach hiring for Cord? Did you invest in onboarding your own team of high-level developers, or did you bring someone on board to handle the initial work? What was your strategy?‍

‍Nimrod: We were fortunate to have a network of talented engineers thanks to my co-founder's connections from his time at Facebook. Many of these engineers were excited to join our company. However, simply hiring senior engineers wasn't the complete solution. In both startups and larger companies, it's important to have a mix of experienced engineers and junior engineers with high potential. Finding senior engineers can be challenging as they are in high demand and have many options. On the other hand, identifying junior engineers with great potential can be even more difficult.

We focused on interviewing candidates from engineering bootcamps, where they all had a similar knowledge base. However, we looked for those with exceptional potential, professionalism, coachability, and motivation. Some candidates had switched careers or were looking for a change, and they demonstrated remarkable growth and adaptability. We also encountered individuals who may not have been the right fit for our company or had fundamental gaps in their capabilities to quickly grow into engineers who could take ownership of features and APIs.

Anton: That's a common challenge. We also prioritize hiring engineers who can effectively build startups and support our clients. So, let's shift our focus to Cord. Could you explain what Cord is, how it works, and what the underlying idea is behind it?‍

‍Nimrod: Sure, so Cord is an SDK and API designed for engineers to integrate into their products. It focuses on collaboration and communication, offering features similar to Figma and Google Docs, such as comments and notifications.

Our clients include monday.com, ThoughtSpot, and various specialized products. Cord allows these companies to enhance their user experience by enabling in-app communication, which improves seat expansion, engagement, and retention. Integrating such functionality into a product can be time-consuming and resource-intensive, but Cord simplifies the process.

Cord features
Image source: Cord website

Anton: What did the MVP development process look like?

‍Nimrod: There were three stages in Cord's MVP development process. The first stage was validation, where we built a Chrome extension that provided simplified collaboration features in various tools. We offered it for free to gather user feedback and promote our product. One of the tools we supported was Retool, and when they blogged about us, a DevRel from Typeform reached out. This interaction served as proof that our technology could be integrated into other products.

The second stage involved creating the collaboration sidebar, which appeared as a customizable sidebar with chats and comments. However, this approach had limitations for certain applications, such as video editing or digital whiteboards. This led us to the third stage, where we developed a fully customizable SDK. This SDK allows for the creation of customized components with various functionalities, such as typing indicators, resolving, editing, and deleting. It provides flexibility for different types of apps.

Currently, Cord is in a phase of scaling and improvement. It is already being used by major clients, with a significant percentage of their weekly active users actively engaging in commenting. We continue to enhance the core product based on client feedback and focus on increasing awareness and scaling the business. Cord has proven to be a reliable and effective solution, and our goal now is to expand its reach in the market.

Cord product features
Cord product features

Anton: Yes. So, for example, when we're working on a prototype or estimating a product, incorporating existing products rather than building from scratch can be a more efficient approach. We don't have to reinvent the wheel for every feature like chat or payment systems. We can integrate existing solutions. This is something we need to educate our team about.‍

‍Nimrod: Exactly. In the past, everyone built their own login system, but now, no engineer builds their own login. They use services like Auth0 or other alternatives. The same goes for checkout systems. You can go with Stripe or Paypal. We want to establish and educate people about the solution we provide for commenting and collaboration. Many software companies have a bias toward building everything in-house, but they may not be aware of the alternatives available.

‍Anton: Flexibility is key. I've encountered engineers who insist on building everything from scratch, even when integration is a faster and more practical option. Educating both engineers and product people about the benefits of integrating existing solutions is important.‍

‍Nimrod: Yes, definitely.

Anton: That's interesting. When we read about Cord, it seems like you focus on a product-led approach, empowering the team from the ground up. Is that what you aim to achieve at Cord?‍

‍Nimrod: Yes, you mentioned the "Build vs. Buy" dilemma. It's a classic conversation we often engage in. We rarely lose in such discussions because the fact that the conversation exists shows the bias toward building everything in-house. Software companies tend to believe that engineers should build everything. However, unless engineers are already immersed and informed about the software supply chain, they may not be aware that there are specialized solutions available.

At Cord, we specialize in providing infrastructure, product experience, and a suite of capabilities for making products multiplayer. This includes features like real-time collaboration, notifications, and contextual interactions. Educating the market about our expertise is a crucial aspect of our work.

Get started with Cord
Image source: Cord website

Anton: It definitely makes sense to rely on specialized suppliers rather than trying to build everything in-house. However, I recall an interview with Ford where he mentioned that having too many suppliers can limit innovation and make it challenging to implement changes. There are trade-offs in every approach.‍

‍Nimrod: Yes, that's a valid point. Trade-offs exist in every situation. What we've found is that early-stage startups want to go to market quickly, and they have a core proposition that they want to test out, but you can't test out something when you serve, we call it "serving burnt pizza". If you're trying to test whether people like a pizza with aubergine and pineapple, but then you serve them burnt pizza, then you don't learn that they don't like pizza with aubergine and pineapple. You just learn that they don't like crappy pizza.

And this is what happens when you build a type of MVP that is so minimal that it's actually not exciting enough and kind of doesn't work well enough. And so there is a shift between how apps were built 20 years ago or SaaS that was built 10 years ago.Β 

The PM community talks a lot about minimum lovable products and not minimum viable because the last one may not be exciting or functional enough. That's why integrating existing solutions, like Auth0 for login systems, helps achieve a higher quality product.

The same applies to commenting and collaboration features, which are essential for the overall user experience. Late-stage startups, on the other hand, start thinking about ROI and realize that anything outside their core business capabilities is better served by using specialized solutions. It all depends on the stage and specific needs of each company.

Anton: So you need to find a balance based on pretty much what you want to do. There's no clear answer.‍

‍Nimrod: Exactly. Let's take the car analogy, for example. While the car industry has limited room for innovation due to regulations and standardization, the software industry offers endless possibilities. There are tens of thousands of different SaaS tools, each specializing in different areas. When building a product, it's important to focus on your core quest and integrate best-in-class components for ancillary functions, like communication, without reinventing the wheel.

‍Anton: That's a fair point. Even in the automotive industry, there is a shift towards incorporating software and advanced features in cars. It can be challenging to navigate the options and make the right choice.‍

‍Nimrod: That's right. It's a period of innovation. I must admit that I'm not the best person to talk about cars since I haven't driven one in the last 15 years. I've been riding a bicycle instead.

‍Anton: We love to do that too. Moving on to another big topic, AI is a major hype, and many companies are incorporating it in some form. What are your thoughts on this? Does Cord have AI capabilities, and how do you approach it as a company?‍

‍Nimrod: AI is indeed a significant topic. At Cord, we don't have AI capabilities just for the sake of riding the hype wave. We focus on finding natural ways to integrate AI that align with our product and mission.

One area where AI naturally fits is in chat and commenting. Our interface allows users to interact with AI bots, providing typing indicators, notifications, formatting options, and the ability to have multiple people engaging with the bot.Β 

We also ensure that the AI bot can interface with the rest of the app, making it contextual and seamless. We have demos available on our website to showcase these capabilities.

Anton: I agree that integrated AI is powerful because it adds value within the product's context. It's not just about having a standalone AI chat window. I need to have a value because of typing it inside this product. One of the last questions for you: what's one book that has had a significant impact on you?‍

‍Nimrod: There are so many great books, but one that comes to mind is "The Better Angels of Our Nature" by Steven Pinker. It's a comprehensive book about the history of the world, highlighting the principal idea that despite the negativity we often see in the news, the overall trend of human progress is positive. Pinker presents evidence that society is becoming more just, equal, and less violent over time. It's an optimistic and fact-based perspective on the world's trajectory.

‍Anton: I probably need to check it out because after COVID-19, I myself have an impression that the world is going crazy year by year. Do you have favorite startup groups or communities?‍

‍Nimrod: That's also a hard question. There are all kinds of groups I appreciate, including private WhatsApp groups with founders where the discussions are open and less market-focused.

But one community that stands out and that I've been participating in on and off is Lenny Rachitsky's Slack and PM blog. It has become somewhat market-oriented and polarized in opinions, but there is a core group of people who are frank, honest, and share their day-to-day struggles, seeking opinions and help. I find that uniqueness appealing.

Anton: And the last one, what is the one product or service that helps you be either productive or creative, depending on how you think about it? So, what is the product or service helping you the most?‍

‍Nimrod: Yeah, this might sound clichΓ©, but I have been an inbox zero practitioner since 2011 when Mailbox, the original app that introduced swipe-to-archive, came out. Today, I am a heavy user of Superhuman, and I can't imagine my workflow without it. Another mention would be Cron, a high-quality calendar product that Notion acquired. But my go-to, day-to-day tool is definitely Superhuman for managing email.

‍Anton: Amazing. So, Nimrod, that's all for me. If you have anything you want to add or mention, please do so.‍

‍Nimrod: No, thank you so much for this. It was a delightful conversation and good luck.

‍Anton: Thanks a lot, Nimrod, thanks for your time, advice, and insights. It was a real pleasure talking to you!

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