Conference Speaker Steven Boone of Atrium on Growth, Reinvention, and Being Part of a Tribe
Steven Boone is VP of Revenue at Atrium, a full-service corporate law firm that uses modern technology to provide startups with a fast, transparent, and price-predictable legal experience. In that role, he runs Sales, Marketing and Business Development. Prior to that he was Head of Revenue Operations at BloomReach, running Sales Operations, Inside Sales, and GTM strategy as the company raised nearly $100m and scaled to a 50+ person sales organization.
He’ll be speaking at the Lean Startup Conference in October on “When to Invest in Sales and Marketing during Hypergrowth.” In the meantime, we spoke to him about Atrium’s crazy growth, why he left law school for tech, and the value of family and friends.
You didn’t plan on a career in tech. How did you get to Atrium — and why?
I dropped out of Berkeley Law School in 2013. When all of my classmates were going to their summer associate jobs with big law firms, I said, “I think I’m going to go to a tech company instead to try it out.” And I never went back.
Atrium’s vision was exciting to me. We’ve set out to stir up this antiquated industry by developing both a law firm and a tech company that builds software to revolutionize the delivery of legal services.
I’m a bit risk-averse — maybe that’s why I wanted to go to law school in the first place! When I came across Atrium they were at the perfect stage for me to jump in and contribute. I’ve realized I’m actually not someone who’s best-suited to become a founder or the second person to join a company. I’m more of that growth mindset, meaning if you have the idea, then I can help put the proper people and processes in place to test and scale that idea.
Atrium has now been around for 2 years and I’ve been along for about half of that ride. In two years, we raised $75 million and have grown from nothing to a couple of hundred people. It’s been an insane ride.
How did you connect with the company?
Atrium reached out and said “Hey, we’re looking for someone who has a legal background and has built and managed both sales and parts of marketing,” As they also noted, frankly, there aren’t very many people with that mix of experience in Silicon Valley.
That initial conversation about Atrium got me super excited. And having the opportunity to work with such a seasoned founder and CEO, Justin Kan, was of course an added perk. I thought I might as well take a call. Our 30-minute phone screen lasted an hour and a half, and the rest is history.
What was the company like at that stage?
It was perfect for me. There were roughly 50 people and there was a scrappy team of two people that I was going to inherit: one kind of generalist marketer and one sales person. They wanted to grow really fast. And surprisingly, they’d done a lot of great things without investing a whole bunch — well, frankly without investing any money — in sales and marketing up until that point. I was excited to take all of my experience, as well as learnings from Raj, BloomReach’s CEO) from my five years at my last startup and see if I could do it even better here.
But I actually don't believe in my position at scale... I believe that when you get an organization to a certain size, you need to split out sales and marketing... they're different skill sets. - Steven Boone of @Atrium Click To Tweet
What has applying that experience ended up looking like as the company has grown? How have things played out?
My position is overseeing all of growth, which at Atrium is made up of sales, marketing, business development and partnerships, and even some non-legal client services. Just as engineering and product are both on the building product side of the business, they too are not the same skill set at scale. You can’t just look at a CTO and say, “Oh, that’s probably a great product person.” And I think the same about sales and marketing. Yes, they’re both go-to-market, but eventually, you want someone who spent their entire career mastering one thing rather than all of it.
But on the flip side of that, those people who have mastered their craft aren’t the ones that you bring in at the start of a company. You want someone who is good at the zero-to-one and can build the organization tightly because you’re going to be crazy nimble and testing everything.
Atrium is now at the point where I’m starting to think, “How do I go find those specialized leaders, the people who are better than me at all of the specific marketing and sales strategies.”
What happens to you if you think your position becomes obsolete?
Hiring great specialized leaders doesn’t necessarily mean you become obsolete, it just means that your role changes. If you add a ton of value to an organization and have a lot of institutional knowledge then there’s always going to be a place for you. For me, that likely means that while I’ll maintain general ownership over the growth functions, I’ll also hire senior leaders with specialized skill sets. Then I can focus more on business strategy. It’s common to hire and empower people who own their functions, like sales and marketing, while still being someone who can tie the strategy together for that GTM motion. You don’t have to be an expert at any one area to lead it, but ultimately all executives of growing businesses need to shift from being tactical executors to pure strategic planners and operators.
I’m trying to look to where the ball is going to be in a year. In a year, we’re not a lean startup. For example, a year ago we were a company that should be attending the Lean Startup conference. This year we’re going to be talking at Lean Startup, and next year we’re most likely going to be a Series C or D enterprise company. Well, that or we’ll fail.
One of the exciting things about raising money and growing really fast is there’s no scenario where you’re sitting around for five years wondering if the business is doing well or if we’re going to stall out. At Atrium, in the next 18 months, we’re going to know whether it’s going to keep growing at 300% each year and everybody’s going to get wealthy, or if we’ll all go get great other jobs.
Okay, so let’s step out of the office for a second. You seem like you have very well defined strategic and timeline ideas about the organization and how organizations grow and morph. Is there any way that you apply that kind of thinking to your life outside of the office?
My wife is also in tech at a startup. She runs a marketing team and outside of work we try to basically be the opposite of tech people. We live in the hills behind Oakland in a house in the woods. In fact, part of it is a log cabin built in the ’20s. We just hike, hang out with our dog, and try to get out of the Bay Area as much as possible.
I’m from Oregon and we’ll probably get back there at some point. Unlike a lot of people who grew up in Silicon Valley and went to Silicon Valley schools and knew they wanted to do tech, it’s happenstance that I ended up in the middle of all of this. I have an attitude that’s pretty cynical about startups and maybe that’s actually been healthy and helpful for me to be in the role that I’m in.
Is there some other principle — not a work principle — or idea or value that you live by that has been really important to you?
I believe in the concept of a tribe. What I mean by that is there’s this group of people that you create over time that you want to bring with you everywhere. We often think about this in a work context — somebody comes to a new job and they bring all these great people that they’ve previously worked with. But for me, it’s a lot more than that. I believe that you really only have maybe 50 people that you’re wildly close with and probably half of that is your family.
Every day when I drive home I call somebody on my list of people that I love in my life. Those are the people that you’d do everything for. I feel lucky to have a group of people in my life that I could call and say, “Hey, I need your help. I’m just sad,” and they’d fly over.
Growing up, it was drilled into me that the people in your circle are your family and you owe them a level of respect far beyond what is expected in society today. You should treat everyone with respect of course, but your whole life should be about finding people that you really want to bring along with you, and their needs are just as important as yours.
What’s an area of innovation that no one has gotten into yet that you would really like to see someone do. Not necessarily that it would be a company you work for but just, “Hey, there’s this big space out there that is in desperate need of reform, change, or disruption?” It could be anything. It doesn’t have to be work-related or software-related.
Okay. I know nothing about this, but I watched some comedy last night and I cried out of sadness. I don’t cry all that often. The comedian was making a joke about going to your parents’ house — how it totally sucks and we all have the same conversations and we don’t keep in touch with them.
But then he said something like, “Hey, you see your family maybe three or five times a year. You’ll only probably see them 60 more times in your life, so make every time count.” It was really sad.
Every time you ask investors about social nowadays they say that all of the big social media companies exist and there’s no need for new ones. Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn — they cover all of our needs.
I think I have a visceral reaction and I disagree because we need to solve the problem that everyone moves and is dispersed. I have this tribe and it takes a massive amount of effort for me to call all of my friends and stay in touch with them. And I don’t get any of that through social media.
There needs to be a lot of innovation around the fact that I don’t want to see my parents 30 or 50 or 60 more times before they die. I actually want them to be a part of my daily life. I haven’t had kids yet, so they might not be around when my kids are in college. So how do we solve that now?
I have videos with my grandparents where my sister and I interviewed them about what it was like growing up in Alaska, and what was it like moving to Washington. We asked them, “You guys ran a bar. What was that like?” I’m excited to have those and I want to show them to my kids someday. Ancestry and all these companies are trying to uncover some of this but you still need to be with these people.
So I’m very excited for two innovations: when I can jet-set over to my parent’s house without it taking a whole day. And, when I can have great visceral either video or photographs or diaries of them so that people who don’t ever get to meet them can actually feel like they did.