Ep. 23 - Backstage Capital Partner and Chief of Staff Christie Pitts

Ep. 23 - Backstage Capital Partner and Chief of Staff Christie Pitts

Nowadays, race and gender discrimination is still prevailing in most countries. Such bias displays in different circumstances, funding per se. Less than 10% of all venture capital deals go to women, people of color, and LGBT founders. This is what fueled and launched Backstage Capital, a company who invests in startup founders who identify as a woman, a person of color, or an LGBT. Christie Pitts, the General Partner and Co-founder of Backstage Capital, unveils how they came up with and crushed their aggressive goal to invest into 100 high-quality startups led by underestimated founders by 2020 so quickly. On the side, Christie gives us a glimpse on the process of selecting a hundred companies, their metric that measures the success of their investments, and a lot more.

Backstage Capital Partner and Chief of Staff Christie Pitts

Christie Pitts is a Partner and Chief of Staff at Backstage Capital. Backstage Capital is a VC company that searches out venture capital deals for groups that are funded less than 10% of the time. These are represented or underrepresented groups or companies where the founders are either women, people of color or members of the LGBT community. In 2015, Backstage Capital set the audacious goal to invest into 100 high-quality startups led by under-represented founders by 2020. They reached that goal a year and a half early funding 100 companies. Christie has extensive experience creating valuable partnerships between startups and Fortune 500 top twenty corporations. She joins Backstage from her role as a venture development manager at Verizon Ventures. I also first heard of Backstage Capital about a few years or so ago. I heard their Founder or Cofounder, Arlan, who is a CEO, on a podcast called StartupBus. I was excited to be able to bring Christie on the show. Christie, welcome to the show.

Thank you so much. I’m so glad to be here.

I’m looking forward to hearing the rest of the story. I like hearing the ideas and the stories from the chief behind the chief. Tell us how you got involved with Arlan and how you got involved with Backstage. What was it that attracted you to their mission into the business?

Before working at Backstage, I spent quite some time working at Verizon. My role was on the ventures team. I was with Verizon for almost thirteen years in total. I was lucky during the time that I worked at Verizon because I came in on the very front lines. I started as a part-time customer service representative working in a retail store. This was in 2005. Think about the phone that you had before the Motorola Razr came out. It might have been like the Nokia candy bar phone or might have been a flip phone without a camera. That was the era when I started there. I was fortunate because what I didn’t realize, being very young and taking that job was that I was obsessed with mobile. I was getting a front-row seat into an industry that was about to explode. It was about eighteen months, two years before the iPhone was announced and came out. Through my time at Verizon, I had several different roles.

One of them was in leading operations and marketing for a large region for Verizon Wireless business units. This is very similar to a COO role, but it was like a sub-business unit within Verizon. We were doing $4 billion a year in annual revenue from our unit. It was a significant piece of business. In that particular role, in being responsible for marketing, one of the ways that we measured success was in our ability to attract multicultural customers. Verizon recognized very early that the demographics were changing in the United States and that not only were there changes in terms of wealth management, but also in terms of who was driving the economy and who was making buying purchases and decisions. As a brand, we had a very pale and stale demographic. We were doing great in terms of indexing with your traditional core demographic, but we weren’t doing so well when it came to getting adoption in multicultural demographics like the Latinx community or the Asian-American community and so forth.

The reason why this was particularly important for me was that the unit that I managed had customers in Northern California, Northern Nevada and Hawaii. If you took my customer base and you measured it against any of the other customer bases, we had the most diverse customer base. For multicultural efforts, we were the test bed of these different multicultural efforts that were happening at Verizon. What’s interesting here is that most big brands have focused a lot of time, energy and dollars towards addressing multicultural customers for at least a decade. When I was in this job at Verizon, we’re talking 2011 and right now, Clorox, McDonald’s, Walmart, all of the major brands have already diversified their product lineups. They have diversified their marketing campaigns because they know the future of their customer is diverse. The reason why I’m sharing all of that is that after some time in that role and some other roles, I moved into the ventures team with Verizon.

I didn’t know venture that well, but I understood that venture investors were investing in companies that would mature five years on the short-end, five to seven to ten years out from when they made their investments. I had come out of this mindset that the diverse dollar was becoming more and more impactful. The further you look down the time horizon, the greater that influence was. For investors that were investing in companies where their businesses were maturing a decade from now, it was a no-brainer to me that the founders should be diverse. The people building the products should be diverse. The customer go-to market strategy should be diverse. Unfortunately, when I got into the venture, not only was it not diverse, it was as homogenous as you could get. More than 90% of funding was going straight to white male founders. More than 90% of decision-makers in investment firms were straight white men and it didn’t make any sense at all.

I understood from a business perspective right away that there was a lot of money being left on the table, and it was a loss. I set out to find people that understood this as a problem. There were a lot of folks who are working on this from a social impact perspective because providing opportunities to people who may not have had an opportunity in the past is good social work. I wasn’t motivated from a social perspective. I was motivated by the business perspective. That’s when I found Arlan. She was speaking the same language that I was speaking. She wrote a blog post called Dear White Venture Capitalists: If You’re Reading This, It’s (Almost!) Too Late, where she lays out the business case for investing in diverse founders. We originally met and connected through Twitter. We met and we kept in touch. I came over to work at Backstage in a part-time capacity as a consultant while staying on at Verizon full-time, and that was as Backstage was continuing to grow. Then I came over full-time in August.

She saw some clear huge skill sets in you but also the big part was culturally, you were completely aligned as well. It’s funny you mentioned Verizon. I used to coach the second-in-command at Sprint and also coach the CEO for a little bit over at Sprint. I know nothing about that telecommunication space, but they were not calling after the demographic that you were focusing on either. Tell me a little bit about the big lessons that you were able to pull from Verizon then that you’ve brought with you now.

I could go on for hours about how wonderful it was to work at Verizon. I had a great experience there. Some things that I appreciated about Verizon was that there was a culture of integrity at that organization from the top down. It’s enumerated. It’s a part of the culture for all of the employees on the team. I started there at such a young age. I took it for granted that integrity would be part of an organization. It wasn’t until news came out about Volkswagen, for example, that I realized that this wasn’t the case at all organizations. Coming into Backstage at the early time that I did, Arlan also has a very high level of integrity and that’s something that we’ve continued.

I also would say something that’s important at Verizon is the level of operational excellence. When it came to our network buildouts for example, or what we’ve provided our customers in terms of service and experience, we thought about implementing processes and then we thought about fail-safes and what happens when the first process doesn’t work out correctly. What do we do? I don’t have personal experience to compare that to other places, but taking that sense of operational excellence to build processes within Backstage has been very helpful. We’ve set up structures around different areas as a company very early on that have helped things have strong foundations and be ready to scale.

For our audience who may not know what Backstage Capital is, walk us through your brief business model. What exactly do you do and how do you do it and what is differentiating you?

We’re a venture capital firm. What that means is we’re money managers. We raise money from LPs, which are Limited Partners. They invest in Backstage and into a specific fund. We gather LPs, they all invest together into a fund and then we manage that fund by finding startups to invest in. Then we support those startups and help them grow. Ideally, they’ll grow over time to have a successful outcome, which could be a successful merger or acquisition or maybe they go public on the stock market. At that time, we get the return from that investment and distribute it back to our investors.

How do you support the companies that you’re investing in?

We have 100 companies that we’ve invested in, and we invest across all industries and sectors. A common question I get, “Isn’t it a distraction or doesn’t it pull you in multiple directions to be supporting marketplace company on one side, like a consumer company and then on the other side, you have an enterprise or a frontier tech company?” The answer is that because our companies are almost all at the same place when we make an investment and typically, we’re investing $25,000 to $100,000 in these companies, we find that there are a lot of resources that we can provide that scale across the entire portfolio.

Most of our companies are in a place where they’re making not their first outside hires, but a few critical outside hires. People like the head of operations or a VP of engineering, those types of titles. We find that by providing support to them for recruiting, for example, we had a lot of the portfolio companies taking advantage of it and it’s something that’s a value add for many of them. We try to provide these services through a network of mentors, regular private sessions where we’ll have somebody that’s an expert in a certain area come and speak with a portfolio and other things like that.

You have a very aggressive goal of investing in 100 companies over the five-year period. You crushed that goal. How did you end up hitting that goal so quickly and how did you select 100 companies?

Something interesting about Backstage is that just by existing, we help to disprove a lot of the commonly held false narratives in the tech industry. The reason why I’m bringing that up is that when Arlan first started raising for our first fund, many investors said there are not enough quality companies led by diverse founders. That’s why you see a lack of diversity. It’s because companies don’t exist. What we found once we started rolling and the word got out that we were making investments, we were inundated with high-quality companies. We probably could have made it 100 investments even faster than we did. The pace that we made investments was the right pace for us because we were also growing on our own and building up our own strengths and then also securing the funding in order to make the investments. All of those things had to be in place. We looked at over 3,000 companies in order to make 100 investments we made.

Originally, what was happening was Arlan was both fundraising and taking all of the pitches herself. She continued to fundraise and I came in and started taking pitches with her. Even that was not scalable. There were some days where I would open up my calendar and I would have fourteen pitch meetings back-to-back all day long. It wasn’t working. We set up our deal flow team and that has been such a great improvement for operations. What we have now is about six to seven people on the team who all work together to evaluate companies and we’ve streamlined this through an application process.

Companies apply for funding on our website and then those applications get assigned to somebody on the deal flow team and then the deal flow team is consistently reviewing the applications and communicating back to founders. What we do is once the deal flow team has identified high potential companies, we establish a day for deal flow review where the deal flow team brings those companies. They go through some initial diligence and then they come and present to the whole group. After that day, we make a decision on whether we move forward or not. This year we’ve made multiple investments to that process and the more we do it, the more we refine it. That’ll be the underlying foundation for how we evaluate deal flow in the future.

I have a historically horrible record at identifying good early stage companies. I told the founder of 1-800-GOT-JUNK? he could never franchise junk removal. I had to help him grow it after I was wrong because he was able to start franchising. I told the founder of Uber it was a dumb idea when he was pre launching. How do you know what a good idea is? What are you trusting? What data are you looking at? How do you get a deal team to be looking at that when you and Arlan are on this involved?

I’m sure there are going to be situations like that for us too. Especially because there’s such a high volume of companies that we don’t get to have personal conversations with every single company that comes through. We may evaluate their application, not understand it and then that might be the next Uber. That’s just going to have to be what it is.

Are you okay with that?

SIC 23 | Backstage Capital
Backstage Capital: You see a lack of diversity because there’s not enough quality companies led by diverse founders.

 

It doesn’t feel good, but ultimately there are some constraints around the process. We’re never going to win 100%. What we see when we look at our existing portfolio are a lot of healthy signs. The founders are raising follow on funding, they see additional traction, they’re landing bigger customers. There are a lot of good signs. It’s hard to tell. Sometimes we make investments pre-product and pre-revenue. In those cases, we’re just evaluating the company based on the strengths of the founding team.

Is that mostly what you look for the founding team considering it is so early?

Are you familiar with this concept of pattern matching? Pattern matching can have a negative connotation. It’s like you only pattern match for the dropout from Stanford or Harvard or whatever. We say that we pattern match for grit, meaning that we’re looking for founders who have demonstrated that they can do a lot with little. We’re looking at a founding team and we’ll look at the business model, the business idea and the team. The thing that’s unique about our founders, for the most part looking across the portfolio, is they are not going to give up.

You can see grit in a 30-year-old, but you can see it when they were twelve. You can see it when they were fifteen and you can see it when they were eighteen. They have that grit all the way through their life. Grit isn’t something you learn. You either have it or you don’t. You do look at the core behavioral traits then and start to make some analysis around those.

Something else that’s interesting is people oftentimes think like, “You’re working with under-represented founders. Maybe their backgrounds are down and out or they haven’t had access to things.” A lot of our founders are successful in their own right. For example, they went to schools like MIT, Stanford and Harvard, and they had successful careers in other industries before identifying a problem that they decided to go and address by starting a company. That’s something else that we try to help change the narrative around in terms of what a successful founder can look like.

You’re making very small investments in each of these companies, in the $25,000 to $50,000 range. Are you starting to increase those at all over time? Have you been doing follow-on investing with some of these companies as well?

We set the expectation for the companies that we would not be making follow-on funding when we made the first investments. If we think about where we were in the timeline, we were not in a position to. We were raising their first fund to invest in them for the first time. Our goal now is to be able to provide follow-on funding for our portfolio. We have not announced to follow-on fund specifically. What we have announced as our next major funding initiative is a new larger fund, which is a $36 million target. We’re calling it, it’s tongue in cheek but the name of the fund is It’s About Damn Time. The thesis around this particular fund is providing $1 million checks. An initial check of $1 million into black women founders. It’s 38% of our existing portfolio fits that thesis, so it could be some of our existing portfolio companies, but we think there are going to be companies in there that we have not yet invested in. We’re working on a few different initiatives at the same time to support the existing portfolio with follow-on, but it will be separate from this fund.

I love the fund name of It’s About Damn Time. When Oprah covered us at 1-800-GOT-JUNK? back in 2003, her episode was called the It’s About Time. I think you’re on the right track with this one. What surprised you when you met the goal so early? Was there anything that you saw or encountered? Was there anything that helped you hit that goal that you were surprised on? Is there anything you’ve stumbled on that helps you hit it?

I can’t think of any surprises necessarily. What was funny is we had embraced this goal, 100 companies by 2020. We set it up as a unifying goal within the company. People had it as a motivator or a milestone that we were working towards. Then I remember in January, we were looking at the portfolio and we were like, “Once we finalize this next investment, we’re going to be somewhere around 80 companies.” We looked at each other and we were like, “This is not going to take until 2020.” We knew sometime before we came public about it that we would be far ahead of our schedule.

Dave McClure was doing the whole 500 startups a few years ago. He pushed through that number and you have surpassed your number. Was the number important or is there a quality metric there? Do you have anything that you measure the success of your investments on? Is there a net promoter score that you use? Is there a success metric that you look at? What are you focusing on for phase two with these companies of the 100 that you’ve invested in?

We call them Backstage 100. For us, the number 100 is symbolic. The reason is because of our mission. Our business model is we finance managers, so we manage money, we return on investment. We recognize that there is a social impact through the work that we’re doing. A big piece of that impact is helping to change the narratives around entrepreneurship, around funding and who gets funding. It’s not just changing narratives, it’s also changing outcomes. The reason why I want to spend talking about this is that there are a lot of problems in tech that are related to a lack of diversity and there are a lot of different levels. For example, there’s a lack of diversity in talent pools in tech. You can see this in reports that are released by companies when they show their staffing. Another example is there’s wealth inequality. One of the reasons for this is when you have a wealth-creating event at a startup, the people that benefit the most from that outside of the investors are the early employees and the founders.

What happens is if the founders who are gaining wealth from these events go on to be the next Angel investors or the next LPs. When that flywheel is homogenous, it’s foundational. It’s creating more of the same. Getting capital into the hands of qualified founders that are diverse founders creates a chain reaction. Diverse founders recruit diverse teams. You help to solve the problem of who’s building the tech. It’s proven over and over again that diverse teams are more successful from a business perspective. When these wealth events occur, those people that become wealthy will be diverse and they’ll have optionality. They can then go on to invest in the next crop of founders. All of these pieces were important to us. The 100 number was where we said we knew if we could get capital into the hands of 100 founders, that would be significant in terms of the change that we can make in the future. That’s where that goal came from.

Are you nudging those 100 founders now to start putting equity options in the hands of their employees to get that diversity butterfly effect happening faster?

I don’t think we have to nudge them. It’s pretty standard that startup job offers come with salary plus equity package and our founders stick with that. They’re already doing it.

The lure of the legend of the PayPal Mafia back in California. Elon Musk’s brother worked for me back in ‘93 and so did his cousin who built Solar City to see their little network of connection of friends. It is pretty incestuous. Here in Vancouver, we call it the Maple Syrup Mafia. It’s funny. Ryan Holmes from HootSuite and Harley from Shopify, they’ve got this Canadian gang. It’s the same thing. It’s the same group. We have the C-100, which is there are 100 venture capitalists in the bay area that are from Canada and there are more VCs in California from Canada than there are VCs in Canada. They fund the same deals. They are massively missing out. The last four guests that I’ve interviewed for the show were all female COOs. I was talking to my director of ops, who is female as well, and I said, “We’ve got to make sure that we’ve got balance. I don’t want to run out of female COOs. We’re not pushing them all up too quick.” She goes, “No, we’re 50/50.” I was like, “This is awesome. It’s the right group.”

There’s some interesting press around the tendency for COO’s to be female. There was an article that I had read. It’s on Fortune. The one that says, “These Women Could Be the Tech Industry’s Next Great CEOs or Not.”

I’m in that article. I forgot which magazine. It’s a black magazine from a few months ago. There was an online portion and the offline portion, but it was a great piece around this. I’ve always believed in it too. We have to keep busting this myth. Are you getting pushed back from the male-dominated VC community at all? Are they letting you do your thing and they’re not in the way? Not that them getting in your way is ever going to stop you anyway.

I don’t know if I would say we get pushed back. There are a lot of folks out there who don’t understand what we’re doing. There are a lot of folks who also think like, “They have small amount of funds so they’re not a threat.” We’re investing $25,000 and maybe they work at a firm that has more than $1 billion under management. That’s fine. I wouldn’t say that we get pushed back necessarily. Sometimes we do run into challenges, but they’re not unique to us. The challenges that we run into are the structural challenges in the industry. Our $25,000 check is not going to take our founders get to IPO. It’s going to be part of many rounds of funding that they’re going to need to raise successfully. I wouldn’t say necessarily that we have any situations where people are targeting us. We do provide a lot of support to our founders trying to help them raise follow-on funding and make that process easier for them. If you look at the statistics, the odds are stacked against them before they even get started.

Are you connecting a lot of those dots for them? Is that part of the service or part of the value that you bring?

We do. We play an active role in making introductions. Sometimes we’ve even gone to the point where we’ll set up time with a VC and walk our founders in and sit in on the pitch meetings. That isn’t something that we’ve done on a regular basis, but we have done it before. In terms of the type of support that we provide for our companies, providing access to capital and helping them fundraise is a critical piece of their success. It’s something that’s going to be a priority for us for a long time.

Thinking about your role as second-in-command, you’ve played a few roles in the operations since you joined. Were you always operating in that second-in-command type of role, just the title being changed along the way or did your role completely shift at some point?

My role has shifted a few times, but it’s always been second-in-command. Then we choose a title that we think fits the best at the moment.

I’ve been pushing back with many young early-stage companies that keep saying you’re over titling or you’re giving out titles that are way too big, way too early. It causes salary inflation and it causes expectation differences that shouldn’t be there. Many years ago, to have a C-level title, you had to be a major player to a major company. Now we’re giving out a C-level title for everything in the company, but you truly are playing that second-in-command role. Harvard wrote an interesting article many years ago called The Misunderstood Role of the COO. They identified seven distinct types of chief operating officers. In some cases, the COO is very outward facing.

SIC 23 | Backstage Capital
Backstage Capital: When you have a wealth-creating event at a startup, the people that benefit the most from that outside of the investors are the early employees and the founders.

 

In this case, it would be like Harley Finkelstein from Shopify. He is a very outward facing biz dev, sales, marketing, COO, while his founder, the CEO, is very inward-facing tech and operations. In other cases, it flips, where the COO is very inward-facing and the CEO is outward, etc. In your case, Arlan is very outward-facing, media, wickedly strong presence. I’ve always believed one of the roles of the COO is to make the CEO iconic. We’re almost that consigliere area that we’re in the shadows and our job is to make them iconic. How do you work in the shadows of Arlan and continue to make her iconic and make the brand focused on her name?

Arlan represents Backstage in a lot of different ways. Our investment thesis is that we invest in companies led by under-represented founders and we defined that as women, people of color and LGBT, and Arlan fits all those three categories. From the beginning, Arlan has embodied what we’re doing at Backstage. I think it’s also critically important for me to point out something, which is that there are not a lot of gay black women that are heralded as movers and shakers in tech. In addition to the difference in our roles, I also think it’s important that Arlan and the other diverse members on our team have screen time and have time on stage and so forth.

That’s a component of it. The two of us have a very strong partnership when we work well together. For example, she has a demanding travel schedule and she does a lot of speaking engagements. That has brought a ton of value back to Backstage and not only in terms of raising our profile and making more people aware of what we’re working on. It’s not uncommon for her to have a speaking engagement and then for that to lead an investment opportunity or an investor. We delineate the roles. I know what her travel schedule and her speaking schedule looks like and those will be her priorities. Also, we never stop fundraising, so that’s another big priority for us right now. On the flip, I’m telling her, “You can feel comfortable walking out on that stage in front of that audience because what’s happening back at the shop is all of these things are getting done: A, B, C, D, E. Here’s the status update on where we are.” It’s very operational and project management-driven.

The thing that works out well is that I am happy and thrilled to tell a story about what we’re doing at Backstage, but I don’t feel like an innate drive. I’ve spoken to friends who have leadership roles in companies and they’re like, “This person’s always speaking and I don’t have a chance to speak.” That’s not me at all. I’m happy to get up and speak, but it’s important that we have people of color representing a change in tech, so that’s great. I’m motivated to do a good job and make sure our company is doing well and that’s more important to me. It’s a great balance.

I go to the main TED conference every year. I was at TEDWomen in San Francisco. It was a mind-blowing and fantastic community. Have either of you attended that one at all?

No, Arlan had planned to go to TED in Vancouver and then she wasn’t able to make it the last minute. We had a challenge with it.

Check out TEDWomen as well because it might even be a better fit than TED itself. TEDWomen is one of the three or four big global events they put on, but it’s a fantastic and strong community too. How do you and Arlan stay on the same page with your vision and with her travel schedule? What meeting rhythms do you have in place to keep you on the same page? What technology tools are you using? Anything that you can share.

One thing that’s important about Backstage is we are a remote team and that has been consistent from the beginning. Even when I was at Verizon and we had started Backstage for nine months or something. I was based in the Bay Area and she was in LA. As we’ve grown the team, we have team members throughout the country and we have a couple of nomadic folks on the team as well who worked from different countries or cities around the US.

That doesn’t make us envious at all, does it?

I’m a little envious of them back in LA. The thing is that that helps because we’ve never been in an environment where we have a hub where decisions are made. We’ve always been distributed. We use digital tools like Slack, which we love. The thing is decisions get made in Slack or on Zoom meetings or conference calls, and the people that need to be involved are included from the beginning. Along those same lines, Arlan and I will have partner meetings. We work hard to see each other face-to-face at least once a week. I’ll meet her in different cities or she’ll meet me. That doesn’t always happen. When it doesn’t, we usually do a virtual meeting like a conference call. That’s where she’ll give me an update on things, I’ll give her updates, and then we set the next time for our meeting and we keep rolling. That’s been effective so far. That will be something we continue for the near future.

Where are you struggling? Ray Kroc who built McDonald’s said, “When you’re green, you’re growing. When you’re ripe, you’re rotting.” Where are you struggling as an organization?

I don’t know if I would say struggle, but something that has always been for us and will be for the near future at least is around fundraising. There are two pieces. We’re fundraising for our $36 million funds. I can’t speak too much about that except to say that it’s going well. We’re also fundraising for other companies. We have a company called Backstage Studio, which is an operating company. We fundraise for Studio for operating capital. Having funding and runway is something that has been a challenge and will probably continue to be a challenge, at least for the short-term. That’s something that we have to be conscious about, making prudent financial decisions and keeping our burn rate very lean and so forth.

Are you finding the demographic that you’re trying to invest in, the female and minority and LGBT, are you getting those same demographics as investors as well?

We do have a fairly diverse set of LPs in comparison to other firms, but I don’t think it’s as diverse as we’d love it to be. We list our LPs on our website. We have great LPs.

Is Martine Rothblatt an investor yet? She’s a trans CEO, the highest paid female CEO in North America, but started life as a guy. She was the Founder of Sirius Satellite Radio and then now is the CEO of United Therapeutics.

I would love to have her as an LP.

She is an investor. I can make an introduction later, but she’s a fantastic person. She and her wife have been together forever. Their daughter’s in a mastermind with me and they go to the TED conference every year. She is a VC and does invest and a strong proponent in this whole community too. She could be an interesting investor for you.

I’d love to talk to her.

Where are you working on in terms of your personal growth? You clearly have excelled in your career, you’re doing amazing. The work you do with Verizon, the work you’re doing now with Backstage, where are you working on your own skills?

I worked with a coach and I’ve worked with her for a few years and I can’t say enough about how helpful it is to have a coach. She was helpful for me in navigating the transition from Verizon to Backstage, especially because I always loved the work that I did at Verizon. It was a hard decision for me to make the change, although I feel very strongly that I made the right choice. Amy and I are doing something new, which I haven’t done before, which is a 360 feedback. Have you done this before? You said you were a coach.

I’ve done a bunch. I had a mentor coach years ago who is being groomed as a COO at Starbucks. We would do an hour every month over the phone, but then a full day in person every quarter. He showed up in Vancouver years ago and I said, “I’ve got our agenda all set for tomorrow.” He goes, “I’ve changed that.” I said, “Really?” He goes, “I’ll see you for dinner at 6:00.” I was like, “You’re here for a whole day with me.” He goes, “I know. I’m meeting with all of your direct reports, one-on-one for an hour. I’ll see you at dinner.” I was like, “What’s going to happen?” This guy did a live 360 with my team and came back with some of the most insightful and empowering. It was huge.

I’m a little nervous. I was introducing Amy to different people for the 360. To answer your question, now that we’ve grown to a team of about twenty people, it’s important for me that I strengthen my leadership and managerial skills. Regardless of where you work or what company you work, this is foundational stuff. It’s something that I want to have as a superpower in my tool belt. That’s one priority for me and that’s why we’re doing a 360. The other thing that has been consistent for me my entire life is that I’m a major nerd and I love to learn new things. For example, I’m excited about 5G, which very few people are talking about. We were talking about it a bit at Verizon before I left, but a lot of things have changed or probably moved closer to launch since I was there and was able to get any inside information. I’ve been searching for 5G info online randomly. If you were to come by my house on a Friday night, I’ve got like a jigsaw puzzle, a cup of chamomile tea and I’m looking up IoT blogs. I think that’ll continue.

We started a group a few years ago called the COO Alliance. It’s the only network of its kind in the world for the second-in-command. In fact, there are no entrepreneurs allowed in the room. You have to be a COO to be a member. The geeks in the room are spectacular. I have a woman who was the COO at Service Rocket and they’ve got a few hundred employees operating in six countries. She geeks out on poker and chess. She’s the most social and fun and interactive human being. She’s amazing. Give us some tip that a second-in-command could learn from, but also any real seasoned executive or leader. I know you’re working on your skills. What’s one great one that you know that other people should be learning from if they could?

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Backstage Capital: Nothing can be said enough about how helpful it is to have a coach.

 

I will give one tip which is the bullet point tip. I have been successful using this tip for probably several years. It’s been useful to me in a ton of different types of jobs. It is the most effective way to email somebody is to have an opening sentence, three bullet points and then you ask. The more you can ask a yes or no answer, the better off you are. If you have any types of emails that you need to send, regardless of what it is, it doesn’t matter what the project is. If you can get it into this format, it’s so effective at getting a quick decision made, then you can move and start rolling towards execution.

I love that you systemize. I’ve been saying to use bullet points forever and keep it short, but I’ve never heard the one sentence, three bullets and then the simple ask, yes, no. That’s perfect. The reality is nobody has time to read all the crap that we’re writing and so they’re skimming it. If you go too long, they’re missing the point anyway. I’ve tried to at least put some smiley faces into my bullets now because I come off as too quick and it can come off acerbic. I said happy birthday to a friend years ago when he got mad at me. I was like, “Why would you possibly get mad when I say happy birthday?” He goes, “That’s all you said.” “What else am I supposed to say besides happy birthday? I’m busy.” He goes, “You could have taken more time.” Just putting some smiley faces into my bullets is helping me as well.

It does help. Tone gets lost in email. I use emojis too.

Christie Pitts, thank you so much for sharing everything with us and the successful growth you’re having with Backstage Capital. I appreciate the time and sharing with us.

Thank you. This is wonderful. I appreciate it.

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About Christie Pitts

SIC 23 | Backstage CapitalChristie is Partner + Chief of Staff of Backstage Capital. She is responsible for guiding our Crew to ensure Backstage runs smoothly towards its mission as well as joining Managing Partner, Arlan Hamilton, in making investment decisions (aka signing Headliners!) Christie has extensive experience creating valuable partnerships between startups and Fortune 500 top 20 corporations, and joins Backstage from her role as Venture Development Manager at Verizon Ventures. Christie holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from San Jose State University and an MBA from University of Phoenix.

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