“Culture is Important Everywhere, But at a Startup, It’s Paramount:” Five Questions With Reserve’s Anneke Jong

anneke jong

How do you make the transition from a company like Google to a startup? Anneke Jong took that question head-on when she joined Reserve, to lead business operations. Reserve makes dining out effortless – from reservations to payment, all handled via their app (my fund Homebrew is an investor). Here’s Five Questions with Anneke. 

Hunter Walk: You left a gig at Google to join Reserve. It’s hard for startups to recruit from Google! What about the opportunity sold you?

Anneke Jong: I’ve talked to and advised many seed stage startups, and I find they often have an awesome high-level pitch, but if you start asking questions just one layer deeper, most of the answers are, “Errrr, um….we don’t know.”

That wasn’t the case when I met with Greg Hong and Joe Marchese, the co-founders of Reserve. At the time they brought me in, an alpha version of the product wasn’t even built yet, but they sold me on both their vision and their practical approach to figuring out execution. Also, it was clear that working side-by-side with Greg wouldn’t require me to battle a nasty case of Founder’s Ego — Greg is brilliant but humble, and he presented me with an opportunity to join him in shaping the company, the product, and the team. I couldn’t say no.

Also, I was hankering to get back into startup mode, where everything you do has a direct impact on your team and your customers. Feeling like my work is directly affecting the lives of real humans every single day is tremendously rewarding (even though it’s also pretty stressful!).

HW: VP of Operations & Marketing is a pretty broad role. Are you basically fighting fires all day? How do you prioritize your week?

AJ: I oversee the business side of Reserve: sales, account management, customer service, analytics, growth, marketing, and strategy. We’re still a startup, so yeah, I do a lot of problem-solving and fire-fighting. But given how many teams I oversee, I also need to carve out a fair amount of time to set strategy, make plans, and communicate those plans out to the team. Articulating what we’re doing today and what we’re trying to accomplish tomorrow is really important — at a fast-growing company, my teams need to know what hasn’t changed as much as they need to know what has. I spend a lot of time creating plans and then finding concise ways to share them with the teams, get their buy-in, and then hold them accountable to the metrics we’ve identified. It’s great that my job lets my brain run the gamut from big-picture qualitative strategy to detailed, analytical number-crunching. I love giving a rousing speech to a room of people just as much as I love nerding out in an Excel spreadsheet, so this job suits me.

HW:  When new grads ask you about getting into startups, what advice do you give them? As a hiring manager, what do you look for in new grads?

AJ: Startups hire just in time. Your friends who go to work in management consulting or finance will have their job offers locked down nearly a year in advance, whereas you may be interviewing well after graduation. Despite all the best intentions, an early-stage company that needs someone to start in June probably won’t start hiring until the last week of May.

I look for candidates that are willing to learn and do anything (and are capable of doing so!). Coming out of school, you should have the wisdom to know that you’re not expert enough in any area to demand that you do one thing and one thing only. Startups change quickly, and the most valuable employee is a smart go-getter who’s willing wear any hat and learn as much as possible along the way. At Reserve, one of our values is Roll Up Your Sleeves because our best employees aren’t bystanders. If something needs to get done, they roll up their sleeves and do it.

Don’t be too proud to take out the trash, literally or metaphorically. There’s no room at a startup for a not-my-job-not-my-problem attitude. At a small company, particularly one where everyone has stock options, there’s no such thing as “not my job.” Everyone is accountable for the success of the entire business.

HW: As a company grows, what it decided *not* to do is as important as what it focuses upon. Can you share a time at Reserve when there was healthy discussion about a specific strategic discussion?

AJ: Back in 2014, Reserve had to decide whether to run our private beta and launch in just one city, or to come out swinging in multiple metros. There were trade-offs with both options. Testing and launching in just one metro, like New York City (as many of our competitors had), would give us tight control — everything would be in our backyard, and we could work out all the kinks here before replicating the model elsewhere. But there’s only one New York City in the world. What restaurateurs and diners want in one market doesn’t necessarily reflect the needs and values elsewhere. Even if a single-city launch was successful, would we have proved that our model could work across the country (and potentially around the world)?

We decided to take a risk and pursue a path of running private betas and launching simultaneously in three cities: New York City, Los Angeles, and Boston. This three-city approach allowed us to test our model on both coasts, in both dense and sprawling markets. Getting a Saturday night reservation in Boston isn’t quite as competitive as it is in Manhattan, so we needed to make sure our concierge product would be valued outside New York City. Staffing up teams on the ground in three cities before launch was a big decision, but it has ultimately borne fruit. Increasing early market penetration helped Reserve test and iterate on our product, establish a national brand, and build a diverse network of diners. We’re now live in seven cities across the country.

HW: Reserve is a company born out of two studio/operating ventures – Expa and Human Ventures. I’ve seen companies in this situation struggle to define their own culture, but you recently wrote about Reserve’s values. What role have you seen culture play at Reserve, Google and Bread (Anneke’s pre-Google startup)?

AJ: Expa and Human Ventures have played an important role in the evolution of Reserve’s product, but we’ve always had our own physical office, which gave us the space to define our own work culture from scratch. Greg and I placed a big emphasis on setting the tone from the top — for the things we wanted to see in the culture, we knew we had to walk the walk and be really disciplined about it. No cutting corners just because you’re the boss.

For me, setting that tone was especially important because I also manage all our remote teams. I have over 20 team members who sit outside our NYC headquarters, so demonstrating our culture to them through my actions has always been top of mind.

Because our values came from actions, they were true reflections of what it’s like to work here, not just wishful thinking. Values like Do the Thing and Go to the Source existed at Reserve before The 10 Things were even born. That authenticity gave our values real sticking power when they were finally written down.

The real key to articulating Reserve’s values was to give them names that everyone could connect with. No wonky corporate jargon — just simple, actionable language that everyone can understand. Rather than “Operate with Integrity,” we say Don’t Be Shady. Instead of “Perpetuate a Collegial Corporate Culture,” we say Share Your Sandwich. By keeping it simple, we can hold ourselves accountable.

Culture is important everywhere, but at a startup, particularly one with distributed teams, it’s paramount. Hours can be long, pay can be low, challenges can be monumental. You have to be in an environment that sets you up for success, surrounded by people who do the same.