Opportunity in Chaos | Jordan Husney from Parabol

Jordan Husney was a management consultant for some of the biggest companies in America. And it was in those executive offices that he learned, as he puts it, “the world is a lie.” He says that everything is clean and clear in management textbooks, but the reality is far from it.

Through this consulting experience, he came to understand the changing, chaotic nature of organizations across the globe and the growing need for agility. This is what led him to found Parabol, a technology startup that offers a free, online retrospective tool that helps agile teams understand what they need to do better.

On this edition of UpTech Report, Jordan tells about his personal journey from childhood scientist, to Fortune 500 consultant, to startup CEO.

More information:

As a teen during the 1990’s tech boom, CEO and Founder of Parabol, Jordan Husney was fascinated with connecting people through technology. Captivated by modems, bulletin board systems and amateur radio, his interests led him to pursue an internship at Minnesota-based IoT company, Digi International. He spent nearly 20 years at the company as an engineer and product manager to help technology serve people. 

Later, Jordan joined New York City-based management consultancy Undercurrent as a Director, where he assisted in shaping the futures of Fortune 500 leadership teams at companies such as GE, American Express and Pepsico.

He was instrumental in helping businesses identify new markets, acquisitions and divestitures, while establishing improved processes for enhancing work culture, organization and collaboration for both remote and in-house workers. While working with multinational organizations stretched across time zones, Jordan began prototyping a new platform that would allow team members, and more specifically, agile teams to work together, better. 

This platform would later be known as Parabol. Today, Jordan leads multiple facets of Parabol’s growth and success by overseeing new talent acquisition, funding and product development. He holds several patents in distributed systems and wireless technology, and lives with his family in Los Angeles, California.

DISCLAIMER: Below is an AI generated transcript. There could be a few typos but it should be at least 90% accurate. Watch video or listen to the podcast for the full experience!

Jordan Husney 0:00
If you’re an entrepreneur, what you want to do is you want to pick something so small, that it’s silly, but you want to convince yourself that if you’re playing the chessboard, that you’re not locked in by the pons that you can like, attack these adjacencies really, really easily based on what you build.

Alexander Ferguson 0:22
I’m excited to continue our conversation in our in our first chat, we were really looking at the retrospective Meeting app that you have built and had been developing in the past five years. I’d like to hear more about your story. How did you get to where you are today, and you can even go before the five years before that?

Jordan Husney 0:39
Sure. My personal story in Tech is one I was fortunate to be born in 1980. And I do not remember a time in my life where there wasn’t a computer present. So my, my father brought a apple, two plus home from the office. And I was used to it. From then on. My dad was he was in the music business. And he knew that he had like a nerd son. So he tried to find ways to bridge our interests. And he used to be a radio DJ. And he kind of got into radio through amateur radio. So used to drop me off with all these like Korean war vets to learn about radio when I was a really young kid, like I got my license when I was still in grade school. And I did a science fair project, where I built a large wireless network as long before Wi Fi but connected these radios to computers, and then would send messages down the Mississippi River. And that project ended up getting national attention I was sent to the International Science and Engineering Fair at some local press in Minnesota, resulted in me being offered an internship at a local technology company. And so I spent 17 years, more or less, there was like two years that I left and I joined a startup that was headquartered in Palo Alto. But aside from that experience for 17 years, I either wrote code for as a product manager, or acting in a management capacity helped with m&a activities, mostly tech due diligence, and that was Digi International, Digi International. Yeah, they’re still around great, great company. They are like the original IoT company. And I got, I felt like I had sort of reached my limit developmentally there. And after nearly two decades, I really just wanted to change my life. And I, I became really fascinated with just how systems of people worked, particularly people that were building things, I got kind of like obsessed with the question like, why is programming fun? Like, who’s building who here? Like, am I writing the code? Or is like, the code and the end the like joy that I get out of it really, like coaching me along to build something? And how do people work together and put stuff together? And so I found this management consultancy, that was advertising itself. Underwriting this podcast and radio program called Radio lab. And I still remember the tag it was undercurrent the firm in a strategy firm in lower Manhattan thinking a lot about human refrigerator interact, interaction, 3d printing and cat memes. And that like, was a signal that was just like, sent to the center of my heart. And I went and I, I thought, which is fair warning, like most folks, I think you’d find management consultants to be snake oil salesmen. I’m like, Alright, these snake oil salesmen, they’re telling me that they are like influencing the management decisions of these really large companies. Yeah, whatever. I took the job anyway, moved to New York. And like a week later, I was at the top of 30 rock, with the people running GE making decisions about what their future was, and it was awesome. But then I also learned that the whole world is a lie. And everything is really, really clean and clear in a management textbook. And like, millions of people graduate from university thinking that management needs to be a certain way. And if you just follow the way that it leads, not only to building the right things, and exciting things, that that the way that you manage people will also create fulfilling and good jobs for people. And what I really learned firsthand is neither of those things are true. Everyone’s house is a goddamn mess. And the world is in need of reform. And we we caught on to looking actually at we saw that and some of the savviest business thinkers saw that the world was becoming a much more dynamic chaotic place, and that the systems that govern how people work together, needed to change. Agile was one of those things. And then also, famously, General Stanley McChrystal reformed the armed services to react to the reality of the theater of war inside of Afghanistan in Iraq, and made it from a large hierarchical monolith into a bunch of pairwise networked organizations that could spot intelligence. And and like, where we are in technology and human reinvention, we started adapting some of those ideas and agile ideas to business more generally. And then that led naturally to wanting to make tools given my history. And here we are.

Alexander Ferguson 5:43
It’s interesting to see both the beginning of where you began and then seeing life as a lie of where appear, and then to now actually launching your own endeavor. And this is the first company that you’ve co founded, correct?

Jordan Husney 5:58
That’s right. Yeah. It’s my first solo journey.

Alexander Ferguson 6:02
Exciting times ahead. Now, five years in, there’s already a ton of learnings right there. And in our first episode, I already asked, you know, looking back five years, what would you have done differently or told yourself digging in that a little bit further getting funding? What would you say? If someone else is thinking about about funding is the biggest mistake one could make when seeking funding?

Jordan Husney 6:27
So I wrote there’s a blog post I wrote called Seed raise by the numbers. And if you are creating particularly a bottom up adopted company, this advice would apply. And what I mean by bottom up is like, individual consumers are picking this thing up. And there’s they’re sharing it inside their organizations, this sort of b2b specific conversation. When we got going, you asked about in the first segment, did we still offer coaching and why? One of the reasons for that, aside from just putting some cash in your bank account to give us more months of runway ahead, is because we kept hearing from our prospective investors that they needed to see revenue. And they would give us this very specific feedback and be like, we don’t think the remote market is large. We don’t really think that meetings are an interesting pain point. And cool, I’d ask great. What you know, I can never hold you to an investment. Obviously, I have no power over your decision making. But what what would compel you What would you need to see where you would be to pour out your your chair, they say, Well, we really want to see 10,000 in monthly recurring revenue, or we want to see 25,000 monthly recurring revenue, what I’ve come to learn is that those are lazy things that people say, that are generally not very well considered. And what happened is, is we started chasing revenue. So we, we monetized our product very quickly. And we started to try and figure out what our conversion levers were. And that was exactly the wrong thing to do. If we were to start over again, what we instead would have done is, is solve the business from what I call from left to right. So if you think of it as a funnel, where it’s like, you got to get your message out there, you got to have people evaluate what your thing is, you got to happen, try it got to have them attach, you got to have them, maybe pay and then refer, I would have just spent all the time right on the front of that got that part of the machine running really, really well before even thinking about the the lighter stuff. But we were doing it all at once. And we were you know, effectively free people. What we came down for us is that we had been through an accelerator who also encouraged us to chase revenue. And we did get a pre seed round. So we did get some institutional investment. We had a Slack, participate in the round, we had SV Angel, we had Angel List. Really, really great talk to your investors. But when it came to getting the seed, we just kept hearing all this you need more revenue, you need more revenue. And we spent that precede funding far faster than we should have. Well, it was like six months and it was like poof, and we sat together. We had two months of cash left in front of us. And my colleague Matt said, Well screw this revenue thing. Let’s just go for growth. Let’s just make a hockey stick on the front end. What would we have to do? So we sat down and we’re like, Well, what market looks off this to us where can we adapt our technology in like six weeks and just go and we we’ve we found these retrospective meeting apps we were fast follow and we didn’t think they were particularly well put together. They didn’t seem well designed. They They were very human. And we’re like, let’s just do that. And so we did. We like hacked out a retro app and six weeks, we announced it on Product Hunt. And man, that thing took off. It was It started off like 30% month over month growth, and then it accelerated and we still had no revenue. And aside from creating that hockey stick, then the market shifted around us, which helped where remote work started to be a thing in like 2019. And the phone, basically, the metaphorical phone just went nuts. And people were like, can we lead around? Can we lead around? Can we lead around, and part of the thing that we did that’s different than just about any other company that I know of is we publish our metrics. Publicly, it’s like us in buffer, basically. And so VC started following our blog, and they just saw that hockey stick, and it whipped them up to a fever pitch. And then we basically were able to pick and choose who we wanted to work with. But long story short, focus on the front end of the funnel first, conversion, it’s all smoke and mirrors.

Alexander Ferguson 11:08
That question of where do you put your energy and focus is a powerful one. Moving into overall concepts around marketing and getting that initial traction, what do you see are some of the common mistakes that people and companies are making in the 21st century,

Jordan Husney 11:22
to broad, to broads, the two broads, the the, the one that we made that’s still like, super common that we see among our peers. I think that there are two kinds of VCs in the world, just roughly breaking people down to polarities. There’s, there’s folks that have founded companies and those who are basically just banks personified. And the bank personified folks are really good at shepherding money that they can be really, really good at making bets. They’re not particularly good at dispensing business advice. And the bank personified folks will commonly say things like, well, your target market is too small. And what I say to that 95% of the time is poppycock. That’s, that’s stupid. Like, if the market wanted your business to exist in math, like a large market did, it would already exist, like the market is efficient. So really, if you’re an entrepreneur, what you want to do is you want to pick something so small, that it’s silly, but you want to convince yourself that if you’re playing the chessboard, that you’re not locked in by the pons that you can, like, attack these adjacencies really, really easily based on what you build. And when you’re three folks, you don’t have an advertising budgets, you’d better be focused on your organic channel or have a really awesome Rolodex. For us that meant like laser targeting some SEO terms, and then just rushing the content. And we played a super, super smart game really, really quickly to rank. And those are the things that added up to survival for us, basically.

Alexander Ferguson 13:07
You make a great point, Team wise, if it’s small, you got to be smart. Looking at the team, you see going from two to five or six this year. Well, now 1212. So any insights on then growing a team and expanding a team that allows you to play a bigger game?

Jordan Husney 13:27
Yeah, that’s a really good question. And highly context dependent. There’s a spectrum of businesses. So you’ve got Uber like businesses, where your product sophistication is actually pretty low. Yeah, there’s like tons of crazy tech behind the scenes. But fundamentally, it’s like, push button car arrive, right? Like, it’s pretty new. They didn’t have to invent the iPhone, like didn’t have to invent the cellular network. It’s, they don’t even have to bring the cars. It’s like, push button car rides, right. On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got these businesses that are either really high tech or really uncertain in what your user needs. I think for the Push Button businesses, those are the blitzscale businesses. That’s the reed Hoffman masters of scale, like, pack people on and go and dominate a market because it’s easy to fast follow. If you’re in a more complex domain, hire as slowly as you possibly can an index when you’re really small on the smartest generalists that you can. Our personal strategy is making a work environment that is 1,000% Less sucky than most startup environments. And what I mean by that is, we are highly cadence oriented, like we have very few meetings and we maximize focus time. We are very intentional about getting to know each other. We’re very values aligned so we just easily get along. And we’re very flat. We’re very open and for the most part, unless there’s a crisis, we don’t work weekends, we were Super hard during the week, but it’s very dependable what your time is and what our time is. You can also live wherever you want. Those things tend to add up to us to be a major strategic advantage. We, we like to say that we attract burnouts, which is true. Like, if you look at our LinkedIn records, you’ve got people that were at Amazon and maybe didn’t have the best employee experience at Amazon, or, you know, they were at large company X or Y, or Z. Well known, well, logoed, well credentialed. Excellent, excellent, smart, folks. But work environment is a powerful strategic advantage of your small. The other thing is to be really deliberate about how you hire a friend of mine. And a sage guy named Mike arouse has this quote that I love, which is, if you haven’t decided you’re probably wrong. And that’s true about a hiring process. You can’t cargo cult that into your business. For us, what we do is we break it down into four rituals. So we have a fit for roll interview, where we assess folks skills, and we always write it out a priori, the questions are always the same. There’s no like riddles or thought problems or anything along those lines. The next is a culture interview. That’s also always standard. There’s a small panel of folks, and we’re looking for evidence of certain values. And then the third process is, we do a part time project that we call a batting practice. What we say to the candidate is, we want you to de risk us as much as we’re we de risking you like it would be terrible if you’re going to start with us. And all of a sudden you realize, oh my goodness, these are not the people that I want to be working with. Like, we’ll give you that opportunity. So we pay an incredibly generous rate for 20 hours of people’s time, we make it easy to squeak that in over as long of a time period as people need. And they work on something real without some real value. And then at the end, it’s just negotiation and then we bring you on but But thinking about those moments and standardizing what your evaluations are really important.

Alexander Ferguson 17:07
Where have you found great insights, whether it’s leadership, business, personal development, when it comes to books, audio books, podcasts, or any go twos that you would recommend?

Jordan Husney 17:17
Yes, absolutely. This is going to sound bias. And in fact, it’s very biased. Aaron Dignan was my former boss and current mentor, at undercurrent. He is currently the leader of a management consultancy called the ready. And he has a podcast called Brave new work. And he’s written a book by the same name that was very, very, very popular. We still pull a lot from him, he tends to aggregate a lot of interesting folks who are thinking about how people work together. And hugely important, influential. For myself, I’m a big fan of Yuval Harare and sapiens and his other thought pieces. I also like the same Nicholas to lamps, books, anti fragile being the latest that I think sort of nicely encapsulates the way that he thinks about risk in general, and also systems of development. And granted, like I don’t take everything, whole cloth from any of these individuals, but I find a lot that I can kind of pull together into tapestry. Those are those are the big ones for me. Oh, and I Oh, and I absolutely love both Dan and James over at the exponent podcast. And of course, particularly, I think that by and large, when you zoom way, way, way out on what’s happening, he has the right Actually, both of those individuals, often in their arguments, somewhere between both of their points, James and Ben tends to be things that are very useful to think about in company building and in trying to address a market etc, etc.

Alexander Ferguson 19:15
Last question I have for you, Jordan, what kind of tech innovations do you predict? We will see in the near term, next year, so and long term 510 years from now?

Jordan Husney 19:26
Yeah, it’s interesting. We’re we’re very product lead like we use text that are useful, but I’ll address your question head on. But one thing that I I want to mention is Do I think that any of the current technologies that are invoked so as of this recording, within months, everyone was talking about GPT three for like a hot minute AI and ML more generally Of course, what I see is that as it should happen, there’s a lot of noodle fridging that happens within us tech. So you get a bunch of folks who are either coming out of like the IV system, or they’re coming out of the tech world. Something meme wise raises like GPT three, and then you see a million sort of like GBT for tech startups blockchain for tech startups. And they just noodle fridge, and we sort of see what sticks. I think that that’s actually a terrible way to build a company to be tech forward, rather than problem forward and kind of fit the tech behind the problem. That said, there are some things that are moving in tech that I find to be both fascinating and dangerous in any great technology is it has great upside and great downside, just the longer lever, right? I think, a lot of what’s going on in deep learning right now, it’s, we’ve hit the crazy point on the curve of acceleration in deep learning, where I think I don’t like predicting the future very often. But I think this is a fairly secure one, I think we’re gonna see this intense arms race, terrifying arms race over 2020 and beyond with a deep fake detection folks won’t be able to keep up with the deep fakes. And that is going to unlock an incredibly weird world on us. Similar down that vein is, we’re going to see the application of very, very large neural networks, or composite AI systems, doing things that are going to feel more and more magical, you know, like draw sketch, and all of a sudden, it’s like a physical device or attend a meeting. And the whole thing is really neatly packaged up with, here’s exactly what was said these things are categorized decisions. These are the actions here, it’s neatly set up for you and so on and so forth. I think the thing that is except for a few thinkers, like you know, it’s nice to see I don’t love everything Elon Musk says, But he tends to have some real deep insights about some things that I agree with often. Very few tech folks at AI interface, ask themselves what the what the downside, the negative externalities are around New Tech nology adoption. And I think that necessarily, it’s almost impossible to see what those downsides are until you start trying it. You know, like, imagine a world where handing tasks to your workforce as easy as just like so it look wising for a while we don’t know what impact that’s gonna have on a culture and that’s like the most benign example that I can think of.

Alexander Ferguson 23:10
That concludes the audio version of this episode. To see the original and more visit our UpTech Report YouTube channel. If you know a tech company, we should interview you can nominate them at Or if you just prefer to listen, make sure you’re subscribed to this series on Apple podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcasting app.



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