Aumni Spotlight: Brendan Kussman, VP of People
Q: Tell us a little bit about your professional background.
A: My professional life began after I graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in theater, dance, and performance studies – specifically, I was a master theatrical electrician. Right out of college, I was able to pursue work in the San Francisco theater scene, managing the technical operation for stage performances, such as ballet and opera productions. I also worked in electrical power distribution for live Hollywood events, like the Academy Awards, the Emmys, and the BETs.
To explore new areas and career paths, I worked in the SaaS space for about six years. I decided to try my hand at technical support at a telecommunications company, and then the parent organization took note of my work and invited me to create solutions for a few of their organizations. I worked for two of their companies, one of which was a competitor to Zoom. During that time, I developed processes to support around 10,000+ customer accounts, making sure that they had one-to-one relationships and understood how to use the product to meet or exceed their expectations.
As I continued to evolve, I became an implementation consultant for a project management platform, which enabled me to work with companies like Facebook, Amazon, Interstate Batteries, and Peet's Coffee. I was on-premise with those companies for a while, learning how they operated and helping them to optimize their processes. I would ask their teams questions, such as: what are your goals this quarter? What are you trying to accomplish this year? How are you going about doing that? And then I would help develop new workflows while using the platform on which I was supporting them. In this role, I was able to see firsthand how massive, high-growth companies were organized operationally -- what worked, what didn’t work, and how they were fixing the elements that needed fixing.
My varied background has enabled me to apply a unique perspective to solving problems. With my creative roots, I love good storytelling, and I’m a strong communicator professionally. I like working on multi-faceted projects with a lot of stakeholders and finding a way to align them all behind the story. I appreciate complex ideas and enjoy distilling them down into simple solutions that can be communicated to the market, to our employees, and our investors. In my time at Aumni, I've been able to help influence and shape that story.
Q: How did you find yourself at Aumni?
A: Tony (Lewis, Aumni CEO) and I are former college roommates. He called on me to join the Aumni team very early on – back when we were a scrappy startup. I was one of the first four core employees: Tony, Kelsey Chase, Cody Nevels, and me. I joined the company because Tony and Kelsey had solidified the vision for the data analytics offering but needed somebody experienced in SaaS operations and customer success to begin implementing processes to help the company scale and function as a mature SaaS organization. I set up our human resources department and policies, our customer on-boarding processes, our CRM system, and so on. I even developed some of the very first product wireframes with the help of our CTO, Rob Wise. We have world-class product managers and designers who do that work now, but I was very fortunate to be in on the ground floor to implement several processes that we still use today.
Q: Can you share a challenge that your team has overcome in the past year?
A: As we entered 2021, we were aiming to close our Series B and I knew that we had to move very quickly yet balance that rapid pace with smart, scalable decisions. We had to implement processes, workflows, and team structures that could be used three months, six months, and a year from now. The balance between speed and flexibility is critical. We would say: let's get as many customers as we can, right? But we had to think about the durability of the product and the data model because we had to demonstrate to our investors that the solutions we delivered would only increase in value in the private capital market.
We knew we had to hire and we knew we had to grow. Our challenge was finding that sweet spot where the revenue met the need for talent. There were ongoing leadership conversations -- do we hire right now? Or do we hire in a month? What are the pros and cons of those decisions? We prepared for growth by moving into a new office, which was challenging in itself. A couple of years ago, Aumni fit into a tiny, shared office space. To reflect on those early days and to realize that only a couple of years later, we find ourselves in a state-of-the-art office building to support the company size -- it's a big deal. In general, I feel like our decisions were sound; we’ve made the right decisions and openly share in the benefits that continue to unfold.
Q: What were your priorities operationally during Aumni’s formative months?
A: Two elements informed our decision-making in those early months. The first was aligning expectations. We wanted to ensure that everyone on our team was on the same page -- that Tony and Kelsey's vision was communicated to every team member so that we were working harmoniously. Aligning expectations was so critical during those first few months because we had to go fast, and to go fast, everyone had to be in sync.
The second element was implementing processes that would scale. We knew we were going to grow, but we didn't want to be changing policies and structures every month or every three months, because we had outgrown the way we were operating. Setting up payroll had to be done right, choosing our email client provider had to be done right, establishing our sales processes had to be done right, etc. With this approach, we knew we would be able to expand without reinventing the wheel.
Q: Which of Aumni's core values resonates most with you and why?
A: Act with integrity resonates the most with me. In my opinion, acting with integrity boils down to being a good person and thinking like an owner. However, that value is a two-way street. We expect our team to deliver on that value. But Aumni as an organization has an immense responsibility to do the same for its employees and its team. We recognize that our team members have lives outside of work and we respect that our employees have interests, families, and other personal needs outside of work commitments. Aumni has to function with integrity in that we do not abuse that responsibility. A person's job, especially their job at Aumni, should empower them in their lives, not hold them back. We need to encourage people to be themselves. We need to support an environment and a culture where people can be creative and collaborative to solve problems.
This value also applies to the responsibility we have to our customers. We're handling some of the most private, sensitive, confidential data on the market, and we're asking our customers to trust us with that information to add value. So, not only do we owe it to our employees, we owe it to our customers to act with integrity. To me, that is why “act with integrity” is critical to who we are as a company.
Q: What excites you most about working at Aumni?
A: I feel like I'm working at Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. There are all these really exciting projects happening across all the departments. In my role, I get both a front-row seat and a backstage pass to see that creativity and innovation. What gets me going is that we're not just waiting for the next big idea to come our way -- we're developing those next big ideas now. We have a spectacular network of partnerships, advisors, and investors who are supportive of what we're doing and have helped us to define a very bright path ahead. I am also endlessly thrilled by the inspiration and input we get from our customers. They are generous and excited to engage -- our solution is very customer-driven.
Q: Is there a message you'd like to share with our current and future customers?
A: I want to say thank you, repeatedly. We're very privileged to be working with the customers that we have. They believe in our team and our mission. Many of them have been with us from very early on and they hold a very special place in our heart as an organization. We see our relationship with our customers as a lasting partnership, and we want to exceed every expectation. We are so appreciative of the support and feedback that has helped shape our product.
Given that, I know our future customers are going to help us become even better. We welcome their fresh ideas and celebrate their growth. Every time a customer subscribes to Aumni, the news is shared across the organization and we all cheer and take a moment to learn more about the customer and how we can meet their needs. It's a big part of our culture and it creates a sense of solidarity and pride that fuels our momentum. As someone who has always loved to organize the use of energy, these moments never lose their charm.