Empowering developers and looking global: Tips for growth from ex-Googler and Stripe chief operating officer Claire Hughes Johnson


Stripe chief operating officer Claire Hughes Johnson. Source: Supplied

When Claire Hughes Johnson joined Google in 2004, there were just 1800 people working at the company. When she left ten-and-a-half years later to join US-based payments startup Stripe as its chief operating officer, Google had over 57,000 employees.

Johnson’s roles at Google were so varied and numerous she tells StartupSmart she’s unable to name them all. But having worked with and observed one of the world’s most successful tech companies, she knows what it takes to scale and grow a startup.

The first place for founders to look, she says, is people.

“Something I think Google does really well is bringing really motivated people on board who really believe in what the company is doing, and then empowering them,” Johnson says.

“Stripe does this too, but we take it one step further with a more humanistic and holistic and global approach. We think about what the whole ecosystem needs.”

Johnson joined Stripe in 2014 and spoke to StartupSmart during her first trip to Australia representing the company. Having to jet all the way Down Under is indicative of how fast Stripe is growing, she laughs, as in previous years she would have gotten the team to come to her in San Francisco.

Stripe was founded by Patrick and John Collison in 2010 to provide an online payment processing services for businesses, allowing them to accept payments in various forms over the internet. It’s a fast-growing startup, operating in more than 25 countries and with $US478 million ($618 million) in funding to date.

Johnson, as chief operating officer, works closely with the leadership, growth, and onboarding and recruitment side of the business. Her prominent career in the tech world has given her significant insights into how tech companies are best ran, and has seen her head up exciting product divisions such as Google’s Self Driving Cars team.

“Google excels at keeping pace with new growth, which is quite hard really considering its size. They missed that initially, but caught up with it after the IPO, and quickly got everywhere,” she says.

“This was through expanding into new areas. Buying YouTube or building Android. They’re not just thinking about the near term, they’re thinking about that next horizon, where’s the next set of growth coming from? And they’re also thinking about that third horizon, where might growth come from in the future, five years from now?

“Google also knew when to get the right leaders for the right stages of company growth, and when to bring people up internally.”

Universal truths for managing company growth

Johnson believes there’s a number of very “important but basic” things startup founders should keep in mind when trying to tackle growth, but before considering them, she warns founders to recognise the signs of a high-growth period and double down on it.

When moving a startup from finding its product-market fit into its growth mode, Johnson says there’s a risk the leaders can fail to recognise the growth mode is even happening.

“You can be striving to get traction, but sometimes founders don’t even notice when the fire’s started. So the minute you see adoption, focus like a laser on it and throw gas on the fire,” she says.

“This was one of the things that led to Stripe’s success. We paid attention to our successes and cultivated them. All of our new products and services are about solving the problems our users have with us, so we can keep getting that traction.”

Before you enter that growth mode, Johnson advises working out some “founding documents” for the startup, something she thinks is a basic concept many founders eschew. These documents outline to new and old hires what the company’s visions and principles are, and how they exist in your employees’ day-to-day work.

“This means if you’re growing quickly, you can quickly show your new talent why they’re there and how they can best work to the objectives of the company,” she says.

“If you give a bunch of people a whole lot of different sports equipment and let them loose in an open field with no direction, they’re going to hurt themselves and not know what to play.

“But if you give them the right equipment, a rough outline of the field, and then show them what winning looks like, then they’ll play well.”

She also believes it’s essential to empower employees and show them what decision making looks like in the company, so they know what their role is, and how the decisions they make impact the success of the business.

In Australia specifically, Johnson believes local startups should be thinking globally from day one (although she admits every startup around the world should think that way).

“You have a smaller domestic market, but you have a lot of great adjacent markets to go into, so I think Australian founders should always be thinking about how to get international,” she says.

Empower your developers

Finally, Johnson touched briefly on the tech skills shortage that has been plaguing Australia for years, despite some efforts from the government to ameliorate the situation.

The Stripe executive says founders should go further to empower their developers in their businesses, saying that for tech-focused businesses, “developers are like your users, they’re building the products they would love to use”.

“Even if your product is less technical, developers are one of the most precious resources startups have. Studies show 83% of Australian companies say their ability to launch a new product is reliant on developers, so think about how you’re best leveraging your resources and reduce friction for them,” she says.

“The more ownership you give to those building the organisation, the more powerful the company will be.”

NOW READ: Australian companies shine on list of Asia Pacific’s top 1000 high-growth companies


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