Maria Zhang is the VP of Engineering at LinkedIn where she leads engineering efforts for LinkedIn Talent Solutions. She has been on the founding team of two companies and worked to build great products and engineering teams at Microsoft, Tinder, Zillow, and Yahoo. Throughout her career, she has successfully transitioned from corporate to startup, and back again.
You went from Yahoo to Tinder, where you served as CTO. How did you successfully transition from corporate to startup?
Success at a large company like Microsoft does not guarantee success at a startup. Acknowledging this from the beginning is important.
Working at an early-stage startup is incredibly difficult. My first year as CTO of Tinder after being at Yahoo for several years was the hardest job I’ve ever had. You can find product-market fit, but if you can’t assemble a powerful team quickly, growth can become an obstacle. Convincing others of your mission and recruiting extremely talented employees is challenging.
What do you learn at a large tech company vs. a startup?
The learning experience is quite different between corporate and startup, but your career can integrate both.
When you join Microsoft as an engineer, for example, you’re learning how 10,000 people manage quality control, the release process, and more while serving hundreds of millions of users.
As an engineer at a startup, your individual impact may be larger on the overall product or business. It’s incredibly fun when it’s a smaller group of people and you’re bringing a vision to life. You’re not one of 40,000 employees.
What’s your best advice for succeeding at early-stage startups?
Focus on finding product-market fit and communicating with your users. Don’t proactively deal with scaling.
When you do need to start scaling, find people with the right experience and bring them on board. They can bring a particular skill set and help scale in a very impactful way.
If you can’t hire someone, ask people for advice. There are plenty of individuals who enjoy sharing information with entrepreneurs.
When is the best time to start your own company?
There are advantages and disadvantages of becoming an entrepreneur at any age. When you’re building a company, you need to have courage. When I was younger and working on my first company, I was braver because I didn’t know as much.
On the other hand, having more experience can be a great benefit. Yet it can also lead you to become more risk averse. Once you have a positive track record, failure becomes scarier.
This interview was conducted by Adriel Lubarsky and condensed by Katherine Emley.