What jobs at Apple, Xerox, and HP taught Vena Solutions COO Tina Goulbourne about building a startup

Tina Goulbourne Vena Solutions
“Trying to move the dial on 20 things by spending five percent of your effort doesn't really move the dial.”

For many, working at a global tech giant is a dream come true. Tina Goulbourne had achieved that dream, working first at Xerox and HP before moving into a leadership role at Apple Canada. But as someone who built her career by looking for the next challenge, Goulbourne left the Big Tech world to become the COO of scale-up Vena Solutions, helping the company reach its goal of $250 million in annual recurring revenue.

In a recent #CIBCInnovationEconomy Podcast episode, Goulbourne shared how her previous jobs at global tech giants set her up for success at Vena.

“It was really all about how do you enable your sales teams to be successful?”
– Tina Goulbourne

From her time at Xerox, Goulbourne said she learned the value of sales enablement and supporting the sales team.

“It was really all about how do you enable your sales teams to be successful?” Goulbourne said. “How does the company work together in service of the sales teams to effectively attract customers and deliver on whatever your brand promises to customers?”

Goulbourne moved on to HP and spent over 15 years with the company, climbing from Financial Analyst to a VP role. At HP, she learned two lessons: first, the value of the “HP Way,” which she characterized as trust, respect, integrity, and achievement. The second was learning HP’s “share your tools” mindset, which is all about letting your coworkers see what you’re working on because they might have an insight or see a blindspot that you didn’t notice.

The lessons around supporting sales and collaborating with your team stuck with her throughout her career, and she spotted similarities at Apple.

“I think the similarity with Apple is that ultimately the first line of interaction with the company to the customer was with sales,” said Goulbourne. “So it was kind of still trying to focus on the customer experience but it’s focusing on the sales as the interface to the customer.”

But Apple also taught her four distinct lessons that she has brought into her role at Vena Solutions:

1. A relentless focus on data: Goulbourne explained that Apple’s belief is that every decision should be grounded in data, experience, and intuition (in that order). That means you need to start from data and ask questions based on it, in order to leverage the relevant experiences and intuition to make a decision.

2. Focusing on the problem you’re trying to solve: By starting with a problems approach, employees could think up new solutions that come at the problem from a different way versus optimizing for incremental changes.

3. “Maniacal” customer focus: Goulbourne said every decision at Apple had to pass through a simple question: “How is this going to improve the customer experience?”

4. Know what you’re saying no to: Goulbourne recounted one of the many famous stories about Steve Jobs: that he would regularly question his senior leadership team, not about the projects they are working on, but the projects they said no to. This, said Goulbourne, is all about the belief that you have to say no to important work in order to focus on the most important thing.

Now working on Vena Solutions’ ambitious revenue goals after its $300 million Series C fundraise, Goulbourne works hard to remember the lessons she learned from some of the best leaders in the tech industry.

That’s not to say everything copies over – especially not when a company is trying to be scrappy and scale versus having billions of dollars to invest in growth. Instead, it’s about distilling the principles and working hard to honour the spirit of those principles when faced with challenges in her new role.

As COO, she has literally hundreds of things she could be doing. A big part of her job is identifying the absolutely essential that will truly move the dial for the company – and saying no to the rest – a lesson she will always remember from her time at Apple.

“Trying to move the dial on 20 things by spending five percent of your effort doesn’t really move the dial as opposed to focusing on five things and putting 20 percent of your effort behind it,” said Goulbourne.

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Stefan Palios

Stefan Palios

Stefan is a Nova Scotia-based entrepreneur and writer passionate about the people behind tech. He's interviewed over 200 entrepreneurs on topics like management, scaling, diversity and inclusion, and sharing their personal stories. Follow him on Twitter @stefanpalios.

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