With a career that has spanned early-stage, growth-stage, and late-stage tech companies in both San Francisco and London, go-to-market leader Céline Daley brings a unique perspective to the different cultural and business nuances of helping firms to scale on both sides of the Atlantic as she talks to Erevena’s Chris Warner and Eric Liao.

Key Takeaways

Cultural differentiators clear between companies

  • Zendesk – identified cultural components such as transparency, consensus, and community (IPO day spent volunteering). Treating employees holistically – encouraging A European company that moved its HQ to the US early and gained an American-style sales edge while retaining the aforementioned European culture.
  • Brightwheel – top line mattered, raise to grow, work hard, play hard. It was a fun but delivery-focused culture. It was a primarily American team in the US, with a more direct leadership style which could be seen as hard-driving and impatient in Europe, so I adapted and defaulted to offering additional context earlier than usual to drive more consensus.
  • DeepL – an amazing business, working hard to develop a global footprint and operational scale to achieve its tremendous potential. Culture was very important and business decisions had to be consistent with the cultural impact desired. It was consensus-driven; e.g., Go-to-Market does not make assumptions about product delivery but goes to them to discuss timelines and align.

Tips for succeeding:

  • Slowing the American pace of speech when in Europe.
  • Be less directive and top-down in Europe – tailor speech; there are lots of different languages and cultures, so listening is even more important. Can’t generalise.
  • Traits to hire for: look for open-mindedness.
  • Advice for executives: Be patient. It takes time to learn and adjust to different cultures. Some nuances you can’t read about, and some you just have to experience.


In conversation

What’s your background in tech go-to-market leadership?

Before starting out in tech, I had an amazing and eye-opening time in the not-for-profit sector. There was a big desire for impact but a slower pace than I expected, so it wasn’t quite the faster-paced environment I ultimately wanted to work in. I then got involved in the tech world via Alan Black, who was CFO at Zendesk at the time. We’d been to the same university, and he persuaded me that if I wanted a rewarding career full of challenges and a high-growth path, I should move to San Francisco and join a tech company! I am Canadian and was living in Vancouver at the time. I also didn’t have any experience in customer support software, but he convinced me that it was the right time to join Zendesk as it was in hypergrowth targeting an IPO. He assured me that I’d quickly learn on the job. So, I joined Zendesk and built from there.

How did your role at Zendesk evolve?

The role was scoped initially as sales ops and strategy, but it was actually a lot of different things at a lot of different times! I was involved with scaling and sales operations in preparation for the company going public. Among various roles, I helped to develop Zendesk’s first sales enablement programme globally, worked on a churn forecast model, and supported the integration of a newly acquired business. Through all of this, I gained an understanding of what a high-growth sales team looked like and how it changed over time.

During the latter period at Zendesk, I focused on the self-serve part of the business. This was everything that contributed to making buying as low- or no-touch as possible. It was fun because it was essentially a start-up business within a start-up. So, we had product and engineering teams working alongside design, marketing, sales, and support. We could move really quickly and own the trial experience. This all gave me a taste of what it was like to have a cross-functional team and execute quickly.

Why did you move on after the company went public?

The focus of the company was very much on enterprise customers and I was asked to lead a growth strategy team.  It was fun. It was about making a high impact with a demand-driven focus. However, for me, the pace of the business had slowed, with quarterly, bi-annual, and annual planning, which didn’t meet my desire for pace and impact. So, when a former colleague told me to look at a software company working in education, I became interested. I cared about education, having helped to launch Teach for Canada which aimed to make education more equal, especially in rural, remote, and indigenous communities. I’d also volunteered at Reading Partners in San Francisco, so a software company focused on early education seemed an obvious move to make.

Tell us about Brightwheel – what was your role there?

I joined Brightwheel as its first marketing hire. They are a vertical SaaS company offering an all-in-one solution for early education providers. The platform enables customers to manage everything from the curriculum, staff hours and workloads, to communicating with parents, enrolment, and taking payments – essentially anything you need to do as a nursery or daycare provider in the US. I joined very early when there were fewer than 20 employees, and they had just launched a product. They were a Series A company, and one of their investors convinced me that I had the chance to make a real impact and make a meaningful difference in the business by leveraging my previous self-serve experience to sell to SMBs.

What was it like joining an early-stage company?

It was great. Wild. The founder and CEO, Dave Vasen, came from Amazon and brought several of the company’s artefacts with him, from customer obsession to ownership, to frugality, to results delivery, and a bias for action. He set the bar for pace and delivery. He worked hard and expected us to as well. While it sometimes felt like I lived at the office, I loved it and found it extremely rewarding. The company grew to around 250 employees and saw very strong ARR growth. It was high growth and high impact, but it was also a grind being in a company’s very early stage. The company’s purpose of improving the lives of early years educators, students, and parents kept me going.

You then moved from San Francisco to London – how did that impact your career?

I was used to international travel, having bounced around different places as a child because of my father’s career as a diplomat. I had the opportunity to move to London with my fiancé at the time, so I gave my notice to Brightwheel. When I moved to London, we’d been hopeful of expanding internationally and exploring a potential marketplace, but that wasn’t going to happen right then. That’s when I received a call from Dan Hyde, CEO at Erevena, who wanted to tell me about DeepL.

DeepL was also at an early stage but accelerating. What made you join them?

Dan said they were a Cologne-based translation start-up and that I should talk to them. It sounded a little strange, but he described them as an amazing company he felt sure I’d like. He was right. I not only wanted to be in a high-growth environment but, as someone who speaks three languages pretty well and a fourth  decently, the product resonated with me. When I experienced it for the first time there was a real ‘wow’ moment. The speed, accuracy, and nuances of the DeepL machine translation were amazing compared to anything else, so I really believed in the product from the outset. I also believed in the scope of the market, and when the lead Series A investor described its potential as being the language layer of the internet, I could see the potential for a big impact.

What was your role at DeepL?

When I joined, DeepL the metrics were very strong for their stage and based entirely on the product’s strength. They had good traction on self-serve and product-led growth and were exploring a business-focused sales-assisted motion, which is where I came in. From a skills perspective, this was an amazing opportunity, drawing on so many of my previous career roles. It was a dream to be able to build all things commercial, and the scope kept on evolving with every conversation I had with Jarek, the company founder and CEO.

From around 60 employees when I joined, they grew to 700+ employees by the time I left. So, the growth trajectory was superb, and it was great to be able to build up functions and then hand them off to either a direct report or peer to continue to scale as we grew the sales-assisted go-to-market.

Were there any similarities in each of the three career ‘chapters’ you’ve described?

Yes, the first would be the opportunity to learn. Then there’s the opportunity to have an impact on a business that resonates with me in some capacity. I had this in all three ventures as they scaled, whether late stage (Zendesk), early stage (Brightwheel), or growth stage (DeepL).

I should also explain that Zendesk’s founders were European, but headquartered in the US; Brightwheel’s founder was an American working in the US; and DeepL is a European-founded business based in Europe. So, alongside the similarities, there are cultural differences and differences in leadership style.

Can you describe some of the cultural nuances of working in these ventures?

Zendesk was a hybrid business of both Europe and North America. Culturally, its Scandinavian heritage meant it was fairly consensus-driven with a desire to bring everyone on board, so transparency was important. It was also design-focused and there was a drive for sustainable growth. The CEO had a holistic perspective, and the business became very involved with the local community. For example, on the day of our IPO, we celebrated with a day of volunteering! Family was also important to him, his children were frequently seen around the office, and although we were hard-working, we definitely took holidays. It was human and approachable, with a long-term, sustainable vision, which in stereotypical ways feels more European than American.

As I’ve already mentioned, Brightwheel spiked high on work and a certain amount of hustle. US-born and bred, it was a metrics-oriented environment where we were all there to deliver for the business. It was also high energy, and there was a great play-hard culture alongside the work-hard culture. The nature of the business and the funding environment meant it felt like we were in a venture-backed cycle of raise to grow, raise to grow, raise to grow. So, top-line growth was a key focus, which was symptomatic both of the time and of an American start-up in San Francisco.

Then, of course, DeepL was a super interesting, self-sustaining venture. This was a completely different way to run a business, and profitability was baked into the business model. Interestingly, while the business metrics were always important, they weren’t always the deciding factor if it meant going down a route that wasn’t culturally right for the business. Culture mattered, and the impact on DeepL’s people mattered.

What about cross-regional business differences?

Employee retention rates are different from geography to geography. When I first moved to San Francisco, I was surprised by the speed at which people joined and then left a company. They stay for just a year or 18 months, whereas in Europe, it is not unusual for someone to spend their entire career at just one or maybe two companies. I saw that a lot at DeepL, where many of my colleagues had only ever worked at DeepL. That was really special, but it also creates a different environment to one where people jump from job to job as they do in San Francisco.

While both Zendesk and DeepL were founded in Europe, the fact that Zendesk is headquartered in the US is a differentiating factor. Feeling embedded in the tech community is almost palpable in the US. We were selling to other start-ups, scaleups, and tech companies. We were part of an ecosystem, and our go-to-market focused on other high-growth companies. There was definitely an American sales edge to the business while retaining that European culture.

Have you adapted your leadership style according to where you’ve worked?

At Brightwheel, a wholly US firm, everyone spoke their mind very directly, and as a leader, I could be more direct. So, if I was coaching a direct report, I could be pretty blunt about what needed to be done and how we should do it. That’s potentially seen as hard-driving and impatient in Europe, which I picked up on fairly quickly. I refined my communication style in Europe to ensure everyone was on board and had context. It’s good practice to take time to understand the culture before you start driving any changes or hiring.

There was definitely more consensus-building at DeepL than I was used to on the other side of the Atlantic! This consensus-oriented approach meant the go-to-market people weren’t making assumptions about how long it would take a product or engineering team to deliver but would go to them and discuss timelines, deliverables, etc. This more consultative approach is quite different from how it works in the US, where the go-to-market team is more likely to want to move as fast as possible!

Of course, there’s also the fact that Europe is complicated. There are many countries, each with their own culture and business practices, so you can’t generalise. You must tailor your communication approach, and I found, to be less directive and top-down.

What personal ways of working did you need to adapt?

I always reflect on the fact that when you join a company, someone has been doing your job before you, whether with your title or not. So, you need to go in with humility, make your observations, and then ask them what they think about how you see things or what you believe needs to change. I did much of that in the early days to build consensus and momentum for change. This might feel slower, but if you go slow at the beginning, you’ll become faster afterwards.

I also had to slow my enthusiastic North American pace of speech when I came to Europe! I needed to be empathetic with my German colleagues who were working in their second or third language every day. I’ve spoken French and English my whole life and am used to speaking multiple languages, but I had to be aware that I needed to take time and double-check everyone’s understanding. I had to slow down!

Are there any regulatory differences or nuances you’d like to mention?

I’ve learned that you can’t discuss doing business in Europe without mentioning the regulatory climate. When I moved to Europe, GDPR was omnipresent. California has since become more regulated with its CCPA  (and CPRA), essentially Europe’s GDPR for California. GDPR changed business practices in terms of what data we have, how we can use it, and how frequently we delete it. Coming from environments where we tracked and leveraged all data, data minimisation was an adjustment for me. I had been at companies where the more data we could capture on people, the better. We could be more targeted and more nuanced in our customer communications. But at DeepL, in the early days, everything was anonymous in the user experience, which was very different for me.

Employment law in Europe also came as a surprise. A notice period in the US can be the same day, whether you’re an employee handing in your notice or an employer giving someone notice. And if you’re giving someone two weeks’ notice, that’s being kind! So, I was shocked when I joined DeepL and discovered that it could take three months for joiners to come on board, even for relatively junior roles. This has an impact on hiring and how you build a team. It affects strategy and headcount. For example, when planning a headcount in the US, the time to hire would be one to two months at most. In EMEA, it could be at least six months for every single role – three months to find and then three months’ notice! So, there’s a lot more planning needed.

How do you approach hiring decisions and what traits to you look for?

In general, the top-down old-school method of telling your team what you want will not last much longer. Colleagues want to be brought into the hiring decisions and to be consulted about who might be joining them. So, even if you know the direction you want to go in, it is always worth consulting the team and taking the time to get their feedback. Of course, you can’t speak to everyone but there are mechanisms, such as surveys or forms, that you can use to get this feedback at scale – which is expected nowadays.

Regarding character traits, if you’re leading a global business from Europe, open-mindedness is important. And, of course, you want someone fast and sharp. I tend to hire ‘athletes,’ people who can do many different things well – that’s always a great early-stage hire. I also want new hires to be coachable, which is not an easy trait to find. I want to know how they take feedback and collaborate. Things change rapidly in a fast-paced environment, so can they change track if the feedback tells them something they’re committed to needs to go in a different direction?

What advice would you give to someone thinking of working in a different culture or across cultures?

Be ready for some tough learnings. Even if you take time and are respectful, it is hard to get all the cultural nuances right. So, be patient with yourself when you get it wrong and be open to feedback because you’ll learn so much faster. You can’t read about some cultural nuances, so you just have to experience them and then adjust on the fly!

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Chris Warner, Partner

Specialisms: Sales, Marketing, SaaS, FinTech

Eric Liao, Principal

Specialisms: Sales, Customer Success, Marketing, SaaS (Bottoms-Up/Enterprise)

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