Connecting founders and great executive talent with Atli Thorkelsson of Redpoint Ventures

Connecting founders and great executive talent with Atli Thorkelsson of Redpoint Ventures

Recently, we had a conversation on the Talent + Tech podcast with our guest, Atli Thorkelsson of Redpoint Ventures. Atli shared with us his journey from analyst to Director of Talent Network at a leading VC firm.

What made Redpoint Ventures stand out to Atli as he made his career move was the way they looked at the bigger picture of talent, in long-term horizons, and the value of connection. Their philosophy is ‘careers are long and good karma comes back around.’ As Director of Talent Networks, Atli now makes interesting and valuable connections between founders and great executive talent.

During our conversation, Atli detailed the structure of an executive search and how he and his team think of themselves as connectors…figuring out skills, who could benefit from this connection, and how we connect them.  “The ways we can work with people are very open. And so we don’t want to think of this as a recruiting function. We want to think of this as a connecting function.” 

Atli shared his concerns about remote work and how that could impact early-career skill development. This could create talent gaps and affect the talent pool long into the future. Atli and Maren discussed ideas as well as opportunities that founders and professionals may have to address this issue.

Other topics discussed include the role of a founder and enabling their team with connection opportunities, building a career, and remote-work infrastructure.

If you enjoyed this podcast and are interested in learning more about the value of connection and networking, read (and listen to) Building a Network and How to Find a Job in Today’s Economy with Nick Sonnenberg of GetLeverage.com

Be sure to check out Atli’s go-to podcast: The Always Sunny Podcast

Photo of Atli Thorkelsson
Atli Thorkelsson

Director of Network at Redpoint Ventures. He is inspired by and works with passionate, brilliant people who are solving such different problems add has the unique experience of helping them grow their ideas into companies that have lives of their own.

Maren Kate
All right, my guest today is Atli Torkelsson. He is currently the Director of Talent Networks at Redpoint Ventures. Atli, welcome to the show. Thank you so much for being here.

Atli Thorkelsson
Thank you so much for having me. Very excited to be here.

Maren Kate
Awesome. So first question. What was your first real job, quote, unquote?

Atli Thorkelsson
First real job. Well, so first like desk job - first corporate job was as an intern for EMC, the data storage company in their product marketing division. I was creating sales enablement tools to basically compare the cost of their stuff versus their competitors. And that was super fun. It was at a time when I thought that I wanted to go into marketing. And I definitely learned a lot and ended up coming back for another summer, actually, after the first one. So that was really fun.

Maren Kate
So how did you go from that first job to now? At Redpoint, you're in the VC community, you're heading up a talent function. What was the path from there to here?

Atli Thorkelsson
Yeah, the path was windy, as I think it is for a lot of people going into talent. There were times in college when I thought I wanted to be a lawyer or I thought I wanted to go into politics. And then it was, you know, do I want to go into marketing or sales or whatever. And really kind of came to a head when I was graduating and I was trying to figure out what exactly do I want to do. And this opportunity came along with an executive search firm. And I figured this is great; I can jump in here for a year or two, I can learn a lot about the tech ecosystem, and how good careers are built, and what it's really like to be head of sales or head of marketing, and how do people build successful careers in those in those functions. And it was great. I mean, I got that out of it for sure. I just happened to kind of fall in love with it. But it was a really good crash course. I was working as an analyst so I was kind of the top of the candidate funnel. So it was a lot of market research.

Maren Kate
I feel a lot of listeners are going to be founders, They're going to be in a talent function at an early stage company. Walk us through what does the structure of executive search looks like? What is the business model? What does it look like? Like, how do they operate? Because I think in the startup world, we're almost like, hesitant sometimes to use executive search until our VCs push us there. And I think a lot of it is just because we don't understand it. Like, we're all scrappy, and eating ramen, and whatever. And it's like, it almost seems kind of like stuffy and business-like but I know that's not the case. And I'd love to understand the structure of the firm you joined. And how did that work?

Atli Thorkelsson
I think most executive search firms tend to be structured in loosely the same way which you have three kinds of main functions. And those might all be done by individual people, they might be done, you know, have shared responsibility. But the three main functions are like the top of funnel candidate stuff, which in the case at SPMB it was first or second-year analysts, usually, were doing a lot of market mapping, figuring out who are the competitors, who are the candidates that we should be looking at from those companies. And then there's the kind of candidate development aspect, which to us generally fell to associates or directors, which were kind of the next rung up.

Maren Kate
Was that, like, cold outreach, or was that they already had a relationship with these people?

Atli Thorkelsson
It was a mix. I mean, part of the reason that we lean more heavily into the like, research and, you know, always coming up with new ideas than some of the other firms that are in the landscape did. But because of that, there was I think more cold outreach, than there might have been at another firm. But yeah, that's cold outreach, that's people you have relationships with, that’s people that know the firm but don't necessarily know you. And so that's kind of the “Hey, this is the search we're working on”, maybe it's, you know, firing off emails, whatever. That's kind of the SDR role is the closest kind of comparison. And then you have kind of the client-facing side, which is, you know, more kind of the partner level folks, the people who are actually leading the search and they’re the face of the search. And that can also be, you know, that's some combination of working with the later stage candidates that are, you know, going in front of the clients and working with the clients to make sure that the search is successful.

Maren Kate
Got it. Okay. And so you got to see the full talent function there. And then how did you decide this is what I want to do career-wise? And then how did you kind of hone into the venture side?

Atli Thorkelsson
Yeah, so what I wanted to do career-wise, I mean, I just fell in love with the learning. I think I was immediately enamored with having, I mean, I was a year or two out of school, I was working with these amazing founders working with these investors that had seen dozens or hundreds of companies built and getting a lot of exposure that I think I wouldn't have in another company or another industry. And so, I fell in love with the aspect of just like being able to work with a lot of clients doing a lot of cool things. And, you know, talking to a lot of interesting candidates that I felt like I was constantly learning from. And then also, I mean, I was being paid to just learn about the market and the tech ecosystem as a whole.

Maren Kate
It's like getting paid to talk to fascinating people. I love that part of it.

Atli Thorkelsson
Oh yeah, super fun. And just credit so much of the way that I think about careers and talent and company building to the things that I learned there and the people that I learned them from.

Maren Kate
Okay, and then how did you get to what you're doing now?

Atli Thorkelsson
Yeah, so there are a lot of amazing things about that. There were some aspects that ran counter to some of the ways that I thought about people and talent.

Maren Kate
Talk to me about those. Like, you know, not everything. There’s always an upsides and downsides to every business, every model.

Atli Thorkelsson
Yeah. In search you're thinking on three to four-month timelines, for the most part, I mean, yes, you have repeat clients, and yes, you know, your clients do lean on you for more than just who's the next candidate that I talked to. But ultimately, you are a consultant. You parachute in there to do your search and then you part ways for the most part. And I wanted to be more invested in the companies that I was working with. I mean, like, emotionally, spiritually, whatever I wanted to be along for the ride. And the time horizons in you know, if you go to an early-stage investment firm, like you're working with these companies for four or five, six, seven years, and it's on more than just a roll, and it's not even just on recruiting, it's you're working with them on all these different aspects of talent. And so after, you know, when it was kind of time to think about, like, is this the career that I want, to be a quote-unquote search person, I figured I'll go try something else. You know, if I ultimately don't like that, I do like search and I'll find my way back to that but I thought it would be a fun departure. And now I'm just completely, you know, I feel like I did when I started SPMB, where I've just fallen in love with the work. And so I'll be sticking around here for a while.

Maren Kate
Tell us about Redpoint’s approach to talent and talk especially about your talent network. I'm always really interested in the venture funds that really are kind of doubling down on talent, infrastructure, and using that as a competitive advantage. We're speaking to Mike from Signalfire, I think next week or the week after. When I raised money (venture money) the last time was 2013 and it was very different landscape-wise than it is now. So almost 10 years later I think it seems like a lot of the more progressive funds are making this a big part of why entrepreneurs should choose to go with them. Because you're focused on both that relationship and also what the most important thing in an early stage business is - the people. The first 50 people will make or break the business. So I'd love to understand Redpoint’s approach and how that works.

Atli Thorkelsson
Yeah. So, one of the reasons that I was so drawn to Redpoint when I was making this shift was, you know, the things that drew me towards venture which is the kind of bigger picture view of talent the longer-term time horizons. Like, the way that, in the early discussions with Redpoint, the way that we kind of were thinking about things is just that, you know, we don't want this to just be how do you run a search firm within a venture firm. Which there are a lot of ways to do VC talent and a lot of them are totally valid in their own right. It totally just depends on what you want to get out of it. But we think about the people that we interface with as a firm as they're part of our network and not just near-term candidates. It's all the bigger picture of who do we want to know, who do we want to work with, and not just who do we plug into one of our companies. Startup land is really small and careers are very long and so we are trying to learn about who these people are, what makes them tick, what they want their career to look like in the longer term. And then from there, we can figure out, how do we help them, what value can they bring to our portfolio companies or to our firm, and then how do we just create interesting connections for them. So the term ‘talent’ - it sounds like we're recruiters, but we really don't think of it that way. I mean we place people all the time but we are thinking about ourselves as connectors. Like, if we want to work with somebody, it's up to us to figure out their skills, who could benefit from them, and how we connect them. So yeah, maybe they're an advisor for one of our founders, maybe they're a mentor for a first-time VP in our portfolio, or they're going to go found something and our firm could be a good partner to them. The ways we can work with people are very open. And so we don't want to think of this as a recruiting function. We want to think of this as a connecting function.

Maren Kate
How do you structure it? Is it like, if someone's listening and they're interested - maybe they're thinking about a new opportunity, walk me through. Do they apply? Do they connect? Like, how does that work? And then the flip side of that, how do you work with your founders in your portfolios, when they're like, “Hey Atli, we need XYZ roles”?

Atli Thorkelsson
Yeah. On the external side, or the quote-unquote ‘candidate facing’ side, there has to be some, our time is ultimately limited, so there has to be some degree of vetting that happens on the front end of like, how likely are we as a firm and as a portfolio of companies to be able to use this person's skill set? And assuming that we think we can, then it's really just a conversation to figure out what's exciting to them, what makes them tick, and then we try to map that to try to understand, like, if they are trying to make a change, a career change, what is their timeline, you know, how urgently do we need to move, how do we help them just along that journey. So a lot of, you know, you've been at a company for 5, 6, 7 years, which obviously, is not the norm anymore, but a lot of people haven't done a quote-unquote ‘job search’ in a really long time. And so we also spend a lot of time just helping people navigate that. Helping them diligence the company they're looking at or helping them understand what comp looks like in the market right now, whatever it may be. So it's really just a conversation, and it's an open dialogue to just figure out what's best for them. And our philosophy is, careers are long and good karma comes back around. So even if we're not recruiting them for something in our portfolio, or we don't place them into our portfolio, if they had a positive experience and the conversation helped their career in some way, then that's a positive for us. And then from the founder perspective, that's much more open. I mean, we're there for all the tactical stuff like, you know, how do you hire, who do you hire, what do you look for, how do you build a process, like, what compensation data do you use and how do you distill that into a compensation philosophy for your company. Like, we're there for all of that. But you know, continuing that theme of connections first, a lot of times, there's somebody that's much better suited to answer a founder’s questions than we are and so we want to surround our founders with great people. We want to give them the tools and the infrastructure to make good people decisions and utilize the people that are in their network. And then really just enable them and continue to do that as their company grows and scales. And that sounds open-ended and it is and that's deliberate because no two founding journeys are exactly the same. And we need to respond to that rather than just prescribing them anything or anything like that. So, that was a long answer.

Maren Kate
No, no, I get it. How have you seen COVID and, obviously, this shift to decentralized teams and remote work, how have you seen that change the way that your portfolio companies are structured? What difficulties has it brought up and what opportunities have you seen it creating?

Atli Thorkelsson
Well, we've always, I think it's because we invest in a lot of commercial open source companies - we invest in a lot of infrastructure companies, we've always had a contingent of our portfolio that's been remote first. Before the pandemic, it was probably 15-20% of our portfolio.

Maren Kate
Which is high actually, like, comparably.

Atli Thorkelsson
Yeah, totally. And that has probably, in terms of where companies expect to end up whether they expect to be remote or not once all of this is over, that's probably doubled. You know, it's probably 40%-50% of our portfolio that is expecting to be remote first. And that's been interesting to watch because the companies that were built with a remote-first culture from the get-go, you know, the information flows, the documentation, the difference in the way people interact. It's totally different. And so seeing their response, which they haven't had to do that much, compared to these companies that have been kind of thrust into this situation. And maybe they were already a few 100 people, and they need to adjust the way they do things, and they don't have the infrastructure in place to really be successful in a distributed workforce environment. It's been a lot harder for them. I mean, a ton of credit to so many of them who've done a really, really good job responding to these circumstances, but it is a completely different situation. So there's a lot of positive, there's a lot of incredible stuff that comes from remote work. I mean, opening up geography, you know that opens so many doors for more diverse candidate funnels and making it easier for working parents and just general availability of talent is incredible, and has been really, really good for a lot of our companies. There are obviously challenges I think, not having that remote culture is the biggest challenge. One of the things that worries me about remote work in the longer term is kind of that the gaps in the talent. What is the right way to say this? I think that earlier career talent is not going to have the same opportunities to develop in a fully remote environment, especially if they're in one of those companies that doesn't have a remote-first culture from the get-go.

Maren Kate
I could totally see that. Because you're saying like when you're super junior and you're in-office, you might be grabbing someone a coffee and you might pick up something, maybe you're tagging along to meetings, and that face time is very different. I think your point is a very solid one because, like, my company Avra Talent is fully remote. My last company before that, Zirtual, was fully remote. We've always done it. So, it's like, we have to create ways to scale up talent when you're fully remote but you bake it in from day one. But I think you're right, where the shift, you know when you're 100 or 200 or 300 people and you're doing some remote and some not. I do think that's actually going to be a problem with more junior talent. I wonder what the solution is? Is it like they need to go to remote-first companies? Is it you know, opting into the office for the first few years?

Atli Thorkelsson
Yeah, I don't know the answer. I think there should be a bigger investment in internal talent development. Like one of our companies, Spot AI, is getting coaches for their whole management team. And I think that's great because if you look at the talent market right now, it's already so thin. There's already so much title inflation and everyone has four offers in hand when they take one. And so the talent market is already stretched really thin. I think it's never been an easier time to build a company and you've never been able to do it quicker. And that means you need people in these management roles and you need people who have a large scope of responsibility but there just isn't a talent ecosystem to support that or there isn't a deep enough labor pool to support that in terms of the experiences they've seen. And like you're saying, being in the office, you learn through osmosis. You see how decisions are made, you form closer relationships, you have more access to mentorship, and there are people around you who have kind of seen the movie. Versus if you're remote, and you're like, “I'm gonna schedule time on your calendar to have a one on one” and, it's like, you don't learn the same things and you just don't have as much access to knowledge really.

Maren Kate
It sounds like… of course, the entrepreneur and me, I'm like, there's such a huge opportunity there. I totally agree. I think that one of the interesting things is, you're right with the title inflation, is there are so many smart people who are willing to work and willing to learn all over the world and the biggest gap there is access to opportunity, but also training, you know, there's a ton of people. I was just speaking to a founder of a company and what they do is they have relationships with the best universities in, like, second and third world countries and they match that talent with tech companies in North America who desperately need workers and wouldn't necessarily have access to or even know there's this technical university in Nairobi that has great mechanical engineers, or whatever. So I do think that just from an opportunity standpoint, it's like if you're a company and you're able to tap into the, you know, maybe zero to five years of experience after school market and then you create some roadmap to level them up that is a huge opportunity. It's almost like what Andela is doing with engineering around one very specific focus. There definitely… are you interested in working in tech and you plugin and as long as you're smart, you know, you have the tech skills, you're willing to learn and you're curious, you can start to like stack up and also be doing valuable work for the company. But that doesn't really exist. So it's like, if you're a company you have to build, you can see that as one potential way to tap, like, talent that not everybody else is tapping. Because the problem is, and I know you see this, like, right now if you have a director-level title or above in any tech company, or even like from small to large, you're getting multiple messages a week from recruiters saying, “Hey, can you come work here?”, and bigger companies, or companies that just took on a lot of funding, are throwing crazy figures at people. But then everyone from director like below, it's just, there's an inequity there.

Atli Thorkelsson
Yeah, totally. And there's a lot of people that are managers that are getting those outreaches that say, ‘director’ or ‘senior director’ or ‘head of’ and they don't have experience. It's a necessity for those companies to hire somebody into those roles. But there just aren't enough people that have the experience to do those. And so if you're thrust into this situation where you're really stretching your skills, but you're also expected to kind of do it on your own, it's just not going to work. And it's not going to work now or in two years. But I'm curious what it's gonna look like in seven or eight years, once those people are really at that stage of their career, but they've had these gaps in the way that they've learned.

Maren Kate
Ah, interesting.

Atli Thorkelsson
And I think that's only going to get worse because if you're a junior employee and you're trying to learn from the people around you the incentives are there for you to be in the office. And not all the incentive, you know there's still a balance, but there's much more incentive for you to go into the office and meet your peers and form close relationships with your quote-unquote ‘cohort’. But if you're, you know, and I'm painting with a really broad brush here, but if you're an executive who's 20 years into the career and you're the person who's really going to be doing the teaching, but you have a house in the suburbs, and you have a couple of kids that you really want to hang out with and you have a longer commute to get into the office you're much less incentivized to go into the office. And so that's further kind of hampering that mentor-mentee relationship.

Maren Kate
It's a talent gap really. So you're pretty much saying… they have birth gaps over 100 years, you know, baby boom, blah. I think you're completely right on this, I've just never thought about it. It's like, in the next decade, what does that talent gap look like? These people that have gone from a manager to a director or a VP that haven't learned those skills are then going to be at a C suite level, and there's going to be these gaps in knowledge. Huh…that's very interesting. Yeah, I'm curious to see how that happens. And it's also interesting to think about what, knowing that will be a thing in some way, what opportunities there are to like, you know, fix it. Or if you're a really enterprising professional, what do you do? And if you're an enterprising founder you can always benefit off a down market or something if you see it ahead of time and you kind of change/course correct to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing.

Atli Thorkelsson
Yeah, I think either, as you know, somebody who's trying to develop their career, or as a founder is trying to enable their team, investing in development and manufacturing opportunities for your team to connect with peers at other companies or build their networks and seizing those opportunities, if you are trying to build your career, you know, investing in like that, you know, remote-first infrastructure and enablement to allow as much as possible if that osmosis to happen and those people learn. Again, I don't know the answer but I think that those are kind of the table stakes at this point. And where we go from here, you know, remains to be seen.

Maren Kate
That's fascinating. Um, okay, so I have a few more questions. And these are a little bit off-topic. But if you weren't doing this job in, you know, the tech VC world, if you had to start over in a completely new field, what do you think it would be?

Atli Thorkelsson
That's an interesting question.

Maren Kate
Like, I would open a tiki bar in, like, a resort town and it would be a cat-themed tiki bar. So it would be me bartending with my cats. That's 100% my go-to.

Atli Thorkelsson
Yeah, I think I would like to learn how to sail and just like sail around and do like, you know, not superyacht or anything but like, I do little sailing tours or yacht tours or whatever.

Maren Kate
So you’d, like, live in your business.

Atli Thorkelsson
Yeah, sure. I think something like that would be fun.

Maren Kate
That seems good. I mean, I think there's definitely an aquatic theme when I ask people that. Like I'm on the beach, you're on a boat. There's something that, when you think about it, you're just like, I mean, there's also always houseboats. That's another thing. So I don't know how you’d do houseboat tours but you could do houseboat AirBnB. So what tech stack do you rely on for hiring? Or what does Redpoint like, you know, what are the different tools you guys use? Or have you custom-coded all of your own?

Atli Thorkelsson
We've certainly built or certainly bounced around. When I came on board, we were using Lever, which was fine. I insisted on rolling out the tools that I was comfortable with coming out of the search world so I started using a company called Thrive, or a software called Thrive, that's specifically built for search firms. It ended up because it was kind of just me that was interfacing with it and ended up being too heavyweight for what we were trying to do. Or it was me and another person but we were kind of working on different candidate pools, so there wasn't a lot of like collaboration that needed to happen through the platform so that was a little too heavyweight for us. So I ended up kind of building my own in Airtable and I loved it. I had a super fun time building it and just being able to manipulate it the way that my workflow changed and kind of own the data and play around with it however I wanted and there's so much great stuff built into there that I had a lot of fun with it. But I ended up moving to the main kind of CRM that we use as a firm which is Affinity and importing as much as possible of my workflow into there so that it was easier for my team to collaborate with the investors on everything talent.

Maren Kate
Make sense I’m going to check out that Thrive software. That's interesting. I've never heard of it before. What is your favorite podcast or book from the last call it six months? And it doesn't have to be work-related. It could be anything.

Atli Thorkelsson
The Always Sunny Podcast.

Maren Kate
They have a podcast?

Atli Thorkelsson
Fully non-work-related. I really like that show. The writers, Charlie, Mac, and Dennis or Glenn, Charlie and Rob, go and rewatch episode by episode and they just talk about what was going on in their lives at the time and stuff like that. It's just very fun. They’re just funny people. And book - on a recommendation from one of our partners I recently read When Breath Becomes Air. It's so good and that one stuck with me for sure.

Maren Kate
Everyone should read that book. I'm not even gonna go into what it is. Just go get it. Go Goodreads it. Awesome. Atli, this has been so much fun and you gave me a lot to think about around that talent gap. I'm gonna be noodling on that for a few days now. How can people find more about you, find more about Redpoint? Where do you both live online, so to speak?

Atli Thorkelsson
Feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn. My email is Atli@Redpoint.com so feel free again and I'm always happy to chat.

Maren Kate
And check out the talent network for sure anyone who's looking. There's a few people I know who are actually looking for roles. I'm going to forward it to them. That's great., Awesome. All right.

Atli Thorkelsson
Thank you so much for having me. This was super fun.

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