Mike Kelly (MBA 2022) talks with Lizzie Matusov (MS/MBA 2022) about her entrepreneurial journey and how she is solving the challenges in onboarding and hiring technical talent.

Tell us more about your background and what inspired you to be an entrepreneur.

I consider my background and my entrepreneurial interests as two separate threads that came together in 2020.

When I was at UCLA, I studied molecular biology. After deciding to not pursue medicine and feeling paralyzed by my career outlook, my dad recommended I take a programming class. What started as an introductory C++ class turned into me graduating with a specialization in computing. In my senior year, I picked up a job at a small business selling open source services. This combination of baseline coding skills and open source knowledge got me to my first job at Red Hat as a software engineering consultant, and kick-started my career in software engineering.

Separately, I’ve always been passionate about entrepreneurship. When I was twelve, a friend and I built a neighborhood dog walking business—thanks to Wag, we now understand how much money we left on the table… When I came to UCLA, I started a fundraising campaign called Message in a Melody that hosted music events to fundraise for Pediatric Oncology Research. At twenty, some friends and I tried to build a second-hand item marketplace on my campus—we failed because we were not resilient to negative feedback. Since joining the workforce, I “created” in every space I joined—from starting Red Hat Consulting’s UI/UX Community of Practice to building the first employee resource group (women in tech) at Invitae.

In late 2019, I felt a strong itch to consider the entrepreneurship path. I applied to HBS with that interest in mind, and when I chose to matriculate I made a promise to myself to commit these two years to experimenting, learning, and iterating to the right startup idea. It’s been a wild ride since then, but one of the most fulfilling parts of my HBS experience.

What is the problem that you are trying to solve?

We’re solving for the challenges of retaining and hiring talent in the tech industry. Companies have reached a point where they must all become tech companies to keep up with the rise of the digital economy, and talent demands continue to outpace the supply of talent available. This is especially true for software engineers, where there are over one million unfilled engineering roles in the US and the average tenure is only two years. The stakes are higher than ever to retain and hire software talent.

As we studied and experimented in the journey of bringing software engineers into an organization, we discovered that the largest, unsolved pain points are rooted in the quality of the first few months of onboarding into an organization. The existing onboarding experience relies on a five to thirty page wall of text document, supplemented with only a single support (known as the "buddy"). Engineers tell us this process lacks information on how to prioritize, is limited in its human support, and makes them feel overwhelmed. Engineering managers shared that they lack the blueprint for successful onboarding, feel nervous to slow their existing team down further (they’re often already short-staffed), and feel personally strained by the time effort. These problems have been intensified by the pandemic and the new hybrid workforce model.

What is your solution?

Pathlight is an engineer onboarding tool that quickly integrates new hires onto your team with a gamified, community-first approach. We’re throwing away the static, cold, and lonely onboarding doc and replacing it with an experience that lets engineers pace their learning, break through knowledge silos, and celebrate their achievements with their teammates. We also give managers data-driven insights on both the team and the process, enabling them to save time and create a strong first impression for their new teammates.

What was the inspiration behind your company/idea?

I was a software engineer for four years before coming to HBS. Once I started participating in hiring panels and serving as a “buddy,” I felt the pain points in talent hiring and integration. We had a period of time where our engineering team grew to three times its size within six months, and we saw how onboarding fell apart using just a document and a buddy. Our team’s productivity dropped precipitously, and we all felt the strain on our work lives.

I’m also passionate about opening up talent and career pathways in the tech industry. I’m a “non-traditional” software engineer with a molecular biology degree, and I believe that it is our capabilities, not our credentials, that should define our career opportunities. By solving the current inefficiencies in the onboarding and hiring workflow, I see an incredible opportunity to build a world that uses skills and capabilities to efficiently grow organizations. These inefficiencies disproportionately impact diverse talent who don’t always have the same level of support as they join and grow in organizations. Countless data tells us diverse representation on teams leads to better products, so the net impact of solving for the pain points in this space go beyond just talent retention and actually lead to more innovation.

How did you get started?

We’ve experimented across the entire pipeline from career discovery, to hiring, to now onboarding. Our first iteration of experiments was around the career discovery space, where we designed a tech career assessment and resource repository of created and curated guides in the tech industry. We then moved into hiring, where we experimented with a hiring platform that holistically assessed skills and used both deep learning and low-touch career coaching to uncover talent that may be overlooked by traditional applicant tracking systems. Our results were very promising, but we felt a tug towards the downstream pain points in talent onboarding that prevent companies from ever hiring efficiently. Now that we’re here, we believe solving this problem unlocks massive opportunities for companies to close their talent gaps and meet the pace of innovation they are aiming for.

It sounds like you have experience with pivoting ideas in the same problem space. What advice do you have for founders who pivot?

I think pivoting is one of the most important things you can do as a founder. It forces you to contend with your ego, because the reality is every company has to pivot in big or small ways to find the true “tug” towards product-market fit. My biggest advice is to continue to be open-minded about your learnings. Don’t just look for the data points that validate your initial hypothesis, but rather focus on the whole picture of what you’re learning. We only got to our solution after two massive pivots, countless experiments, prototypes, and hundreds of discovery calls. Learning is the ultimate currency for founders, so every experiment you run should unlock new learnings that propel you closer to the right solution. If anything feels unclear, go back to your users.

I also think pivoting forces you to consider your founder-problem fit. When the solution you have is not the right one, you reach a fork in the road – do you keep pushing to find the right solution, or do you decide to end your startup pursuit altogether? Founders who iterate through new ideas are showing, in actions, that they have founder-problem fit. For me, pivots create a short-term feeling of mourning that is quickly replaced with the drive to keep pushing towards an answer.

What’s next?

We’ve begun our first experiments in delivering a new onboarding experience, and are looking for design partners who are keen to onboard faster, build connective tissue in their engineering teams, and improve retention—if this sounds like you, reader, please reach out! I’m now officially a full-time founder, moving back to the Bay Area. This is an exciting new chapter for Pathlight!

This article was originally published by The Harbus (Mike Kelly, Author; Lizzie Matusov, Contributor). Read more about Lizzie's experience at HBS here.