Connect Spotlight: Progression

Posted: 2 Nov 2021

Whether it’s defining your org chart or wrestling through performance reviews, the pain that comes with career growth exercises echoes through too many companies and industries. It’s a pain Jonny Burch and Neil Cameron have felt first-hand, and one they’ve brilliantly chosen to solve with Progression, a standardised but customisable framework that helps teams define and measure career growth in an efficient and dare-we-say enjoyable way.

Connect invested in Progression last year and as a “future of work” SaaS company, it inevitably piqued Pietro’s interest (check out his breakdown on why Connect invested in Progression here). A year in, Pietro caught up with Progression Co-Founder and CEO, Jonny, and they talked about eradicating nightmarish spreadsheets, empowering employees to own their professional growth, and endeavouring to help everyone find a career that they truly love.

Hey Jonny, thanks for joining us today! Everyone loves a good origin story. Can you tell us what brought you to start Progression, and the problem you were trying to solve?

It started back in 2018. I was a Design Manager at Deliveroo, where I’d been for about two and a half years. In that time, the company had gone from 150 to 2000 employees and the design team had grown from 4 to 40 people. We went from being a single flat team, where everyone was just a designer, to suddenly having to hire more senior people. We needed to attract talent from big companies, like Twitter, Amazon, etc. in what was a very competitive hiring landscape. We also started getting questions from people on the team about what their next title would be, how they could feel like they were growing, and if Deliveroo was still the right place for them. We found ourselves wondering if we were going to lose people when we were trying to hire more people. We asked ourselves, how do we make sure people feel like they’re doing their best work, that they have a clear path ahead, and that Deliveroo will help them get there?

The challenge was that the solution was really boring and long and hard. It was writing down all the different levels in your career ladder, deciding what’s expected of each level, putting people on those levels, and defining how to help them jump to the next level. It took us months, but we did just that. We created this mega spreadsheet and rolled it out with great fanfare. Everyone was thrilled at first, but then no one looked at it again. Three months later, no one could find the link to the Google Sheet. We’d spent hours as managers putting this together, and ultimately, it didn’t work.

Shortly after, I left Deliveroo to start my own company and I realised that this pain was felt not only by other leaders in the design world, but also by those in engineering and broader tech. They were all trying to solve the same problem by building the same spreadsheet. I decided that none of these spreadsheets was good enough, and that I should build a SaaS product to replace them all. I found Neil, my co-founder, and after running a few tests and determining if Progression was actually viable, we started building a waitlist in 2019 and went on from there.

I love that. You felt the pain, and you identified that all these other leaders felt it too. Now you have a number of customers, you have early adopters, and you have your employees trying it out. Why do you think they love Progression so much?

Not only does Progression save you time in writing this content, it also assuages the many fears we encounter when doing so. “Am I writing the right stuff?” “Will my peers think I look stupid?” “Will the team even like it?” “Will I get sign off from HR?” Upfront, we cut through all of that with templates and best practices. Within minutes, you can create a pre-built framework and customise it with all the skills you want to add in. That’s benefit number one.

Benefit number two is opening up this framework to all of your employees. They can log into Progression directly and start to track their growth against it — without requiring any of your time. They can even log wins for themselves to build up qualitative feedback daily and weekly, so that when you have those growth-related conversations every three or six months, all this evidence is already collected and you can better evaluate promotions or areas for improvement.

So Progression aims to be better for both managers and employees. It makes managers’ lives quicker and easier, and it gives team members more visibility into their growth, which is the big step change from what people are currently doing in their spreadsheets of dreams.

It empowers employees as end users and it’s great to see. You’ve seeded a few strong opinions here, and obviously, we love those at Connect. Can you tell us more about how Progression is an opinionated product?

Consultants will happily charge you five or six figures to build your spreadsheet for you. So our first opinion is that you don’t need to build something that is completely unique to you. You can take 80% of something generic, and then tweak it. A lot of people think they need this beautiful, bespoke framework with their own language and branding, etc. That’s simply not true. It’s much better to use something that’s industry standard so that people can recognise the titles and expectations from their current job and transfer them on to their next one.

Our second opinion is that we don’t think performance management works. While we don’t necessarily aim to replace performance management, we do want to build something that employees actually want to use — and no employee asks to be performance managed. We think biannual or annual performance reviews should disappear forever in favour of something more human, more focused around people’s strengths rather than their weaknesses.

You’re preaching to the converted! How would you describe Progression’s product culture, especially in comparison to a big product company like Deliveroo?

Well, we’re two product founders. Neil is an engineer and I’m from a design background so we’ve always been product first. We try to go back to first principles, to question why things really are the way they are. We’re not afraid to challenge the status quo and rebuild from the ground up rather than just ape other companies’ features. That makes our lives harder in some ways and means we sometimes have to invent language, but we think that’s ultimately how we end up solving the core problem.

We also try to focus our efforts. We say no to 90% of the things that we could work on in order to focus on the 10% that matter most. That hasn’t always been our approach, but we’re honing in on that at the moment. Our product culture is very collaborative as well, which is awesome. Everyone feels a lot of ownership over decisions we’re making and has very high context over why we’re making those decisions.

That’s great to hear, and not always the case! What would you say is Progression’s big, long-term vision?

I always like to say, “Everyone should have a career that they love.” The question is how do we get from where we are now to there. In our view, that means more fairness, more visibility, and more clarity within teams. If everyone has access to the same information, then everyone can make the right decisions.

One vision is for companies to install Progression on day one to have maximum visibility over how quickly they should be promoting people, and where employees might move within the organisation based on their real skills and interests rather than just their current title. You’d get incredibly efficient, satisfied employees.

Beyond that, the grand vision is building a kind of API layer for careers, where a student can graduate from college and immediately start using Progression. They can plug in a role they want in five years, then track the jobs they’re getting on the way there, iterating and learning the skills they need to land their dream job. Even if they don’t want the same job by the time they get there, they’re ultimately tracking their entire career, not just the company that happens to be using Progression at that time.

Effectively, Progression would be a democratised, B2C product that compels hiring managers and HR to promote and reward people in a fair manner. That means people who might be quieter, or people working in a remote or hybrid team get fair visibility and a fair chance to feel their growth as well. And while we’re focused on tech at the moment, this really applies to anyone who has a career. Our addressable market is basically unlimited.

We can’t wait to see that in action! Let’s switch tracks a little bit. As a co-founder/CEO, what are you most proud of in your journey so far and what mistake would you say you’ve learned from the most?

I’m very proud of our team. I think we’ve hired well. More than that, we’re building a culture where everyone feels empowered and excited, where everyone works well together, and understands our long-term goals.

I’d say our biggest mistake is that in the early days, Neil and I spent too much time trying to bootstrap or self-fund a company that needed cash. I’m proud that we’ve since adapted and we’re now able to deploy capital, hire a team, and get on with things, but in retrospect, I would have probably raised money a year earlier. You live and learn.

We love how you guys have gone about hiring, that’s definitely something you should be proud of. We’ve worked together quite closely since our investment in Progression. What would you say is the most valuable thing Connect has done for you and Progression?

Beyond the money? [chuckles] Primarily, you’ve really pushed us to think like a funded company. I think that’s most apparent in how quickly we’ve hired and who we’ve hired. Every time we talk, you make a suggestion for either a new role, or a more aggressive hiring strategy. We usually claim we don’t need to do that yet, and inevitably, you’re right. But you’ve been very sensitive about it, you understand where we’re coming from, and you’re always respectful of the things that we really do care about. I imagine a different VC would have just prioritised growth or cost, or put a lot more pressure on us to do certain things. Connect has been really empathetic to where we’ve come from while still keeping us focused on the job to be done.

That’s music to my ears. Final question: what’s one of the products you love most or just can’t live without?

I love Dovetail. It’s a platform that allows you to dump all of your research and tag it. It processes video, transcribes it automatically, things like that. For us, it’s been great, both as a team and especially with new joiners. We just add people to Dovetail and tell them to explore, watch our users talk, and learn. The UI is beautiful and so cleverly built. I’m a huge fan.

Then there’s Descript, which is great for podcast editing. Their onboarding and tone of voice is also fantastic. It’s one of those products where if I’d built that, I would look at it every day and think, “Yes.”

And somewhere out there, someone else is saying the same thing about Progression. That concludes our questions, Jonny! Thanks so much for making the time.