Navigating the Startup Hiring Landscape with Susan Liu, COO of Parallel Learning

“I would argue the value proposition for employees joining a startup is not different or worse than it was a few years ago.”

– Susan Liu

Today, I’m thrilled to have Susan Liu, COO of Parallel Learning, in the guest chair. Parallel Learning provides virtual special education resources for K-12 schools, addressing critical challenges in the special education space. Having built many incredible teams from the ground up, Susan brings extensive startup experience to the table, scaling several successful ventures.

The 3 key themes that emerged in this conversation explore:

  • Pivoting for Focus: Susan shares Parallel Learning’s journey of focusing solely on K-12 special education after a challenging decision to halt direct-to-consumer services. This strategic pivot underscores the importance of focus for startup success.
  • Navigating Hiring in Changing Markets: The conversation delves into the shifting landscape of hiring, where Susan offers insights into hiring trends and challenges amidst market fluctuations, emphasizing the need for candidates to set clear expectations and consider long-term value beyond immediate compensation.
  • Redefining EdTech Startup Success: Susan challenges prevailing narratives around startup success, highlighting the importance of building sustainable businesses over chasing inflated valuations. This redefined perspective offers a more pragmatic approach for both founders and employees navigating the startup ecosystem.

Give this conversation a listen, and don’t hesitate to Contact Us if you have any questions, comments, or feedback. 

About our guest, Susan Liu:

Susan Liu is the Chief Operating Officer or Parallel Learning. She is an experienced start-up operator with a passion for building teams from the ground up. Prior to Parallel, Susan was previously VP of Clinical Operations at Cerebral Inc., a fast-growing online mental health company where she led the clinical operations and customer service function through a period of rapid growth from pre-Series A to a multibillion valuation Series C. Susan scaled the operations to serve over 200,000 patients in less than 2 years and grew the clinical network from <100 to over 2,000 nationwide in less than 1.5 years. Susan was also a founding team member of Northspyre,  a real estate productivity and intelligence solution, where she grew the company from launch to over $4B+ of capital projects under management. 

Susan has a background in both strategy and public health. Susan has led teams at the Boston Consulting Group and at the Clinton Health Access Initiative to improve access to health care in low-income countries. 

A proud immigrant and beneficiary of the public school system, Susan is a Yale graduate, holding dual Masters degrees from both Wharton and Harvard. She is dedicated to enhancing accessibility in education and bolstering opportunities for youths of all ages. She, along with her husband and daughter, resides in Atlanta.

Open for Full Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Debbie Goodman: Welcome to On Work and Revolution, where we talk about what’s shaking up in the world of work and Edtech. I’m your host, Debbie Goodman. I’m CEO of Jack Hammer Global, a global group of executive search and leadership coaching companies. I’m also an advisor to venture backed Edtech founders. And for those of you in Edtech who are hiring, we’ve just launched a fractional leaders offering as I mentioned earlier.

So I’ll put the link in the show notes. My main mission with all of my work is to help companies and leaders to create amazing workplaces where people and ideas flourish. And today it is just so great to have Susan Liu as my guest. Susan is a. Chief operating officer at Parallel Learning, which provides live virtual special ed resources for schools.

But it’s actually so much more than that. We’ll hear more about this in a bit. , and Parallel has just closed around a funding about a month ago, which is really amazing news given the current market climate. , So let me introduce you to Susan, who is a very experienced start-up operator. Now, when founders ask me to help them hire people with a significant track record in start-ups who know the drill, who just love it, and they super successful at scaling Susan’s actually what they have in mind.

Prior to Parallel, Susan was VP of clinical operations at Cerebral Inc, an online mental health company where she helped the company grow from pre series A to a multi billion valuation series C. She was also a founding team member of North Spire. Where she grew the company from launch to over 4 billion of capital projects and a management.

She’s led teams at BCG that’s Boston consulting group and at the Clinton health access initiative to improve access to healthcare in low income countries. She’s a Yale graduate. She holds dual master’s degrees from Wharton and Harvard, which is a pretty impressive Ivy league lineup there, Susan. And today we’re going to be talking to Susan about one of my favorite topics, hiring for start-ups in the current market climate, which has changed.

Welcome, Susan. 

[00:02:11] Susan Liu: Thanks. Thanks so much, Debbie. I’m happy to be here and excited for the conversation. 

[00:02:16] Debbie Goodman: Okay, good. Well, all right. So before we get into it, please tell listeners more about Parallel Learning, because you guys are not like entirely high profile. So share more about the company. 

[00:02:26] Susan Liu: Yeah. Parallel Learning is a tech enabled behavioural healthcare services provider, and we help address challenges in the special education space, of K through 12 schools and what we do is, you know, little known fact probably for me before I entered into the space is that 15% of students in public schools are in a special education program. So that’s a huge portion Yes. Of students in, in schools and special education departments and teams are often under-resourced, not set up for success, and just need a lot of help and support to make sure that students in these programs get to the best outcomes. And that’s where Parallel fits in. We have a preparatory tech platform as well as our own network of behavioral health clinicians, and we really act as an extension of a school’s special education team to be able to deliver quality services virtually and online through our network, but using our technology, making sure that these services are as clinically valid and effective as possible in the online delivery method. We add in outcome tracking tools and curriculum and various proprietary tools that make it more effective. And on the provider side, we have tooling to make the providers more efficient so that they can do more with their time and serve more and more students. So really by collaborating with Parallel, our districts are optimizing their financial resources to make sure that more students are able to benefit from services and get to the best educational outcomes possible.

[00:04:05] Debbie Goodman: Wow. Okay. I mean, I think there the key clincher is really this virtual offering, which would not really have been too accessible, even possible pre Covid, pre pandemic. So in our earlier call, you spoke about this big pivot that Parallel did a while ago and just how hard it was, share more about that.

[00:04:27] Susan Liu: Yeah, originally Parallel, actually when I when I joined, Parallel had two sides of the business, and one was direct to consumer. So we worked directly with families that were looking for extra support outside of the school with services for so parents trying to help their kids, basically, and we also worked with schools that are looking for solutions for their entire student population. And what we found is that frankly, both are attractive markets and there is a need in both types of spaces. Parents need extra support. Lots of parents out there need extra support. Schools need extra support, but it was a very hard decision that we at Parallel took last year to stop providing our direct to consumer services and just focus on the K 12 space. And that was a difficult decision because they’re both viable and attractive markets. And frankly, we had revenue in, in both and they were both growing, but as a start-up early stage start-up, our size, we made the decision to focus and really prioritize and I think that’s important for any organization, but particularly a start-up, is that fundamentally, we found ourselves building two businesses, right? And two different operations in terms of what the customer really needs and wants and the workflow, so it was a hard decision, but ultimately the right one for the business to really be able to put our resources and focus into making ourselves the best K through 12, support a provider and focusing our product and people on that mission.

[00:06:16] Debbie Goodman: Okay. So this was not a situation where the market had changed or you weren’t getting product market fit, or there was like, well, we’re trying these two things and the one’s actually just no revenue, which was more around. We do not have infinite resources here. And in order to have one excellent business versus two, maybe average ones, we’re going to need to just pull our resources and really focus on this one thing.

[00:06:41] Susan Liu: Yeah, that’s exactly right. It was ultimately about focus. 

[00:06:45] Debbie Goodman: And the recent raise from, uh, Rethink, do you think that that would have arisen had you not done the pivot? Or, I mean, it feels like good reward for making a hard decision. 

[00:06:57] Susan Liu: Yeah, you know, that’s a good question. I think it’s hard to know, right? It’s hard. It’s hard to know. We don’t know the counterfactual of what would have happened if we didn’t make the pivot, but certainly I think we’ve been able to make really great investments since then in the K through 12 space and have shown a lot of growth and progress in this space and the terrific investors over there at Rethink recognize that good work. And by the way, they are one of the biggest funds in the US that invests in women founded businesses, impact driven start-ups. And I think they recognize all the progress that that we made. We didn’t go into it intending to do a fundraise, to be honest, we didn’t go through a typical fundraising round, but, we just found that there was a great connection with the team at Rethink, and they really approached us recognizing the great work that we do. So, you know, as a team, as part of a start-up, we always welcome that and those types of conversations. 

[00:08:00] Debbie Goodman: So, you know that decision, to just to go dig in a little bit deep there on that that decision I mean the K12 market itself is so challenging. I mean, I know so many founders who are just struggling to get their foot in the door. We know that the buyers of products like these in K12 are just inundated. There’s an, just an overflow, of offerings out there and it’s really hard to get traction. And so the temptation then may be to say, well, let’s do a direct to consumer model, which has also got its own challenges. Do you have any recommendations for a founder who is really struggling with one lane and decides, okay, we’re going to try another lane because the one’s just too hard. At what point do you say, okay, no, we’ve got to keep pursuing this one thing or okay, it’s time out. Let’s try something else. 

[00:08:54] Susan Liu: Yeah, I think you have to set milestones ahead of time and go into, you know, whether or not it’s a business model decision or really like a pilot, which is something that I’m always a big advocate of, of trying to improve things. It’s trying new things, right? But you have to establish before you go ahead and do those things, what the criteria of success is, because I think once you’re in it, it’s going to be hard to tell and to be able to evaluate your work and your team’s work with a level head and make those difficult decisions. So I think presetting those milestones ahead of time is critical , and honestly, sometimes I truly do think this is especially true in a start-up. There is never enough data. And you will never know whether or not it’s the right decision, but no decision is definitely the wrong decision. 

[00:09:52] Debbie Goodman: Right.

[00:09:52] Susan Liu: Okay. So that drives me that you can’t make no decision. That’s actually the worst outcome. Sometimes you have to pick one path or the other, and you will make the best of what you pick out of that path, but stalling a critical decision can be really fatal and you can burn a lot of resources that way.

[00:10:13] Debbie Goodman: Yeah. Okay. That is such good advice. I mean, ultimately, I mean, in my view, things never ever work according to plan when you’re starting something new. There’s just, you’re, you have the business plan. I consider business plans, hopes and dreams and they never really, you know, work according to the intention and even the milestones that you may set, it’s like building a house. Just assume it’s going to be over budget and over time. So, same thing as a start-up. All right let’s change tack a little bit. I noticed, uh, one of your LinkedIn posts that, you’ve over the last few months, hired some key people to join the team, most of which have taken place post the big hiring frenzy of let’s say 2021, maybe early 22. Things were still super, super hot. What are some of the main changes that you’ve observed and experienced with hiring now, versus earlier in that hiring hype? 

[00:11:09] Susan Liu: Yeah, I think all, you know, hiring managers and candidates probably feel this, but it is a very different environment now than it was two or three years ago. It is tough out there. I’ll say, like any other market, it’s about supply and demand, right. And in recent years, in the past two years, a lot of start-ups. Big and small tech company in general, right? Not just Edtech, but across the tech industry, has really struggled and there has been a lot of, of layoffs.

I think we all know somebody that’s been impacted. So as a result, there’s just a lot of talent out there and there’s a lot of great talent out there , and it’s the type of environment that we haven’t really experienced in recent memory , given the recent, the tech boom. So, at Parallel, we have been very lucky to have been continuing to hire through this, drought, I’ll call it. Yeah. More capital constraint and environment. Parallel, very very lucky to be in the position where we can continue to hire. And we have been hiring over the past two years and I think we see the benefits of that. We’ve been able to stake some really amazing talent in the field and in general, I just sense that it is, it is very much an employer’s market right now. Of course, you know, great talent is great talent and will always be in demand, but there is just a lot of talent out there, which means that employers have had their pick. 

[00:12:54] Debbie Goodman: So, and just to sort of extrapolate that, does that mean that you’re able to make lower package offers to people that they’re willing to accept? Or does it mean that you don’t have to like roll out the red carpet and put on all the bells and whistles? I mean, I was. I was hearing stories that were just pretty extraordinary around what some tech companies were putting on the table in order to attract people to their companies, which, you know, we always want to try and make sure we’re getting a fair deal for both the hiring company and the employee, but even I was like, it was eye popping at one moment in time. And at the same time, I am always aware that good talent, as you said, are always in demand and they might have a need right now to take whatever offer they can is on the table. But if they’re just, if they’re being lowballed, they’re lowballed as in made it a really low offer, they’re probably going to be on the lookout for something better if it comes along. So just curious to know what your strategy is around that. 

[00:13:55] Susan Liu: Yeah, no, I think those observations are spot on in that, frankly, it is a little bit. I think it was a very inflationary environment 2 or 3 years ago where there was just so much capital right out there in the market and every start-up was flushed with capital and there was a sense that it was never ending , and I saw that. There was a sense that, hey, if we burn through this, there are investors that are lining up to give us funding, so we are not cash constrained. And as a result, there were bidding wars for good talents, so we got ourselves in this inflationary environment where you had some extraordinary comp plans and I’m sure that there is talented, there’s a lot of talented individuals that deserve every penny in every part of their comp plan , but it frankly happened across the board as well , so I do think there is a little bit of right sizing of things right now that feels like a loss.

I think a lot of people are experiencing am I getting lowballed? Am I? Is it even, should I even be considering doing something or an offer that is below what I, what I used to make? And I completely understand that , but I do frankly think that the environment for the past few years has just been inflationary and we are experiencing a reset, but you’re right as a candidate, it’s, it’s very difficult, right. To kind of see that as an individual rather than the macro environment when you’re thinking things like comp and offer decisions like that,.

[00:15:33] Debbie Goodman: Yeah, so I’ve been around a long time, which means that I also saw the impact of the global financial crisis and what happened to a lot of people is very similar to what we’re seeing now, where I would interview candidates who would, I would say to them, it was pretty much, you know, post global financial crisis, packages offers, you know, if you could even get an interview and get a job and go all the way to an offer, it was like, hurrah, hurrah. And then we would start negotiating the package and the candidates would say to me, yeah, but my previous package was X and now I’m only being offered X minus and so they were still of the view that they were worth the pre-crisis financial crisis, level and valuation in terms of their value to a company. And it took ages for people to recognize that the whole world really had had to go through a reset in terms of value. And it took maybe, I don’t know, 18 months to two years before people stopped telling me about what they used to earn two years ago before the world went into free fall.

And I think we’re still experiencing a little bit of that. People whose memories are of the good times and who haven’t recognized that the cheese has moved. And those markets are done for now and actually our value, both in terms of the company valuations trickles all the way down to people’s value in what they, a, they’re still contributing to a company, but the measure of that has shifted.

So, What do you suggest though, if we just put our mind’s eye to the, to a candidate who now is accepting the fact that they’re going to be needing to accept an offer that is lower than they, they would have two years ago or 18 months ago, even, what else would you suggest they ask for? Or how can they still retain some of their former value? What would you recommend that they do in the negotiation process? 

[00:17:35] Susan Liu: Yeah, again, I agree with all of that. I think it’s interesting, the language you use is value. A lot of employees do think about the salary and comp package as a sign of their value and benchmarking that against what they used to have, right? So then there’s a decline, but I think a reframing of it is what it is as a proportion of your company’s resources and what they have, which is what I think you’re saying as well. I would recommend to candidates, they really think long and hard about what is really important to them, and of course, financial realities are, that’s a thing, right?

 People have expenses to live. People have life obligations and financial and there are, should be real parameters on what you put as, I wouldn’t call it your worth. Cause I, you should never peg your self-worth against what a company is trying to pay you. Right. But what, what are you willing to take in part of your compensation package? That is separate from your mind of what is your value? Like, what do I need to live to have a successful life to have a good trajectory? And then what do I think about equity as well in line with that, that package? I do think there are conversations of a lot of start-ups have like Parallel around the trade-off between cash and equity. And it is not an environment anymore that we talked about where. Yeah. You can get everything that you want typically, right? So, you have to really think about what are the most important things to you. And the typical negotiating factors, right, that I see are obviously cash comp bonuses, equity, title, role and function as well, right?

Sometimes people, you might want to say, it’s really important for me to grow in this area or develop in this or have a pathway to this title or this this function. And I think those are really important conversations to have in this environment, because if you’re not able to have the financial compensation that you want right now, the trajectory, right? And what is possible in the future is really important. And building that neutral understanding and alignment with the leadership and management team that you are going in the right direction, even if your starting point isn’t 100 percent what you wanted, I think is really, it’s really important.

[00:20:07] Debbie Goodman: Yeah. I want to pick up on that train of thought just regarding equity , and, uh, we know that for a lot of start-ups, they would, uh, have people join their companies on a maybe pretty average basic package just enough to cover living expenses, but with a big promise of equity that would have this potential for exponential growth and which would mean a big payout within a relatively short period of time and , we know that that sort of 10 Xing or more is so rare these days, particularly in the Edtech sector, but actually across the board. And so when we come to thinking about how start-ups can motivate, start-up founders and leadership teams can motivate their people differently. Because I know that many individuals would be joining a company and be willing to make the sacrifices because there was this big financial payout in a relatively short period of time.

That was a big, big motivation and driver for a lot of people, the financial rewards now, assuming that some financial rewards will be there, but it’s not going to be this like, you know, massive. Massive trajectory of growth, or it is going to certainly be much rarer than it has been. How do, how should founders be motivating their people?

[00:21:31] Susan Liu: Maybe I’ll start out by saying that, frankly, I think the expectations of what people went into start-ups with in the past five years was misplaced in the first place. I’ll put that in the first place. I don’t actually think it was true in the past 5 or 10 years that a lot of start-up employees became wealthy over overnight. It was very much though the narrative. I think if we look at the facts, that’s not actually the case. In the environment of growth at all costs in the past 5 years, did employees actually win in that equation environment? I actually don’t think so. The only people that, that won under those circumstances that will quote unquote, were select founders and investors that got in and out at the right time. But ultimately, if you’re not building a sustainable business and making decisions to build that business long run, companies did not have good, successful exits, and the people that were harmed by that are the actual employees themselves. So I don’t think it’s an adjustment. And I think it’s about the promises that were told before, just did not materialize, and did not come to fruition. And I actually think, well, basically a lot of people joined start-ups previously under false premise. Let me just say, like truly, and I actually think now in this environment, I have much more faith that if we’re taking a pragmatic approach to building businesses and making decisions that are balancing long term sustainability and profitability with the desire for growth, that you have a much better chance at actually getting to a better outcome as an exit that’s sustainable and good enough for an employee, not just a temporary blip in valuation that benefits in investors. So I would argue the value proposition for employees joining a start-up is not different or worse than it was a few years ago. In fact, it may be, it may be better, right? You just choosing the right companies and better companies for your exit. 

[00:23:52] Debbie Goodman: So, okay. I just love everything that you just said about all of that, because I think exposing the false narratives, which very few people have actually, the fact that what we’ve, what many people have bought into is the urban legend around the big growth and the big payouts and the big exits. And those have been propagated by companies that have wanted to attract talent and it is just, uh, became the narrative that everybody was accustomed to. But the actual reality for the most part, for your sort of, uh, individual contributors and even leaders of companies, I certainly know personal anecdotes about that. Personally, anecdotally, those payouts were not quite as prolific as we may have been led to believe and the thing that I really, am happy about, even though the markets are tough, is that companies are taking their time to make really good decisions, better hiring decisions. They’re not being forced into making quick hires with big package offers because they’re afraid that other competitors are going to be grabbing the talent quicker. And people who are looking for jobs or who are being approached for work, if they have the luxury of being able to do this, are being more prudent around making good choices. I know that we’re in the current market climate that some people just like really need a job and they’ll take whatever’s on the table. But, for those who can make a well-considered decision, they’re taking more time to do that. Yeah. And so, I’m hopeful that this sort of like next phase, we’re going to see people who are realistically, employed with companies that is a good fit and everybody took their time to make a good hire.

[00:25:40] Susan Liu: And your role and your comp package is sustainable as well. To kind of go back to an earlier question, you said about kind of negotiating and thinking about your package as a candidate. On that point, I think what candidates often don’t think about when they’re negotiating their package. I think the perspective is a little bit the more the better, right? And especially as a high achieving top notched candidate. I totally get it. You think I have the offer in hand. Why not ask for more? This is a range. Why not push for more? It’s the same role. I might as well get what I deserve. and that could be true, right? What you deserve often as employee has nothing to do sometimes with what the company is able to pay. So I feel like really kind of parsing that apart, but I think actually sometimes over negotiating or going over what is the set compensation range that’s budgeted for that role, I think has a negative impact on the employee starting out at a job, that people don’t, don’t think about.

And I’m very conscious as a hiring manager that I don’t want to put anybody in that position, because in a more pragmatic environment, frankly, your expectations of the job is a little bit tied to your comp package. If we are going over range or way over budget, that means that your expectations and what you’re supposed to deliver for this company is different than what I initially set out and that’s not clear that doesn’t set up a candidate and employee for success. 

[00:27:19] Debbie Goodman: Yeah, I actually just want to emphasize this point, and for anybody who’s listening and who’s thinking, well, I’m just going to go for it, let me get as much as I can. The number of times I hear CEOs, complain about the fact that they’ve just hired somebody and they’re earning more than everybody else on the team, but they’re not delivering more than anybody else and the level of resentment and disappointment and acrimony that creeps into that relationship. It’s just not worth the extra dollars that you negotiated at the outset.

[00:27:50] Susan Liu: Exactly. Again, I don’t, you know, I don’t want anybody to take a lowball offer, right? I think, you know, everybody should know what your expectations are going into a job and what really you, you need. But that mentality of more at all costs, I think that your point is exactly right. When looking at performance right when making tough decisions the comp package is a factor. There’s a reason sometimes in the past two years if we look at the trajectory of company riffs, who is at the top of that list is the people that are over the range of their role and their budget, even if they’re equally good performers. So I think you can put yourself in a very difficult position, If you’ve been maybe too successful at negotiating, and it doesn’t necessarily set you up for success. So I think that’s kind of the other side of it that people don’t think about in the process, because they think it’s there’s no harm in trying, But I think you just have to be careful and consider the full context and that there could be a cost going forward.

[00:29:00] Debbie Goodman: Oh, yes. Susan, we have just been at this for a while now. I’ve got one last question before I let you go. What are you most excited about for Parallel Learning for 2024? 

[00:29:14] Susan Liu: A lot. I think it’s going to be a great year for Parallel again. We’re lucky to be in a place where we’re still growing in this environment and have adequate lots of funding to move forward and we’re really at an inflection point where we’ve seen good product market fit in the past 2 years, and it’s really about growth and scalability. It’s about how we can grow and be able to provide our services in more schools and more states be able to provide access to services and better outcomes for students and do that in a scalable and sustainable way. 

[00:29:52] Debbie Goodman: Okay, well, scaling is your forte, so I expect to see some amazing things and we’re just wishing you all the best. This has been a fantastic conversation. I hope it’s going to add value to listeners who are thinking about their next career moves, hiring, negotiating packages, all the things, the fact that the cheese has moved. So you’re going to need to respond differently to the world. This has been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much. 

[00:30:15] Susan Liu: This was great. Thanks so much, Debbie. I really enjoyed the conversation. Bye now. 

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