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7 Pieces of Leadership Advice from two Ex-Google Co-Founders

New ventures can pull you into some pretty wild places – especially in the startup world. Today, we join the Co-Founders of AdHawk, Dan Pratt and Todd Saunders, who talk about the ups and downs of starting a company and give advice that you can apply to the business venture you’re passionate about growing.

We’ll be covering all the most important questions around balancing startup vs. corporate culture and what it’s like scaling your business through uncharted waters. Let’s get started.

1. How to Create a Healthy Startup Culture

Todd’s mantra is this: “We don’t care what you’ve done previously – it’s all about what you’re going to do for us today.”

The biggest difference between corporate culture and startup culture is the amount of control team members have over their career paths. In a large, more traditional setting, trailblazing remains a pipe dream.

The path at a digital agency or company like Google is clear. You start as an Associate Account Strategist out of college, then you move on to become an Account Strategist, Account Manager, Account Executive and so on. Growth along this linear path depends primarily on years experience rather than true impact.

In a positive startup environment, you inspire your employees to wake up every day wanting to earn the respect from their bosses and their peers. You set out your own career path by working your ass off and moving your way up the company by navigating different roles.

However, it doesn’t mean startups are exempt from structure. Some startups shun the fact that they’ll ever need an organizational system, which just begs for inefficiency and chaos.

The biggest pitfall for large corporations is unnecessary structure and for startups, not having enough structure.


  • No one person is above or below any other in terms of respect and responsibility.
  • While structure should be flexible, keeping employees informed about who they should report to and be mentored by gives a comfortable sense of structure without being overbearing.
  • You don’t want employees feeling apart of a vertical structure every single day.

2. Provide Equal Opportunities

Our VP of Data Science was our first “adult hire,” and has since built the brain of AdHawk’s optimization services. “The prospect of hiring a man who had the perfect skill-set, but also had a family to feed is scarier than starting a company” Dan recalls.

On the flip side, our second hire was 22 years old, a few months out of college. Today, he’s our Director of Marketing and has built out a lean mean marketing machine that keeps the AdHawk engine running on full speed.

It’s integral to understand that age isn’t the issue. If you have someone who is willing to put in the work, nothing else matters.

Which brings us to our next point…

3. Hire Attitude, Not Skills

When you’re a tiny team made up of 1 salesperson, 1 marketing specialist, and 1 engineer, it’s imperative that you look for the person, not the skill.

As you scale, never stray from the core tenet of finding candidates with the right attitude. In the early stages when you’re just trying to find product/market fit, roles will shift and evolve enormously.

Your early hires better like hats.

You want to be able to sit next to someone who is willing to take the dive and be in an uncomfortable environment with you. To find the right people is difficult, but being active on Angel List and Linkedin are great places to start.

We also found that a hiring referral bonus for our employees immensely helped us recruit highly qualified candidates quickly.


  • Hire employees who buy into your vision.
  • Employees need to be flexible and willing to wear many hats.
  • You can teach skills. You can’t teach attitude.

4. Launch with Brute Force

When launching a new service or product offering, don’t wait until the product is perfect. To make you feel a little better, AdHawk applied to TechStars with just a Google Sheet. Whenever the team built a new product offering, we used Zapier, Google Docs, and other free resources to test out the feature. If we got a strong response from our customers, we proceeded to build it out.

Many startups also fall into the trap of the sunk cost fallacy. Don’t spend 2 months building a product that one, your customers don’t want, and two, exhausts your bandwidth just because you’ve already put a ton of work into it.


  • Starting a company doesn’t have to be expensive. Take full advantage of free software.
  • Use the lean startup model.
  • Don’t dwell on sunk costs. Be agile.

5. Ask These Four Questions. Use the Answers as Mantra

“Simplify Digital Advertising” are 3 words that will be stuck in your head the second you arrive at AdHawk HQ. It’s what we offer, it’s what we do, it’s how we’ve gotten to where we are today.

It all started by asking the right questions. Early on, we knew that the software was clearly behind where we wanted it to be. So we took a step back and answered these questions:

  1. What kind of company do we want to be in 3-5 years?
  2. What value can we absolutely provide our customers?
  3. Who is our ideal customer?
  4. How do we build a brand around these goals and be competitive in our space?

Answering these questions gave our whole team one focus.This helped catalyze our messaging and brand before we even launched our product. Before we even acquired a single user on the platform, we had a waitlist of 5,000 people and companies who wanted to try our product (we’ll share that story in another blog post 😀 ).

6. Handle Advice Like a Pro, Whether You Agree or Not

Occasionally, Dan and Todd come across advice that doesn’t necessarily align with their vision for the company. As two ex-Googlers who’ve walked hundreds of clients through the hurdles of AdWords, they understood the business more than anybody else.

During their time at Tech Stars, they had mentors and like-minded entrepreneurs who were on a set schedule every day. As soon as they stepped foot in New York, they quickly felt the gravity of it all, prompting a healthy attitude of checks and balances, and developing a greater reliance on each other’s point of view.

Now, when they come across these conversations, they huddle up and think about the time they spent with these real live customers and ask themselves, is that right? Was that feedback good or bad? What are the tangible takeaways from this conversation?

Feedback is integral, so take bits and pieces from person to person and be able to recognize patterns. If you get the same piece of feedback from multiple sources, you might want to take it into serious consideration.

But again, you’re an entrepreneur, so don’t be afraid to be a little crazy and go with your gut.


Look out for trends in the feedback you’re getting.
See feedback from the advice-giver’s point of view.
Ask your teammates what they think about the feedback.
Trust your gut. Sometimes there’s no right answer.

7. Disagree With Your Co-Founder

As Co-Founders, it’s easy to agree on everything, especially if you think the same way share a common vision. That’s why Dan and Todd got along so well in the first place.

However, it’s integral that every Co-Founder actively plays devil’s advocate, so you don’t suffer from a limited point of view. As Co-Founders, the number one rule is that even when you think you’re over-communicating, you’re probably not communicating enough.


  • Play devil’s advocate to expand your vision.
  • Avoiding confrontations only pushes problems further down the road, when they’ll be much bigger and scarier.
  • You’re never communicating enough.

It’s your turn to talk!

We’re curious:

  1. What is your biggest challenge as a Co-Founder?
  2. What experience do you relate to most?

Let us know down in the comments and let’s chat. Thanks for reading – catch ya next time!

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About the Author

Journeyman of the wild wild west of Digital Advertising. Also doubling as an unofficial Taco Bell ambassador. Tweet at me @JonJmPark