Mike Kelly (MBA ’22) talks with Alex Benoit (MBA ’22) about Larsen, his startup, and how it is helping managers build better teams.
Tell us more about your startup, Larsen.
Larsen is a platform that empowers managers with the data and tailored actions to effectively develop and improve their team. The combination of employee surveys and metadata analysis gives Larsen the ability to equip managers with unique insights into the strengths and weaknesses of their team and provides customized recommendations on how to improve. Unlike traditional HR employee surveys that rarely result in action, Larsen is embedded into the team, actively assessing and informing the team on how to improve the aspects that really matter to employee well-being such as team cohesion, drive, happiness, or belonging.
Why did you decide to focus on this space?
Just before HBS, I used to lead Engineering teams at BCG Digital Ventures. BCG taught me a lot about how to manage people, but at first it was overwhelming. I made mistakes, and I was not sure exactly what to do in certain situations. Around me, I had good friends that ended up leaving their jobs because they felt they were not appreciated, did not have an understanding of their career path, or did not receive the constructive feedback they were looking for. I thought many, if not all, of these things could have been prevented if managers were having the right conversations and taking the right steps with their team. I did not want to be a manager that let issues like this slip through the cracks. However, I also did not know how to improve. The tools I had at my disposal such as one-on-ones or annual culture surveys were insufficient for surfacing team dissatisfaction or proactively addressing employee concerns.
Given the uncertain conditions at the time, I ended up leaving pretty late into 2020 to come to HBS. I saw teams transition into remote work, some thrived and some imploded. The already existing problems were exacerbated. Individuals felt more disconnected and unappreciated, some overworked out of confusion of what their manager thought of them, most had trouble unplugging from work. The already few tools managers had at their disposal for team building were becoming even less effective. I was compelled to build a solution.
A year into our research at Larsen, the managers we interview continue to tell us they feel they have lost grip on their team, that their team is disengaged and unmotivated, and they do not know what to do about it. This finding is corroborated by recent research. According to Forbes, only 20% of leaders believe they are effective at leading virtually, and 60% feel “used up” by the end of the work day, leading to 2x more burnouts in managers.
Unfortunately for managers and organizations, remote or at least hybrid work is here to stay. If organizations and managers do not refocus on rebuilding team culture and building great teams, the Great Resignation will continue ravaging workplaces. According to PwC, 65% of US employees are currently looking for a new job. Larsen surfaces the data and insights that managers need to retain their team members by helping them better understand what is going on and suggesting things they can do differently.
How far along are you in the journey?
I did the Rock Summer Fellowship between my first and second year at HBS. This gave me some time to interview managers, understand their pain points, and build an MVP for them. At the time, Larsen was more focused on one aspect of team improvement, the facilitation of feedback and appreciation.
Since launching the MVP, managers have loved the platform and keep coming back to us to ask what else they could be doing to help improve their team. We also had built a way to internally measure how impactful our platform was, and managers wanted to see that data too. We decided to expand the platform to be a more general continuous team happiness evaluation and improvement platform, helping managers understand what they can do to improve their team quickly and effectively.
We are currently running a second MVP to see if we can marginally improve the team through quick surveys and weekly suggestions on what to do differently. Hopefully the experiment works, and we can start building a more fully fledged product.
Where did the name Larsen come from?
We were originally much more focused on the facilitation of feedback. The audio feedback you get when you have your microphone and speaker next to each other is actually called the Larsen effect. What started as a project name ended up sticking as the name of the company.
Do you have any advice for other students who want to build their own startup while at HBS?
Always start with a problem. You do not want to fall into the trap of building a solution in search of a problem. Really dig deep into what problem you are trying to solve through speaking to the customers you are helping and that are currently experiencing these pain points. It makes it easier, but is not necessary, to solve a problem you (or someone close to you) is having. I grew up keeping a note of cool ideas I had on my phone. I have come to realize that keeping a note of problems might have been more useful.
Also, not all problems are equal, some are more “burning” than others. In our case, we started with trying to solve the lack of appreciation in the workplace. We realized it was more a “vitamin” or nice-to-have problem instead of a “painkiller” or need-to-have problem. Once we moved towards helping managers retain their talent that was currently leaving in hoards, we were tackling a problem that was bringing them anxiety on a near daily basis. It was an easier sell.
While at HBS, if you want to build a startup but are unsure what it might be or how to go about it, the best way to get started is to brainstorm with friends. Identify people you would like to work on a project with and start thinking about what to do together. Working on a project with someone is much less scary and less overwhelming than going straight into building a company together. Use coursework or spare time to work on different projects with different people. This will help you better understand what kind of person you work well with, what you might look for in a cofounder, what soft and hard skills might compliment you. Do not forget that these side projects often end up becoming interesting startups.
Once you have an idea for a solution to a confirmed and validated problem, you need to start testing it. Some very famous advice for this stage is to “do things that don’t scale.” What this means is to hand pick a few first users, and solve their problem in a very manual fashion. This will help you be close to the customer, and maximize the learnings regarding what a future potential product might look like. I would encourage you at this stage to speak to as many people as possible about what you are working on. Try to put something in front of customers as quickly as possible, regardless of how unfinished the solution is, or how scary putting yourself out there might feel like. Some other famous advice goes like “you are nothing until you launch.”
Do you have any advice regarding how to lead teams given the unprecedented times?
Uncertain and unprecedented times are fought with clarity and transparency. In a setup where naturally there is less communication given people are working from different locations, emphasize and over-communicate about the current situation, what you know and do not know, and what steps are currently being taken. Make an effort to understand each individual team member’s fears and worries. You should not try (and will not be able) to directly manage their emotions, but you can reduce the anxiety they might be experiencing. Larsen can also help by effectively collecting more data, and suggesting tailored actions for you to take to ensure the happiness of your team.
The other aspect is reinforcing the worthiness of the team and of its individuals. Currently, we are seeing a big “recognition deficit” in the workplace that is in part causing the Great Resignation. In response, employees disengage as they don’t feel valued, or thrive to be recognized by overworking and burning out. Carve out some time out at least every week to show appreciation to the people on your team or that you work with. I can guarantee this will take up less time than trying to fill their role once they leave.
Alex Benoit (MBA ’22) grew up in Paris, France and moved to London, United Kingdom for university and work. Prior to HBS, he helped launch a coding bootcamp in London and led engineering teams in BCG’s venture studio, BCG Digital Ventures. Alex is passionate about helping individuals enjoy their roles more.
Mike Kelly (MBA ’22) grew up outside Pittsburgh, PA. Prior to HBS, he worked for five years in engineering, product strategy, and program management at Ford. In the last year, he co-founded Gaia AI, a robotics, AI, and carbon offset startup fighting climate change.