This Silicon Valley company just got $3.3 million so everybody can learn from the CEO’s past mistakes

  • Plato is a startup that connects programmers and engineers with mentors from companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Lyft.
  • Plato just raised $US3.3 million from SaaStr’s Jason Lemkin, Slack, and others.
  • Plato was born out of the founders’ own inexperience managing a team the first time they tried releasing a product.
Plato ceo quang hoang
Plato CEO Quang Hoang, speaking at one of the company’s in-person networking events. Plato

In 2014, Quang Hoang and two of his classmates at the Paris-area university
École Polytechnique decided to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams by forming a startup called Birdly.

Their first business idea for Birdly was a robot, integrated with the popular chat app Slack, that would simplify the process of filing expense reports. That didn’t work so well. The second idea was another Slack robot, which let users pull up customer information from systems like Salesforce right from the chat window. That didn’t pan out, either.

The good news was Birdly had received some capital from investors including the Y Combinator accelerator program and Slack itself, granting a little leeway to figure something out. The bad news was, the tumult alienated most of Birdly’s employees, who quit. Hoang attributes the turnover to his own inexperience as a manager.

“We, along the way, made many mistakes in management,” Hoang tells Business Insider. “We lost many great developers.”

The whole episode made one thing clear to Hoang: If his own experience was any indication, there are a lot of programmers like him who could benefit from a little mentorship in being a better leader. In January of this year, the trio moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and decided to take a risk on a new idea.

Shivani Sharma Slack Plato event
Shivani Sharma, Senior Engineering Manager at Slack, speaking at a Plato mentorship event. Sharma is one of several mentors you can get in touch with via Plato’s service. Plato

And so, Birdly gave way to Plato — a service that matches programmers and product managers with a network of experienced leaders at companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, starting at $US199/month. And it’s looking like a hit: Within its first 70 days, Plato hit $US200,000 in revenue. Not bad for a three-person team. Plus, Hoang boasts that in about 8 months, Plato hasn’t lost a single customer.

Today, Plato announces a $US3.3 million round of funding led by Jason Lemkin, with participation from Slack, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan, Fundersclub, and more. Lemkin and Slack are both returning investors.

The mentorship connection

Plato borrows a key idea from the team’s previous startup ventures: The main way users interact with Plato is via a Slack chat. A Plato customer types out the problem that they’re having — “How do I make sure my team hits deadlines?” — and a human will get back to you with a few follow-up questions.

With that context, Plato will hook users up with a mentor for a one-on-one phone or video chat. Ideally, that mentor will have solved a similar problem in their own careers, such that users can benefit from their wisdom. There are options for one-off sessions, or you can form a longer-lasting relationship with a mentor.

The idea, says Hoang, is that an engineer’s education is focused heavily on “hard skills” around programming and systems design. The rest has to be learned. And for programmers-turned-leaders, it’s often the “soft skills,” like management and leadership, that need the most attention.

Being a Plato mentor is a paid opportunity; the team interviews each mentor to get a sense for their strengths and experiences. The team is investing in technology to speed up the process of matching a mentee to a mentor — Hoang notes that Plato is already detecting common themes in customer questions, opening the door to automating parts of the process.

Plato questions
Some of the questions Plato can help with. Plato

“We all begin with a core competency, and we all need to evolve toward a leadership position,” says Hoang.

In a bigger-picture sense, Hoang says that companies anywhere in the world could benefit from a mentor at the biggest companies in Silicon Valley. Right now, it’s focused largely on software teams, mainly because that’s what Plato’s team understands best. Hoang says that, in the not-so-distant future, it could expand to other job functions.

Plato is also testing a program with Lyft to connect employees to mentors within the company, rather than outside it. The company has also begun hosting in-person networking events, featuring presentations by engineering leaders.

Leaders lead

Jason Lemkin, whose SaaStr fund led this investment round, says that the team’s shift from Birdly to Plato was very welcome. He had invested in Birdly, not because he thought it was a good idea — “I have no interest in what you’re doing,” Lemkin recalls telling Hoang — but because he believed in Hoang himself.

So the shift to Plato is very welcome, from Lemkin’s perspective. When Hoang approached him a few months back to ask about this so-called pivot, Lemkin encouraged him: “You don’t know anything about expense reports,” Lemkin says he told Hoang, but he knows now how important it is for a leader to have the right skills.

SaaStr Jason Lemkin
SaaStr founder Jason Lemkin Jason Lemkin

From Lemkin’s perspective, Plato addresses a major mentorship gap. There just aren’t enough mentors in the world, says Lemkin, and they’re desperately needed.

“I’m still trying to find [a mentor] for myself,” says Lemkin.

It’s something that Eric Yuan, the CEO of red-hot videochat startup Zoom and a Plato investor, agrees with. He says that early in his career, when he most needed mentorship, he had no clue where to go or who to talk to.

“I had no clue as to how to develop such a relationship,” says Yuan. “Plato would have facilitated this for me and accelerated my professional development.”