C-suite career advice: Jeff Kofman, Trint

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in tech? "If you're looking to launch a tech startup, make sure you really understand the business model that will sustain your vision. A good idea is not enough."

Name: Jeff Kofman

Company: Trint

Job Title: CEO and Founder

Location: London, UK

An Emmy Award-winning journalist with more than 30 years' experience with ABC, CBS and CBC News, Jeff Kofman was inspired by a chance encounter during a 2013 visit to Mozfest to team up with developers to create software that could automate the process of transcribing audio, while making it fast and simple to remove machine-generated errors. Fast-forward to today and Jeff is the CEO and founder of Trint, the first automated transcription service to combine a text editor and an audio/video player into one easy-to-use tool.

What was the most valuable piece of career advice that you received? The most valuable advice that I follow is:

  • Stay cool - when things get bad you need a clear head. Panic and anxiety undermine that.
  • Let people do their jobs - it's important to understand what people's roles are and to agree on outcomes, then step back and let them do their jobs.
  • There's no shame in asking stupid questions - reporters learn that lesson very early.
  • Over communicate - never assume that because you know something your team or colleagues elsewhere know it, too.

What was the worst piece of business advice that you received? The worst business advice I received was, "Don't hire a Head of Product, you are the Head of Product." My gut told me that was wrong. There's a difference between being the product visionary and being the person who defines and executes how that's done. I'd have brought on an HoP much earlier and it would have saved us a lot of time and money.

What advice would you give to someone starting their career in tech? Do it for the journey, not the destination. There are no guarantees and it is really hard work. But if you believe in what you are trying to do and you are excited about it you will never regret the effort, whatever the outcome.

If you're looking to launch a tech startup, make sure you really understand the business model that will sustain your vision. A good idea is not enough. You need to really feel confident that 1) you are offering something that people want or need that doesn't already exist; 2) they will pay for it; 3) they will keep paying for it.

Did you always want to work in tech? Never! If you had told me that I'd be doing this ten years ago I'd have laughed it off. Journalism runs through my veins, I always thought I'd be a reporter till the end. I expected to be carried out of the newsroom feet first. I loved being a reporter - the challenge, the learning, the craft, the collaboration, the adventure.

That's what's so astonishing about my Career 2.0. I really love what I'm doing now. It's a different kind of challenge, learning, collaboration etc. I'm really proud of my 30+ years reporting, but I don't miss them. I don't have time to. One of the fun things about life is that if you're open to it, you can surprise yourself in great ways. I just stumbled into this, to be honest, but am loving every second of the journey.

What was your first job in IT? Being CEO and founder of Trint is my first job in IT. Until I began working on Trint I was just another tech user, baffled by the magic behind software innovation. Five years later I'm still kind of baffled, but really proud of what our team has done.

What are some common misconceptions about working in IT? I think there's a view that tech people, in particular software developers, are nerdy introverts. That's not my experience at all. Our development team is full of charismatic, extroverted geniuses. I wouldn't want them to know this, but some of them are even funny, too. Maybe it's not like that everywhere, but the team we've hired is a total delight to work with and hang out with.

What tips would you give to someone aiming for a c-level position? It's hard. Harder than hard. There are so many decisions and uncertainties coming at you every day, you have to be resilient, resourceful and a bit fatalistic. Startups are by definition highly imperfect businesses. There's a line by some sage that building a startup is like building an airplane as it's taxiing down the runway. That's kind of true. You make lots of mistakes but you just have to keep going. You also need to optimistic. If you let every setback defeat you, you won't survive.

What are your career ambitions and have you reached them yet? My ambition is to see "Trint" in the dictionary. "Trint" is a word I invented by combining the words "transcription" and "interview." We use it as a noun ("Let's check the Trint") and a verb ("Let's Trint it!"). Our customers have quickly adopted the word, so I think we're on our way. Seriously, I believe we have invented a new language for media in the 21st century and I want to see everyone have access to it.

Do you have a good work-life balance in your current role? I've been a reporter all my life. I have no business training and as a consequence I was often working till 1am, even on weekends. Thankfully that's eased up now that I am surrounded by a really skilled team. I cycle to work but I also do long-distance cycling on weekends. It makes me really happy. I prefer not to lead the cycling groups. I do enough leading during the week.

What, if anything, would you change about the route your career path has taken? Hmmmm. Lots of things. Nothing. I'm a lucky guy. I had an amazing 30+ year career as a broadcast journalist, foreign correspondent for American and Canadian network news. I reported on many of the biggest stories of our age, including the Iraq War, the Arab Spring, Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf Oil Spill, the Chile Mine Rescue, the Haiti Earthquake. I covered Latin America for ten years. It was hard work (good practice for building a startup) but never boring, never without challenges. That said, it would have helped a lot in my early days building Trint if I knew something (anything) about finance.

Which would you recommend: A coding bootcamp or a computer science degree? It depends on what you want out of your life. Both have merits and both are valid routes to success. Clearly, a university degree offers the opportunity to do a much deeper dive. But I'd hire with either background, depending on the role.

How important are specific certifications? I am a reporter. I have a degree in political science. I have zero business training. What I do have is a solid vision for the product, and as a reporter who has transcribed thousands of hours of interviews, news conferences and speeches, I have a deep understanding of what the problem looks like and what a solution has to look like. I'm not sure an MBA would have helped me, but it would have been nice to have had some financial grounding. The first time I ever tried to do a cash flow on Excel, I tried to change some numbers and kept getting the hashtag symbol. I got so frustrated, I just wanted to curl up under the table and scream, "Send me back to Iraq!"

I think entrepreneurship is less about formal training and more about life experience and outlook. I am genuinely excited by what we are doing and it's the first thing everyone notices. Vision, passion and authenticity are critical. The rest you can learn or hire.

What are the three skills or abilities you look for in prospective candidates? I love this question. It's really important for building a team. 1) PASSION - I don't care what your skill level, if you don't express genuine excitement about what we are doing here at Trint, there isn't a place for you here. 2) COLLABORATION - There is no room for a heroes (aka "lone rangers") at Trint. We are a collaborative team. If you can't work with people and thrive on sharing the journey, you won't fit in. 3) HUMILITY - I like people who are confidently humble. They know what they know, but they are confident enough to admit what they don't know.

What would put you off a candidate? That's easy: they haven't bothered to try our product. I can't tell you how many people come to an interview without even looking at the product. There's a video introduction that takes 90 seconds to watch. To play with the product involves signing up and about 10 minutes of your time. I think it's really unacceptable to come to a job interview and make excuses for not having tried the product. Bye bye.

What are the most common mistakes made by candidates in an interview? How can those mistakes be avoided? See answer above. Don't ask for our time if you don't have the initiative or basic courtesy to take the time to play with our product for a few minutes.

Do you think it is better to have technical or business skills - or a mix of both? That depends on your role. For my role, business skills matter. Although I wish I could code, even a little. Time is my most precious commodity during my work day, so I'm not expecting to be taking coding classes anytime soon.