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Future of Work Series: Q&A with Merci Grace

Q&A with Merci Grace on Vowel

At Vowel, we often chat with folks in our network (who also happen to be some of the most influential leaders and thinkers in tech) about where the future of work and collaboration is going. One day, we thought “Why not record it, and open up the conversation to be shared, right on Vowel?”

That’s exactly what we did, and that has turned into what you see here — welcome to Vowel’s Future of Work Series.

This is a conversation between our Head of Product, Anna Marie Clifton, and Merci Grace. Merci is a founder, startup investor, and advisor (Fast Company named her one of the Most Creative People in 2017). She previously worked as Head of Product and Growth at Slack and an investor at Lightspeed Ventures. She's now the founder of Panobi and one of the co-founders of Women in Product.

Check out the full conversation on Vowel, or watch the video below.

Anna Marie: We're live. Well, awesome. So much like so excited to chat with you today. Mercy, I have been a huge fan of you in your work for so long and been a real inspiration to my career in kind of workplace tooling. So, so excited to chat with you today on Vowel's Future of Work Series. Thanks so much for joining us. Do you wanna share a little bit about kind of what you're working on, where you've come from, kind of your history with the future of work?

Merci: Sure. Yeah. I'm, I'm a two ex founder. My first company was a gaming company that we actually ran using IRC and we built this mostly distributed team. I was based in the bay area. A lot of folks, including a co-founder were, were in the UK and STR across the United States. So I had a prepared mind when Slack came out and I was lucky to be able to join that company early on. Whereas head of growth and worked in a bunch of sort of like different team building. Roles there. Then I left. I was a VC for a couple of years, and now I'm on startup. Number two. We're in stealth, but it's largely a growth platform for teams. If folks wanna check it out

Anna Marie: Now we have found. That's awesome. I love that phrase. You had kind of a prepared mind. Can you tell me a little bit more about like, that sounds like there's a handle, something more behind it.

Merci: I think it's something I picked up from other VCs when I was. Investing and it's about meeting. Every company in a space, something that I saw when I was angel investing, that was hugely different from institutional investing. I would hear through my network about some cool sounding company or some badass founder. And then send it to, you know, VC and say, Hey, what do you think about this? And they would say, Oh, yeah. So there are seven of these companies. They're all like exactly the same. They all got started at the same point and it really blew my mind. That, that is kind of how ideas, you know, the zeitgeist of even a business concept. Really kind of permeates culture in society and you end up getting these really similar things. And so the more. First party research you can do as an investor, or frankly, as a founder. The better, the number of founders that I would meet that hadn't. Googled that deeply into the. The sector, the idea that they were hoping to build in was kind of, kind of a shock.

Anna Marie: Right. Totally. That makes me think a lot of the, like, All the different things over time that have been like discovered semi simultaneous, simultaneously, like calculus.

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: And it's interesting to think about how much more information is more widely available and so more likely that people are gonna come at the same ideas around the same time. I'm curious as you think about that, you know, the zeitgeist and you're thinking about kind of future of work. You've been working in the future of work for a long time. I'm curious how you've seen, you know, what is the future of work and how that's changed like five, 10 years ago? What was the future of work? And now what is the future of work?

Merci: Yeah. Yeah. It's interesting. I feel like the future of work used to really mean. We were taking a lot of it. Mobile. Devices and getting blue collar workers, pink collar workers. Onto these, you know, cloud based platforms that knowledge workers were already really heavily using. And then it seems like. Around frankly, the pandemic taking hold and everyone being forced to be remote. It became this like, Future of remote work, future of work started to really overlap each other quite a bit. And it felt for a little bit like we were kinda done ish on the knowledge worker side, we continued to collaborate online, but there wouldn't be. Seismic behavioral or technical shifts. And then it will be very interesting. One of the trends that I've been watching is, is AI and what it's gonna do to. Jobs like marketing, writing. Writing in general, the creation of ads, the creation of. You know, any kind of, really like marketing or art or graphic.

Anna Marie: Yeah.

Merci: Work I've been seeing now and not even just on articles about AI, but seeing. AI generated, you know, paintings and images, accompanying articles online.

Anna Marie: Totally.

Merci: That's only going to continue. Be really interesting.

Anna Marie: Yeah, no, I'm super fascinated with that. I've also like just personally thinking like maybe I should get into children book writing now that I can like have my own illustrator. In, you know, table diffusion, right? There's just like so many more possibilities. Yeah, that's really fascinating. We think about, especially in the marketing side, I don't know if you've seen this slides of like, I think it was called like the mark tech 7,000 or something it's called now. Which is just this really beautiful set of slides of like how many different tools there are just for supporting the marketing and industry.

Merci: Oh, yeah.

Anna Marie: And like every year there's like, you know, an order of magnitude more. And it's just like marketing definitely has definitely exploded in terms of knowledge work and, and the tooling and functionality and like specificity of the roles been really fascinating to watch that.

Merci: Yes. Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I wonder if there's a collapse of a lot of those things as. A lot of those functions just get beaten by AI. You don't need like a copywriter optimizing a copy, and that can be a totally self contained system.

Anna Marie: Totally. Totally. Oh, that is super fascinating. I'm curious when you, when you start talking about like the bleeding between kind of the future of work and the future of remote work, What, what are some trends that you're seeing there as those kind of like collapse into two? Sorry into one.

Merci: Yeah. Yeah. You know, a lot of it is this, this kind of stuff, so that, you know, being on video platforms, People getting used to working. This way too, you know, occasionally I live in San Francisco and. I think you live in San Francisco as well, and we're not sitting together in person doing this right. And I'll get, you know, coffee invites or things like that for people. And it's, it's funny because now after a couple of years, Of working totally remotely, as well as. A year of really concentrated customer development. And, and research and building on my own company. I feel like there's the in person meeting. Can be good, but it's pretty lousy because you don't have a transcript. You don't have a recording. And so I have been doing, you know, for a year, basically. These pretty intense customer development interviews and play sessions with the tool and things like that. And I am learning at probably. Three X the speed that I would be. Otherwise, because I. Get on zoom.

Anna Marie: Okay.

Merci: We, you know, I ask, Hey, can I. Report this everyone literally always says, yes, it's really fantastic.

Anna Marie: Mm-hmm.

Merci: People are very used to it.

Anna Marie: Mm-hmm.

Merci: And then I'll, I actually have to buy. A transcript because. Yeah, the audio transcription technology. Hasn't been trained with female voices and so I've yet to use a platform that can tell the difference between two women's voices speaking.

Anna Marie: Wow.

Merci: Which is very irritating,

Anna Marie: Wow.

Merci: But so I have to pay between kind of 15 and 150 bucks per. Per meeting to get it transcribed at a high level of fidelity. Which is irritating, but then I have this. Video artifact. I have this transcript. And I'll go through and I'll reread it several times. I'll pull notes out. And I hear things, you know, I learn things the second and third time. That I would've totally forgotten.

Anna Marie: Totally.

Merci: And the same thing with writing more. Too. I have a totally remote team. My co-founder lives in Brooklyn. We have folks in Vancouver. And soon Washington. And Texas and godly knows where after that. Maybe even someday, one more person in the bay area.

Anna Marie Clifton: Right, right. A little pod here.

Merci: Yeah,

Anna Marie Clifton: Yeah.

Merci: exactly.

Anna Marie: It's amazing. Cause I think a lot about, I mean, especially if the customer development use case, one of the things that I've loved about using Vowel for all of our customer development. Is we make all of those videos available to everyone in the workspace.

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: So, if I'm ever searching for insights, I can like, I'm like, oh, you know what? We're thinking about a notion integration. So I can like search notion integration. And every call that anyone on my team has had with anyone that has mentioned notion integration,

Merci: Okay. Cool. Yeah.

Anna Marie: like pops up and I can go like, right to that point in the transcript and like make a little clip and like collect all that, like, okay, this is looking like a trend. Yes, no things like that.

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: Which is just like massively changed. How quickly we can like reference information without having to like run new studies.

Merci: Absolutely.

Anna Marie: Or rely on again, like lossy human brains to be like, do you remember like how important is the notion integration?

Merci: Yeah, exactly. And it may be heavily influenced by how, you know, how you feel about the notion integration. But also how sleepy were you that day? When was the last time you had a snack,

Anna Marie: Yeah,

Merci: you know,

Anna Marie: Right. Oh, there's so much data about like, you know, even. Verdicts the like judges passing down like harsher sentencing,

Merci: No right before lunch.

Anna Marie: like when they're hungry.

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: Exactly versus like right after lunch. So they're the softer. Softer thing.

Merci: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Anna Marie: So it's just.

Merci: I always tell people that at when I'm, you know, being pitched to speak at a conference, And like, I'll do, as long as you don't get me that 11:00 AM slot.

Anna Marie: That's amazing. Yeah. You want everyone fresh off their coffee break, right.

Merci: Exactly.

Anna Marie: And like excited. I love that. That's so smart. that's fascinating. So you mentioned kind of a little bit about the, the value of having kind of these, these recordings and these transcripts, which I tell you. Swear by that all day,

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: You know, you could use sell and you get everyone's voice transcribed independently. So that can be a little, a little saving tip there.

Merci: Oh, yeah. Hmm. True.

Anna Marie: I didn't realize about like the distinguishing between female voices, but that makes sense. Very few things are tested on women.

Merci: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

Anna Marie: neither here nor there.

Merci: Mm-hmm see.

Anna Marie: Oh, right. Like just. AR is like, you know, making women like more dizzy and all that it's that we could, we could talk about that one for a long time. I'm sure.

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: Very strong feelings there. I'm curious a little bit about kinda how you think about the, the value. I mean, keeping people. In the loop and like communication and coordination, collaboration, that's like where a lot of your product career. And a lot of what you've built is kind of around that.

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: I'm curious how you've seen. The need for that, the tools for that, like all of that kind of evolve over the past few years, if there's any kind of trends or insights there that you're seeing.

Merci: Yeah, it's it is interesting, you know, there's. A few separate. Threads of work. So one is having a team. That's gelled and has a good rapport. And has enough, you know, Positive social experiences with each other that you feel like, okay, it's this team.

Anna Marie: Mm-hmm.

Merci: And I know. You know, for instance, I know my co-founder really well. We worked together for years at Slack and then remained friends afterwards and travel together even. And so I can read his tone. And what's going on with him, including, you know, a better read of his tone than I think I would have for other people over things like text. In Slack or. Text messages or email and things like that. So I think it is. That that live simultaneous. Time is really well spent.

Anna Marie: Mm-hmm.

Merci: Just vibing.

Anna Marie: And totally.

Merci: With your team. So we're doing, we're doing. Retreats, we were gonna do it more often, but it's turned out that we probably only need to do it twice a year, but. We have this fully remote team. And so what we're doing is meeting up and we'll have. Some, you know, big conversations to have right now it's roadmaps and customers and things like that. But then the rest of our time spent together is hanging out.

Anna Marie: Mm-hmm.

Merci: And, and building up those hours. That we don't get, cause we're not in the office together. And you end up needing to draw down from that for, you know, difficult decisions and hard discussions. Later on. So that's one thing and that's like the collaboration stuff that makes everything else. Easier basically, you've built up a bank of good vibes with your team.

Anna Marie: Yeah. Yeah.

Merci: But, but then, you know, it's more. It's interesting cuz for products, people, especially, I think it's. A lot more IC time than PMs have needed to have in the past.

Anna Marie: Mm-hmm.

Merci: When previously I could have a meeting, I could grab a designer and get in front of a whiteboard.

Anna Marie: Mm-hmm.

Merci: Now I need to make a short video. Detailing the bug. Cause I can't just like. Show it to an engineer and then.

Anna Marie: Fair.

Merci: We've become, I think a little bit more similar to engineers in that we really do need. Uninterrupted hours of flow to write.

Anna Marie: Mm,

Merci: Because he thought writing was an important part of the PM skillset before. Oh, man.

Anna Marie: totally.

Merci: you you've better be a good writer.

Anna Marie: Totally.

Merci: Now because you're not gonna get anything done. If you're just. You know, and I do mean this in a pejorative way, but like that influencer. Type of a P who's just really good at talking really good at interviewing.

Anna Marie: Oh, yes.

Merci: And then you're like,

Anna Marie: Right.

Merci: wow. So are you gonna.

Anna Marie: Do so.

Merci: Or keep way this product. No. Okay. I didn't think so.

Anna Marie Clifton: that that hits that resonates so deeply.

Merci: Worked with them.

Anna Marie: Oh, my. We it's interesting cuz at Vowel, you know, we're also fully remote. We're actually global. We're I thinking. Nine or 10 different time zones.

Merci: Wow.

Anna Marie: Which is well,

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: that one's real fun. So we've had some really interesting things. You know, even just writing up guidelines for like how to use Slack, to communicate effectively, which I feel like I didn't have to have in previous companies,

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: because you got so much of that face time to like, get each other's vibes that like.

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: Slack kind of just worked. So it's been really interesting thinking about like, when you need to get not more formal, but just like I'll give people a little bit more education. Like we, we focus a lot on helping people. Like just think about formatting information, put, putting more time into thinking how to format the information for the reader's sake. Versus like from the writer's sake of like,

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: this is the fastest way for me to say those things. So I'm just gonna send it off.

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: So I'm curious if you've found things that have felt different. I, I assume you're using Slack for everything. are there things that feel different about how you use the tool now in this like more fully remote? Environment where you, you had less face time with these people. I mean, obviously your co-founder you've had a lot of face time with, but you're newer is less so.

Merci: Yeah. Yeah. It's interesting. Because, and I still, we talk, you know, I've talked to the number of also like X Slack employees about this and. Of course, I'm probably one of the more responsible parties having not built this into the product when it was my area of the product to build it into. But I really feel like we were not opinionated enough about how to use Slack. So all low-key watch other use Slack or, you know, see clips different. Things. And I'll be shocked when I see, for instance, the number of channels.

Anna Marie: Mm-hmm.

Merci: That people have. So we are. About a six person team right now.

Anna Marie: Hmm.

Merci: And we have like 20 channels.

Anna Marie: Mm-hmm mm-hmm.

Merci: And we use all of them. Because they're all actually for pretty specific different things.

Anna Marie: Mm-hmm.

Merci: So that's, that's one thing. And then, because we always had. A substantial presence in Vancouver and our CEO and founder. Actually lived there full time and then would travel down to San Francisco. And then of course later, later offices, we did all, always have this culture of what we called the library. Where you actually,

Anna Marie: Hmm.

Merci: weren't supposed to talk that much. Slack office.

Anna Marie: Amazing.

Merci: And it would be like, Quiet and it Def it weirded people out and maybe it attracted the right kind of person.

Anna Marie: Right,

Merci: So it was a fine, you know, cultural thing.

Anna Marie: right.

Merci: But, you know, we'd be sitting there quietly, like TP tap, typing to each other.

Anna Marie: Amazing. Even on the.

Merci: Sharing memes.

Anna Marie: Growth. That's amazing. I feel like Alana had something pretty similar, which I think kind of, you know, came from our founder. Who's a little bit of an introvert.

Merci: Hmm.

Anna Marie: A lot, bit of an introvert. But the growth team was always like super chatty. There was like that one section of the floor where it like growth was, and it was like, what? So I, I just always associate growth teams with like, Vivacious energy.

Merci: Yeah, that's, that's not wrong. I think, you know, part of the challenge of, of S is that. You are by far the fastest moving product organization.

Anna Marie: Yeah.

Merci: Moving, you know, really five to 10 X, the speed of other organizations. And so, yeah, there's a lot of phonetic. Frenetic energy.

Anna Marie: Yeah,

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: Amazing. Well, one last thing I wanna chat with you about, I love meetings. A bit of a meeting nerd have been for many, many years, part of why I'm at Vowel.

Merci: Oh,

Anna Marie: Meeting and a little bird flew by and told me that you at Slack were the person.

Merci: yeah.

Anna Marie: Kind of identified as kind of the meeting. Expert and would teach people how to have good meetings. So I'm curious,

Merci: Yeah,

Anna Marie: First of all, like how did people discover this about you? How did you discover this about yourself? And what did you teach people?

Merci: Yeah. So I dunno, I like. Don't know, I like it did meeting. I like to know. I mean, I'm an extrovert. And so I am the kind of person who would be probably pretty fine in a, in a meeting, but I hate the feeling of like being read, allowed to in school. Do you remember that in elementary school, in drove me in insane. I was also strong readers. It was.

Anna Marie: Right,

Merci: Very irritating,

Anna Marie: right.

Merci: but sitting there listening to PE and then the work equivalent of that is someone here in a meeting someone's giving you presentation. And they're reading those slides out loud.

Anna Marie: Sure. Sure.

Merci: you're like,

Anna Marie Clifton: Totally.

Merci: wow. It did not. This did not have to be a meeting.

Anna Marie: Totally.

Merci: You could have definitely emailed me these slides. Cause I can also read it's one of the things that qualified me to be in this meeting.

Anna Marie: Right, right, right. Goes along with the writing.

Merci: we're dating. Yeah, that also re it's important part of it. And so, yeah, I, I think, you know, I just like, this is what I'm like, I just don't have a, I don't kind of suffer fools and like to, to waste time. And so at, at Slack, I had tea where we were one of the LA kind of product pillars in the organization. To get a dedicated engineering management team who we're all, you know, managing this same engineers and things like that. So, My, the engineers on my team would often report. Into very different parts of the organization. And they started to tell their managers that I had a very well run. Product team and compared to the other product teams that they had been on.

Merci: It was pretty efficient and, and especially my weekly meetings where I would look at the agenda ahead of time. And. Cut the meeting time. If it was obviously. Not enough stuff for the full, you know, ever a half hour.

Anna Marie: Mm-hmm.

Merci: I started asking for feedback. At the end of meetings and so self criticizing.

Anna Marie: Mm. Oh, Huh Uhhuh.

Merci: In front of it too. I did. Premortems.

Anna Marie: Mm-hmm.

Merci: With my team as well. So, you know, we're gonna ship this big thing. It's four months in the future. It's out. And yeah, we lift it. What happened?

Anna Marie: Mm-hmm.

Merci: and, and once you start asking those, you know, kind of questions and pulling that up, that's a great use of a meeting because you can create this safe. Space with your tone and,

Anna Marie: Hmm.

Merci: and, and how you show up.

Anna Marie: Mm-hmm.

Merci: And so when we were doing, you know, we were hiring just an enormous number of people at Slack, we would have. Days where 40 new people would show up it was crazy.

Anna Marie: Wow.

Merci: And, and we had special training for managers. And so I did the section of that training that was about running. A great meeting. And so, you know, I told people don't have a recurring meeting for instance, that just goes off forever into the future. You're it's gonna be really useful for a while, but that's a huge part of getting feedback at the end of the meeting is to actually. Question the premise,

Anna Marie: Hmm.

Merci: you know, we're all here in this meeting. Do we need to be?

Anna Marie: Mm-hmm. Totally.

Merci: What do other people think?

Anna Marie: Momentum is like so powerful.

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: It's so hard to like, stop and say like, why are we doing this process? Why are we having this meeting? Like, Is it still critical. And I think when you set the perpetual things in motion,

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: Takes a lot of energy to stop them.

Merci: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And I think, you know, it's your job as a, as a manager. Is to enable people. And speed them up. and it's funny, I've pushed back as my cofounder and I talked about the future of our company. One of the things that we're. Thinking to do is to not have very many managers at all. And I had kind of a spicy. Question for you, but if you think that the job of a manager. Is to make that team more performant?

Anna Marie: Mm-hmm.

Merci: More efficient and better at their work.

Anna Marie: Mm-hmm.

Merci: How many good managers. Have you had or known.

Anna Marie: Totally. I mean, I've known a lot that are really great gatekeepers and like reputation managers of like, okay, let's make sure everyone's company thinks my team is doing a great job.

Merci: Yeah, let's make sure I look good.

Anna Marie: Totally totally.

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: Which is like the incentive. Right. You have to always think about the incentives at play.

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: And I think it's really hard to like push a system outside of its incentives.

Merci: Yes.

Anna Marie: So like maybe just like having fewer managers is the answer.

Merci: Yeah,

Anna Marie: One thing.

Merci: I think we're gonna find out.

Anna Marie: I'm very excited to watch that experiment. One thing that you mentioned that really stood out to me is the, the concept of. Spreading that knowledge around the organization, where you had a lot of engineers that were working with different managers. And that's something that I have seen. Be super successful in a couple different ways at Vowel. That's been awesome to watch of just like sharing an engineer with a different team for sprint, just to like spread the knowledge of like, how do different teams work?

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: And one thing that I've just really loved watching is, you know, we have a great, we have a shoutouts channel in our Slack. I love shoutouts. Everyone kind of like shout out to this person for blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And, and I remember, you know, we had like a shout out, like shout out to this team lead that ran a really great, like sprint planning. It was just like left everyone feeling so excited and so energized. And the other team leads were like, oh, can you like share that recording with me? I wanna see like what, what, what made it different? What made it special? And it's like, sure, like,

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: Paste like here. Now you have that meeting and it's been really great to see that information. Spread more organically throughout an organization of like, what's going well.

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: Without having like, actually like send people around necessarily. So I'm really excited to see how that evolves over time. As more meetings become more digital.

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: Versus this analog lossy thing that we have today.

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: Or had today.

Merci: Exactly. And, you know, I've been, you know, I'm. I feel for the. Zoomer generation gen Z coming into the workplace now. Missed out on few years of, you know, college or high school, really like rough. And then now joining organizations that are. You know, hybrid or fully remote.

Anna Marie: Mm-hmm.

Merci: Because so much of your first kind of five years just in the workplace. Is being a fly on the wall and see having the opportunity to see.

Anna Marie: Yeah.

Merci: Oh, this is how AMC runs this meeting.

Anna Marie: Okay.

Merci: Oh, this is how Merci. Like detangled this issue. Between design and engineering. And not that that person. Is on our teams, but that, because they, you know, we all were in the same office together. They get over here and see examples of different people and their different styles.

Anna Marie: Totally. Yeah.

Merci: And then hear the back channel from the people. You know, if like I walk away and the designer and the engineer are like, well, we don't like each other, but we dislike her more. Yeah,

Anna Marie: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

Merci: that's. Bad.

Anna Marie: Yeah.

Merci: And so, I mean, this seems like a pretty good solution to, to that where at least you can. You know, create kind of more walls for the people that hang out on sort of like look around.

Anna Marie: Totally. Yeah. Totally. It's amazing how much I learned from just identifying who were the rock stars, like who are the people that are doing so well at what they do.

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: And even not working in their department or organization at all, still just kind of like being like, oh, okay. I know that when they say something I'm gonna pay extra attention because they're so well respected and get such great results.

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: And I feel like we just have less access. Like there's less internal transparency because there's so much information running around, you know, digitally. It's like. The, the cues of like, who's looking where going, where saying what to whom are like much more subtle clues that you can pick up on versus like I'm not gonna stock other people's Slack channels.

Merci: Yeah.

Anna Marie: Like maybe a little bit,

Merci: Yeah. Yeah.

Anna Marie: just a little bit.

Merci: Exactly.

Anna Marie: well,

Merci: Hey, that's just doing research.

Anna Marie: Yes. Yes, exactly. Well, this has been so fascinating. Love chatting with you about the future work. Thank you so much for joining Vowel's Future Work Series. I can't wait to chat with you in the future.

Merci: You're so welcome. Yeah. Great.

Anna Marie: Bye!

Where to find Merci: