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The Next Step: Ross Gordon of Sounder

‘The Next Step’ is a monthly series that features recent graduates who’ve made exciting moves after Stern. We hope that their stories will inspire you and excite you about what’s next.

This month, The Oppy is featuring Ross Gordon (Dec. ‘21), soon-to-be tech MBA and chief of staff at Sounder.fm, a podcast company that is shaping the future of audio. As a former colleague of mine from our LinkedIn days, I was delighted to sit down with Ross and to have the opportunity to share his story. Read on to learn more about Ross’ professional journey and his non-traditional path through the Tech MBA and to Sounder, which involved ingenuity, hard work and a touch of serendipity.

Why did you choose to attend Stern, and what were you looking to get out of it?

I chose to attend Stern as a way of gaining the experience and knowledge that I didn’t have coming out of undergrad. As a journalism major, I was looking for finance, accounting, product management, and strategy skills that would help me achieve my original desire to pivot into product.

Business school was a natural progression in my career. I started at LinkedIn first using data to help sales professionals drive more revenue for the business. Then, I pivoted to building tools that helped sales reps do that at scale. Rather than operating on a one-to-one relationship per customer, I was operating on a one-to-many. I really enjoyed building different dashboards and tools, but I had trouble moving into product management at work. I thought that the one-year Tech MBA would give me the experience, knowledge, and network needed to be able to make that transition.

Funny enough, the pandemic pushing back the start of the Tech MBA program was a blessing in disguise. Through a product fellowship which eventually led to my full-time job, I was able to gain a lot of the product management and product marketing experience that I was looking to develop in the MBA program before it even started.

Ok so let’s back up and clarify timelines because we covered a lot of ground. You were supposed to start the Tech MBA right after the inception of the Covid crisis in New York City in 2020, correct?

Yes, I left LinkedIn in early March 2020 and I was getting ready to take about 10 weeks off before starting at Stern in mid-May. We all know what happened in March. NYU decided to push the start date of the Tech MBA to January 2021. It was a wild experience going from what I thought was 10 weeks off, relaxing before I started the journey at Stern, to what became eight months of what could have been unemployment before the MBA started.

So with eight months free, I needed to find something to do. I was able to find two awesome opportunities. First, I worked for Scott Galloway as a research analyst at Section4, helping write case studies for his brand sprint. Ultimately, I moved on from that to a full-time gig working at Sounder as a product management and product marketing fellow until January of 2021 when I began the Tech MBA at Stern. I quickly realized that I missed the team at Sounder and went back on a contract basis in April. I was doing part-time work for them throughout the second and third semesters of the program.

That ties in well to my next question, which is to elaborate on your journey to Sounder. How did you find the fellowship that started you on your path to full-time employment there? Why did you think it was a great fit for you?

It was really serendipitous. I had known the CEO Kal Amin from my days interning at Spotify back in 2013. I didn’t work directly with him. We played ping-pong during lunch breaks or late afternoons (he’s a great ping-pong player). I hadn’t seen him in a long time and, one night, I was out to dinner with family in Hoboken. He was randomly there with a co-founder and head of commercial development at the time. I remembered him telling me the name of the startup that he was joining and kept tabs on the company. Then, when the original plan for post-LinkedIn broke down, I remembered the startup and reached out to see if there were any product or data needs. It turns out there was, so I had a few interviews with the team and it seemed like a good fit given my background.

I immediately jumped in and helped the team with their June launch of the Sounder Discovery Suite which helps podcasters get discovered and heard. Podcasting is an incredibly exciting space, especially as the creator economy accelerated in growth since the pandemic. Working at a company that helps individuals make more money and develop their own brand is super exciting to me, especially as someone who loves to write. I understand how much fun creating and being your own boss can be.

Besides podcasting being an exciting space, it sounds like you have a personal connection to what Sounder is doing.

Definitely. In addition to some of the experiences I had at Sounder and working at Section4 during the pandemic, I also started my own newsletter, called Gridology, which is a two by two breakdown of questions regarding life, careers, and personal relationships. It was a great way for me to flex the writing muscle again, something I haven’t used since the assignment days back in journalism school. The entire process of creating the brand, sticking to a writing cadence, collaborating with other writers in the space, idea generation, marketing and promotion — all of that is very similar to many of the challenges that podcasters face.

It’s always a challenge to promote, market and distribute your show. It’s usually a one man show for a lot of independent podcast creators. Sounder is a tool that allows a lot of that to happen automatically using audio intelligence, which is the use of insights to help creators accelerate discovery, engagement and revenue opportunities for their content. It’s very much in line with many of the problems that exist for creators, whether you’re creating video, audio or written content. Obviously, there are specific challenges that are unique to each type of creator, but the overall activities of creating content, getting it promoted and then trying to monetize it are very common across all creators.

Do you think Sounder is well-positioned in the podcast industry?

There are a variety of tools out there and it takes a very long time for creators to create audio content. Our research shows that, on average, audio creators are using anywhere between 10 to 13 tools to create their content. There’s a huge opportunity in this space to condense that and make the process simpler. First and foremost, Sounder is building a place for creators to do that.

The other thing that’s really missing in the space is audio intelligence. Sounder is introducing data and insights to the audio creation ecosystem. Creators should be driven by their own desire to create whatever content that resonates with them, but there’s an opportunity to improve by using data. Not to change how creators create, but to amplify their intuitions. That’s what Sounder is doing with data — using insights to help creators discover how to deepen audience engagement and then ultimately unlocking advertising revenue. We believe that podcasting today is what YouTube was about 10 years ago. We’re building the right infrastructure to help creators of all sizes increase discovery, engagement and monetization in really meaningful ways.

I recently attended an NYU Tech Talk with the CEO of Box, Stephanie Carullo, which was fantastic. Stephanie mentioned that the Chief of Staff role is one of the most interesting roles that a student can take out of business school. Given that you recently accepted the position of Chief of Staff at Sounder, I’d love to hear more about what attracted you to the role.

Similar to my journey to Sounder, I stumbled on to the Chief of Staff role. After my initial product management and product marketing fellowship, which I really enjoyed, I still felt myself wanting to continue to explore. So when I came back in April after taking a few months to get my bearings at Stern, I jumped back into a nameless role where I was working on high priority projects with the leadership team. What I realized was that I loved having my hands in a variety of projects and my professional growth accelerated by having the exposure to the leadership team.

When I discovered the Chief of Staff role, I spoke to a few friends who hold the title themselves. I realized that it was a “make it your own role” where you can have a very large impact and really understand what it’s like to operate a startup. That was my main objective in pursuing the role. Coming from such a large company, I wanted to understand how a startup runs while having a large impact in creating a successful company.

I also think that close collaboration with a company’s leadership team is not common for business school graduates. So it’s a really exciting and rare opportunity to learn from some very talented professionals with 15-20 years of experience working at some awesome companies like Spotify and Google. For me, the idea of working with the team to organize operations for a startup with employees spread out across five time zones, define strategy, and lead marketing — all while working to solve challenges for a group of podcasters who are eager to get their stories out — is deeply fulfilling.

That sounds really exciting. What is the most challenging thing about the role?

I think the most challenging thing about it is prioritization. We’re a startup and the phrase ‘you wear a lot of hats’ at a startup doesn’t really make sense until you actually work at a startup yourself. Right now, I’m wearing a marketing hat, an operations hat, a culture hat, a strategy hat, a social media hat, a data reporting and insights hat, and a growth hat all at the same time. They’re all vitally important to the success of the company and figuring out how to spend my time in an effective way is definitely a challenge.

In the same vein, ensuring that we are creating processes that don’t just work for a few people in a given department, but can be scaled out to an entire team is definitely a challenge.

To support my ability to succeed in this role, I wanted to continue connecting with other chiefs of staff in the industry. That led me to joining the third cohort of On Deck’s Chief of Staff program, which is a year long program to support my growth as a chief of staff, learning best practices from those who’ve already been through many of the same challenges that I’m facing or will face in the future as the company continues to scale and grow.

That’s awesome. I don’t doubt for a second you’d be doing something like this. Folks, Ross pretty much got me through the GMAT as my GMAT guru when we worked together at LinkedIn. He’s a go-getter!

Now let’s pivot to our “rapid-fire” questions:

What’s one word that describes you? Compassionate
Favorite professor at Stern? Ian D’Souza

First job ever? Part-time sales associate at Athletic Shoe Factory, a local sneakers and athletic apparel company in Westport, CT
What do you like to do for fun? Writing – something that I really enjoy but don’t get a lot of time to do. I’m looking forward to continuing my writing practice again in 2022.
What are you reading right now? A lot of Twitter. I’m trying to immerse myself in everything web3 right now.

Finish this sentence: At 7am you can find me… still sleeping.

Favorite movie, TV show or podcast? My favorite podcast right now is Invest Like the Best.

What’s one thing you can’t do that you want to learn? Piano

If you could meet anyone alive or dead, who would it be? The Rock — I find his message to be empowering, compassionate and thoughtful. His mantra of being the hardest worker in the room resonates with me and it’s something I try to apply to everything in my life personally and professionally.

Seeing that our audience is mostly business school students and many of us are looking for jobs, I would love your perspective on why someone should either join Sounder or get involved in the growing podcast industry?

Well, we are hiring, so definitely join Sounder. It’s an amazing group of folks that you wouldn’t be able to meet elsewhere. Half the team, or more than half the team is actually in Europe, so it’s amazing to be able to work across cultures. It’s also fulfilling to build a product for creators who are eager to get their message out and to be more productive in what they are trying to achieve, whether that’s learning something new themselves, storytelling, breaking into the industry or making money from their craft. There’s a variety of reasons someone goes into podcasting and we’re excited to help all of these creators build in the way that suits them and helps them grow in ways that matter most to them.

Sounds great – Sternies, head to Sounders’ job posting! My last question for you is – what advice would you give to soon-to-be graduating MBAs looking to break into a new career path like you did?

The thing that’s helped me the most in my career is having one thing I was going after as my short term career goal while also being open to other things – and treating both as equally important. So, as I mentioned earlier, I was going after becoming a product manager, but also focused on other things at large that made sense. As I reflect on my career so far, I usually don’t end up pursuing that short term career goal and end up pursuing the semi-related thing that just makes the most sense and feels right. I think that openness has led to a place where I have a role that makes me really excited every day. So, to summarize, you should have that short-term focus, but as you pursue it, be open to a variety of opportunities that might appear along the way. As long as you’re focusing and driving yourself in one direction, being more open will lead to even greater exponential returns.

That’s great advice, thanks so much for sharing your story with us, Ross, and good luck in the new role!
Interested in learning more? You can find Ross on Twitter @_rossgordon or at rossgordon.co, and you can checkout Gridology here: gridology.co. Sounder can be found on Twitter @sounder_fm and Instagram @sounder.fm, or check out Sounder’s website: https://sounder.fm/.

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