Transformational Change: Taking Cues from the Startup World

What does a market leader do when it decides to embark on transformational change? How does it build a new executive team at the speed of a changing marketplace without disturbing the culture and values that helped it get to where it is today? How does it grow aggressively, but responsibly?

Countless engineers and programmers have learned to code through O’Reilly Media’s vast collection of books, ebooks, training videos, webcasts, newsletters and conferences. They are a dedicated and loyal audience that Laura Baldwin, recognized early in her tenure as the key to significant growth. “When you’re a product-focused company, the only way to grow is to create more products. Organizations need to be audience facing,” says Baldwin.

In 2015, in a move that embodied Baldwin’s audience-facing goal, O’Reilly purchased the entirety of Safari, a subscription-based educational powerhouse. The acquisition added an expansive library of learning products, video tutorials, and other interactive media to O’Reilly’s already substantial collection of content. But with the Safari acquisition came the need for a new business approach and a new executive team to lead it.

“I wanted to hire a firm that understood who we are as a company,”
—Laura Baldwin, President of O’Reilly Media

Finding a trusted search partner.  Baldwin knew she needed a trusted, long-term partner to help architect a new executive team. “I wanted to hire a firm that understood who we are as a company,” says Baldwin. Proud of O’Reilly’s culture—mission-driven and lacking ego—Baldwin wanted a search firm who could easily create alignment across the executive placements, especially from a cultural standpoint. “I wanted someone I trusted to help us build a team, not hire a collection of individuals.”

“Even in our early conversations, it was clear that Laura
and I were aligned on how to work together.”
Josh Withers, Managing Director of True Search, North America

Baldwin met with five different search firms, but from the very start, her conversation with True Search stood out. “Josh [Withers, Founder & Managing Director, North America and co-Head of the CEO/BOD Practice at True] was incredibly down to earth,” says Baldwin. “Every search firm I met with made the conversation about them and their successes. But Josh came in saying, ‘What are you trying to accomplish?’ The conversation was entirely different.”

Like Baldwin, Withers also felt a difference in those initial conversations. “We’re always looking for clients who want a consultative partner, not a transactional resume shop. It was clear that Laura and I were looking for the same type of partnership.”

Make sure culture is understood.   From the outset of the partnership, the True Search team made it a point to understand not just the skillsets that Baldwin was looking for, but individuals who would thrive within O’Reilly’s culture. “For each position, Laura had such a clear vision of what she was looking for,” says Withers, who led the project on behalf of True Search. “For us, the focus became immersing ourselves in O’Reilly’s culture. We made it our mission to understand the culture as well as Laura did.” To do so, members of the True team spent as much time as possible with Baldwin and her existing executive team, walking along campus and connecting with key stakeholders on a personal level.

“Understanding culture is an ongoing process,” says Joe Molinelli, who led the CMO search for O’Reilly. “You always hear about culture, but you don’t really get a sense for it until you interact with people over time and really get to know them.”

Extensive conversations helped True define the type and breadth of candidates Baldwin and O’Reilly were looking for. The executive team needed to scale with a new CFO, CMO, and CRO. The engineering team needed to scale aggressively as well, with a Head of Engineering and Head of Product. These roles would need to effectively bring the engineering teams from Safari and O’Reilly together. In each area, O’Reilly was looking for candidates with a SaaS background and growth mentality.

Get access to the right talent.  True’s extensive experience among high-growth technology companies and expansive talent network of candidates with the SaaS skillset connected O’Reilly with talent they wanted and needed: disrupters.

Many candidates had an in-depth knowledge and admiration for O’Reilly based on previous experience with their books and Safari courses. For these candidates, True’s task was communicating O’Reilly’s vision, transformation, and culture.

For True, the transformation happening within O’Reilly was the selling point. O’Reilly offered candidates the best of both worlds—the startup culture and SaaS model of a high-growth startup with the stability and financial backing of an established company.

A consultative relationship is key.  Of course, not every search was serendipitous. True’s CMO and CFO searches, in particular, lasted several months. Additionally, one placement didn’t work out, requiring True to renew their search. But for Baldwin, and the candidates involved in longer searches, True’s consultative approach made the difference.

“It’s not just about filling a role,” says Rhoda Longhenry, Partner, co-Head of the Financial Officers Practice at True Search. Indeed, while the True team presented several individuals with the right blend of skills and experience for the CFO position, O’Reilly and Longhenry agreed that the cultural fit wasn’t quite right.

Undeterred, Longhenry remained steadfast in her consultative approach. “We actively listened to what Laura was looking for, and were very candid in our assessments and feedback. We didn’t sell candidates but provided our honest assessment and judgment. Laura appreciated that. We weren’t wasting her time. We were focused less on volume and more on quality.”

“For True, it was all about building us the right team, no matter what,” says Baldwin, “and that was super impressive to me. It showed a level of integrity in their work that matched our own standards.”

 “We didn’t sell candidates but provided our honest assessment
and judgment. 
Laura appreciated that.”
Rhoda Longhenry, Partner, co-Head of Financial Officers Practice

Maria Manrique, who ultimately emerged as the right candidate for O’Reilly’s CFO search, and a key stakeholder in subsequent O’Reilly growth, also sensed a difference in her interactions with True from the start. “It was the best experience I had with a search firm,” says Manrique. “Rhoda and her team made me feel like I wanted to engage with them.”

Building below the executive level.  As O’Reilly successfully built its executive team, their attention turned to the growth of their team below the C-Suite. “I called Josh, and I said, ‘I don’t need executive support. I need to hire a level down, director-level and account executives, and that’s when he told me about Foundation,” says Baldwin.

While True Search specializes in CxO placements, Foundation Talent focuses on placing dynamic talent below the executive level. And since Foundation, like True Search, is part of the True Talent Advisory, O’Reilly was able to onboard an additional search team with a built-in trust factor. “As a candidate, I had an incredible experience,” says Manrique, who served as the key O’Reilly stakeholder for Foundation, “so I was excited at the opportunity to work with another member of the True family.”

For the Foundation team, their colleagues at True became trusted in-house consultants. Prior to the first search kick-off meeting, the Foundation team already understood O’Reilly’s culture, challenges, and goals.

“We work for different companies, but under the same umbrella.
That makes it incredibly easy to collaborate and share knowledge.”
Sam Jakola, General Manager and Partner of Foundation Talent

Foundation wasn’t content to rely on secondhand information. Members of the search team made it a point to experience the O’Reilly culture for themselves. “I’m a big proponent of visiting the client,” says Vanessa Vercollone, a Partner at Foundation Talent who led multiple searches for O’Reilly. “When you’re on site, you tend to have more open conversations about candidates and potential challenges. Having that insight is critical when we think about trying to place someone, especially in a leadership role or a brand new role.”

That intimate familiarity with O’Reilly’s culture became a key benefit for the Foundation team, which was working in a highly competitive technology market. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the employment of software developers to grow 24 percent from 2016-2026, much faster than the average for all occupations. That was especially true in Boston, a rapidly growing tech hub where the majority of candidates speaking to Foundation were also having conversations with other firms and organizations.

While Foundation placed more than ten candidates, it was arguably the journey, not the destination, that ultimately served as its largest contribution to O’Reilly. “Prior to engaging True and Foundation, O’Reilly hadn’t been in a hiring mode,” says Manrique.

“Foundation offered a solution to that and helped us meet our needs.
We’ve become a better HR department through our exposure to their recruiting method.
They not only found us great candidates—they’ve shown us what it takes
to aggressively recruit at scale.”
—Maria Manrique, Chief Financial Officer of O’Reilly Media

“I think one of the things that is really unique about Foundation,” says Jakola, “is that over half our team has internal recruiting experience. So we’ve sat in the same seat as many of our clients. That gives us an astute understanding of the landscape. We know what it’s like to recruit with limited resources. When bandwidth and capacity are an issue. When money is an issue. We’ve all sat in that internal chair. That’s a huge differentiator.”

Finding talent never stops. Stay committed.  To date, the True Search team has placed six executives and one director-level position and the Foundation Talent team has placed eleven team members from Director of Product Marketing to Senior Account Executives at O’Reilly Media.

More importantly, those hires have seamlessly fit in with the O’Reilly culture that remains a source of pride for the organization. “Our team has made an enormous difference for us in terms of establishing a vision of what a SaaS business can do,” says Baldwin. “They’ve brought with them a new language, new semantics, a new way of thinking about growth and change, and new process and product procedures. But because we hired the right people, they don’t speak a new language in a way that makes anyone feel disrespected or diminished. Instead, there is a genuine excitement around them.”

That cultural fit is the byproduct of the time and effort expended at the start of what has become a long-term partnership between True Search, Foundation Talent, and O’Reilly. A partnership forged through constant conversation and a deep understanding of one another.

What does a market leader do when it decides to embark on transformational change? It invests in a long-term partner with the experience, care, and talent network needed to build the right team. It invests in someone it can trust.

“Trust is earned, it’s not given. On day one, I explained what we needed and
why candidates would or wouldn’t work. I don’t think we ever saw the wrong
kind of candidate. We trust them because they’ve earned it.”
—Laura Baldwin, President of O’Reilly Media


True Search placements to date:

  • Chief Revenue Officer
  • Chief Finance Officer
  • Chief Content Officer
  • Vice President, Business Development
  • Vice President, New Business
  • Vice President, Academic Markets
  • Senior Director Sales Operations

True Search Team:

Foundation Talent placements to date:

  • 5 Senior Account Executives
  • Product Manager
  • Project Manager
  • Senior Director, Customer Success
  • User Experience Researcher
  • Senior Software Engineer
  • Director of Product Marketing

Foundation Talent Team: