‘A Small Team With a Mighty Scope’ — Behind Whatnot’s Fast-Paced, User-Obsessed Culture

Tech leaders at the e-commerce unicorn tell Built In about the company’s ambitious hiring plans, user-first mindset and strategies for staying ahead of the game while in hypergrowth mode.

Published on Jul. 24, 2023
‘A Small Team With a Mighty Scope’ — Behind Whatnot’s Fast-Paced, User-Obsessed Culture
Whatnot
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When the team at Whatnot, a fast-growing livestream shopping marketplace, wanted to introduce a tipping feature to the platform this year, it saw two distinct paths forward: allow users to tip directly in their local currency, or have them purchase digital gifts tied to platform currency. 

“There were healthy debates about the long-term viability of both approaches and strong preferences on the route to take,” said Amish Kagalwala, Whatnot’s director of product.

The feature would give users another way to engage with the platform and create an additional stream of revenue for sellers with active, enthusiastic communities, so it had to be simple to use and ready to launch without unnecessary delays.

The team outlined the pros and cons of each option, evaluating their potential impact and the effort required to build them out. Rather than spend weeks trying to get everyone on board with one approach, the team zeroed in on building the right solution that users wanted and quickly iterated on it based on feedback. The proponents of the approach not chosen proceeded by choosing to “disagree and commit,” Kagalwala said.

This decision-making principle was made famous by Jeff Bezos in his 2016 Amazon shareholders letter, and it’s helped Whatnot maintain speed and accountability as the company has scaled.   

“We've embraced being able to disagree and commit and not be afraid of conflicts,” said Kagalwala. “Once you get the right inputs from the right people, you should move forward. Everyone has differing opinions, and if you try to make everyone happy, the end result will be suboptimal.”

Indeed, a few months in, direct tipping is a resounding success — and a product the team plans to build on in the future.
 

WHATNOT’S GROWTH TRAJECTORY 

Whatnot launched in December 2019 as a live-auction platform focused on collectibles like Funko Pop! figures and Pokémon cards. Since then, it has grown into the largest livestream shopping platform in the United States, connecting buyers and sellers across over 100 categories — such as sports memorabilia, sneakers, fashion and comics — as well as launching into new regions across Europe. 

In 2022, more than 100 sellers each sold over $1 million worth of products on the platform, and in 2023, it hosted celebrity auctions with Lil Yachty, Questlove, Patrick Mahomes and more. Following its $260 million Series D funding round, Whatnot plans to double down on fashion, add additional categories and ramp up hiring across all functions.

 

Building for the Future

Thinking big and moving fast are central to Whatnot’s ethos, but reaching ambitious goals means staying several steps ahead.

“We are a young, fast-moving company, and as such we need to be incredibly thoughtful about what we work on and how we build systems to allow for constant iteration and easy maintenance,” said Emmanuel Fuentes, Whatnot’s engineering director of machine learning and data platforms.

When he joined the startup in early 2021, his team was working with many “wide” domain-specific datasets in its warehouse, but they had a north star in mind: At a certain scale of employees, they would need to implement dimensional modeling to centralize business logic to keep decision making moving fast. Two years later, that time came, and they were ready to build it out given the early abstractions put in place, he said.

 

“We are a young, fast-moving company, and as such we need to allow for constant iteration and easy maintenance.”

 

He attributes the group’s preparation and productivity to the high level of autonomy each employee is granted at work, along with their shared vision and accountability to business outcomes. Together, these make their achievements all the more satisfying, he said.

 

Three team members pose in front of Whatnot-branded banner at Pride event.
Whatnot

 

Now Hiring

In the coming months, Whatnot plans to bring on several new product managers to help the team move even more quickly and efficiently, Kagalwala said. He outlined three qualities the company is looking for in candidates, most of which carry over to other roles as well:  

  1. A willingness to pick up a shovel and dig with the rest of the team: “We're a small team with a mighty scope, and they should have good technical intuition, understand broadly how things work and be comfortable pulling their own data to do any analysis.”
  2. The ability to go from zero to one, and also know when to build things that don't scale: “We want someone who can conceptualize and execute on something brand new, and also be OK proposing something that won’t scale from which we can learn. You build fast, fail fast and learn.”
  3. Low ego and a readiness to own everything and nothing at the same time: “Their job shouldn't only be making decisions, and they shouldn’t shy away from work they think is beneath them.”

 

 Four team members pose for group photo outside wearing Whatnot-branded sailor hats, near boat dock.
Whatnot

 

Listen and Learn

Low ego also means staying open to feedback, whether it’s coming from users or employees.

Whatnot’s goal is to exceed users’ expectations with everything it builds, and to do so, the team needs to understand users’ needs and pain points, said Kagalwala.

“Always start with a user-first mindset — listen to your customers intently and respond appropriately,” he said.

This foundational principle carries through to its internal culture as well. The leadership team seeks out thoughts and suggestions via quarterly companywide anonymous surveys and holds skip-level meetings to connect with employees directly.

As a team lead, Kagalwala recognizes the importance of creating a safe environment for feedback, which includes “acknowledging and addressing the concerns immediately as well as being very transparent about the actions being taken to continuously improve,” he said.

 

‘If It Isn't Documented, It Didn't Happen’

With a team of more than 350 employees working remotely around the world, collaboration and culture need to be intentional, and Whatnot’s processes have evolved in tandem with the company. One constant, though, has been making sure everyone stays on the same page — literally.

“We are a documentation-first sort of team,” said Fuentes. “If it isn't documented, it didn't happen.”

Teams capture and share video walk-throughs of internal systems using Whatnot’s screen-recording tools, for example, so others can provide feedback.

Documentation facilitates seamless collaboration, helps new hires get up to speed without any roadblocks and ensures everyone has access to the information they need.

Beyond this, the company promotes a sense of unity through regular department and companywide meetings, annual offsites, dedicated in-person team-building days and Zoom-free Wednesdays, which encourage employees that are local to one of Whatnot’s four offices — in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Arizona — to collaborate offline. 

However big the company’s aspirations, its leaders recognize the central role culture will play in getting it there.

“To build a world-class company with outsized impact you need a large group of professionals jointly invested in a shared outcome,” said Fuentes. “Culture is the vehicle to achieve that.”

 

Four Whatnot team members face away from camera, wearing Whatnot-branded Pride T-shirts
Whatnot

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images provided by Whatnot.

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