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Michelle 🐍
Michelle 🐍

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Interview with Entrepreneur Espree Devora

This is the transcript of my conversation on @FromSourcePod with Espree Devora, an entrepreneur who creates offline experiences for LA Tech professionals. She is also a podcast host and producer for both WeAreLATech and Women in Tech. She is a well known connector and leader in the LA tech community. We talk about how to avoid burnout, hire engineers as a founder, build a successful podcast and get the notoriously flaky Angelinos to attend events.

This has been edited for clarity.

Michelle: Espree, what are you currently working on?

Espree: I produce and host the We Are LA Tech podcast and the Women in Tech podcast and I create offline experiences for Los Angeles tech professionals.

Michelle: What does an average day look like for you?

Espree: There's close to no rest, which I do not condone. I do fit in exercise and being mindful. I use the Headspace app to meditate, but on an average day, I wake up at 5:00 AM. From 5:00 AM to about 7:00 AM, I focus on fitness and calming my mind to be grounded for the rest of the day. I plan out my day by 8:00 AM. I make it into the office by between 8 and 10:00 AM. Just depending on if I end up getting caught up working on emails on my phone, doing some phone stuff, or if I take a morning meeting. Once I make it to the office, I use Focus At Will in order to stay focused during all my tasks. I have a very goal-oriented and thoughtful way of how I wanna approach my day and what I want the outcome to be. By around like 4:30, 5:30, I do something related to fitness, again. Something a little bit more aggressive, like weight training or cardio. Then maybe I'll make myself something to eat and go back to the office after that. There's not really like a typical day. It's just mostly work and health. And I'm working on incorporating more of a social life.

Michelle: Do you feel like having that structure helps keep you on task when you have multiple projects in progress?

Espree: Yeah, it's not even the structure because I wouldn't consider myself a structured person. It's having thoughtfulness of what I want my day to look like by the end of the day. Every morning, I have this thing that I write for myself. I call it the Intent Sheet and I write the date and I say, what are three things that will accelerate you forward? One in professional, one in health, one in personal, and then I have a bonus one. Then I have a question. What are three things you did yesterday that accelerated you forward in professional and health and personal? I don't really look back at it, it's just for me to gauge like, am I doing okay? Am I taking enough time to be mindful and grounded? Am I spending the right time on the right tasks and business? Tim Ferriss had this quote a long time ago, which was not a direct quote, but a concept that some people do a lot to feel busy, but they aren't actually being productive. So there's a difference between just doing a lot of stuff that's leading nowhere and actually making sure that goals are executed on and getting accomplished.

Michelle: Do you have a favorite long-term project either in the past or that you're working on right now?

Espree: I'll answer it in two ways, but I don't know if it's necessarily a project. One, I backpacked heavily. And so I love backpacking. I traveled around the world meeting Women in Tech and celebrating them on the Women in Tech podcast. I absolutely loved doing that. I suppose that's a bit of a project, but I want it to be financially sustainable.

Michelle: That certainly sounds like a big project to me. What's the most boring, but essential part of your day to day work?

Espree: Boring. Wow. I think I don't get bored often. If I am bored, I use it as an indicator that I'm not doing the right things. The most essential part of my work, that's something that a lot of us should think about as entrepreneurs in fine-tuning where we should spend our time. My most essential time is spent on relationships and partnerships. The more I adapt my organization so that my time could be focused on that, the faster that work will accelerate forward. Like one thing that I know how to do, but that I shouldn't be doing is designing or building websites. I'm not a programmer, I'm not an engineer, but I do know how to build a website and create it. I mean, there's just a million ways to do it if you just know enough. And because I've always had CTO co-founders, I think I've learned more about code than the average person. But I've had to ask myself, are you looking to be a professional programmer? No. Okay. Well, in that case, where should you—what do you like really relish in? And I really relish in mutually beneficial relationships. So that's where my time should be spent. Even if that means hosting the podcast and having a relationship there, that's where my time should be spent.

Michelle: There are so many opportunities in tech to do so many different projects, from apps to blogging to podcasting. I like to think about my values first and whether this new idea is furthering them or just a distraction.

Espree: Totally.

Michelle: Of course I'm not perfect because every idea seems like the best idea before you start it. What skills do you find the most useful on a day to day basis?

Espree: As an entrepreneur and a professional, decision-making. I think decision making is huge, especially as a leader. As an entrepreneur, being compassionate to others—actually, as a professional, being compassionate to others, and as an entrepreneur being compassionate to myself. I'm so hard on myself. So, compassion, decisiveness, and I guess the last one kind of falls in line with compassion because it's the ability to inspire and motivate others. But I think that the ability to do that means—at least how I like to mean it is that you're coming from an authentic, genuine place that's compassionate. And because you feel that depth of compassion, in the end, the consequence is inspiring and motivating others.

Michelle: If anyone thinks they are not good at decision making, is there anything you can suggest for them to get better at it?

Espree: Yeah. Decide. No, really. I think what holds us back from decision-making is the fear that we're making the wrong decision or the fear in not knowing the best decision to make. Really what we need to do is just make a decision and then it's either going to work out or not. If it doesn't, make more decisions and problem solve. If it does, make more decisions and scale it.

Michelle: Are there any skills that you were advised to have that you never use at all?

Espree: Hmm. I mean, I took college math and I was terrible at it and I wish I was better. I barely use that. I wish I had a master's in mathematics so I could be better at financials. I utilized my creative writing pursuits in college and in high school and I was a high school journalist. All of that, I use today, which is great. Everything I've ever studied, I've used. Which is interesting because I think if someone aspiring to be in business and asked, should I get a creative writing degree or a business degree, I'd say a creative writing degree. Because creative writing is contracts, it's storytelling, it's marketing, it's relationships, it's branding, it's everything in business.
There's a lot of illusion in business classes that if you learn how someone else did something, you're automatically going to be able to replicate that success. I hope for some people that's true, but for the vast majority, it's not. I read every single real estate investing book I could get my hands on and I didn't learn anything about real estate investing until I started investing in real estate and it was horrific and hard. I had read so much. Execution is the biggest teacher and we're all—including me, we're all afraid to execute.

There's some people out there that aren't and kudos to them. I admire them. It's very common to be afraid to execute because we're afraid of failing, afraid of doing something wrong, afraid of letting ourselves down or we're afraid of public perception. Execution, once we can get past ourselves and just embrace the teacher around the corner, that's when we'll accelerate forward.

Michelle: One of the nice things about being in tech is learning about the agile method and how it can apply to more than just your engineering team. You can apply it to your life and just try things. You might be terrible, and you might fail, but you can keep iterating and get better. The more you fail, the more you realize you can get back up again and try that project or try something else.

Espree: Totally.

Michelle: What keeps you excited every day? What keeps you working?

Espree: It's strange. I want to be really candid about this because it's very interesting. Yes, I feel the energy of excitement about working. A lot of people say doing XYZ must make you happy. Joy and happiness are different than living a purposeful life. For me, joy and happiness come with an air of calm and meditation and quality time with friends. But that doesn't necessarily fulfill my purpose. My purpose is what I do in my work. So I feel so lucky.

In a Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, he said, the way he survived the Holocaust was to find a meaning larger than himself. There was a bigger reason for him being there than the pain he was experiencing in the moment. That really moved me. I was like, well, what's the purpose that I'm living that's bigger than just about me? What's the selfless purpose?

I feel so lucky to have found that in being able to serve others and see the positive impact that I create or the positive impact that my work creates. I hope to say in the most non-egotistical way. Finding a sense of purpose is what drives me with my work. I feel grateful to have that sense of purpose. That's why in my morning, it's not just about business or health or personal. That's why personal and health aren’t separate because the joy and happiness comes from making sure that I'm incorporating, that I'm taking care of my state of mind and my body.

Michelle: I've found that if I focus too far in one part of my life, it can really throw me off. If I'm just focusing just on my health or just my work or just relaxing, it can feel unsatisfying. Instead, if I make sure to do a mix of activities and time box how long I spend on any given one, it makes everything more enjoyable.

Espree: Yeah.

Michelle: Since you are well connected in tech, I wanted to take a deeper dive into trends that you've observed. Can you tell me what you think is the biggest challenge when hiring for a technical team?

Espree: Developers specifically, I've always had to rely on the CTOs that I've worked with because I'm not a coder. I happen to know how to build a website. You have to know what to be looking for. One thing that I learned from my co-founders has been just because we can build a feature doesn't mean we should. So people will tell you all this stuff that they can do, and you have to be careful about a salesperson versus someone that can actually do the work. Just because you know Python or Java doesn't necessarily mean those coding languages are the right fit for your project. To know which language necessarily is the right fit for your project and what you want it to do and how you want it to perform or look, those are all things you have to research beforehand. If I didn't have technical co-founders to learn from, I would have never have known that.

The hardest part about tech is that it can be very daunting unless you're an actual coder and it makes it very easy for a coder to—or like a coder that maybe doesn't have enough experience or isn't very great at the job to BS their way to an opportunity and then ruin it for the nontechnical teammate. That's tough. Keeping up with how technology and the social landscape is constantly changing is alot. There's so much from the tech side of advertising and tracking things and the analytics and just everything. Every year, it becomes more and more.

Another thing is, especially in the tech world, we have all these tools to help us “make life easier”. But when you have all these tools almost doing the same thing and you're like, which tool is it? Then you pick a tool and you have to integrate the tool. It's nonstop and daunting. The coder has power because they understand everything the most. The person who knows how to program, like seriously knows how to program in the most languages possible, really can understand the internet at the highest level.

Michelle: It sounds like one of the biggest challenges is making sure your technical hires are as skilled as they say they are. How do you determine that? Is it portfolio, coding, challenge, recommendations or something else?

Espree: There are a few things. One, I have trusted people around me that I would ask. Can you check that they're the right fit? Simple things, like, do they document their code? One of them is like the Wild West, and then the other one documents everything.

Michelle: There seems to be a range of engineers, from those that like the blank slate and rapid prototyping to those that enjoy the more robust tech stack. It can change throughout your career depending on what you want to tackle next.

Espree: Yeah. It's not just about coding. It's about what type of programmer they are. Where do they fit in the scope of what you just mentioned? What is their style and how do they perform? What I like to do is really understand what outcome I want. Then I ask my trusted peers like, hey, can you vet this person? Here's the outcome. Do they match up? As a non-technical person, it's nerve-wracking not knowing who to hire and not knowing if you're building stuff in the most secure way. Even when you think you have the best of the best; something can go askew. The programmer has the power.

Michelle: That's very flattering as an engineer to hear that. I can definitely understand it can be scary to trust the idea you have for so long along with your money and your reputation to someone else. It doesn't seem like there's much you can do besides try to find the right people and make sure you are as informed as possible. What do you think a new grad or a career changer can do to stand out in job hunting?

Espree: If they have the talent or ability to learn design, that is really powerful. I keep using the word powerful, but really design makes a big impact on communication. The more effective you can present yourself, or even if you're really creative, the creative way you can present yourself. For example, take ownership of where you're at and where you want to be and find the opportunities for you. If you're a lower-level engineer, you need a more mentorship kind of atmosphere, look for the big opportunities where you can be in that mentorship type of culture, where they need a junior engineer. Be willing in the beginning to take those projects just for learning, if you're able to. That's really important as well to not just say, okay, I went through XYZ programming school, give me the money.

All of us probably have worked in exchange for life learning at some point, and that's not beneath you. It's okay to be a barista and a programmer if you're utilizing it to step into a really wonderful opportunity that maybe it's just like six months out and you have to prove that you can be a part of their culture and then the big tech company hires you because of it.

Be creative with your life and stand out by being willing to learn, by thinking of creative approaches to find the right people. For example, there was one person who advertised themselves via Google ads and targeted the hiring people at the company that they wanted to work for. There's always a way, right? If you have this really visually dynamic resume, maybe it's coded in a way on your site that just really is different than anything else that you've seen. Think about all the ways that you could be a little bit creative and legitimately stand out from just a stack of resumes.

Michelle: I like to talk about events since you've done so many. When I’ve spoken to other community leaders in LA, they often talk about similar issues. One of those is the fact that they'll get a lot of RSVPs, but not a lot of attendance. The other is having a diversity of attendees. How do you approach these problems?

Espree: I have thought about diversity mainly because it's important that We Are LA Tech is an inclusive organization. Sometimes it's just a matter of not knowing—my mom says half of the world is searching for the other half of the world. They don't know how to find one another. If someone's not a part of We Are LA Tech, it means like I am not setting up the right communication channels. The way I target diversity is I have a lot of conversations with a lot of different people and I do my best to educate so that I can set up those communication channels where they need to be.

As far as attendees, I feel very lucky that I don't have that problem, but it's not because I'm any better or worse than any other organization, it's because we have systems in place to reduce flakiness. We have a hardcore no-flake policy within the We Are LA Tech Experience Club. So in general We Are LA Tech events, we have a no-flake policy, but we also do a very systematic thing to make sure that there's no flaking. We have an internal approach. Then for the Experience Club, which is our private paid membership, we have a no-flake policy. So you'll be booted from the club if you flake.

Michelle: I can see how being that strict helps you from having events where only a few people show up. It can be very disheartening when you have an open-door policy and only a few attendees.

Espree: Totally. I tend to have the opposite problem. I had a Women in Tech event that was supposed to be 20 people and 80 people showed up. For me, it led me to ask, how do I serve these people in a more intimate environment? How do I do this? Do I want that responsibility? I take community appreciation very seriously. Yesterday, I randomly met with this investor because I wanted to be supportive of an investor. Nothing to do with them contributing to me. They were incredibly critical of how I run We Are LA Tech and I left feeling so bad, but it was the same conversation that just doesn't digest well for me. The conversation was, oh, why are you doing it that way when you could just charge a lot less and then have everybody in?

My immediate reaction is, yeah, but how do I deliver value? What's the value everybody's getting. I'm not doing this for a get rich quick scheme. I'm doing this to create the highest amount of value in people's lives. They matter to me. It always goes back to, oh yeah, but you'll have like a few hundred thousand dollars every month. I'm not motivated by money, I'm motivated by the impact. That kind of conversation makes me really uncomfortable because I feel really misunderstood and I feel like is it only me that's truly embracing the community and really genuinely caring about how each person's doing? I know I'm a little bit strange in that way. I don't even know how I ended up carrying so much.
So when we have 80 people show up to a 20-person event, my immediate thinking is, wow, how do I deliver? Since all these people want to benefit from that, how do I deliver in a really meaningful, impactful way and make it so it can be 20, but everybody can have it? It's where my head goes.

Michelle: When that happens, do you think I need to have three events with 20 people or just a bigger venue next time?

Espree: Three events with 20 people. The pitch that I get from everyone else is just having more people. Then you can make more money and this and this and that. The event that you were at, that didn't cost anything. It was all out of my pocket. They're always out of my pocket, which is a separate conversation, but yeah, I really love intimacy and meaningful engagement. You saw, even with 80 people, I had the whole room still introduce themselves and attempt in my best to have it go as fast and with as much ease as possible. I think it's important to have those intimate high-quality connections rather than a mass networking event where you're just a name tag and a job title.

Michelle: Sometimes in the larger events, you can introduce yourself, talk about what you're working on. Maybe go back and forth a little bit, but not necessarily go deeper. When you're in a smaller venue where everyone is talking together, you can get more interesting conversations.

Espree: Totally.

Michelle: So, asking for a friend, definitely not me. For those who want to host their own successful podcast, what advice would you give?

Espree: Well, I say a great podcast to be inspired by is Twenty Minute VC by Harry Stebbings. It’s super focused, but, and no offense to Harry, I think he’s amazing, but the audio quality still isn't a hundred percent and his podcast gets like millions of listens. Put the perfection aside and focus on the value. I highly recommend putting the audience before the ego. Many times we want to talk about what we want to talk about, but it's not about us. It's about the audience. We should ask ourselves as we're doing the episodes, is this what the audience wants to hear? Or what can I do more for the audience?

This is more on the design side, but have new artwork with the different episodes. So people see something different on social media and they don't start to develop like banner blindness kind of things. Consistency is huge. Ask your friends to rate and review. I'm biased, but I use Simplecast. I've been a Simplecast customer since 2014 and now I work with the Simplecast team as well. I definitely think that Simplecast is just awesome. It makes it really simple to get it on an Apple and Spotify and Google and have the best analytics and all that good stuff. I like their one-page website.

And just do it. I give a lot of talks on podcasting and it's so interesting. Like most of the people are always so worried about being perfect that they don't take any step forward at all. And me too. I'm worried about that. Maybe not with my podcasts anymore, but I'm worried about that in other areas of my business in my life and we just gotta move forward. As I said, the person who executes is the person who wins because the learning opportunities present themselves as long as we're executing.

Michelle: I agree with that wholeheartedly. I felt like putting up the first episode was the hardest episode and it took so long. And now it's like, okay, that worked. Let's just keep going a little bit. Every episode gets a little better and a little easier.

Espree: I'm grateful to be on your show. Thank you so much for the opportunity of letting me be on your show.

Michelle: Oh, thank you. It's been a wonderful conversation. So what's your next step? What's the next big thing you want to work on?

Espree: I've always felt that I'm more of an artist than a businessperson. I'm definitely a businessperson in my interest in business, but I'm led, like I said, by impact, by creativity, by heart. What happens is sometimes I don't build the backend as smart as it needs to be built operationally because I'm so fixated on the end deliverable that I'm not paying attention to like, am I in the red?

The next thing for me is making sure I learn the hard way in order to serve the community. The best way to do that is to build a sustainable business that can afford to serve the community. So my next step is to make sure that everything I do is sustainable so that I could serve with ease.

Michelle: The easier you make it for yourself, the less chance to get burned out and give up. I’ve heard from other community leaders that when it takes so much time for the little impact it can feel like the only way out is to stop.

Espree: Totally.

Michelle: Are there any other technical organizations you'd like to recommend to the audience?

Espree: Tech org? There's so many. There's one, I think it was in Oklahoma, that had a free coding camp that I thought was amazing. I have to look it up. Obviously, listen to the Women in Tech podcast because there are so many inspiring stories from all the women on there. I focus on asking them about the resources that they've accessed to get to where they are today. There are tons of resources out there. I took a coding school called One Month. I really liked how it was structured. That's when I did the self-check of like, do I want to be a coder? So I can't tell you the outcome or the job placement.

You know what I would do is I would make sure—sometimes there are these coding schools that are really popular, but they actually don't teach you how to code well. I would approach it how I do when I'm hiring people. I would check with people you trust within the coding industry and have them vet the schools for you or say is this solid code or like check the alumni networks that they have and see if they've been placed in jobs. Start with the end and then work backward.

Michelle: That's really excellent advice. If our listeners want to reach out to you via social media, how should they reach out?

Espree: I think I enjoy Twitter the most. I'm @EspreeDevora Twitter. Definitely always feel free. I'm really committed to everyone's success. I do my best to be as supportive as possible because I just know how hard it is to be in the world of tech and to be an entrepreneur. All of it. I've been in it for a long time and I get the struggles of it and I also get the lifestyle of it. I like to be a really supportive person. You don't have to be alone on the journey.

Michelle: That's a really great attitude and it really warms my heart that you're coming back to the community.

This next part of the interview I normally edit out, but since Espree turned the tables on me, I thought it would be fun to share.

So I'm ready to wrap up. I just wanted to make sure you were able to promote everything that you'd like to promote on the podcast.

Espree: There's one thing I'd like to promote. You. Can we please talk about your goal for speaking engagements? Can we talk about that for a second? Because maybe somebody listening needs you and they just don't know that you exist in that capacity. That is my ask.

Michelle: In the last couple of months I found that I really loved speaking and teaching. I like bringing more people into the community and helping to level them. It’s all about creating a tech community I want to work in. I also enjoy the performance aspect of it. In my mind, I always thought I could be a standup comic one day and that feeds that urge with an audience that wants me to succeed.

Espree: I'm excited for you. So if you could have one ask of your audience related to speaking, that can happen by the end of quarter one of this year, what would that ask be?

Michelle: Have me speak at your organization. I have a few talks prepared, both technical and professional skills. I'm also happy to do panels or fireside chats. Clearly, I like talking, I wouldn't enjoy having a podcast so much.

Espree: So if someone listening wants to talk, she has extensive experience that she is being humble about and not mentioning on this episode, evidently. But trust me, she is someone to talk to and so make sure that you reach out.

Michelle: Thank you. I appreciate it. Thank you so much for speaking with you today.

Espree: Yeah. A hundred percent. Thank you for this opportunity.

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