Whitney O’Banner: Bottoms Up With OKRs

Google famously published a leading reference for establishing Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) as a way to align teams and set short-term goals. In this BoS USA 2019 Talk, Whitney O’Banner (Engineering Manager, Medium) delves into which aspects of Google’s video should be embraced, which should be updated in line with the times, and which should be left in the ’90s.

Whitney leaves you with three ‘top tips’ for incorporating OKRs into your team, plus answers a few of the audiences hard-hitting question in the Q&A at the end of the talk.

This talk touches on how innovation can come from the bottom and that the upper hierarchy shouldn’t be so quick to shoot down ideas that come from grassroots. Marty Cagan (Founder, Silicon Valley Product Group and previous BoS speaker) recently published an article about OKRs which echos some of Whitney’s points about empowering teams and giving team objectives instead of individual objectives – BoS is often ahead of the curve – check out Marty’s post on svpg.com.

also available on the podcast


Sketch Note

Whtiney Obanner sketchnote bos 2019

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Thank you how’s my audio? Can you hear me okay? Great.

So, hello. Welcome back. How was lunch? Good.

I was a bit nervous actually about giving this talk. Thank you for inviting me. But when I was sitting out at lunch and talking to some people and I ran into some people in the bathroom and in the halls and everyone seems like friends here. It seems like a really friendly group. So, let’s all be friends. Yeah? And talk about friend things like OKRs.

Cool. Like friends do. Is there a clicker for this? Or should I just go through it. No problem. We’re all friends, it’s all good.

Thank you. Okay. Fantastic.

Hi everyone. My name is Whitney. Hi. Thank you. I work in a company called medium. How many of you have heard of medium? So, for those who have not. We are one of the fastest growing digital media companies. We are primarily focused on getting you to discover the best stories and ideas on the internet. So, if you have not heard of medium I highly encourage you to sign up, create a free account, and share some of the brilliant ideas that you’re hearing today at this conference. But I’m an engineering manager there. And though I work at medium you can find me more active on Twitter at @woobanner. So, we’re all friends if you have nice friendly things to say. Please tweet me. Slide into my DMs whatever you want to do. If you have feedback about this talk, please go ahead and tweet that out. It should be noted that I gave this same talk earlier this year. So, while a lot of the content is the same, I think it’s important to keep evolving even my own understanding of OKRs and how to get them to work for me. So, I do that by way of feedback from the audience in which I deliver this talk. So, if you could send me your feedback, tweet it to me. Some nice things.


Let’s go ahead and dive in. So, to start storytime. The year 1999 and a guy named John borrowed from a guy named Andy this goal setting methodology called OKRs. And he brings it to within one year old Google. Fresh Google brand new and they still got the drop shadow in the logo. And fast forward a bit – Fourteen years – and Google not only gets a shinier newer logo, but they say hey this OKR thing has been working really well for us, it’s been helping us set goals across the company we’ve adopted it. We believe in it. Let’s make a video. So, a Google Ventures partner makes a video called “How Google sets goals: OKRs”. And he publishes this video on YouTube. And spreads the gospel of OKRs to the masses and it’s adopted by almost every major company you’ve ever heard of. Some of our own as well. But if you bring us into present day (20 19) you’ll find that this video “how Google sets goals OKRs” is still one of the primary references for making OKRs work within our businesses within our companies. And that’s a bit problematic because while a lot of the video is really good – in fact I encourage you to go check out the video after this talk. After all of the talks that does happen, I talk don’t run off and watch the video of sorts of talks. So, the video is really good has some really good points, but it does have a few points that are quite dated.

All right here we are 20 years later after the introduction of OKRs and we’re still referencing this video that has some of this old advice and not only that but some of it is just plain wrong and it doesn’t work for companies of all sizes. It works for companies of Google’s size. But what about smaller companies? What about companies that are under 200 employees, 50 to 200? So, some of the points in the video I think are a bit wrong. Not just data but should probably be turned on their head completely.

So, while Google got this wrong and introduced this to the masses in this video we adopted this and took it as gospel and so a lot of us got it wrong too. So, I’m going to dive into some strategies today to help us get it more right twenty years later after the introduction of OKRs. But first I want to get a quick pulse check: how many people in here have heard of or – I already see hands – how many people have heard of or have used OKRs in their business? This is like across the board. Great. No eye rolls yet. How do you feel about them? Meh. Yeah. If they’re implemented well, they can work well for you. Yeah. Okay. I just heard like a ‘meh’ like across the across the crowd here. Okay. Yeah. So most of what I’ve come across. In my experience is captured quite well in this tweet from Brian Berkin. So, he tweeted this out, this is a real tweet:

OKRs equal overrated and kind of right metrics when you are too early.

We can even cross the ‘when you are too early’. This is this is generally what I come across when I’m working with companies and businesses on OKRs. I get a lot of eye rolls, I get a lot of meh, oh is a OKRs. But this sums it up quite well. So while your mileage may vary with OKRs depending on the size of your company depending on where you are and introducing them to the company I’m going to talk about the strategies that I think are applicable to a company of any size and any industry. And there’s something you can take back and work within your own businesses. Sound good? Yeah? Kinda? Head nods. Can we get hype for OKRs? OKRs! Yey!

What are OKRs?

So, what are they. What are okay. What are we even talking about today?

So, most of you know OKRs are familiar I saw a lot of hands raised OKRs. It’s an acronym for objectives and key results and it’s structured somewhat like this. We will achieve some objective as measured by some metric or a key result. Here’s a real life example:

We will go viral as measured by 5000 new followers.

If we get 5000 new followers to our medium publication that signals we’ve probably gone viral. Amongst other things right now would have some more key results here. But this is this is a real working example.

So why do we use them? And, again, I’m just setting the stage here before I dive into these strategies. So how about I’ll lose you. But I want to talk about some of the goals of OKRs and why we use this tool in the first place. I think it’s three key things the first one being that we learn where our big successes are, we learn where we should really lean into the bigger opportunities right. It’s OK to start with many OKRs as many objectives at the start of the quarter but by the end of quarter you might end up with one. You say OK this is where we’re really getting the big wins this is where we need to lean in.

Two. It helps us align our shared vision for the team. So we get the team all headed in the same direction right. We get everyone rowing to the same place.

And the third thing it helps us track our progress along the way. So of course we want to track the progress of our work see how we’re doing at the end of a quarter or at the end of a year but it’s really these three key things to learn where we got the big wins, to align our teams towards a shared vision, and to track the progress of our work. That’s it. It’s a tool right. Of course when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail. So there are other tools you can put in your toolkit but this is why we at the company primarily use OKRs.

This is the meat of what I want to talk to you about. These are the three tips. That I want to share with you about how to get better at OKRs especially if you’re introducing them. So what I hear from a lot of people when I get the ‘meh’ is that they’ve introduced their OKRs their company in the first time around it was a disaster. Does that sound familiar? I’m looking at. I had lunch with you and you told me it was a disaster. (Sorry)

So tip number one let’s dive right into it. I want you to ditch individual OKRs. Just ditch them completely. What do I mean when I say individual OKRs, take a look at this chart typically and what’s described in that video that famous video from Google. Is we’ll set objectives at the company level – So we have our business level goals. Those then trickle down to the organization or the team and they reflect some version of those same goals and those then trickle further down to the field line or individual contributors. And is reflected in their personal individual OKRs. All right. They’re actually called individual OKRs. What I’m telling you to do today is to get rid of those completely.

Here’s why individual OKRs, in my experience, do not add a lot of value to the business. While you have your employees setting what looked like in the previous side that I showed I will achieve some objective as measured by some key result. What they’re actually doing is trying to track their performance or work towards a personal goal. That’s not necessarily in line with what the business is trying to do and OKRs are not a performance measurement tool. Again, I say there is a lot of tools we can have in our toolbox, OKRs are one of them, but OKRs are not a performance measure tool. They’re also not a personal development tool. So, while it’s great to have personal individual goals at the employee level it’s not necessarily appropriate to have OKRs at the individual level. So, what do we do instead? Maybe we try tasks. It’s not novel. Tasks, projects, we’re used to these things. We can call them what they are.

But we can set individual tasks instead of individual hours. Now I’m going to leave you with this this one seems like the obvious one, but this is what’s highlighted in this famous Google Video. So, I want you all to go back watch those videos take the good points out of it and leave this one on the table. If you can that’s my first bit of advice.

Tip number two. This is the hill I will die on. The OKR Hill I will die on. Ignore the metrics I’m here to tell you ignore the numbers. Last time I said this in a conference there was like this huge sigh of relief in the whole crowd. There are a lot of people clutching their chest right now and a lot of people are just shaking their heads. But again the hill I would die on is to ignore the metrics; do not pay attention to the numbers. Now when I gave this talk the first time again there is a lot of debate about this and I got a lot of feedback and a lot of unfriendly things on Twitter were said so when I put an asterisk by this time – that’s a sort of cover my bases here – but I’ll call out that I’m talking about ignoring the metrics to start. At first. You’re introducing OKRs for the first time in your company right. Or you’re targeting an objective that you’ve never gone after before. All right. When my team was using OKRs for the first time we noticed a couple of things. We were less focused on the outcomes and we were more focused on the numbers because that was what we were told to do. But number one is we didn’t have a baseline for a lot of the things we wanted to measure. We said we wanted to decrease our time to deploy by 20%. We had no idea what our time to deploy was so decreasing it by 20% could have been you know instead of two days it takes a day and a half. Who knows right!

So, we didn’t have a baseline for these things we wanted to measure and then to. Most of the numbers we put in place when we were creating these metrics. Were just swags. And, again, referencing that earlier company when I said what do you know what I mean when I say swag? What do I mean? Scientific Wild Ass Guess. That was all of our metric. They were scientific Wild ass guesses and we felt good about ourselves because we had signed off on you know decreasing time to deploy 20% improving accessibility by 75%. But who the hell knew with these numbers even met? All right we just threw out numbers because we were told to add metrics to make it a valid key result. But what if instead we focus on outcomes and tried something else. So remember that earlier example. We will go viral by getting 5000 more followers on our medium publication. What if there is a world in which we got rid of the number?

We said OK we’ll go viral. We don’t know what it means to go viral. We don’t know how to go viral never gone viral before. So instead of 5000 new followers. What if our key result was just to have more followers. Right. We get more followers. So it shows we’re getting some traction and maybe we’re starting to go viral. Let’s see. Let’s see how that goes. And then over time. Later we can go in. And add a number. Right. This satisfies everyone. They want to see this big juicy number up there were adults. We love numbers on things but to start we can generalize. Let’s just say we want to achieve this objective by doing this general thing. And then once we learn. OK, we did all this work in the quarter we launched all these big marketing things and we got more followers but we only got a thousand more followers. OK that’s a decent baseline. Now let’s go in and set the stretch goal. We got a thousand more followers let’s go in and do the things next quarter that we think will 5x that and get 5000 more followers. That’s a real stretch goal because we know where we are and we have an idea where we can go. But I wouldn’t start with the numbers. Because they’re swags. Wild ass guesses. Until you know your baseline and you know what is a real stretch. So, tip number two ignore the metrics and focus instead on the outcomes. All right. What do you want to come out. Of all of this.

Tip number three. Avoid cascading goals. Remember that earlier chart with the company level objectives that trickle down to the team and organization that trickle down. So that’s what I mean by cascading. But it’s important to know that every goal that your team or employees have should not cascade from the business level from the company level. Now I’m using the laser over here to read off this quote because I don’t want to butcher it. But it says:

“having goals improves performance. Spending hours cascading goals up and down the company, however, does not. It takes way too much time and it’s too hard to make sure all the goals lineup.”

Do you know who said this? Google. The former V.P. of people at Google said this – years later, years after this video – but in the video they talk about the importance of the cascading goals. But you’ll see cascading goals is a huge time suck; it takes a lot of time. Maybe if you have a smaller team it’s okay but you’ll find as you move through the quarter and do the work making sure that the team or organizational or group level goals constantly align to the company goals takes a lot of time, and it’s a lot of headache, and it’s a lot of unnecessary headache because it doesn’t actually improve performance. So not only is it a time suck. But it does something worse it stifles innovation.

If you remember nothing else from this talk, I want you to remember this. Harvard Business Review talked about how we don’t invest in some of the best ideas at our companies because frontline employees undervalue their ideas. Managers leadership c-suite executives we overvalue our ideas. We think our ideas are amazing. But it’s frontline employees, it’s individual contributors who are closest to the problems right there in the day to day. They’re right there on the ground.

And, so, they see the problem very clearly and sometimes have the best solutions. But they doubt their own solutions. So, if we don’t have all of our goals at cascade we empower our teams and the individual contributor level to make sure that they’re servicing these great ideas. They say ‘Hey I have an idea. Maybe this should be our objective.’ Or maybe this is how we can reach that objective. You know make sure you don’t stifle that innovation and empower and motivate your team of employees to bring objectives to the table that you might not have otherwise considered. And we can’t do that if all of the goals are coming from up top. So instead of cascading all the goals from the company level, as suggested by that video, instead we’re gonna go bottoms up.

We’re gonna have some goals that are from the top down. Right of course we want to move the business forward. I hope. But at the same time, we have to respect that there are individual contributors, there are employees, who are gonna have really great ideas and know how to drive the direction of your teams and of your companies. So, don’t cascade every goal, go bottoms up make sure you’re hearing from these employees about what your OKRs should be. We do this at medium. I love it. We all get together we decide as teams we come back as a larger company and each of the teams gets to speak to what their OKRs are for the quarter. Everyone can have input you can give feedback on other teams you can ask questions of them, but we empower our teams to be autonomous and to come up with these ideas from the bottom up. So that’s it. That’s the long and short of it. And a lot of this stuff is not hard. It’s almost obvious. But you can breathe a sigh of relief. Because to recap:

  • We’re gonna use tasks, instead of individual OKRs.
  • We’re gonna focus on outcomes instead of those numbers and those metrics that we want to live and die by.
  • And we’re gonna go bottoms up instead of cascading every goal from the company level down to the employee.

And that’s it.

[Audience Applause]

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Mark Littlewood: Okay. Thank you, Whitney. I know there’s some questions here. Hands? At the back.

Audience Member: Thanks Whitney, your tip two kind of goes against one aspect of setting OKRs which is setting the bar high. How do you still do that if you’re not going to have any sort of measurement?

Whitney O’Banner: That’s a great question. So how do you still set the bar if you don’t have any sort of measurement? Is this a question of motivating your teams? I think there are other ways in which to motivate a team outside of a number. Because if you think about it: if a number is the way in which you motivate someone, could that not also demotivate someone? So, thinking about this if I set a number that’s too low. And you hit it and it’s easy and I’m a member of your team, what do I do. What do I think about that OKR, that objective? If we surpass that, we blew it out of the water. Do I think we’re hot shit? We did it. We’re amazing. Too easy. Why am I even doing this? Are these real? So, I think it’s a larger question to answer what then motivates them. Maybe we could talk after this in the break. But it isn’t. I don’t think it’s the number.

Audience Member: It isn’t just motivation. How do you make sure that you’re using OKRs to kind of try and force people to think outside the box? Because if you do set the bar very high then it’s like you can’t just do things incrementally the way you’re normally used to doing things you’ve got to think well okay how on earth can we achieve that. If you don’t have a measurement that’s quite hard to do.

Whitney O’Banner: Yeah that’s a good point. A valid point. So, again, I want to reiterate that I don’t think you should never set a measurement or never set the bar. That’s primarily if you’re starting out and you don’t have a baseline, or you don’t know what that number would be but it’s perfectly OK to go in and add that bar. Add that measurement later when you have a better understanding of those two things.

Mark Littlewood: Yes, yeah, you’ve got the microphone!

Audience Member: Do you have some concrete examples from your team: how you guys implemented it particularly seems like engineers that you guys you’re managing.

Whitney O’Banner: So I can give examples of a former team. So, OKRs specifically?

Audience Member: Yeah.

Whitney O’Banner: Yeah I brought it to the team this idea of OKRs and that we would use them when I was at Braintree previously and, again, with that third bit not having them cascade from the top the team surfaced. Hey we really care about accessibility and we think it’s important because we were a front end web development team. And so, we set an OKR that we will improve accessibility by as measured by 75% WCAG compliance WCAG is the Web Compliance Accessibility Guidelines. So, we used WCAG as our measure and we didn’t set 75% to start. We just said WICAG compliance. We didn’t have a baseline. We didn’t know where we were with. But once we understood where we were then we said 75% as a threshold.

Mark Littlewood: Okay. Gareth.

Audience Member: Hi. I loved that. Amazing. And I think this should be part of the induction for every new manager preach because there’s so much with all of that legacy stuff that’s out there. Yeah. With people saying Yeah but what about the 70% stretch and make it all measurable room. This kind of stuff in organizations is obsessing about that. So, thank you.

My question was about the cascade down to personal and personal objectives. So, you were sort of saying like just concentrate on the tasks and the projects rather than the outcomes and the measurements. Which are kind of goals but then you subsequently sort of said let’s break the cascade. And it feels to me like that’s the important bit. Let’s break the cascade between what happens at the team level and making sure that your individual objectives aren’t necessarily having to align to what the team level thing is. But do you not find it’s a useful framework to be able to have those conversations with about like okay what outcome are you looking to achieve personally and how are you going to know whether or not you’re making progress towards that goal. So that sort of conceptual okay our structure still feels to me like it works well when you’re having that conversation that one on one conversation about an individual’s outcome, I was curious as to why you felt that it didn’t work so well.

Whitney O’Banner: Yeah sorry. Are you specifically asking about the cascading or individual OKRs?

Audience Member: I think you were also saying let’s not use chaos as a personal development way to framing personal development. I’m curious as to why you felt that it, sort of, broke down at that level, why?

Whitney O’Banner: Yeah. Yeah that’s a great question. I found in my experience that when you do have the sort of individual level OKRs so that conversation around OKRs with an individual employee it quickly turns into a couple of things micromanagement number one because you’re sort of tracking them in the same way that you track the company or organization or team level OKRs. So then you become really invested in the tasks and the numbers and those types of things. So it’s easy to slip into micromanagement. And number two it becomes a performance measurement tool as I talked about. But it’s super important to understand that OKRs should not be used to measure performance because when you do set those numbers those metrics those are stretch goals right. Not with the intent to meet them right but you know you want to get close but if you have individuals setting these stretch goals for themselves and they never meet these goals that then is demoralizing right or demotivating. Yeah. Yeah of course.

Audience Member: Hi. So just from an implementation perspective what do you use to communicate these Okay ask your team what are they seeing from a dashboard perspective, how frequently are you evaluating them as a team, are there any specific tools whether they’re software based. Do you have a whiteboard or like print things out just to give that visibility to the team? We’re using OKRs as we saw in the early stage of implementation room. I think Q2/Q3 of utilization and just trying to find an efficient way to communicate that out to the whole company. Take it back to the teams and then measure it and apply it on a sort of quarterly basis or weekly basis. I’d love your insights and thoughts on that

Whitney O’Banner: Fantastic question and I’d be super to hear it’s super interesting to hear insights from everyone at some point as to what you all use. I know there are software tools out there; Lattice is one that comes to mind only because a they sort of spam ads at me on Twitter, but we don’t use that we use slides. Google slides and we review them every two weeks and something we call Sprint review. So, the whole company can come together and come in on this call or just the individual team can join the call and review the OKRs that you set for the quarter. So, we are constantly tracking every two weeks how we’re doing against those OKRs.

I use Jira as our project management tool, and you can set goals within Jira so individual key results will be the goal of a given Sprint within Jira. So I try to make them as visible as possible to keep them as ‘top of mind’ as possible on the mind of everyone in the team.

Mark Littlewood: Thank you. OKRs was kind of designed to keep the people at the top. Informed and know motivate people and kind of measure what they’re doing. So how do you persuade the hippos that actually is a shitty way of doing it. How do you actually kind of go about persuading those people that have got this like little model of OKRs is the way to go. How do you change their minds?

Whitney O’Banner: That can be tough. You get in conferences like this and then you give these talks and then they say Oh she knows what she’s talking about. No, it does take time. This is all this is everything I’m giving is sort of trial and error right. These are these are my experiences, this is what I’ve taken from companies I consulted with, worked with et cetera. So sometimes it takes getting burned a little bit right. The hippos have to get burned to say oh this is not working out so well for us right. Why is this not working out well for us. And then it’s easy to come in and propose. Okay well maybe because we don’t have a baseline to start so we shouldn’t have a number here. Right. These sorts of things. So, yeah, I don’t know I would like to know the answer to that question myself.

Mark Littlewood: A blog post. Yes.

Audience Member: Yeah. This is another question about cascading, and I think it’s great to decouple objectives at a team level from a corporate level. But one thing I’ve seen happen is teams then sometimes worry Oh my objective for our team isn’t reflected in the corporate objective. Do I matter. And I wonder whether you’ve experienced the same. How you might have addressed it.

Whitney O’Banner: So, this is where team objectives are not necessarily aligned with company objectives?

I think it’s not as much about alignment is it like at a very high company level where you can’t always reflect every team in the company. Every team can’t necessarily see their objectives. Maybe you’re an operational team that’s keeping the lights on. Maybe you don’t see your objectives reflected at the company level. And you feel like well do I matter. You do, I think. I feel like there’s a lot of work to try to tie everything together up and down the line. And I wonder whether you’ve seen the same thing if you’ve done nothing.

Whitney O’Banner: I have yeah. And I recently read something online. I read a lot online about OKRs in my spare time. So, I recently saw something about local OKRs and the importance of them. So local meaning specific to the team that aren’t necessarily reflected in the company level objectives. So, I’m learning this myself. I can’t say that I’ve seen that so much on the teams that I’ve been on but there is something called local OKRs that I encourage you to look into and how to how to sort of create those amongst your team and make sure they still feel motivated by them.

Mark Littlewood: Thank you.

Audience Member: Thank you so much for a wonderful and practical talk a word that’s come up a lot and of course you’re talking in the news we’ve been giving is learn all right and trying to keep my close to your word to use allows learn right. In fact, it was the first why that you gave right is to learn where the big wins are right. But learning requires resetting. And I was wondering in your own experience as a manager how frequently you found it to be helpful to review and change both the key results but also the objectives themselves for the business what the periodicity of that is.

Whitney O’Banner: You know a lot of times we find we don’t explicitly change them ourselves, but they have changed over the course of time. So, we’ll re-examine them as I mentioned every two weeks to see what’s our progress and how are we doing on them. But we’ll reassess in grade at the end of the quarter which I suggested if you have quarterly OKRs. So, the end of a quarter we will grade them to see how we’ve done and say OK was this the right objective right or does our objective look more like B when we thought it was A. So, we found our objective has sort of changed with based on the work that we’ve done in those wins that we’ve discovered as we learn more. So yeah that happens quite often and that’s the whole point, to me, that’s why I feel OKRs are such a powerful tool right. They are a learning tool. It’s to say oh OK well maybe we should lean in more here because this isn’t working out so well for us or we thought we could hit these key results right. Or maybe this is the wrong key result or maybe this is the wrong objective altogether but that’s the point is to learn, to iterate, to revisit either quarterly or annually and then go back in and try again. Thank you.

Mark Littlewood: So, I have a thing about when you put OKRs out, you’re putting OKRs out to grass; who feels sad?

Whitney O’Banner: Who feels sad?

Mark Littlewood: Who misses OKRs?

Whitney O’Banner: When you when you get rid of them? I do. I love OKRs. Clearly. Who gets sad when you get rid of OKRs?

Mark Littlewood: or threatened.

Whitney O’Banner: Or threatened. I think it’s not sad. I think it’s confused. I find the vision becomes a bit more ambiguous amongst the team and it’s not clear where everyone is going. It’s not clear where the company is going. So are we all even headed in the same direction? So, I wouldn’t say ‘sadness’ but I think the results would be more ‘confusion’ which you know is additional cognitive load and you can lose some of your best talent you don’t know where you’re going.

Mark Littlewood: Any more questions? In which case thank you very much indeed.

Whitney O'Banner

Whitney O’Banner

Whitney graduated in Computer Science from Spelman College and worked at Apple, Amazon, Visa, and Braintree before taking her current role at Medium.

As a new generation of leader and one of the few women of colour managing engineers and designers at payments technology company Braintree, she made a diligent study of innovative leadership methods. Whitney also enjoys actively investing in tiny house communities, building software systems that power short-term vacation rentals. She now works remotely, spending time in Chicago (summer) and Austin (winter), a better option than the other way round.

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