An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
“Find your best technologist in the company and make them CEO.”
As a part of our series about “How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mohannad Ali.
Mohannad Ali is the CEO of Hotjar, the Product Experience Insights software of choice for SMB and mid-market businesses. He brings a decade of leadership experience to the company, first serving as VP of Engineering at HelloFresh, and then joining Hotjar as their VP of Product and Engineering. With his talent for mentoring and developing distributed technical teams, Mohannad soon moved into the role of Chief Product and Technology Officer at Hotjar before transitioning to CEO. His cross-functional expertise allows him to speak to a variety of business development strategies, sharing pivotal insights on scaling organizations from early stages, high-growth, and implementation. Mohannad’s passions include radical transparency in remote work environments, of which he continuously replicates through his leadership practices at Hotjar.
When Mohannad isn’t connecting with and mentoring other Hotjarians, you can find him pursuing his passion for music by trying (and failing) to play the drums.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started quite early in the tech space. From a young age I was interested in the internet, computers and so on. I was always fascinated by the whole technology side of things. I still remember the first day I got on the internet. I think I was about 10, or 11 and it opened a whole new world for me.
Pretty quickly I started making websites for fun as a hobby, building online communities — things like that. By 15 I was making money as a developer. That’s how I got into tech. A little by accident and a little from sheer interest. I didn’t even know that you could make money from it at the time, I just stumbled into it and enjoyed it.
As an engineer, I’ve done a bunch of different things. I began freelancing in Egypt doing a lot of agency work, but had my sights set on being able to work on a single product. There is an analogy I like to make, and it’s kind of like a football player who has been playing in a local league who wants to play in the European Champions League. So I was looking for an opportunity to join the startup scene in a city where there was a more interesting, growing tech scene. For me, that was Berlin.
I ended up working for a tech startup there that scaled quite rapidly. Through that experience, I was able to tap into another passion of mine, which was the more commercial side of tech and the product. I always thought of myself as an engineer who was interested in tech beyond just the technical side. That really grounded me as a whole I think.
Because of that experience and interest, I joined Hotjar to initially lead product and engineering but I ended up working closely with our CEO, my predecessor, to get heavily involved in the strategy and how we built the company. So when he decided to change roles and move into a chairman of the board position, he offered me the job and I haven’t looked back. I was very lucky to have this opportunity and that’s how I got here.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
So my previous job was in D2C subscriptions. I got into a leadership role quite early on in this role and . I think the funniest mistake I remember was in the early days when my team broke the checkout function of the checkout funnel. We didn’t notice that it had been broken for several days, and so for the next three days — customers could not buy anything. This was a good lesson in safety to fail. The CEO was not the kind of person who held mistakes like this against you or fired employees over these kinds of things. Instead, he showed us the numbers and shared how much money we lost over the weekend because of this mistake. How he approached this mistake was a big takeaway for me. It taught me that it’s okay to make mistakes and as leaders, we need to create that safety for our employees to fail but at the same time, allow them to learn and understand the magnitude of the work we are doing.
One of the things that I always think about in my line of work is how lucky we are to talk and learn from our mistakes. Facebook has this famous saying that goes something like: move fast and break things. And everyone talks openly about making mistakes. This is a luxury that most people in a lot of jobs don’t have. Imagine being a doctor or an architect, no one tells you to move fast and make mistakes while in tech, we have a unique opportunity to fail and try again and again.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story? and, you know, say that they’re funny and things like that.
The first person that comes to mind is my first and longest boss. He was the CTO of the company I worked for at the time. I was working hard and trying to prove myself, but he very quickly saw potential in me. He kept giving me one opportunity after the other, and because of this, my career trajectory was very, very steep. And it’s thanks to him believing in me and what I’m capable of. I really owe a lot to where I am today because of him.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
There is a book by Marty Cagan called Inspired. In my opinion, this is the product manager’s Bible. It is timeless and I think if you really internalize the learnings and understand the points the author is trying to make in this small book, it can change who you are as a product manager and as a commercial person in general. So much of what’s in this book clicked in my mind and it has had a fundamental change in my success.
For example, one of the things that the author talks about is that there are two hard truths in product management. The first hard truth is that most of the ideas that we think will have an impact on the business or the customers will most likely not have that same impact. He says at least 50% of your ideas aren’t not going to work and good teams plan for maybe 75% of their ideas to flop. The second hard truth is that the few ideas that will work and have an impact on the business, they are unlikely going to work from the first iteration — you’re going to have to try it a few times until you really unlock it. What you end up seeing in current product cycles is a number of companies spending three months, six months, sometimes even nine months working on something only to have it dead on arrival when you release it to the customers. Customers don’t care for the idea and it makes zero impact.
If we really internalize all of these learnings from the book, we have to consider the risks, the assumptions, and the things we need to validate changes and products upfront so we can build products that consumers actually want and need. We also need to figure out how to do it fast so we can capture those learnings and move on. So instead of something taking months, it should really only take days or weeks.
The author tries to separate these hard truths into two areas of work, one that he calls discovery and the other delivery. Discovery is when you’re really optimizing for speed and validation of the assumptions you are making about how customers will interact with your product. Delivery is the next step now that you’ve validated your assumption, you can spend time working through your ideas and updates in a way that is scalable, maintainable and impactful. This book has fundamentally changed the way I think about work, especially in product and this is something I constantly share with my teams at Hotjar. Validating and empathizing with your users is key to building good products.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, and what was its purpose?
When we start to think about why Hotjar exists and look to the origin story of how David founded and built Hotjar, you’ll see right away that it was always to inspire change through empathy — so together we can change the world for the better. This is our governing principle and the why across everything we do in a nutshell.. The way this is manifested or articulated has changed slightly over time but at its core, the mission remains the same.
When David, our previous CEO and founder, was building Hotjar, he was doing a lot of agency work for conversion optimization, and user experience improvements for his customers. He found himself using all of these really expensive tools to try and create real empathy with the user. As he continued using these tools, he felt that they were very exclusive yet essential, powerful tools to understand and connect with the users as you build products and online experiences.
Small and mid-sized businesses who needed these tools the most could not afford these tools so his vision was to take this and democratize it to make it more affordable for small teams. And even for the people who have the budgets for these solutions, it was important to make Hotjar accessible with a low barrier to entry for as many people as possible. That has been really the fuel for Hotjar’s growth and it has gotten to a point where we’re now collecting data from approximately one million websites today and providing product teams with the insights needed to understand and build empathy with their users to ultimately create better experiences.
Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
We just launched a product that will hopefully be one of many that we call Hotjar Trends. Hotjar Trendsis basically the story behind your customer data. If you look at traditional analytics like Google Analytics, you’ll get a snapshot of the user journey and their online interactions. But, with tools like Hotjar, you’ll actually be able to see the why behind it. For example, what are they clicking? Are they rage clicking versus normal clicking? Where are they going back and forth on your pages? What is sentiment like on your pages? But even then, these data points are super granular,
With Hotjar Trends, we wanted to complement this behavioural data with the option to start looking at aggregate data. Sometimes you’ll want to jump into very specific, granular behavioural data when building products but there’s so much value in having an aggregate view on that behavioral data as well. Aggregate data paints a bigger picture of trends over time and provides teams with a different lens of insights. For example with rage clicking, Hotjar Trends allows you to see where people are getting more frustrated or less frustrated over time — pinpointing what updates actually worked in the long run.We’re trying to create more powerful, aggregate analytics products that compliment our granular recordings.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation. For the benefit of our readers, can you help explain what exactly Digital Transformation means? On a practical level, what does it look like to engage in a Digital Transformation?
I think when it comes to digital transformation, it’s really important to acknowledge where we are today. In my opinion, this transformation alone, as a concept, doesn’t even cut it anymore. The customers have moved way past that. If you look at 10 years ago, when a lot of the businesses were moving online, customers were buying things or using services online to find specific items that were fundamentally better than traditional retail. For example, these online businesses had the widest selection and the best pricing. On Amazon, you have millions of items and options to choose from and you’re able to get a better price than in-store. It’s also more convenient to have your items shipped directly to your home compared to jumping in your car and driving to the nearest store.
Nowadays, almost all companies provide direct shipping. The expectations of the consumer have increased so much for the last few years that companies had to offer these options or else risk losing out on sales. So what businesses really need to do to stand out is to create experiences that truly delight your users. They need to understand what the customer needs are on a deeper level. How can you, as a business, be there for them at the right time and at the right place in the way that they expect you to show up? If you aren’t ready to participate in the ongoing digital transformation, you’ll be left behind.
Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?
A quote from a previous boss that I had that I think really answers this question is that there isn’t a situation today where a company is not a tech company. If you’re not a tech company, you simply can’t compete anymore.So really, when it comes to digital transformation, we’re getting to the point in 2022, where it’s becoming table stakes. It’s either you catch up or you get left behind. . I think it’s becoming not the question of how you can benefit from tech, but it’s more of a basic component of your business that is essential for survival.
We’d love to hear about your experiences helping others with Digital Transformation. In your experience, how has Digital Transformation helped improve operations, processes, and customer experiences? We’d love to hear some stories if possible.
There are multiple components to digital transformation. When we think about the business or the operations process as a whole, we also need to think about the customer experience. When you think about operations, software has replaced so much of what people think of as operations, whether it’s a company with an extensive supply chain and procurement network or even just logistics, technology has helped streamline businesses and in some cases, create purely digital businesses where most of the operations are happening through automated knowledge networks.
I think digital transformation is really important for businesses not only from an efficiency standpoint to match the higher pace of an ever evolving market, but to also have a much bigger impact on their bottom line. A lot of teams were able to make significant margin gains just due to automation and being able to create these efficiencies with digital transformation.
Creating more efficient structures will not just impact your margins and cost structure, but also impact the way your teams do and deliver work on a daily basis. People themselves are becoming a lot more effective and efficient with the right digital transformation. And when it comes to customer experience, of course, being able to use digital tools unlocks a new way to connect with your customers in a more personalized and faster manner. Customers are expecting a lot these days and the more convenience and speed you can provide them the better.
It’s very, very difficult to reinvent yourself at such a high pace, but companies that are able to focus on the right type of digital transformation will succeed. What most companies struggle with when it comes to digital transformation is they try to translate their analog processes directly into a digital equivalent. If your analog process was a bad process to begin with, going digital will just create a bad, digital process. It doesn’t fix the core problem so I encourage companies to not only transform with better tools and software, but also approach digital transformation with a digital-first mindset and process.
Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them?
I think the challenges come from a combination of two things. One, as we mentioned before, is that companies are resistant to change for a long time. But another struggle I’ve seen in the tech industry is that there’s a gap between how fast the industry is moving and how fast the legislators are moving as well. A lot of the challenges we face in the tech industry are because the legislators are still operating in a context that is two decades old. Look at how long it took for digital signatures to become a valid form of identity proof. And even more so, how long did it take in different regions and countries due to legislation? If e-signatures are recognized only in specific jurisdictions and not others, what’s the point of having the innovation? Governments have a critical role to play in integrating digital transformation.
My advice would be to just be aware of what you can and can’t control. But also, don’t use what you can’t control as an excuse to not try at all, which is quite commonly the case. While you might feel sometimes there’s no point in doing it at all, there’s still a lot of gains that you can probably get from looking at the parts of your business that you can transform, and ultimately, it will be beneficial for you and for your customers.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are “Five Ways a Company Can Use Digital Transformation To Take It To The Next Level”? Please share a story or an example for each.
I’m going to share a bit of controversial advice that will also serve as my answer to the question. While I can think of five ways a company can take digital transformation to the next level, many companies that have been around for decades continue to struggle to implement any sort of digital transformation.
Marc Andreessen from a16z and the inventor of Netscape was once asked a similar question about companies who were struggling with the digital transformation promise and he said “find your best technologist in the company and make them CEO.” That’s how much he believed change needs to come from the top down and I agree with it. I’ve had friends in my network who’ve worked in big corporations for quite some time and it always comes down to the lack of political will at the top. There’s a lack of the right executive sponsors and the right executive decisions to make transformation possible so for me, I aim to always hire the right people, many times smarter than me, and ask them where they think opportunities for digital transformation lie.
In your opinion, how can companies best create a “culture of innovation” in order to create new competitive advantages?
First and foremost, safety to fail is the one factor that separates successful companies who have created a culture of innovation from declining companies. If you try to do difficult things, and try to do them fast, you will inevitably fail many times. Building a place where it’s safe to fail gives people the room to try something that may not seem possible at first. It’s important to share the notion that ideas can come from anywhere. Many companies are top down lead, where only the leadership team is expected to come up with the best ideas. Instead, leaders should aim to create an environment where everyone has access to information and has the ability to freely voice ideas and contribute to them properly.
On the other end of that spectrum. A lot of what companies are calling innovation is in my opinion, a waste because not all ideas are born equal. And what I mean by that is some people put in a lot of work, they do the homework by looking at the data, they understand their customers and then they form the model of their idea. They use data and insights to understand that this is something worth pursuing in the first place.Doing something just on gut feeling only, or just because it sounds cool, is often not enough for an idea to be truly impactful.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I can’t think of a specific quote, but perhaps more like a principle that I tried to live by. It’s this idea of trying to live life with no regrets, in a way. The fact is, you’ll try different things throughout your life and many people will say things like “take every opportunity you get and do everything you want” so you can live a life without regrets. But I don’t think that’s true.
I believe that your motivation to do something should not be driven by the fear of regret. Whether you do take a chance or you don’t, it should be because you chose to. Regardless of what choices you’ve made, there is no point looking back. What happened has happened. You can only look forward, and it’s and that’s the most important thing. You can take whichever lessons you need from the past, but there’s no point in getting stuck there.
How can our readers further follow your work?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Mohannad Ali Of Hotjar On How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.