Stor.ai CEO Orlee Tal on Scaling and Defining Company Success

November 19, 2021

The Crunchbase “Female Founder Series” is comprised of stories, Q&As and thought-leadership pieces from glass-ceiling-smashers who overcame the odds and are now leading successful companies, or investing in them.


Orlee Tal is CEO of stor.ai, the end-to-end digital transformation platform for grocers. She is passionate about changing the way the world shops at supermarkets and looks to provide every retailer a unique, personalized, data-driven, and innovative digital experience.

Tal has 15 years of product management and UX experience at innovative Israeli start-ups. Prior to stori.ai, Tal was at Retalix, a software firm that develops and supports software apps for retailers, wholesalers and distributors. There she led the user experience team and redesigned the company’s entire product range that was later acquired by NCR in 2013. Tal also lectures at the IDC Communication Faculty, teaching an advanced course in Product & UX Design. 

In this Q&A, Tal shares her journey to becoming a founder and her advice to first-time and current female founders. 


Q: Why led you to a career in product management and UX?

It didn’t happen early in my career; I was 30 years old, a mother to two young children, and a senior textile designer working for some of the largest companies in the space. 

I knew I wanted to enter the product and UX field while studying for my Master’s of Science degree at the Technion. I read Don Norman’s best-selling book Psychology of Everyday Things, about product and user experience design. Halfway through the first chapter, I had an ‘Aha’ moment and knew exactly where I wanted to navigate my career.

Since then, I’ve spent over 20 years working as a product manager in high-tech and startup companies and was eventually promoted to CEO.

 

Q: What issues did you see in product management and UX before you started stor.ai?

When stor.ai was founded seven years ago, it was still the early days of being an online grocery platform. Coming with a product management and UX background to start a new startup, one of the significant challenges I was confronted with was translating physical world experiences at supermarkets to the digital world.

Seven years later, with hundreds of retailers using our platform, we are doing the exact opposite; we are expanding our solution to the in-store and bringing digital experiences to the physical store environment. The COVID-19 pandemic raised the profile of e-commerce exponentially, but in reality, the shift to online shopping expedited trends that were long in the making. It’s exciting to see how dynamic this space has become.

 

Q: In the first eight months of 2021, only 2.2 percent of venture capital was invested in female-only founded companies. Do you feel welcome and accepted as an underrepresented group in the VC space?

On my last round of funding early this year (stor.ai raised $21M in an extended Series A round in March 2021), I didn’t feel my gender was an obstacle in any way. I found that potential investors were interested in hearing my perspective as a female CEO in a male-dominated environment. Perhaps they were intrigued by my capability to overcome what they believed to be challenging circumstances.

Though, ten years ago in another funding round for a startup I co-founded, the situation was different. In several cases, I heard potential investors commenting that I was surprisingly OK for a woman. Now, we are beginning to see women in leadership positions becoming increasingly normalized. My children – now teenagers – are able to see a female CEO in the family as entirely normal. They share it with their friends and it influences their outlook for the future.

 

Q: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as the founder of your own company?

It’s all about the people! Having at my side a group of committed, trustworthy, and passionate people is what makes me excited and energized every morning as I wake up. This is what makes the difference when the company is going through rough times. 

Even as the company has tripled in size over the past six months, I invest time in interviewing every new employee joining the company; this is how important it is for me. We are working hard to maintain a strong sense of belonging. My worst nightmare is to learn of an employee that plans to leave the company because they don’t feel a sense of connection to our mission.

 

Q: What is your advice for other entrepreneurs trying to scale their own company?

Firstly I recommend reading the inspiring book Blitzscaling by Chris Yeh and Reid Hoffman about growing your business quickly in an environment of uncertainty. 

Some of the key ideas and strategies are around constantly iterating the product roadmap and go-to-market strategy: building with sticks, not bricks. You must embrace uncertainty, which can be frustrating at times when you long for stability.

Another piece of advice would be around operational efficiencies and processes; as the company grows, there is a need to define transparent work processes and communications between the different departments.

 

Q: Do you have a favorite quote or “personal mantra” you use to keep yourself motivated?

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst if he fails, he at least fails while daring greatly.” — Theodore Roosevelt 

This is a quote is mentioned Brené Brown’s famous book The Power of Vulnerability, which represents my personal mantra. It’s about the courage to fly anywhere as the risk of crashing/failing is totally acceptable.

 

Q: How have you integrated your values and mission into your own company structure?

Years ago, I heard Jared Spool, a UX guru, speaking about his methodology to project companies’ success. He defined three questions that I still use as my guidelines:

#1 company vision: Does everyone in the company know the company’s long-term vision? 

This is very similar to the BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) defined in the OKR methodology, which we are using at stor.ai, the company’s northern star. Every employee in the company needs to understand where the company is headed in the long run. 

#2 customer experience: In the last six weeks, have your team members spent at least two hours watching people experience your product or service? 

That means that team members are regularly speaking with and watching our users, and learning from them. Many struggling teams have never had a single member observe a customer using the product they developed or only received data from indirect sources. When this happens, each team member can only talk about their understanding of using the product, which is likely to be subjective and may not reflect the actual customer experience.

#3 celebrate failure: In the last six weeks, has your senior management held a celebration of a recently introduced problem (e.g., design, R&D, Business)? 

We don’t actually hold a party, but we are trying to create a culture that relishes “failure”. For example, after a server outage we experienced a few months ago, despite the momentary crisis, the organization simultaneously learned how to create desirable enhancements and has improved the system availability rate. We are constantly learning from our mistakes.