How E-Commerce Startup Gooten Sets Its Employees Up For Growth, Leadership and Success
The Org sat down with the President of e-commerce technology company Gooten to learn more about how its team helps their employees navigate career growth and leadership at an early-staged startup.
8 minute read

Navigating one’s career growth in any organization can be challenging, but it is especially difficult for startup employees. In more structured and traditional corporate environments employees often know exactly what their growth path will look like – down to how long it may take them to get promoted and even how much they're going to be paid along the way. On the other hand, early-stage and high-growth organizations are constantly evolving. As a result, the needs of the business also change quickly. This makes it difficult to predict what the next steps in one's career path might look like, as roles and responsibilities in startups can often be all-encompassing or subject to change.

However, for President of eCommerce technology startup Gooten Maddy Alcala, not having a fixed career path isn’t always a bad thing. “The nice thing about working at a startup is that because there is so much change, there's also a lot of opportunity for growth,” Alcala said. “That's one of the main reasons that people want to join a smaller company because they are able to have more ownership, learn a ton, and do so much more than what would be possible for them at a structured organization.”

Founded in 2015, Gooten is a digital-first production and logistics startup that is transforming the way online retailers and merchants manage their supply chains. Gooten leverages software to create a smarter, more reliable print-on-demand solution that enables businesses to fulfill without inventory, eliminate waste and manufacture at scale. And with 95 employees in the organization and over 50,000 independent brands and small businesses who rely on them, Gooten’s innovative software is not the only thing that it is doing right.

Alcala told The Org what she thinks has helped lead to the company’s success. “For me, it all comes back to the people,” Alcala said. “A business is nothing without the individuals who work there. Without them, it's just a collection of code and ideas.”

This people-first mentality is something that is very much a part of the company’s ethos and is reflected both in how Gooten cares for its customers and supports its employees throughout their careers. And Alcala’s career trajectory at Gooten is ample proof of the growth that is possible at a startup.

Navigating career growth in a startup

Alcala joined Gooten in 2017 and In the five years that she has been with the company, she has been promoted an equal amount of times. Her first role at the organization was as a partnerships manager where she worked closely with Gooten’s customers. After only six months, she was promoted to director of partnerships. From there, she quickly ascended to vice president and then executive vice president of the sales and business development department. In 2022, Alcala was promoted to company president, where she leads Gooten's merchant and retail division across all growth initiatives and oversees the company’s strategy and the go-to-market efforts.

Humbly, Alcala attributes some of her career growth to luck and having shown up for the right people during the right periods of the company’s growth. But besides having good fortune, how else can one navigate their career progression within an early-stage business? One piece of advice that Alcala can’t stress enough to any professional looking to grow is the importance of advocating for yourself. “I believe that it is the responsibility of the manager to create a culturally and psychologically safe space for their employees to speak up for themselves and have a career conversation. But I'm also a big believer that it is on the person themselves. As a leader, I don't think it's my responsibility or place to figure out your career for you. Because how would I know?” Alcala said.

According to Alcala, advocating for yourself in the workplace means being upfront about your long-term and short-term career goals, discussing opportunities for growth and the steps needed to take to work towards a promotion and asking for a job title that will best assist your career development. “Job titles are an important part of an employee's career progression and they should be specific enough that people generally know what you're responsible for, but also broad enough to give somebody room to run in their role,” Alcala said.

Using her own career progression and current role as an example, Alcala’s title as President was curated to give her breadth in the position, as its comprehensiveness allows her to oversee multiple teams and have enough gravitas to show up, negotiate or speak on behalf of the company wherever she is needed. “Whenever I'm talking to my team about titling or promotions, I always ask questions in the context of their overall growth story, such as: where do you see yourself and is there a way we can give you a title or responsibilities that help you move in that direction?” Alcala said

Another way that the Gooten team helps support its employees’ career progression is by using tools and people operations tactics to make growth paths more clear and attainable across the organization. Gooten uses Google Docs to house an internal database of every employee's job descriptions and updates them accordingly when the scope of their role changes. “Our job descriptions are solely for internal purposes and they include the title, the purpose of the role, the responsibilities, the duties associated with it and how success is measured in the role. It helps people to better contextualize their role within the company and understand what other people are doing,” Alcala said. Gooten also uses Lattice so managers can take notes during one-on-one meetings, provide feedback and track team OKRs. Lastly, the team uses Atlassian’s Jira and Confluence tools to manage projects, outline frameworks and house internal wiki documentation.

Setting up first-time managers for success

Today, Alcala leads a department of 55 employees, and she likes to take what she’s learned from her own experience growing at the company and use it to help her direct reports achieve their career goals. “As much as possible, particularly when we're looking for more senior positions, we try to look within our team first before hiring externally. So there are definitely a lot of internal growth opportunities at Gooten,” Alcala said. “At this point, I think I have eight people on my team who actually started as junior customer support agents, answering tickets and are now in senior positions.”

In 2022 alone, Gooten has promoted three more people of its total 87 employees into leadership roles. However, for many employees at startups, climbing up the corporate ladder gives way to a new challenge: learning how to lead as a first-time manager. “I love working with first-time managers because it is a thing very near and dear to my heart because I got the opportunity to be a first-time manager and a lot of people helped me and so I want to pay that forward as much as possible,” Alcala said. One of the biggest challenges that she often sees first-time managers face is combatting imposter syndrome as they transition into a leadership role.

Many times in smaller companies, first-time managers are moving to a position where they're managing people who were previously their peers. At the same time, they usually don’t have a peer group because there aren’t multiple team leads who have the same responsibilities. This presents the difficult challenge of navigating being an authoritative figure while still wanting to be liked in the workplace.

“I spend a lot of time with confidence building and giving people the tools to be more comfortable stepping into a position of authority,” Alcala said. “A large part of that is helping new managers to trust their instincts, letting them know that it’s okay to make mistakes and encouraging them to ask for help.”

One of the first things that Alcala helps new managers to do is set clear expectations with their team around individual performance measurement, team goals, working hours and their preferred communication style. Another way that Alcala supports newly promoted team leads is by helping them to identify support systems and peer groups both internally and externally. Lastly, Alcala always encourages her employees to realize that management is not one-size-fits-all. “All managers need to figure out their style and that's going to take time. Not only that, but they also need to figure out how to adjust that style to every person that they're leading because everybody likes to be managed in different ways,” she said.

At the end of the day, every working professional has a job because they need a paycheck. However, being able to work at an organization where there is a good level of personal support, consistent growth and strong relationships being built is what makes many employees truly find the work rewarding. “I love the industry that we're in and I believe that we're really solving big problems in the space,” Alcala said. “But I show up to work every day because I like who I work with and I want to see them successful.”

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