Unsung Heroes 2023: Klue VP of product Tamara Schebel keeps building startups within bigger organizations

Tamara Schebel took a leap of faith in joining tech startup Klue in 2018.

She took a leap of faith in joining tech startup Klue in 2018

Tamara Schebel has been in Vancouver for some 25 years, but her mother still gets upset when she refers to it as “home.” Unfortunately for her mom, however, there wasn’t much of a chance that Schebel was sticking around her hometown of Calgary. “I was a vegetarian for most of my life growing up, and I didn’t like country music,” she says over a Zoom screen with a quick burst of words that land like the delivery of a seasoned comedian. “Calgary wasn’t keeping me.”

In a surprise twist, she finished high school and landed in Winnipeg, because she wanted to attend one of the country’s top architecture schools at the University of Manitoba. Schebel actually enjoyed her time in another Prairie province, but was unsure what to do after. “Half the people I graduated with ended up volunteering at architecture firms, and the rest went overseas to Southeast Asia, where there were actually jobs,” she says.

Schebel followed the latter group and worked abroad in Malaysia at an architecture firm, where it became apparent that the field wasn’t for her. “It wasn’t really the same as school,” she recalls. “School was really creative, it was an amazing program, you got to do all sorts of great things. In the real world, in the ’90s, you designed stair details and did a lot of faxing. It wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.”

Facing the prospect of going to do a master’s program for another three years, Schebel didn’t want to be “40 years old making $40,000 a year designing stair details.” She ended up finding her way to Vancouver—”where I ultimately wanted to be”—through a new media program at Vancouver Film School.

She learned some web development skills there and, at her graduation, was recruited by Andrew Reid to join market research firm Angus Reid Group. A year later, Andrew founded Vision Critical (now Alida), and Schebel joined as the first employee. She built the first version of Alida’s flagship product—a customer experience management platform—and was there for almost 18 years. 

“Nobody does that anymore,” she laughs. “My dad always told me to never stay anywhere more than two years, because after that, you’re not learning anything new. But I kept changing jobs within the company. Every year or year and a half, I’d be in something new. I had a bad habit of identifying things that weren’t working and accidentally volunteering myself to fix them. I kept spinning little startups within the company.”

It’s true—Schebel’s LinkedIn bio is a winding trail of executive titles and tech jargon thrown into a blender. There’s web developer, user experience designer, information architect (check it out, U of M!) senior programmer, director, vice president and, finally, senior product manager. After witnessing the company grow from zero people to almost 1,000 at its peak, Schebel decided to make a move in 2018.

For a couple of years, Jason Smith, who had served as president of Vision Critical for several years, had been trying to recruit Schebel to join his new venture, a competitive intelligence platform called Klue. “Every few months, we’d go for coffee and he’d say, Are you ready now? I’d be like, No, dude, what is this thing?” Schebel recalls. When she did finally agree, Klue had just gotten seed funding and consisted of 18 people in a small office in Gastown.

“The catalyst for joining was Jason, he’s one of those people I have an enormous amount of respect for,” she says. “He’s super challenging from a high expectation perspective, but so am I.” She admits that, at first, there was plenty of culture shock. “Vision Critical had gotten to be a big company with all the bureaucracy and big company feels that go with that, and Klue was the exact opposite, in all the best ways.”

It’s likely feeling a little familiar now, though. Klue has some 250 employees around the globe and Schebel, who serves as the company’s vice president of product, has her hands full with recruiting. “I did 12 interviews last week,” she says with a chuckle and only the smallest sign of exhaustion, despite the fact that she’s also battling a cold. “The biggest challenge lately has been around hiring. With the pace at which we’ve been growing, finding good product people is really difficult. People do the job in different ways, so finding ones that jibe with how we think product fits into Klue is really challenging. The pipeline isn’t that big when you’re looking to grow like we have.”

The good hires, says Schebel, know how to connect the dots. “Product is really about taking a million inputs and turning it into a coherent thread,” she explains. For Klue, which is trying to be the world leader in competitive enablement, the focus is on helping customers stay on top of their competitors. “How do we make sure that the things you’re learning about your competitors can actually be put to good use, and that they’re activating the teams internally that need that information to do their jobs?” 

Most of the hiring Schebel and her team does isn’t focused on Vancouver. Yes, the company has a local office (now in the heart of Vancouver’s downtown), but Klue, which has always been fairly remote-friendly, very much embraced the digital side of things during the pandemic. It now has teams in place like Amsterdam, Brazil and Eastern Canada. “The last few years in the Vancouver market have been really tough with the Amazons, Microsofts and Apples moving in and taking over talent,” she says. “It’s really hard to compete.” 

As for her own personal approach to the work, Schebel calls herself a player-coach. “I’m still in the weeds of product management while growing the team,” she says. “My style is, How do I level up people’s toolsets over time? Everybody has the toolkit of skills that you can apply—how do we add new skills on a regular basis?” If anyone has the answer, we think she does.