Startup stories usually tell tales of vision and execution well done- building an amazing product, or delivering a fantastic service for the next big thing. And vision and execution were just the ingredients we had when we embarked on the journey to build our company, RBBi, five years ago. Besides the initial paperwork and operational nightmares, from company registration to office fit-out, we soon realized that there was so much more to building a sustainable startup. These are lessons that we only learned by experience- no books or courses could do justice to help steer the decisions you have to make when you're smack right in the middle of it. Looking back over the last five years, we’d like to share some of the key fundamental insights that we believe helped us pivot to where we are right now.
Business is about people. It always boils down to people. Period. People who help you build what you want to deliver, and also people who consume your product/service. As founders, you still have a job to do, and with that association, you also have to deal with all the adversities that apply to a typical job. It’s not just what you do with your skillset- the fact is that you have to wake up and have the want to come work alongside the people you’ve hired, in order to build something up for the world. This is a fundamental element that most businesses ignore. As a founder, you have to ensure that you are constantly motivated to drive the business, as well as have enough motivation to lead and drive the vision for your team members.
We learnt this lesson very early on- hire people, not only for their skillset, but also for their personality. You don’t want to have people on board who you can’t really connect with. As a founder, the business you’re building will inevitably take on the shape of your own personality. And if you have people on board who don't work well with that, you’ll end up spending time fire-fighting issues you can never truly put a finger on. Hire people who can see things the same way as you can. Hire people who can “feel” your vision, not just understand it. Hire people who can speak the same language as you so your end customers can have a seamless experience.
2. Processes (i.e. the art of making yourself redundant)
This is something that hit us head-on after a few years. As founders of the company, having decades of experience working with several organizations, we natively operated by experience. We made decisions on with our gut most of the times, and those decisions worked in our favor. We knew the standard of quality we wanted to follow, and we were successfully driving those standards. However, as we grew and started getting more people on board, along with increasing our customer base, this “style” of business operation started to take a toll on us.
We asked ourselves: “What if tomorrow, both founders had to take an indefinite leave from work, would the team be able to operate and deliver the same standard of work autonomously?” The answer was a blaring no. We realized that our style of operation ended up making the team very dependent on our gut feel and experience in operations.
With this insight in mind, we started to invest in processes within the company that can help automate several tasks and increase efficiency. These included little things like introducing daily scrums to improve workflow, to tools that help document customer and team communication for long-term projects. We started to take ourselves out from the equation to achieve quality in our solutions and focused on documenting a self-sustainable business with our bar of standards.
It sounds like a no-brainer now, but most startups fail to invest in setting processes from the beginning, and before you know it, the founders find themselves tightly wrapped in an intricate operational mist, where most of their team members can’t function autonomously.
3. Learning to say “no”
Most startups these days try to hone and drive a niche in the market. And over time, in order to either weather the initial storms or containing the euphoria of quick wins, many of them wander off-track.
The focus, niche, values and all those things that you thought would make you stand out are often forgotten. That’s where you should have some mechanism in place. It could be a simple daily reminder or a casual chat with your co-founder, or any other way that works for you. Just remind yourselves of the things you talked about before you began the journey, and see if you are still on the right track.
Learn to say a firm no to things that may put you off track, to people who lure you off track, and all things that tempt you to wander off from your journey. Identify and define your anchor so you can revisit and remind yourself of the core values and why you began this journey in the first place.
4. Don't enforce an organizational culture
We all know the importance of culture in a startup or an organization. On our journey, we learnt some valuable lessons on defining cultures within your organization. Don’t presume and have a culture set in your mind. Don’t try to design a culture especially by looking at leading organizations that you admire. Don’t define "culture-set" rules.
When you're a startup, you're practically still in the amoeba stage. You need to muster up all the flexibility you can in order to grow. If you end up focusing on the culture-set during that stage, you'll soon find yourself in a place that has grown with a rigid set of conditional rules. And this will end up hurting your scalability in the future. Keep a check on your core values and hire people who match up to that. But don't define cultural rules and set them in stone from the very beginning. The best cultures are the ones that are organic.
This advice is even more applicable to the region we are in, which brings a diverse set of nationalities and cultures together in order to follow through a grander vision of what the business is set to achieve. The combination of personalities as you grow and move along the journey will create the perfect blend of your own culture, which will be unique to your organization.
5. Getting out of the comfort zone
We hear this every now and again: how, in order to grow, you have to operate out of your comfort zone. Most of what we've shared in this article boils down just that- pushing yourself every now and again to operate out of your own comfort shell. Henry Ford said it best when he said, "If you always do what you've done, you'll always get what you've always gotten."
Keep yourself in a constant check- the moment you find that you're making decisions from your comfort zone, ask yourself if you could do something here that you've never done before. Notice how that makes you feel. Then do it. Getting out of your comfort zone will bring newer experiences to you and thus, to your business. Lastly, if you use this as your mantra, "It's always about the journey, never the destination," you'll truly enjoy making the best out of your startup journey.