What we learned in the early days of our startup [part 1]

Startups are stereotypically seen as natural habitats for hipsters who drink only soy milk and matcha tea, but are very motivated to change the world with their revolutionary app. Through this lens, startup people typically enjoy foosball, they love pointing out social injustices, they are tech-crazy, they secretly fantasize about giving a TED talk, and more importantly – they are often overconfident they will be remembered – nay! Immortalized! -as disruptors.

Yeah, well – not us. (Although, that’s probably what all startups think.)

As you may know, Content Insights is a mission-driven company that’s brought an advanced content intelligence solution to the market. The idea for this analytics product originally came in 2011 from the founder Dejan Nikolić, who was the editor of the satirical news portal, Njuz.net. He knew there must be a way to identify the best performing authors and reward them accordingly, but alas – he couldn’t do it with the standard metrics offered by off-the-shelf content analytics.

Of course, the first prototype was very far from what Content Insights is today. The product has evolved significantly thanks to the other two founders (Dragutin Miletić and Ilija Šuša), as well as the skillful team who made it happen.

Working at a startup implies a lot of trial and error. (No shit, Sherlock.)

Today, we’ll share the main lessons learned in the early days of Content Insights.

We talked to four people who all hold very different positions but share something huge: they’ve been here the longest. In addition to one of the founders Ilija Šuša, we’d like to thank Em Kuntze, our Editor, Aleksandra Radivojević, our Head of People Operations, and Katarina Vučić, EA to CEO & Office Manager. 

Finding your identity is a process and things have a tendency to change

When you are doing something completely new, it takes time before you can test your assumptions in reality and enter the market. When Content Insights opened its doors for the first time, we had a clear idea of our  target audience and the problems they were struggling with. Helping editors was primarily in focus.

As the product continued to grow, so did the client pool. With new features, Content Insights had something valuable to offer not just to editors – but to all kinds of content professionals, audience managers, digital marketers, media developers, etc. 

Ever since day one, the company invested in content marketing, which was a rather logical step. Not only was it necessary to build online visibility for the brand, but it was also of paramount importance to explain the key values of the analytics which relies on complex metrics and brings a whole new philosophy to the fore. Since the company had actual experienced editors in its ranks, content was the field within which they could address the shared issues and spurr up a dialogue with readers.

As Em Kuntze, our brilliant editor from the UK, explained – it took some time before the team managed to craft the right tone for the brand and define a style guide that would reflect the values and spirit of the company:

You’re necessarily pragmatic in startups, so you need to be prepared to try different approaches. Very, very early on in the blog, for example, we thought writing listicle-type articles would be a good idea, and I think there’s a piece we did about planning seasonal content. It wasn’t bad, per se, but I think it became apparent almost as soon as I’d hit ‘publish’ that that wasn’t really ‘us’. Since then, we’ve honed an approach to content that honors who we are both as a company, but also as people. One thing we’ve stayed true to is our tone of voice, and from a content point of view it’s been the framework we are able to hang all our content on.

In the early days, marketing was almost a one-man-band (or should we say, a one-woman-band), and Em was in the thick of it. She says that, in a startup ecosystem, you have to accept the current business priorities and work the best with what they’ve got: 

When it was really just me, things like design and SEO analysis were neglected – I did what I could, but I had neither the time nor the expertise to give them the attention we do now. Growing from a couple of us to a full team has made a massive difference in the efficacy of what we produce.

We’re in this together: cross-team collaboration deserves special attention

The thing that makes startup companies severely different from corporations and big organizations is the emphasis on collective efforts. That’s very important.

In large structures, people are often just cogs in the wheel, while in small environments – the results each individual drives can directly affect the success of the company. One thing leads to another, every effort counts. All teams need to cooperate, like a well-oiled machine. Not only does this matter for keeping everyone in the loop, but it’s also crucial in terms of brainstorming and problem-solving, especially if you bear in mind that each person has something unique to bring to the table.

But, you’d be surprised how many companies out there have siloed organizations, either not caring about the quality of communication or without even being aware of it. Department isolation can lead to creating unnecessary hostile work relationships, broken customer experiences, poor flow of critical business information internally, and low level of engagement at the workplace.

In its early days, Content Insights was operating more in silos because there was no defined structure. As the team grew, so did the communication between departments. Aleksandra joined the company in 2017, and that’s when things started looking up, organization and communication-wise:

In spring of 2017, Content Insights’ team expanded greatly. I went through all business sectors and spent a fair amount of time with them in order to get to know everyone, to truly get the nuts and bolts of different teams and understand the way they work. The lack of connection between the teams was evident, there were no unified processes. This is when I started doing 1-on-1 interviews with employees, which helped me map out frustrations and things that could be improved. More importantly, by getting to know people and their expectations, I managed to introduce operational principles and models that would break the isolation of teams. 

In the beginning, Content Insights had an internal newsletter in which teams shared their achievements with one another. But this hasn’t really stuck because of the format. Very few people actually read this, and that’s ok. They preferred hanging out in the kitchen and sharing what’s up in a casual conversation. 

Aleksandra managed to define formats for business meetings to maintain the optimal level of productivity. In addition, she introduced Friday show-off which helped increase transparency and mutual understanding.

In February 2019, sales, marketing, and customer success formally merged into a Revenue team. This helped us to work unanimously and perfect our communication further.  

You have to be agile and flexible, but also careful not to lose focus and cause chaos

Being light on your feet is one of the key things you’ll master in a startup environment. In case of Content Insights, this means continuously listening to what the online media market needs, interviewing existing clients and taking notes of their feedback, and adjusting the product and its features so that it’s truly of use.

Not only is this important in terms of ensuring client satisfaction and good retention rates, but it’s also crucial for ensuring a product-market fit.

As Em says – there’s no use being wedded to ideas just because ‘that’s what we’ve always done’.

There are a lot of moving parts here, so it can be fairly hard to make decisions regarding current priorities. Agility implies a bit of multitasking and doing things on the fly, but it can be a two-edged sword.

When you try to force a fast-paced environment, you’re also in danger of putting any type of strategy or plan on the side, which may blur your set goals and frequently shift your business direction. The ‘we need to act fast’ directive usually puts everyone in the fifth gear and makes them hyper-productive as they work together to reach the set goal. But if this is a general modus operandi of your company, that’s usually not a very good sign.

The type of organization and structure you implement still remain the key determinators for your startup’s success. This is why we introduced a business model canvas and adopted lean principles pretty early on, but we were still open to adjusting our framework to newly spawned circumstances.

Aleksandra had some really good insights to share on the topic:

Although pivoting isn’t bad, my impression is that we pivoted a bit too much in the beginning. In my opinion, it takes time for one idea to show itself worthy, so I think we should have focused more on deepening some of them instead of rushing to the next big thing. Also, when you’re wholeheartedly in your business, you sometimes fall into the trap of reacting instinctively instead of strategically. It’s easy to get fired up and follow your gut feeling instead of data. 

Ilija also had something to add regarding pivoting:

Pivoting is fairly common in the startup world. As a matter of fact, sometimes you pivot right after you’ve taken just a few business steps. In terms of startup accelerators and investors’ support –  they tend to care more about the team, its synergy and capabilities, than the product itself. In addition to product-market fit, founder-market fit is of great significance; it’s maybe even more important.

There are things that will be out of your control, and you’ll need to learn to let things go

When you start a company, solo or with co-founders, it’s sometimes hard to accept you’ll need to make compromises down the road. This is particularly true for those who bring their idea (which is their precious baby) into the world and start employing people to make it happen.

You’ll face many ‘expectation vs. reality’ moments where you’ll often have to choose the next best thing and settle for something else. 

As Katarina explained, there are many factors that influence the final outcome. Many things may impact the way your vision will change:

Take investors for example. You must make business decisions that respect their interests; you must be flexible and diplomatic toward the investors. It’s perfectly natural. You have to be self-aware, aware of your position and surroundings. I think that people who dream of opening a startup company often see the whole process through rose-tinted lenses. You have to watch the market and make compromises. Hunches and assumptions will only get you so far.

When you manage to build something from scratch, you’ll feel the urge to control each segment of the business or to get overly involved. Building trust in your people is hard and it’s much more personal than in big corporations.

Katarina explains how it’s important to let people work on making the vision come true, and that it’s always a shared effort:

You have to trust people’s expertise and learn to delegate tasks. Let people do their jobs. This goes from letting people handle hiring processes to trusting each employee they will do their part the best way possible. 

Ilija also shared a couple of real situations that happened in the early days of Content Insights that underline the importance of accepting you don’t have absolute control:

At one point, we decided to switch from Google Cloud to Amazon (AWS) for storing data. I don’t want to get too technical about this, but let’s just say that the migration implies moving the data from one environment to another, in a 1:1 ratio. We defined the acceptable percent error to 0.5%. But in the beginning, the migration resulted in an error that was above this value. We were doing everything right, so we couldn’t figure out what the catch was.

Turns out, this happened because of Russia blocking millions of IP addresses in an attempt to shut down the messaging service Telegram. We had some Russian media organizations in our client portfolio at that moment and this affected the outcome, i.e. contributed to the mentioned error.

The takeaway? You cannot control everything. Some matters are political or beyond your reach in some other way. What you can do and what the startup environment often requires from you, is to adapt to the circumstances and find an alternative solution.

Thank you for reading this article! Of course, we’re not quite done yet. Make sure you drop by our career blog in exactly a week when we’ll publish part two of the lessons we’ve learned from the early days of Content Insights.


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