What we learned in the early days of our startup [part 2]

Last time, we shared with you four key lessons we learned in the early days of our startup. If you haven’t read the first part, make sure you do it now. We’ll wait until you’re all caught up.

Sorted? Good.

Today, we’re continuing with talking about our experience and how we run regular business operations now, a bit wiser and smarter.

Again, we have with us one of the founders of Content Insights – Ilija Šuša, our Editor – Em Kuntze, our Head of People Operations – Aleksandra Radivojević, and EA to CEO & Office Manager – Katarina Vučić.

Always start by analyzing if the product is scalable and bear the ‘bus factor’ in mind

Ilija explained how the most important thing to care about when you’re launching a product is whether or not it’s scalable:

Thinking about scalability should be on the top of your list. In the case of Content Insights, we worked on ensuring scalability in the first two years. This means that today, we can serve clients, i.e. media organizations that have billions of pageviews per month. Any amount of traffic and data we need to process is ok, it’s absolutely doable.  

And what about the ‘bus factor’? Not sure what we’re on about? Basically, it implies you should not allow a single person to cover a huge amount of business operations completely alone, without sharing the knowledge and how-tos with others. The name (‘bus factor’) comes from the rather morbid, but realistic possibility:

If that person gets hit by a bus, would the show still manage to go on? Would business continuity be ensured?

Sometimes, this risk is inevitable in the first stages of the startup when things are just starting to shake up, when finances are rather modest, and you operate understaffed. Aleksandra shared what happened early on in Content Insights:

The guy who created the original data system eventually left the company and he didn’t leave sufficient documentation for new folks who were supposed to take care of the system and work on it. Knowledge transfer was there, but it was too informal. We learned from that and introduced off-boarding with a clearly defined check list of activities. This ensured employees exiting the company would train new people properly before they leave.

In addition to off-boarding, a new way of working and collaborating has been introduced: 

When the new data engineering system was established, the developers agreed they’d take on the individual tasks that they like, but they’d also be well acquainted with who’s doing what and how. All of them had to be in the loop. This helped them to learn something new and prevented skill rot, but it also ensured they can cover for one another in case of sick days, vacation, absency, etc. We now have enough people, so it’s not an issue anymore.

Startup life is not for everybody

Maybe you heard it before, in which case it’s definitely worth repeating: startup life is not for everybody. Here’s what Katarina had to say about this:

Ideally, a best-case-scenario for startups looks something like this: you come up with the idea, you pitch it to investors, they love it, cash starts pouring in, investors get fired up, and it’s all upwards from that moment. This almost never happens. Working in a startup company implies the amplitude of events, a lot of ups and downs. The lows can be really low, but they are also valuable in terms of learning. The ups can feel surreal, like you’re walking on sunshine. 

Aleksandra agreed with this and added the following:

Let’s say you lose an investment or achieve results that ended up to be underwhelming, despite how hard people worked. These things happen. It can affect the morale of people, but in my experience – those who really feel comfortable in a startup – bounce back to their feet, and they do so by supporting one another. When you work in a mission-driven company and have motives to come to work other than earning money, it brings people together. Relationships at work tend to develop organically.

Yes, we’ve truly been through thick and thin together, which helps us handle the feelings of uncertainty and being exposed to risk more effectively, said Katarina.

Working in an early phase startup fuels both your personal and professional growth. For instance, due to financial priorities, you might not get the access to tools you would ideally like to use, but this is what usually triggers your creativity and helps you become a self-starter. It teaches you to overcome obstacles, even if you operate on a shoestring budget.

The risk of working in a startup is not negligible and some people are just not comfortable with this. They like stability and smooth sailing. This is why it’s very important to pay special attention to hiring people who are not just skillful and good at their jobs, but also those who are a cultural fit. Developing a product within a startup is a challenge, which might take a toll on people who are more accustomed to conventional or corporate environments.

Also, leaving your ego at the door is important. Ilija shared a good communication rule here that didn’t originally come from him, but proved to be incredibly effective:

Care personally, challenge directly.

It’s sometimes hard to understand people who don’t share your point of view. We’re only human. But what matters is that you don’t allow this to affect your judgement; never be exclusive when it comes to sharing and assessing ideas.

For example, Ilija was surprised to find out that Content Insights’ users love the treemap charts for the simple reason that they are interactive. Even though he personally prefers regular tables that display data in a non-messy manner, he learned that gamification has its place in user experience. Assumptions are a great place to start, but you always need to check them in reality.

Beware of the flat structure (collective responsibility leads to collective irresponsibility)

In theory, the flat structure sounds like a dream. Maybe that’s why it rarely works in reality?

If you’re not familiar with the flat structure, it implies little or no management-level roles. People are expected to show initiative and demonstrate self-starter spirit, they are encouraged to speak freely and participate in making decisions. 

Content Insights has its own version of a flat structure. We tried the textbook version of the flat structure and it didn’t quite work, so we tried to create somewhat a hybrid and take the best of both worlds – flat and hierarchy.

The main issues with the regular flat structure for us were the following:

  • Employees didn’t know to whom they should report to
  • Deadlines were basically non-existing
  • There were no defined responsibilities 
  • There were no defined levels of decision-making powers for employees
  • People were supposed to be ‘their own bosses’ and show initiative, and not all knew how to/were willing to do so

Aleksandra explained how collective responsibility usually leads to collective irresponsibility. She used a real-life example from her previous workplace that had flat structure which pretty much illustrates the issue:

We were all sitting in a room, discussing some business-related stuff. Then, one person said – the window needs to be shut. But because no one was explicitly asked to do it, no one from the crowd moved a muscle. Assigning tasks and defining responsibilities is a positive thing. It’s common sense, it gets the ship going. I believe that we can still keep the laid back work atmosphere and organize things that need to be done. Looking at where Content Insights is today, I know I’m right.

So, what did we do?

Each team in Content Insights has its own team leader who basically takes up a mentor role, strategic role and/or a role of a task manager. He or she stands behind the quality of the output of his/her team and participates in business meetings that set the course of future activities. We pay more attention to performance by using goals that can be measured and by setting realistic milestones.

We kept all of the other benefits of the flat structure. No matter the job role, each person is welcomed to contribute with proposals – both within the team and outside of it. It’s very hands-on: if you have an idea that’s doable, you’ll get the resources and support to make it happen. We are all equals in that sense. 

There is no management level in the traditional sense of the word, merely people who guide the processes and ensure everything’s on track. We stand firmly against micro-management and give people the freedom to work at their own pace, along with many other benefits such as unlimited vacation days.

You should strive toward building a company you would want to work in

When you’re building something from scratch, there’s a variety of factors you need to bear in mind. How to become profitable may be one of the most obvious ones, but establishing a culture people want to be a part of is equally significant.

When Aleksandra started working on employer branding and creating an environment that would reflect the values of Content Insights as a brand, she communicated tightly with the founders in order to do it right.

What Dejan (the mentioned founder) said served as a North Star, in a way:

I want to build a company in which I would want to work in.

Dejan recommended her a book called “Rework” written by Jason Fried (co-founder and president at Basecamp) and David Heinemeier Hansson (partner at Basecamp), which was rather helpful in the process. 

As a result, Aleksandra and the founders managed to set firm basis for the company culture, and the culture continued to evolve thanks to the contribution of each employee – their ideas and wishes. We sometimes refer to it as ‘no-bullshit culture’.

It seems that a majority of companies today cannot shake the traditional work rules such as working 9 to 5 or even having a strict dress code for the office.

In a world where some countries such as Finland are considering introducing the 4-day working week as the new norm, there are still companies that take disciplinary measures or order paycheck cuts if an employee happens to be 15 minutes late.

In Content Insights, we learned that what people care the most about is flexibility. This is why there is a mutual bond of trust between the company and its employees. Benefits such as the ability to occasionally work remotely and define the work hours that suit you, have proven to have excellent effects on people’s engagement and happiness at work, as well as their productivity levels. 

Insights people get closer through bad times and turmoil, but also through achieving great wins; it feels good to do something great and fight for something you believe in with your colleagues. More importantly, they want to be here. As Aleksandra explained:

If you treat people with honesty and respect their efforts, it sort of creates a domino effect: they will do the same because they feel safe and appreciated. It’s like a herd instinct. You’d be surprised how many companies don’t see employees like human beings. They simply don’t care about any other aspect of their lives besides what results they bring at work. We care deeply about the work-life balance, I think that’s very important.

Over to you

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. If you haven’t already, make sure you read the first part, too. Every single word written here came from our own experience. We hope this helped you gain a more realistic picture about launching a startup. Like we said, it’s all trial and error, but it’s crucial not to give up at the first hiccup.

As the last takeaway, read this wise words from Em:

There was a talk at a conference a couple of years ago about ‘failing forward’ and I think those are lessons and attitudes we can all learn from. It’s not to say that we’ve failed at anything per se, but rather that you have to accept that if things aren’t 100% successful, you can always learn from them.

Amen, sister. Brilliant.


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