It is hard to believe that it has already been a year since we started our journey. And so, I thought that this would be a good time for me to share what I have learned so far from our startup, both the ups and the downs.
Lesson 1: Expect the unexpected
When we started the company, we thought we had most of the answers and whatever we didn’t know should not significantly impact our business plan.
We felt ready, as we had a good understanding of the markets needs and our strengths. We had a plan ‘A’, plan ‘B’, and even plan ‘C’ in place. But as with most startups we didn’t know what we didn’t know. For us, it was the markets inertia that was our biggest surprise. We were agile, adaptive, fast and ready to act, but our potential customers were not.
In our planning, we seemed to forget that our clients are big organizations, and for them starting a new cooperation takes time. That meant that our team had to sit idly.
Fortunately, we were able to find a customer within the first month, in a geographical region that none of us had expected. We are very thankful for that. The relationship with our first customer turned out to be a win-win for both. The customer helped our company survive the initial few months, which tend to be the most difficult period for a startup. And we provided our customer with skilled people that they needed to run a few important projects.
Lesson 2: Be ready to grow
In our business plan, we assumed that our team would grow by few people in the first year. We thought that we would serve two to three customers, and we were hoping that we could provide support for our previous employer.
For whatever reason, things turned out differently, so we have dedicated the early days to research and education of the team on topics that looked promising. Our patience paid off couple months later, as we acquired three new customers within a period of 4 weeks. For us, this was an especially exciting time, as we took on the risk of hiring and training new staff to fill the new service demands before getting signed contracts. Just like that everything started falling into place, and the demand for our services began growing systematically, forcing us to double our headcount.
Customers do realize the advantages of working with small and agile vendors, but they also expect these vendors to scale up quickly when needed. For services organization, that means finding competent people and ramping up capacity ahead of contract signatures.
Lesson 3: Small innovations matter
One of the beautiful things about running a small company is that you can invent and develop your ideas in a matter of days.
Sure, it is always the big projects that get all the attention. However, looking back at our past 12 months I realized that we had improved tens of little things in our company that benefit how we work. These small improvements can be found all over the place; from how we track time, do invoicing, plan projects, and the many ways we look after our business.
The same applies to solutions we develop. We invented our first application during a short meeting when we discussed a small issue raised by one of our customers. It turned out later that many customers were facing the same issue, and our application brought significant savings to all of them.
Being innovative does not necessarily mean that you have to create a revolution. Small things can make a big difference in your and your customers’ bottom line.
Lesson 4: Stay close to your people
Our company is still fairly small, and it is normal for our people to have open discussions about any topic. Our relationships are casual and built around trust, and I think that is one of the best sides of a startup.
That is the reason that caused me to feel hurt when one of our employees decided to leave. I felt surprised, because I did not see any signs that he wanted to leave. Later I concluded that I was probably too focused on my work and did not notice the signs that something was not right. I guess I had expected him and everyone around me to be more direct when something didn’t click, but now I know that not everyone works that way.
In the end, our company lost a great person who I hoped would stick around for a long time. That was a big wake-up call for me to pay more attention to those around me, especially the quiet ones.
Lesson 5: Better than university education
I remember the CEO of the first company that I worked for telling us that by running your company you will learn more than any university can teach you.
The CEO was right. In a small company, everybody has to contribute to and have an understanding of all the aspects of the business. People have to wear many hats and participate in marketing, sales, services, development, finance, team building, legal, plus many other aspects of the company. Staff is limited, and things just have to get done. All the early joiners of a startup quickly expand their skills into various technical and business aspects.
For past twelve months, I had the privilege of watching my friends grow from being experts in their fields to becoming competent managers responsible for our business as a whole and an example for those they lead.
I know there are still many lessons ahead of me, but I hope that you have found these insights from my first year helpful.