As I handed over my 'Formatted' Laptop and my Exit form at my current organisation, I paused for a bit and rewound the entire journey that I had experienced in the past 35 start-up years (1 year of start-up experience is equivalent to 7 years of corporate experience), so yes - 5 years. In the following few paragraphs I aim to distil my key learnings from my experience which could help understand the key factors that influence the success of a start-up OR can help you decide if working in a start-up is your cup of tea
Everything that ever succeeded was started as a small experiment that kept iterating over a period of time and eventually became successful, said everyone but was followed by a few. It's important that when pilots are run the employees and sometimes even the founders are on the field so that they can come back with quantitatively quantifiable feedback, have seen a lot of instances where the pilot was successful and as operations scaled the whole project fizzled out. Also never ever has the end product been the same as the MVP. Its important to keep iterating basis market feedback to ensure that the product is built for the customer and not basis your understanding of the customer problems.
Love Thy People
People are the backbone of any organization, but in a start-up, they are the spinal cord as well and my biology teacher always emphasized that if the spinal cord missed out on functioning it would lead to an organization that was alive but not operationally functioning. People management is the toughest skill out there in the market but a must-have to build a great organization. Especially in start-ups where initially there is not enough funds to hire specialist or highly skilled people hence more focus is on hiring generalists who come with first principal problem solving approach and can pick up multiple work streams and execute them. Over the period as the organisation grows, there is introduction of processes and people with experience are hired to run the org. However, during all this time its important to focus on the culture since that is the soul of the organisation and will always be created and maintained by the founders.
Process the Process
Start-ups inherently lack processes since there is no fixed approach to doing a certain task and every individual will have a unique approach to going about his work. More important when the start-up is in its nascent stages there are lesser people and most of the communication is informal and a lot of work taken is ad-hoc but as you scale, processes and formal channel of communication need to take over else the scaling up will never happen successfully. At the end of the day robust and scalable processes go a long way during the growth phase of the start-up.
Rome wasn’t built in a day
Let me tell you an interesting anecdote from my childhood. When I was 10, or probably 11 boredom drove me to the game of building a tower out of a deck of cards. The entire structure intrigued me and soon I was hooked.
I started building the base, initially failed at getting even making a card out of 2 towers, iterated my strategy a couple of times, graduated to completing the 1st level only to realise that it would not be able to handle the next level.
A swoosh of a angry hand, and I was back at the starting point.
This time determined, I treaded carefully, built the first layer and quickly moved to the second layer.
A few moments later they came crashing down as someone switched the fan on.
And there I was back to square one. I looked at the pack of cards and decided to give up, today did not seem be to the day I would come on top of it.
A few hours later, I was back at it hopeful of being able to create that architectural wonder (pun intended) so I laboured on and came out on the top.
And that my dear friends are how companies are built, you start off with an idea and after countless hours of efforts and Iterations you end up becoming a successful venture
Culture Will Eat Strategy for Breakfast
As Organisations scale-up, and new people join the organization the culture also will overgo iterations, this leads to a lot of stress getting built up in some employees who are not able to pivot along the new culture and leads to attrition, what I have seen lacking is that a little hand-holding of these employees by an HR or a senior resource.
Have you seen the duck swim?
While as an outside you would see finished products , great PR happy customers etc , on the inside each day is mostly about fire-fighting problems while orchestrating operations so as to build & sustain business. I still remember the late -nighters we had to pull off during product launches or customer implementations to ensure that we were able to maintain the status quo. You can analogise this to the duck which paddles frivolously under the water while appearing to glide outside of water.
Glue Called Passion
In a start-up, people end up mostly doing more work than what is assigned in their KRAs, and this is mostly because they are passionate about the idea of the start-up and are willing to invest their time and effort to make it a success. In return the organisation or the founders need to ensure that they have a plan in place for the growth of an individual in monetary and non-monetary terms. Also, as an organization scales it’s important to ensure that the future hires are able to identify with the company’s vision and values to avoid incoherence. People is the second most important aspect after the idea and cracking this problem can help solve many larger problems in the future.