Part 4: Leading a team at age 20 and other things to learn
This is the fourth and last of a series of essays I wrote about my path towards tech companies and a way to introduce myself to the team at Shopify
I arrived in Vietnam on January 5th, three weeks after receiving the offer. Upon arriving, I was introduced to the Managing Director and at the end of our first meeting was told the following: “In three weeks, I want you to know how to run this venture”. Quite an introduction for my first day! The next six weeks turned out to be the hardest weeks of my life. Vietnam is an emerging country with very fast growth, but is still relatively undeveloped meaning that I had to adjust to everything and find my marks; at work, I had to quickly, and with very little guidance, figure out pretty much everything; and finally, I felt desperately alone and missed my social circle. Things got up to a point where I started questioning things and the whole decision of coming to Vietnam. I remember asking myself: “Isn’t this your limit in terms of difficulties and struggle you can be faced with?” My first two months didn’t go by fast, even though I was putting in close to 80 hours work weeks. I also had this feeling of being an impostor; I was the youngest member of the company, making tons of mistakes everyday, and yet was supposed to lead 35 people. It’s an extremely humbling exercise to be put in a decision making position, but with no idea what the actual winning strategy is: you have to be confident enough to sell your ideas to your team, but also recognize when they failed and take responsibility. It’s like constantly stretching; the challenge is that it’s extremely self-doubting in the beginning because your ratio of “great process or idea helping to move the business forward” vs. “complete failure that wasted two weeks of work from your team” is somewhere around 1 to 10. This situation led me to an epiphany and what I believe was one of the key factors that led me to success in my position: while working with my team I stopped going from my own ideas for strategies. Instead, I became obsessed with metrics for quantitative data, asked a lot of questions about the market to my colleagues for qualitative ones, and, from these two sources, laid down a vision about the best initiatives we should get going. Working in my teams, I constantly acted as a support and trouble shooter while getting stuff done by myself.
Let me give you an example with our Account Management team: Given how focused we were on growing revenue, this team was critical to our success. So, everyday, I would sit down with everyone for 35 minutes and collect all their challenges: complaints from clients, questions about the product, doubts about the best way to go… We would have this meeting at the end of the day around 6pm. Once we were done, I would go back to work and solve as many problems they had as possible, write documentation about questions they asked and such. This is obviously not scalable, however when starting new initiatives things don’t have to be. I found that it’s much better to have a strong foundation and then organize layers of management and knowledge than try to scale everything too early on. These daily meetings were also an amazing way to build team spirit, because as a team member showing first hand to your colleagues that you are here to help them and close deals on your own is simply invaluable. I felt very fortunate because during my time in Vietnam, I had the opportunity to live first hand one of the most amazing things at a startup: early product-market fit. This moment where your product is slowly getting more and more traction; you’re signing up more customers; and things start to work out. As months were going by, I started to actually enjoy my position. Things only started to take off around April, once I actually found a way to deal with my intense personality on one side and the daily chaos natural in a hyper growth company on the other.
Another key aspect of my position I really enjoyed, which is quite specific to Rocket, is international collaboration. The venture I was working for (carmudi.vn) is currently operating in over 20 countries. When you put together an environment made of extreme pressure, driven people, and incredibly challenging problems, something magical happen: people start talking. This collaboration translated into something very concrete: Skype groups where I would just ask a question related to a problem I was facing and request for help. More often than not, I would then receive messages from team members in Pakistan, Indonesia, or Bangladesh. This led to incredible learning about operating in all these countries and how diverse their environments were, giving me a true international vision. I will remember my whole life the following situation: being faced with a problem in our content management system on a Friday night at 8pm, I reached out to a colleague in Pakistan, and we jumped on a call. Halfway through I started hearing a loud voice in the back. It took me a few minutes to figure out what was going on — it was just the Imam from the mosque calling for the prayer! As I realized how valuable this was to myself and also how much I enjoyed this aspect of my position, I decided to organize a weekend-long trip in Bangkok, Thailand inviting team members from all over Asia. This led to a three day meeting of 12 people working out of Indonesia, Dubai, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Vietnam and Philippines, and a long list of fun memories. This weekend wasn’t only amazing because everyone met the people we had been working with via Skype for months, it also helped me put things in perspective. I realized that the doubts and challenges I was facing were also shared by my colleagues. It also acted as an amazing motivation boost, seeing the passion all my colleagues had and how they all had this firm belief that their ventures would become the market leader. Finally, this also led to another epiphany: I previously mentioned how important it was to surround yourself people willing to help you. Well, the best way to do so in a company is to be this person for others. Early on, I started involving myself in several projects (some out of my scope) because I believed I could be a valuable addition to these. It ultimately made me become the “go to” guy for hands on feedback about the challenges we were facing at a country level. This is especially true for my collaboration with the Product Team. Working in Business Development, it was crucial to develop a strong relationship with this team given that based on what initiatives they were working on, I would have to adjust and work very closely with our partners to align. From writing guides for other countries, conducting tests, and 1-on-1s with customers, I was always proactive and tried to help. Leading to some of the following message:
Sum up: Get shit done and people will notice. Want people to help you? Help them first. Off-site events are the best for team building.