The Invaluable Lessons of Startup Life
In the past few weeks I have started to transition away from my operating role as the co-founder of a dynamic, successful, start-up Viafoura. Since establishing Viafoura, I have built and developed the initial product and technology team (as CTO), before becoming responsible for retaining clients (as VP Client Success) — in the process beating industry averages for churn.
In that time I have watched with pride as we have led Viafoura from strength to strength. The company has grown dramatically in a sustainable manner, by providing an unbeatable platform that allows clients to retain and grow audiences on their own sites.
One of my principal objectives has been to leave the company with solid foundations, while ensuring that relations are amicable between the Board and all the team members. I have always worked hard to ensure that if I was “hit by a bus” there would be continuity at Viafoura — so now as I move on I am comfortable in the knowledge that the company will continue to grow and continue to address its clients’ evolving needs.
So, what are a few of my key takeaways from the past seven years?
1) There is always a solution
In the frenzy of startup life there are numerous challenges, many of which may seem insurmountable at the time. This is particularly the case when it comes to putting the right team together with an appropriate mix of skills and experience. Or say with meeting launch dates for a new product. It is easy to get stuck in the frame of mind, “we don’t have enough money to do x (hire this person, go to that trade show, win that client)”.
However, I have found without fail that if you put enough creative thinking and passion into the challenge a unique solution emerges. At Viafoura I successfully recruited scores of people by demonstrating my passion for the company and its products, and by always looking for a solution that worked for both Viafoura and the individual. This meant that Viafoura got great talent that would normally not have been available to a company at that stage of its development.
2) Mentorship at all levels is key
By its very nature a startup has fewer members of staff and that means that all employees are often the resident expert of their domains. This makes it all the more important to continuously seek mentorship. This applies to all levels of management from CEO down to the only designer. Make sure you have someone to turn to, or are part of a structured program such as executive coaching, who can help you grow.
When I started as CTO there was no meetup for technical officers, so to address this I created one. It has since grown into the largest private CTO meetup in the world (http://cto.meetup.com/). This meetup, matches new and experienced CTO’s from industries of all types, so that we can learn from each other.
3) Focus and a clear vision makes things go really fast
When a group of passionate, talented people rally around a clear purpose and vision, things happen fast. When the focus and vision are absent, so is the dynamism and things happen slow, if at all. When you get it right exciting, dynamic developments emerge. If you get this wrong customers don’t know what you are good at and employees don’t know where to put their focus. So always keep that focus and never lose sight of your ultimate vision.
4) Read and understand the fine print
Whatever your role in a series A/B software company with outside investment — be it founder, board member, shareholder, leader or employee — you will come across around 10 significant legal documents that you must understand. These include NDA, Term Sheet, Employment Agreement, Employee Stock Option Plan Agreement, Shareholder’s Agreement, Voter’s Agreement, Right of First Refusal and Co-sale.
Make sure you understand these critical documents. They can get long and they will probably seem as though they are written in a foreign programming language, but get your legal team to explain them to you. Over time, you will notice a pattern as you begin to understand the legal processes and terminology. If it helps, put in the margins of each document what the clauses mean in your own words so that in the future when you need to refer to it, you will be informed.
So there you are, some of my initial thoughts in the weeks since my transition away from Viafoura. One final great lesson for me is that as long as a company that you have built from nothing remains in existence, your head (and your heart) is likely to be tied with it. As a major shareholder at Viafoura I am excited for its continued growth. I look forward to updating you on the other developments in my career in due course.