Montague Dawson RMSA, FRSA

A few matters I’ve learnt from being in a Rapidly Growing Startup

I remember all of 2003 clearly. I had to attend compulsory roll-call at 6:50AM daily, except on weekends. Together with my newly-met friends, our freshman year mostly revolved around the Prep School. This was before we all moved to the ‘Big School’ for the next four years.

There, other than usual classroom subjects and basic life routines as an adult, we were taught a single hidden mantra that is somehow starting to make sense now, with much more clarity than before — camaraderie.

It’s kinda funny how this simple emotion could actually help in building long-lasting, mutual trust. As a matter of fact, even if we haven’t met for a very long time, we could actually be just as cool as if it was yesterday that we last saw each other.


It’s been more than a year since my first day at Supahands. My very first drumbeat (our weekly progress update meeting) with the team consisted of only 8 people back then. Then, the drumbeats ended much quicker, because we didn’t delve deeply into topics like analytics, churn rate, marketing funnel and user behaviour.

Simply, information was just within our reach, because everyone was working on every single thing.

In recent months, a great deal of things have happened, which developed in me playing a better role in a bigger team. I learnt that a brand-new enterprise in its young age faces less hurdles compared to a much bigger one. However, big teams with higher headcount encourage far more difficult challenges for everyone to deal with.

Good Startup Grow, Better Startup Scale

Being inside a company that’s similar to Columbus’ Santa Maria is really cool; ploughing the way on an exploration to an unknown land. It is a unique privilege that not many people are able to enjoy and appreciate. It is also an exhaustive marathon, I must say, which may burn some of us out along the journey.

We are young, ambitious and spirited employees, and getting things done is what we have always wanted to do, every day. We try so hard to prove that we’ve done our best to achieve the desired result, unconsciously hoping that we are going to get recognised and valued somewhere down the road.

Again and again, this led to sloppy measures that were going to affect our end goal, let alone other co-workers in the company. But, in some other time, it also might prove to be the best method to put things together especially when the team size is still small.

Mark (the chief executive) addresses Supahands first ever Town Hall — 8 to 41 people within a year.

Imagine a small enterprise; it is like a compact car that requires less space to complete a U-turn. A much bigger vehicle, let’s say a hauler truck, requires not just more space, but extra time and effort to achieve a similar outcome.

30 to 50 people is where you go from being a family to being a company, and everything starts to get really hard. — Molly Graham in ‘Give Away Your Legos’ and Other Commandments for Scaling Startups

Just before 2015 ended a year ago, Supahands raised her seed round from Axiata and 500 Startups, and hiring strategically was the next big thing we did to scale.

The excitement of growing felt so palpable at first, and as a person that enjoys the complacency of small environments and closeness for quite a time; I had a hard time staying focused and motivated when new hires started to pour in.

Despite the fact that Supahands has been around for quite some time (we kicked off in late 2014), its series of early working MVPs (not including the founders and operation team) were being built by a small team that consisted of just a pair of designers and developers.

So when new hires joined us in stages, the old, self-organized waterfall methodology simply didn’t work anymore. Without a definitive structure and process, we just relied on our past experiences, trials and experiments for few months. I must say, it was mentally tiring after a while.

I said to myself that this unsolved discouragement puzzle mustn’t be left unturned . It’s not just affecting my productivity, but also how members in the team interact with each other. Hence, it leads me on a quest to find a clear-cut explanation.

Tuckman’s 1965 Model on Team Development. A must-encounter natural processes for a team.

When a new individual joins an existing team, its dynamic will change, regardless of how long it has stayed together since day one. As I’ve mentioned, in our case existing members need to assimilate with new hires towards achieving company objectives, but the process is not as smooth as we anticipated.

Susan Wheelan and Bruce Tuckman (both experts in Team Dynamics and Social Organization) shared similar explanations on this. There are phases that a particular team needs to encounter before it can be at its optimum state; you know — a team that is consensus driven, ownership-oriented, opinionated yet compromising, and so on.

After I discovered and shared this finding with the rest of the team, the dubious feeling that I had before started to settle away. Luckily, I’m not alone in this quest, as the rest of the team, especially the group leaders, started to share mutual concerns and tried to embrace the process.

Everyone now seems to be more focused on how to elevate the team further up the phases. Conflict is expected, and it will always be positively treated as a sign of progress. Like I said, growing is easier, but if you want it to be better and long lasting, scaling strategically is the way to go.

Sowing Good Seeds

Spring — by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Oil on Panel. Wikimedia Foundation

Startups claim that they only want to hire the best. The crème de la crème, they said. Putting it into perspective, that is the right decision to be made, especially in the early phase. Recruiting the best talent for your startup will enable you to set the foundation right.

However, hiring is only one step in assembling a team. What will happen next is the crucial chapter that will define how much they’ll willingly contribute towards your company vision.

Here, founders confide in team leaders about hiring. All potential leads to hire are coming from us. Once their CVs are screened, we seek the get-go from founders for interview sessions.

I’ve learnt that once you have decided to hire someone to be a part of your fast moving team, you should initially set the expectations as early as possible. Not only by scratching the surface alone, but more like a one-year plan, like career progression, self-growth, work quality and ethics, and culture-fit.

#supafamily

Young, brilliant and smart individuals always seek challenges and growth, because they want to be better as their age progresses. Trying to understand their wants and needs should help you to create a good platform for them to grow, and most of the time they’ll totally love this — who wouldn’t?

Strong and confident people can intimidate their colleauges, subconciously signalling that they aren’t interested in negative feedback or criticism that challenge their thinking. — Ed Catmull in Creativity, Inc.

Inducing a desired culture in a company is another thing that you should not pass. Once you have a pool of talented, cool people sitting together in the office, everyone should start to look for a collective norm that is equally possible to achieve.

In Supahands, we strive to empower every employee, so their opinions are taken into account in decision making, especially in those big manoeuvres, regardless of whether they’re old or new employees. Ultimately, a good seed produces a healthy tree, and that tree is paramount to your growth.

Being Grateful, Have Faith and Keep Moving

Noted the Trump supporter and Agent Peña — Halloween 2016

Occasionally, when things move quickly towards an unwanted direction, I feel like my head starts to smother, and my coffee — as good as it is — doesn’t clear it away. Then my mind starts to visualise scenes from a few movies I have watched — how would Will Smith in Pursuit of Happyness and Tom Hanks in Cast Away have reacted if they were in this situation?

I enjoy building Supahands and its product line-up (existing and in-the-making) together with the team, though that enjoyment rises and falls with my mood on a day-to-day basis. The millennial in me always seeks quick wins. Perhaps, people in my age range, in their mid-20s, are facing similar hurdles as well.

But through it all, I always believe that the process of something this big requires not just mere passion and hunger, but more patience, time and faith to mature.


*Supahands is now 3 years old. At the time of writing this article, the core team has grown 3x since our last round of funding. On top of that, our pool of trained SupaAgents in Malaysia and the Philippine is more than 250 strong. We have also moved out from our humble home-office in Wanaka the Bungalow to a newly-minted building in Bangsar South, Kuala Lumpur.

**Supahands is a global outsourcing service that helps entrepreneurs and businesses to scale and increase productivity through the outsourcing of their business tasks and core operations. This is done through our technology intelligence, team of project managers, and army of remote SupaAgents.