A Year of Focus — Prepping for Growth
Last year, I had a realization — I am shortchanging my potential for building a great product and company by not staying focused. I had blamed the lack of growth in my business on many things like the overcrowded space and difficulty in hiring in an expensive market (Bangalore). However around April 2015, it was clear to me that my problem was the lack of focus. I have always been excited about working on new ideas and I believed that the right ideas just take off. If you need to push them too hard, you need to move on. I was finally questioning that hypothesis and I am glad I did. Focus brings clarity of thought which ultimately brings the desired results. That’s the new hypothesis I started with last year when I decided to refocus all my efforts on SupportBee.
May 1st marked one year since that commitment and the results are definitely encouraging — a 40% growth in just this one year (we are doing about 300k/yr now). This post is an overview of what I did in this past year, how I went about doing it, and what my biggest learnings are.
Learning to walk before running
With all the startup news and stories around, it’s easy to get tempted to fire up all your engines and shoot for hyper growth. However I realized that to switch the company back into a growth phase, I need to spend the first year setting a solid foundation. Sure, I had great domain expertise but I lacked a clear roadmap, a great team and more importantly a track record of staying focused.
Letting go and embracing the CEO role
In 2014, I was spending the majority of my time developing features and supporting customers across time zones. While it kept me busy, it robbed me of the time to focus on key areas like growth. This past year, I embraced the role of a CEO completely by making sure that functions like product development and customer support were not hinged on my contributions. It was hard to let go at first — our progress stalled for a bit while I spent my time looking for new team members and setting up processes. However since I was focused on the long term this time, it felt worth it. Building a great team became my first priority.
Collecting data to drive decisions
It’s easier to grow revenues by 10–20% per month for a few months than it is to setup the foundation for sustainable growth. So far in the company. we had mostly relied on our intuition to guide our decisions. However the approach is sub-optimal and doesn’t scale as you grow the team. We spent a few months setting up Mixpanel to collect useful data about our customers. We also invested time in becoming more data driven — using the data as a team to drive decisions about the product. The results have been great. Not only is the product much better now, our team has a way of brainstorming new ideas and keeping each other on track.
Switching to a 100% distributed team
I have to accept that I never enjoyed the quality of life in India. We did setup an office there but I always hated being there. If there is one thing that I have learnt, it is that you cannot produce great work unless you are feeling good — physically and emotionally. I finally took the call to shut down that office and move to a 100% distributed team. If I look back, it’s the best decision I made last year. Not only do I feel much happier traveling and living in places I like, we have been able to attract some great talent from around the world. I can honestly say that we wouldn’t have been able to build the high quality team we have, with the resources we have in Bangalore.
Growing the Team
Since switching to a distributed team, we have grown from two to eight people. Hiring a great team within budget is not an easy task. The task of finding the right person gets even more challenging when the person has to have the ability to be productive in a remote team.
I have made my share of mistakes when it comes to hiring. Hiring, letting go, and replacing is a tedious and expensive affair. In that aspect, the book Who by Geoff Smart and Randy Street helped a great deal in understanding the process and finding a simple and practical solution to an expensive problem. prePARE, the book from my friend Raj Sheth is worth checking out as well if you want to read more on this topic.
Today, all the key functions of design, development and support are handled by excellent people who have the ability to function independently and operate remotely. Also, we have a process setup to hire great people which includes involving everyone in the team in making the hiring decision. I plan to talk more about our hiring process in the coming blog posts.
Setting up Processes for Development
To focus my time on hiring and thinking about growth, I invested a good amount of time in setting up processes for all key functions like product development and support. Ofcourse, it takes a while to figure out and implement the right processes. It’s not as simple as writing a document and handing it off to the team. That’s the first step. The second, never-ending step is to work with them and help them implement and improve the processes. Once again, if you are thinking about long term growth, it’s worth investing this time. Though I am already seeing some time savings, over the long run, I believe that I will be able to free up most of my time from the day to day grind of running the startup machine.
Shifting business hours to the US time zone
If the majority of your customers are from the US, and if you do not have the option to move there, it is a wise decision to move to a place which is close enough to the US time zone. This helped me a great deal in getting back to emails on time and handling business related communication more effectively. I have also been more proactive in setting up meetings to explore opportunities since I no longer need to worry about staying up late in the night. A burnout is more likely when you work from the wrong timezone. At bedtime, it is tough to be enthusiastic about making calls to the other side of the world. While working nights can be a short term solution, it is not healthy to sustain over long periods.
In the last one year, I explored Mexico and Colombia and they are both great countries to live in. Currently I live in Medellin, Colombia and I highly recommend it for it’s great quality of life and cost of living.
In my one year of commitment, we saw a 40% jump in revenues. It is important to note that a lot of the growth came after 6–9 months of work. One of my biggest learnings in the past year is that it is good to keep working because results may lag but they do follow. A lot of blog posts on the internet want you to believe that you can measure the effects of all your decisions and work but it’s not entirely true. Not in my experience anyway. It’s best to keep working on what makes sense, check back from time to time and course correct. However keeping realistic expectations has been the key in staying focused.
Enjoying the ride
One other learning is discovering the joy of running a start up when I am improving my skills at the game without worrying about my performance with respect to competition. In the past I obsessed too much with comparing myself with my peers. It only made my performance worse. Finding a good work life balance and feeling happy has helped me take the pressure off.
Now that the basic foundation is set in place, my focus is on assembling a sales and marketing team to step up growth. Until now, all our customer acquisition has been a result of organic traffic and word of mouth. One can say that so far growth has been a side effect of a lot of other things we did. I want to spend the next year focusing on growth — experimenting with different ideas and figuring out a process for growing the company predictably. I am pretty excited about the ideas in the book Impossible to Inevitable.