How to work like a startup with 100+ people

We’re just past our quarterly update excercise where we decide what to build over the next 3 months. The team has grown again, from ~80 revolutionaries last quarter to about 130 now. Reflected on a couple of learnings about high performing teams.

  • you can’t tell the team what to build
  • organise teams behind company goals
  • keep teams small and independent
  • supply the vision

Nothing matters more than speed in a startup. Removing friction and giving clarity around the vision and goals pays off like nothing else.


DIY video bridge with Hangouts

Startup teams are often distributed these days. If you have chosen the path of being in multiple locations you want to make sure, that everyone still feels being part of the same team and culture.  One of the no-brainers in addition to airmiles is to invest in video calling and linking up the offices with an always-on video bridge. (more…)

Government backed bitcoin

The early bitcoin enthusiasts were trying to solve the problem of money being controlled by governments. Some governments found it laughable, others were just confused. But what if a government really embraced Bitcoin?

People of Iceland recently started an experiment with airdropped auroracoin, designed to counteract the government’s fiscal policy. Icelandic enthusiasts are attempting to bypass macro- and monetary  policy. I would argue that there is another more tractable yet enormously valuable problem to solve. (more…)

Why governments don’t want to regulate bitcoin

Forgetting for a second that we live in a real world, I would argue that  Bitcoin has been the single most important invention on the internet since our ability to follow lives of celebrities in short messages of 140 characters. Unfortunately it feels that in the real world we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Recently I was among a few dozen central bankers across Europe together in an event and I could not help asking in a more informal setting, how do they think about Bitcoin? From what I hear, there are good reasons to disagree with economist Simon Johnson, who argues that goverments want to suppress bitcoin. (more…)

Hustle through to longevity

The black tie awards ceremonies, like the one I attended yesterday, are usually quite embarassing. It often involves pretentous entertainment followed by old boys handing pieces of machined glass to entrepreneurs, who have just hit early revenue. Instead of being wined and dined, we founders should really spend the night in the office building and selling the product.

But this event was better than usual. And what made the difference was a remarkable panel, made up of a different generation of founders. These guys had 15-20 years of success on the rest of us in the audience.

  • Mike Lynch, floated Autonomy, sold to HP for $11bn
  • Mike Tobin, floated hosting company TeleCity, £2bn market cap
  • Mark Lancaster, floated content tools SDL, £300m market cap

Initially the panel, themed “To float or not to float?” felt totally out of place, as the only people excited by IPOs were the accountants, who sponsored the event. The hosts referred to the panelists as “rockstars”, which makes us young entrepreneurs nothing more than “punks”. But in the end this panel turned out incredibly inspiring.

Sometimes it feels that London is lacking the “previous generation” of enterpreneurs, particulartly in contrast with the Valley. I am starting to realise, that our previous generation just is a bit harder to find as they live in a different ecosystem to us.

Think longevity

Counterintuitive as it may be for a startup, but the sooner we think about “what do we need to do and be, in order to be a meaningful player 10 years from now, 20 years from now?” Do I believe that Google is going to be around in 2033? Definitely. Amazon? Most likely. Apple and Facebook? Depends.

If you can build the product to become a long-term infrastructure that powers this world, then you’ll be in it for the long run.

Hustle through

It was somewhat relieved to hear, that although these guys had a vision, they had very little clue about how to achieve that. They hustled a lot. As long as you keep the end goal in mind and don’t err to the side of dishonesty, then hustling works. You just need to keep selling what you are making

Plan your mindshare

When it comes to floating, the panel agreed that it this made their life easier only in one respect – it became much easier to raise money. Yet two things will happen. First, you will lose control of the fate of the company. If an offer is made to buy at say 30% premium, then the company will be sold and there is nothing you as a founder or ceo can do about it. Secondly, you will end up spending enormous amounts of time with analysts and shareholders. Mike suggested that investor relations now takes 60% of his time. Scary to compare that with the meager 5% that we are spending today between me and my co-founder.

The 6 things that make a startup team awesome

The TransferWise team is growing up fast. We are equally two years from the launch and two years from the first employee joining the founders. Looking back at this roller-coaster ride, the team has achieved something quite magical – a revolution in the way people think about transferring money, testamented by becoming #2 most trusted financial service in the UK and having saved our customers more than £2M in bank fees.

When we got the whole team together a few weeks ago to celebrate, we thought hard about our success so far. What has this team done to be voted #1 startup in the Europas and earn all that customer love leading to throught-the-roof net promoter score. What have we done right, compared to thousands of our peers, who have not pulled that far. How can we do more of it?

 1. Teamwork

We are a tight crew and super supportive for each other. Not only does it create a warm feeling of appreciation, it gives us the sense of safety and security needed at our neckbreaking pace. Days when the customer support load jumps up, we have the entire marketing team working the phones and email.

Every one in the team takes responsibility. And once she takes responsibility, she does not drop the ball. In fact, whenever we hire, I think: “If her and I were handling a sailing boat across the rough waters, would I feel comfortable?” The answer can only be yes.

Something else I have noticed – there is a good sense of pride in the team. We are proud for what we do, we are proud to be great at what we do. Of course the Startup 101 is -only hire superstars or the people you believe will grow into superstars.

 2.  Speed of Execution

Speed is the dearest, yet the most fragile asset at a startup.  The hardest distance in running is the 400m, where the winning formula is defined as: 0-100m run as fast as you can, 100-200m keep the pace, 200-300m accelerate and 300-400m is the sprint. I feel we have maybe just passed the 50m mark.

What are the things that give us speed and what slows us down? Finding bottlenecks and dealing with them effectively. After launching, our main bottleneck was getting customers, we focused most on our brainwaves on this. Then we had customers, but were struggling to support them and manage their transfers. We built dedicated teams to work the phones and manage payments. Today we need to gain speed in developing and extending our product.

Bringing the entire team up to the same agility as product development and having everyone comfortable with the pace is tricky to manage and needs a lot of communication. We cannot churn out product features with the engineering team, while the operations team is not comfortable supporting new payment method or when support unable to help the customer use it.

3. Persistence

Whatever we build, we always build for the long run – product, team, culture. Today we are building a 200-500 person strong team to support the majority of international transfers for the 1st world consumers. Such a distant goal requires persistence. It requires to recognise that after this lap there will be the next one, and then the next one. It will get harder and we will need to run evern faster.

In practice this means, that we have not met 99.99% of our customers yet. We have pushed only a tiny amount of code in the context of what we will push. We have seen only the skirmish of challenges in the context of thunderstorms we will deal with.

It means that we have to be friendly and kind to our partners and people who we work with. Even when our banking partners cock up royally – we say “It’s okay, let’s learn and do better next time“.

4. Precision

We are a bunch of maximalists. Every one of us personally believes, that she can deliver the best quality code, ux, customer support or payment processing in the world. And that is hugely powerful.

Our high self-esteem is empowered by the way that we measure everything – our payments team know to the minute how long on average a payment took to Ireland last week compared to Poland. Customer support knows how fast we respond to emails and what is the percentage of new users, who need help with their first payment. Engineering team knows, how many new bugs we released last week. Some of us have done things to Google Analytics, that google engineers did not know to be possible.

Measuring helps us see immediately, where we can improve. It makes our decisioning calculated and our communication precise and fluff-free.

5. Resources

The team needs resources and a perfect environment to be successful. This productive environment is worth an investment. In fact if there is anything you can buy to make the team more productive, you should go shopping immediately.

If you don’t have money, build a small team. If you need a bigger team, go and fundraise. And be open about the core finances of the enterprise, transparency helps most during rough times.

Managing our resources wisely and being prudent with our finances has become organic in everything we do. We’re planning for a safe passage, when the times won’t be as jolly.

6. Support network

As founders, we hardly ever take important decisions without asking someone, who has crossed a similar patch before. Along the way we have become close with many remarkable people, who we return to on a regular basis for advice.

Now this support network is being stiched into the team, for everyone needs a mentor. Each of us can do remarkable things, but let’s forget that others have been remarkable before us. Finding a mentor takes quite a bit of stepping out of one’s comfort zone. While many in our team have a mentor, I’ve noticed that people who set up a regular cadence for meetings and give their mentors a bit of responsibility in their own success thrive best in building their personal support netowork.

With every month, these characteristics of our people are becoming more and more apparent to me. I am smiling to observe, how these qualities add a ton of awesome to our team when comparing with other young startups at our stage who are all out there looking for their mojo. We are finding our mojo and it is pretty magical.