Startup = speed

A couple of months ago I wrote about remaining a startup with 100+ people. Today we are nearly 300 people and having an ever better appreciation of what being a startup means.

Startup is defined by growth. Growth is generated by the speed of the organisation … with a bit of luck. There is luck in the original idea, the supporting market condition, in the people who come together around the idea. Optimising for luck is near impossible. Hence the success of the startup after it has reached its first fragile product-market fit is determined by the speed at which the organisation can evolve the product and engage customers.

Speed of the organisation isn’t trivial. We have lots to learn from the 5-10 person pre-money startup teams, who are super focussed on their mission and are dedicating their every brainwave to making the product a success. These teams move incredibly fast. How to retain that same speed with 300+ people?

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Anatomy of the founder interview

We hired 200 people last year, going from 45 to 245 people in twelve months. My worries about how we’ll all fit together vanished this weekend seeing everyone thoroughly enjoying each other’s company at our all-hands meet.

We work hard to achieve that common culture powering our engine. It takes on average 4 interviews to become a Wiser. Some people have come through 8-9 rounds, case studies and trial days. The final step for every candidate is the founder interview. While the first interviews focus on the technical skills and the candidate’s fit for getting the job done, then this interview is about fitting into the culture.

Only if the team is perfectly aligned in their motivation and desires, only then is it possible for everyone to deploy their full potential on the hard problems that we’re solving. We have no time for any monkey business.

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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.

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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. Read 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.

Customer research with surfers and poker teachers

Last weekend we took a short break with Kriss to go kiting in Tarifa – the southernmost spot in Spain on the windy Strait of Gibraltar. I knew that we had a few customers in the area, so the night before flying out I picked 14 of them and wrote a spontaneous note.

Hi Dan
Hope you don’t mind the direct approach. I am the co-founder and CEO of TransferWise – the new money transfer platform, which I hope you have found useful.
This weekend brings me down to Gibraltar, Algeciras and Tarifa for a couple of days of holidays. We have a number of great pioneers in this area including you.
I was wondering if you are in the area, would have time to meet up and help me with feedback on how we can improve the service + how can we reach more people in the area?
Let me know if you have time,

Picture of the West face of Gibraltar from a d...

The next morning we touched down in Gibraltar and I had already 8 responses in my mailbox. It was totally overwhelming. Managed to set up two different meetings – a breakfast with Dan in Tarifa and a dinner with Gibraltar expats in La Linea, the Spanish town just across the border.

We have always made a big deal about speaking with our customers. Pre-launch it was friends and beta-adopters, who helped craft the product. After launch I did most of the customer support calls, each an expedition into the mind of the customer. Seeing the product we had built now through the eyes of the customer was often revealing.

As the customer base grew and we set up the dedicated customer support team, I pledged to speak with 5 new customers a week for general feedback. This was great for a couple of weeks, until I got so buried under with growing the team, that I started missing my 5 calls per week schedule. Fortunately Nilan recommended to start collecting external reviews. We hooked up to Trustpilot, asking our new customers leave a few words about their experience.

This has been fantastic, as people when unprompted write the first thing that comes to their mind and what matters most to them. Each of the 600+ reviews have been a positive spark in the day for everyone in the team and have taught us more about our product that we openly realise.

But nothing meets sitting down with your customer, taking all the time you need and hearing him out.

Breakfast with Dan Winer – surfer turned web developer in Tarifa

We met Dan for breakfast at 10am on Saturday. I was back from my morning jog on the beach and he had already been catching the waves since 7am. Normally this would be the time of the day, when Dan peels off his neoprene suit and starts his day as web developer, working remotely for a Gibraltar company who had bought out his ecommerce product.

Dan is one of the many people, who first come to visit Tarifa, then visit more often and eventually stay there. He was raised by British expats in Botswana, travelled the world as a semi-pro windsurfer from the age of 16 until homed in on Tarifa and settled down 6 years ago.

Dan said a colleague at work recommended TransferWise and he is now using it to transfer his salary from the Gibraltar company to his Spanish account and it has become a de facto option for him when sharing costs with friends in Pounds. He told me that he did not trust our website at first – any scammer can come up with a slick page and a bunch of case studies. So he did his research and after finding BBC and Wall Street Journal posts about TransferWise he got comfortable enough and is not looking back since. He gave me some good advice on how we can improve the experience for first time users and how best to approach British expats in the southern Spain.

Dinner with Kamen and Andrei – poker teachers in Gibraltar

To our great surprise it turned out that Kamen and Andrei work for the same company in Gibraltar – As expats from Bulgaria and Estonia, they were lured to the Rock by an interesting job, decent pay and 340 days of sunshine.  Apparently their poker school is one of the largest employers in the “country”, employing more than 100 people. Gaming and betting companies make up most of Gibraltar’s workforce.

Gibraltar is the most banked country in the world with one bank for every 1,300 people. Most people live on the Spanish side, yet commute to work in Gibraltar and get paid in Sterling. Exchanging the salary is a problem to almost everyone working on the peninsular. At a bank or a currency exchange boutique my new friends were faced with 7% – 15% spread. Poker players are savvy with arithmetics. I learned that most people still take out cash in sterling on the GIB side, do an exchange on the way and pay into a Spanish bank account on the other side. Some wise guys use underground exchange offices operating in souvenire shops. These are not licensed, but give the best rate.

Kamen told me lots about how the poker sites operate, how they do currency exchange and where players get ripped off on the exchange rate. It was fascinating as it looks like players are having a real problem moving their funds in and out of poker sites in USD without taking a hit on the exchange. We might have a workable solution soon for them soon. Once we fix their problem, news will travel super fast in this savvy and calculating community.

Speak with your customers, many and often

Meeting customers is awesome and incredibly useful. Not the “friends of friends”, not the early-adopters, but people who genuinely found your product to scratch a personal itch.

Being overloaded with work or having “more important” things to deal with (e.g. boards, fundraising, etc) should never be an excuse for a small business owner not to meticulously reach out to customers and listen to what they have to say. Trust me you will learn lots.

I loved how we managed to weave this bit of research in to a weekend of kiting. Next weekend Kriss and I are heading out to boarding in La Grave, looking forward to meeting some TransferWise’rs out there.

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