This is the first of a series of articles I will write about the experiences I have had as a start-up founder. I was inspired to start this, for want of a better word, blog, from an event that I went to last night. The interviewee, a podcaster turned VC fund, had mentioned that in his series of podcasts he had transcribed every podcast he had ever done. In this effort, he had created a data room of far reaching knowledge and experiences. With the power of this data room and the connections he had made by interviewing the top VCs and founders globally enabled him, at the age of 25, to create his own $140m VC fund. Impressive.
This practice had a number of synergies with my own business. For those who don’t know, I started a SaaS HCM business with a focus on mentoring in 2016, MentorXchange. Our platform, where implemented, provides more opportunities for people to succeed. Much like his data room above, our platform gives participants the opportunity to network, find information, experiences and knowledge that will help them in their own professional lives. I want this blog to reflect on my own learnings as a founder, the ups and downs, but also the key skills and capabilities that I have learnt.
I want my account to look predominately at the future, how new skills, capabilities and my network will help me succeed in the future. However, to do this properly, I will also have to look retrospectively, what mistakes I have made along the way. My hope is that in reading these accounts you will learn, laugh and possibly begin to think about your own experiences in a new way.
Following me 4 years down the line might feel like you are jumping in at the deep end, I can assure you as a start-up founder, to me it feels like the just the beginning. Some views may be wrong, they are but one persons view navigated the tricky landscape of startup world.
Let me first tell you where I am as a founder. After 4 long years working on mentorXchange we have strong traction. It has taken longer than expected, technology companies often are called on to be overnight successes. VC's require pace, they expect speed and revenue growth, typical hockey-stick stuff. This is misleading and in my view can be detrimental to innovation.
Jeff Bezos quotes: ‘All overnight success takes about 10 years’. Zoom with their massive success actually took 9 years, Airbnb was rejected 7 times before succeeding. There are exceptions to the rule but largely it takes years of hard work to make an overnight success. So my learning, and it has been an exceptionally gruelling lesson, is that as a founder you must have grit.
‘Perseverance beats resistance’ is a phrase bandied around my team often. Why? We have met resistance, sometimes a lot of it. So what made us stick to it. Vision and mission are critical, otherwise we would be better off failing fast and trying something else. There were these moments, let me be clear, I have often found myself after a bad week wondering if I would not be better off tackling something else. Grit, is looking at the market and saying no. There is a challenge, my clients are telling me they are struggling with this, I just have to find a new way of approaching them.
The reasons for resistance can be somewhat endless. Startups are inherently risky. Procurement and IT security are risk adverse as they should be. Their primary instinct is no, keep the status quo. We have often found companies might re-engineer or repurpose existing technologies to address the challenges we solve. We typically find these companies back at our door 6 months later to start the whole process again. Other barriers we have found can be in navigating the labyrinth of decision makers, competitors, reprioritisation (which can happen at any time), the list goes on.
In some cases, thankfully few, we have found some organisations do not feel mentoring is mission critical or falls into a nice-to-have category. This can be challenging and frustrating, to our knowledge mentoring occurs within any organisation whether informally or formally. It is our purpose to provide more access to experiences, knowledge and package outcomes for individual success. With individual success organisations see benefit and transformation. At the end of the day, those organisations that don’t see it that way soon will as they lose their competitive advantage. People are organisations most valuable asset, end of.
So are we beating the resistance? Short answer, yes. It took time, we were so focused on getting it right. We wanted to prove multiple use cases and to reach product market fit before taking on outside funding. It was a journey, one where we even scrapped one whole build of our technology. A years work, gone and unusable.
When we first started, we jumped in with both feet. We targeted ‘elephants’ (I will mention elephants a lot through my accounts, they are companies with over 2000+ employees). Looking back on it, this was a time of research and development. We expected it to be tough and it most certainly was. However, we learnt a lot about organisational structure at a complex level. We were voracious about understanding information silos, navigating office politics and how we can support individuals in achieving desired outcomes. Most importantly, we wanted to know how an individual can succeed as part of a network.
We ended up working with over 70 HR professionals to design our product. User experience was paramount to our success and we interrogated our workflows over and over again. MEx mark 2.0 was ready to launch in January 2020. We were ready to hit the market hard, and then Covid (more on that later).
In 4 months we would deploy with one multinational bank, one global recruitment agency, one accelerator and 2 charities. How? We offered pilots at first as proof of concept. Pilots, even at low or zero cost, were still a challenge. Organisations still need to dedicate resources towards implementing software. They are not free.
We pitched, we demoed, we did discovery and ran the gauntlet of procurement / IT security. Finally we had deployments up and running. Breakthrough. At first we chased use cases and not revenue. We were fortunate to be in a position to do this, low burn rates and a scaleable tech stack meant we could prove our worth before negotiating commercial terms. That was our focus, of course revenue was a consideration and we did want money coming in but more importantly we wanted data. People using our platform and understanding the value of our business was as important, if not more important than short term revenue agreements. We implemented a strategy of land and expand.
Now we have use cases that work, more often than not we get reverse enquiry from participants already using our platform. For us, it is a much stronger foundation on which to scale our business.
We have been patient, we have persevered, until finally we beat the resistance.