If you’re a middle-class professional, a “journey” is a struggle to balance your travel plans with your budget, your family’s preferences and your (dwindling) vacation days. But there’s another journey, the one taking you out of safe employment (banking!) and into something more unorthodox (i.e. more risky): the leap into the unknown is 1% adrenaline and 99% rude awakenings. More about this later.
Not too long ago, I found myself as a newly-minted management consultant “advising” a fintech startup during the early days of the pandemic. In a series of unlikely events, I was soon the first employee of said startup, with the imposing title of Chief Operating Officer, an ever-evolving job description and the simple task of getting more people to file their income tax returns… “simple” in a country of over 200 million, with around 3 million registered tax filers. Imagine all that “upside potential”… how hard could it be?
Be patient: everything takes longer than it ought to
Rude awakening no. 1: When you’re accustomed to working for long-established market-leading banks, you enjoy a bit of bargaining power. No surprise – this is not the case for startups, no matter how enthusiastic or persistent or worthy. Suddenly it’s a struggle to get an appointment. Close friends, social acquaintances, former colleagues and complete strangers are all quite happy to prioritize other things. Still, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that huge effort goes into hitting each milestone, and the world operates on its own schedule, not yours. The rewards lie in the distance, after you pass through several learning curves.
Understanding consumer behavior: art, science or black magic?
Rude awakening no. 2: Your deep analytical insights and creative messaging are no match for consumer indifference. And in the case of this particular startup, a lot of our early prospects seemed to prefer death to taxes! So in the best traditions of early stage startups, we went back to the drawing board to redraw, rewrite and reprogram – and hopefully get some kind of attention.
And slowly and steadily, the responses have come and the one thing every paying customer has had in common is that our products and services have aligned with very specific pain points. Every client interaction provides a fresh learning opportunity, and some of my favorite “aha!” moments included speaking to a struggling chef, a social startup founder, an upper-middle-class housewife and a panicked retiree. The voice of the customer matters.
Top ten things I’ve added to my CV during the pandemic
Rude awakening no. 3: Your “fancy” credentials from a previous life will only take you so far. So, apart from the odd useful skill I brought with me, I acquired plenty of new ones on the job: Hardware procurement; Logistics (i.e. delivering the procured hardware); Legal documentation preparation and review; UI and UX testing; Elevator pitch delivery (intermediate level); Vendor management; Intellectual property management; Social media content creation; Writing press releases; and of course… Preparing personal income tax returns!
And as we push ahead toward our ambitious goals, I’m planning to add plenty of new lines to the CV.
My lightbulb moment
This startup was born out of another (fairly famous) person’s lightbulb moment; the “eureka” moment for me was a small and very personal experience. In the midst of frantic activity at the end of last tax season, I had to find time to prepare my own return. Naturally, I had full access to our brilliant new tax app, whose every pixel and process I’d already tested dozens of times. It led to the realization that we had actually built something that solved several real-world problems of my own, complete with access to world-class guidance and advice. I could not have anticipated the peace of mind that followed my first self-filed online tax return, and I’m prone to spontaneous evangelizing as a result!
To put it succinctly (one of our co-founders’ favorite words), our culture is evolving. We’ve used equal parts improvisation, inspiration and fight-or-flight response, always as a team and always with brutal candor. Early in the proceedings, an unnamed colleague did let it slip that I was nowhere near the kind of COO the company needed (he may have softened his stance since then).
I would be the first to admit this all sounds a bit chaotic and unstructured. We do want to resist, for now, a command-and-control structure (let’s wait till our headcount crosses into double digits). Our core team members wear many hats and often have shared or overlapping responsibilities. This has provided us with many many accidental discoveries and a few self-corrections – I’ll even use that overused term “synergy.”
Personally, I was most surprised by the fact that experience is far less important when building a team than I’d assumed. Nothing beats the motivation to solve problems, and the willingness to learn new things in the process.
The secret ingredient of our culture is the camaraderie of our tightly knit group, which has endured everything that it encountered I’m happy to say.
What keeps me up at night
There are plenty of “generic” concerns to obsess over - How do we future-proof our products and services? How do we keep our team cohesive? How do we adapt to changing conditions? How do we retain our bootstrapped independence? But nothing trumps complacency.
Complacency is our no. 1 enemy. Bootstrapping means you sharpen your survival instincts every day, and it can be comforting to allow yourself to ease off the gas in a given area. This is deadly: we might congratulate ourselves for behaving like an innovative and disruptive startup, and meanwhile our competitors are running away with market share.
We rely on each other to keep from falling into that trap.
How my perspective has evolved
In contrast to my earlier life in the predictable and well-established world of banking, I have recently been through multiple instances of “character building.” I wasn’t prepared for the extent of personal development that’s required in startup life, as you’re always operating well outside your (presumed) comfort zone. Adapting to and dealing with ambiguity is a must, and you’ll end up with less of a “discomfort zone” as a result.
Another evolutionary change is the emergence of a resilient, Zen-like calm in the face of big challenges. I’ve gotten used to hearing the word “no” and the sound of closing doors. As it turns out, some of the most receptive, supportive encounters I’ve had were with other startups.
We include words like “democratize”, “transform” and “revolutionize” in our literature – and we definitely believe in our mission. Big things are right around the corner. Watch this space!