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3 Important Lessons I Learned From Working in a Digital Startup

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digital startup

It’s been just over 2 years.  I must admit it definitely feels longer than that. So much has happened within that timeframe, in an environment where a day feels like a month. I mean, what could possibly make someone want to leave a safe, stable job building teams and solutions within the Enterprise to start from scratch?  Glad you asked.

The glory certainly exists in start-up land and the feeling of contribution is immense when things are going well. The highs are superb. But with the highs come the ‘waking up at 3am in a cold sweat’, the ‘constant obsession to make things better’ and the ‘all rational thought would indicate this should work well, but analytics is clearly telling a different story’ moments, which can test even the strongest of characters.

As CTO of an automotive start-up, Autoguru, I thought I’d share some key learnings at which the experienced amongst us can have a laugh and say “I’ve been there before!” And to those (less?) fortunate newcomers to the startup world, hopefully you’ll learn a little something from these words of wisdom.

Here are 3 things I learned from working in a Digital Startup:

Lesson 1: Don’t build what’s already been built

Need a way to track customers effectively and ensure the right offers are sent to them at the right time? Don’t build it.  There are countless CRM (Customer Relationship Management) systems out there you can integrate with.

Does your solution need to scale massively, have millisecond response times and be fault tolerant down to a micro-service level with monitoring to the nth degree?  Again, there are a myriad of options available in AWS, Azure and Google Cloud that will provide these features without your development teams ever having to break into a sweat.

Do you have an existing product that’s inflexible and refuses to play nicely with other systems?  Ok, so this is where you should consider other options, and if there’s no ‘off the shelf’ product available it’s time to consider an API platform or custom build.  

This was precisely the scenario with our call centre application at AutoGuru, and by replacing it with the Twilio platform we were able to tightly integrate all our communication touch points into back end systems and create a framework where we control the roadmap for improved customer interaction.

The key point is we’ve never been in such a fortunate position where AI, Chatbots, advanced analytics, CRM, CMS, (the list goes on), are all available and at our fingertips for a fraction of the cost compared to just a few years ago.

Development teams should be intent on building your product.  That thing that differentiates you from your competitors. Your secret sauce. Your delighter. That’s where your focus should be.

You can save a lot of time and effort in finding the right products, so if you want to check out what other successful tech companies are using, check out StackShare.

“Don’t reinvent the wheel, just realign it.” – Anthony J. D’Angelo

Lesson 2: You don’t have 6 months, see what you can build in 2

Your product is new, unproven and there are a thousand ideas floating around to improve it and make it better, faster, more user friendly. When it comes to larger ideas that perhaps take your company in a new direction or into a completely new marketplace or partnership, it can be easy to sink a lot of resources and time into these kinds of initiatives.

Time is something you don’t have.  And if you do, you’re amongst a tiny percentage of very lucky startups! Smart people possess an uncanny ability to look into the future and foresee every variation and edge case for what may or may not happen when a feature or product is built.

The difficult part is rationalising the probability of these various outcomes eventuating, so you’re essentially not wasting energy (in many cases) on improbable events.

If you give a product team 6 months to build a product they will take 6 months as they fill time with small probability edge cases – the ‘what if’s’ for want of a better term.  

Taking the same product and seeing what can be built in 2 months will focus everyone’s energy on the core of what’s being built and how it can best serve a customer. The edge cases will most likely come, but at least you’ll already have a product in market!

Lesson 3: Shortcuts will come back to bite you…eventually

It may seem contradictory to Lesson 2, but there are some shortcuts you will most certainly come to regret in the long run.  Here are a few standouts I think it’s only right to mention:

  • Failing to have effective analytics
    Analytics is sometimes the poor cousin of a feature but if you can’t measure you can’t learn.
  • Automation is key
    Code deployments?  – Automate
    Server environments? – Automate
    Unit/Integration test? –  Automate
    Ok, you get the picture.  It may take longer initially but you’ll save time in the future by making these investments.
  • Failing to Prioritise
    All team members are super busy and working hard.  Congratulations!  However, by not investing the time in continual, harsh, cold blooded prioritisation using methods such as MoSCoW or ICE it could all be in vain.  A handy comparison of prioritisation methods is available here.

Fortunately, I learnt some of these lessons prior to working at AutoGuru, however, in a startup environment it’s wise to keep referring back to base principles, as every day counts.

What are your experiences in Digital Startups? Please leave your thoughts below!

Image courtesy of Twenty20.com

Barry Pryce is a technology leader with experience in enabling Digital Transformation across several industry sectors including banking, telecommunications and media. A specialist in Agile, cloud computing and customer centric application delivery, Barry is currently focused on bringing best of breed digital experiences to the Automotive industry, as CTO at AutoGuru. In previous roles, Barry has helped with the digital transformation of RACQ and achieved Australian digital media firsts including MasterChef and Formula 1 Live Streaming. Barry loves surfing (ex Interceltic games – Scottish Surf Squad), fishing, and obsessing over his veggie patch. But that’s another story.

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Startups

How to Avoid Startup Clichés and Buzzwords When Pitching Investors

Using jargon can make you sound like you’re trying to fill space instead of providing meaningful data

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How to pitch investors better

Entrepreneurs frequently seek startup funding through a variety of channels. Yet, none seem as challenging as successfully pitching to experienced investors. After all, investors are pressed for time and eager for opportunities. These characteristics make it challenging to motivate them, especially if you’re bombarding them with a pitch full of jargon. (more…)

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From Idea to Empire: 5 Power Moves for Your Startup to Thrive in Today’s Market

As an entrepreneur, I’ve learned that understanding market dynamics and choosing the right business model are crucial

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How to thrive in the startup market in 2024

As an entrepreneur, I’ve learned that understanding market dynamics and choosing the right business model are crucial.

A few months into the startup, I was quick to gauge why it is necessary to go beyond the nuances of operational efficiency and the art of sustaining a business amid growing competition.

Collaboration is key.

The HR and the recruiting teams work with departments to foster a culture of collaboration, but what’s indispensable to business performance is the sync between the marketing and sales teams. What we’d consider as entrepreneurs is the need to ensure seamless collaboration to predict and achieve business goals together. In turn, this will help secure long-term recurring revenue for the business.

Besides, entrepreneurs need to focus on revenue as they gear up to take their startup from $0 to $1 million. The journey is filled with critical decisions, from identifying your target customer base to choosing the right funding strategy.

So, what next?

Read on… because here are five practical, results-driven strategies that you as a founder can implement to make a mark in their industry.

#1. Embrace the Lean Methodology

What is lean methodology?

It is all about pivoting resources to create more value for customers with fewer resources. 

This principle encourages you to be more agile and allow rapid iteration based on customer feedback rather than spending years perfecting a product before it hits the market.

Want to implement it?

Here’s what you can do.

Build “Measure-Learn” Loop: What I did was develop a minimum viable product (MVP), a simple version of the product. You can do the same since it allows you to start the learning process as quickly as possible. After launching MVP, measure how customers use it and learn from their behaviors and feedback.

Here’s what I can recommend here:

  • Identify the core features that solve your customers’ primary needs and focus solely on those to develop your MVP.
  • Know the feedback channels where early users can communicate their experiences, suggestions, and complaints.
  • Analyze user behavior and feedback to make informed product development and iteration decisions.

#2. Focus on Customer Development

Let’s talk about taking our startup to the next level. 

It’s not just about getting customers – it’s about really getting to know them. We need to dive into their world, understand their struggles, and see how our product or service can make a difference in their lives. 

It’s like we’re detectives, piecing together the puzzle of our business hypothesis by actually chatting with our customers

What would you ideally do here?

Understand Customer Segments: I’d say, start dividing your target market into segments and develop a deep understanding of each segment’s demographics, behaviors, needs, and pain points. The idea is to get into their shoes and really feel what they feel.

Ensure your Product Clicks: When starting up, think of what you offer and consider whether it clicks with what our customers need. My thought was “Does my product solve their problems? Does it make their day better?” Put yourself through a tough grilling session to show customers the value proposition and ensure that the product’s promise matches what our customers are looking for.

I’d recommend the following actions here:

  • Talk to them – through surveys, interviews, or even casual chats. The goal? To gather real, raw insights about what they need and expect.
  • Use the collected data to create detailed profiles for each type of customer. This way, everyone on our team really understood we were serving. I think this should help your startup as well.
  • Try out different versions of our product with a few customer groups. It’s all about feedback here – understanding if you’re hitting the mark or if we need to pivot.

#3. Foster a Data-Driven Culture

The digital world is highly data driven since it fuels key decisions in a startup. 

I believe it’s essential for us to build a data-driven culture. This means, you’ll move from making decisions based on hunches or assumptions. Instead, the focus should be on data analytics and insights to guide our strategies and improve our outcomes.

What can you do?

Use Data Analytics Tools: You should be using these tools to gather, analyze, and interpret data related to customer behavior, market trends, and our business operations. Here, consider the adoption of pipeline forecasting that leverages AI to find patterns in marketing data. 

In turn, you’ll get areas for improvement since it can analyze historical data and predict the outcome for you to plan your.

Action Items:

  • Pinpoint key performance indicators (KPIs) that align with your business objectives and ensure they are measurable and actionable.
  • Next, you can consider training your team to understand and use data analytics tools. This might involve workshops or bringing in experts to build a data-savvy workforce.
  • Once everything is in place, regularly review data reports and dashboards. This gives us a clear picture of a startup’s health and helps adjust your strategies and predict future trends.

#4. Strengthen Your Financial Acumen

A good grip on financial skills is important to steer your business towards growth and making sure it stays on track. For this, you’ll have to understand the money side of things, which helps you manage your cash flow. Think of figuring out smart investment moves and sizing up any risks that come your way.

Here’s a tip on how you can get savvy with your finances.

Maintain Rigorous Financial Discipline: I’m really focused on cultivating a strong company culture, one that truly resonates with our mission. So, I’d suggest fostering open communication and encouraging a sense of ownership and collaboration among everyone in the team.

Action Items:

  • Get to know your financial statements inside out – I’m talking about the income statement, balance sheet, and cash flow statement. These are like the vital signs for your business’s financial health
  • Use financial forecasting that helps predict your future money moves. With this, you will have a heads-up on upcoming revenues, expenses, and how much cash you’ll need. Also, research on the available financial forecasting tools that can make predictions spot-on.
  • Don’t go at it alone. Regularly touch base with financial advisors or mentors. With them by your side, you’ll have a fresh perspective on your financial strategies to ensure you’re on the right path to hit your business goals.

5. Prioritize Team Building and Leadership Development

It is crucial to focus on building a solid team and developing strong leaders. This means putting our resources into the people who are going to propel our company forward. 

What you’ll aim for here?

Creating a culture where everyone collaborates and every team member has the chance to emerge as a leader.

What I would do:

Cultivate a Strong Company Culture: This culture should mirror our mission and foster open communication. It’s important that it encourages everyone to feel a sense of ownership and work together.

Invest in Leadership and Team Development: As founders, we’ll have to make way for opportunities for teams to enhance their skills, face new challenges, and grow in their careers.

Some concrete steps that you should consider taking:

  • Begin with clearly communicating your startup’s vision, mission, and values so that every team member is on the same page.
  • Conduct regular team-building activities and workshops to boost skills and strengthen a sense of unity and collaboration.
  • How about starting a mentorship program within our organization? The more experienced team members could guide and support the growth of newer or less experienced folks.
  • Alas… encourage feedback at all levels. We should keep striving to create an environment where open, honest communication is the norm and everyone feels safe to speak up.

I know it’s one thing to get your head around these ideas and quite another to actually make them a part of your everyday business life. But that’s where the real magic happens, right? It’s all in the doing. 

As a startup founder, this means more than just being a big dreamer. How about rolling up your sleeves to be the planner who pays attention to the smallest details. Ultimately, these tips and more tactics around it will help carve a leader in you who listens and cares and the learner who’s always ready to adapt

So, as you’re either starting out or moving forward on this entrepreneurial adventure, keep these practical tips right there.

May these be your guiding lights, helping you steer through the wild and exciting world of building a startup that’s not just a dream, but a thriving reality.

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12 Things I Learned in 12 Months of Working on My Startup

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A few weeks ago I launched my startup. It took exactly 12 months from the initial idea until the moment I saw my app in the App Store. And these were some of the most challenging, fun and exciting 12 months of my whole life. (more…)

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8 Actionable Ways to Get Your Startup’s First 100 Customers

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What’s the one thing that every business wants? Is it money, fame, or endless resources? The answer is quite simple—customers. Having customers is the sure-shot way of ensuring that your business stays afloat in the long run. No matter how good your product or services are, without people buying what you sell, you won’t reach anywhere. However, establishing a customer base is one of the most challenging things a business has to do, especially if you are just starting. (more…)

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