Tuesday 14 August 2018

Startup diary: Yes, the company name I chose is unpronounceable - but best is yet to come

Despite needing a new name and rebrand, Richard Rodger's startup company now employs six staff. In his last candid diary entry of 2017, he reflects on the progress made and the challenges that lie ahead

Despite setbacks Richard is confident his firm will be on the up in 2018. Stock image
Despite setbacks Richard is confident his firm will be on the up in 2018. Stock image

Richard Rodger

This is the last startup diary entry for 2017. We've had 12 entries so far, each one documenting our progress in real time.

I write about my decisions as CEO as they happen, as I make them with the data that I have. There is no sugar coating. This is not a self-serving ghost-written autobiography. It is a decision-journal.

It's purpose is threefold: to let you observe a startup from genesis to product-market fit and beyond; to allow me review and analyse my decision-making after the fact, and thus hopefully free from subjective bias; and to provide a radically open forum for internal and external communication. At year end, let's review how this has all worked out.

First, the state of the startup. I chose a name that needed to meet some key criteria. The .com domain needed to be free for the website. The twitter account needed to be available. The trademark was also necessary. And finally, the name should be easy to spell phonetically. I chose the name metsitaba. I also based this decision on the view that names are not important, in the sense that they do not provide meaning. The history of the company will provide the meaning. Thus I also avoided descriptive names.

How has my choice worked out? It has been an absolute disaster! The name metsitaba is a total failure phonetically. The transcription from ear to voice, and from voice to ear, fails for most people. I was genuinely surprised by this. In hindsight, the cadence is quite African, which is natural to my ears (I lived in South Africa till I was 10 years old), but quite unnatural for most native English speakers.

A new name will be needed. The criteria are still the same, but it will be a project for the New Year. It is not urgent given that we already have a name. Was I wrong to choose a name quickly and just forge ahead? On the negative side, the branding work already done is now a sunk cost. We may have developed some emotional attachments to the name within the company that will make the change a little painful. Our remote working infrastructure is configured to use the old name. That said, changing the name now has low impact - we don't even have a Minimum Viable Product launched yet.

On the positive side, we've avoided a fatal mistake. Our name needs to be transferable by word of mouth. We live within the conferences and events industry, and it is on the conference floor, noisy and distracting, that people will recommend our website to each other.

Our name simply must work phonetically.

Further, we did not overspend intellectual energy on the initial choice of name. I believe that when it comes to business decisions, you should never wait for enough data - by then it's too late. We had so many other things to do, that wasting time on the name would have been an energy-draining distraction. As the great World War II General George S Patton was fond of saying: "a good plan violently executed today, is better than a perfect plan executed next week".

Speaking of data, where have we ended up on the numbers? Our newsletter, which was the first major production effort for the company, now has 326 subscribers and an open rate of 22pc. Will we make our goal of 500 by December 31? It will be close.

What we have done is demonstrated a demand from conference speakers and aspiring speakers for supporting material and tools to help them deliver better talks. This was the purpose of the newsletter.

The first few editions of the newsletter were entirely hand-crafted. We have since put in place a production process to generate a content library in advance of the weekly publication. The publication process is still quite manual, which has led to some content bloopers. In the New Year I'll refine the publication process to ensure higher quality. Measuring your delivery, validating the market need, and only continuing to build and improve if you are validated, is a the key activity of a startup.

Since resources are scarce, you must always wait until manual delivery really hurts before spending money to automate or hire. We've executed well on the newsletter in this regard. As validation increased, we increased expenditure on both the content and promotion.

What about the size of the company? As of year end we have six employees and five contractors. This will grow to 14 by the end of the first quarter of 2018. Everybody works remotely, and only three work full-time. This is quite a different structure to a traditional company, or indeed a traditional startup.

I made a deliberate decision to build a fully remote-working company in order to bring on board a wider range of skills and talents, and also to find people who can contribute effectively, despite not being available to sit in a cube in a traditional office building all day long.

This has been a great success. The company has been able to execute a content marketing strategy, a social media strategy, and a software development strategy, almost concurrently.

The other driver for this decision was our location: Waterford, Ireland. This location is a weakness in the sense that it has a small population of potential hires for a tech startup, but also a strength in that it forces you to adopt alternative recruitment strategies. Ironically we now have access to the global talent pool.

Remote working is not without challenges. You can't just pop over to a colleague and clear up an issue. You can't, as a manager, provide the hands-on guidance and support that your people often need. Solving these challenges requires openly acknowledging that they exist.

You have to have more patience in the short term, as there will be inevitable wasted effort, and you have to put more effort into the long term, to make people more autonomous.

You have to give people a lot of freedom to make mistakes. Surprisingly, this can be stressful for employees if they have not experienced such latitude before. It is rather sad that our modern work environments have some become so toxic and politicised that building an organisation based on openness and trust, even from the ground up, is a huge effort.

Luckily it is 2017 and there are great tools to make remote working much easier.

We use them all, from Google Docs (great for collaborating on shared documents), to Slack and WhatsApp (for internal chat and messaging), and Github (for software development), - and quite a few more. I'm not recommending any specific set of tools. There is a wealth of options out there to suit many different teams, and all you need to do is look.

However, it is a mistake to think that you can buy good interpersonal relationships and communication.

This is a mistake I have made in former businesses. In this business, I am actively developing a set of information strategies and ways of working that support good, and safe, communication.

Last week I discussed one of your first major projects on this front, the 'playbook'.

Everybody gets a playbook describing their goals and tasks, and also their preferences for communication and remote availability. We will refine over time, of course.

The purpose of the playbook is to help everyone avoid mistaken assumptions about their colleagues. It should also help reduce the power of managers as the company grows, as private empires are hard to build out in the open. Come back to me in two years time and I'll tell you if playbooks have helped with that issue.

The company is now starting developing of the Minimum Viable Product. This will be a software platform to help conference speakers and event managers.

We are putting in place a process to deliver a working version of the system each week.

The idea is that, once you have this process in place, you can go live at any time.

The deliverable each week is a live version of the system with a few more features. The team that builds the MVP will be the entire company, and a few external contractors.

A strict weekly delivery schedule really helps bind the entire team together. It also provides sustainable pacing.

In the New Year I will discuss this process in detail - it's something you can easily use for your own startup efforts, especially if you are non-technical. See you in 2018!

Richard Rodger is the founder of Metsitaba. He is a former co-founder of Nearform, a technology consultancy firm based in Waterford.

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