This is the third series of my startup lessons I’ve learned as a CEO growing our company. I recommend reading the first one here (how Tint hit profitability in 3 months) and second one here (how Tint hit $90,000 / month in 9 months) to understand our growth journey.
As I sit in our new office we just moved in 2 months ago (if anyone is in SF and wants to stop by, our doors are always open on 3rd and Bryant) alone at 11pm finishing up my emails of happy customers praising our team’s work, I can only smile. How has it even been possible for a small and young team of first-time entrepreneurs to work with multiple Fortune 500 brands around the world and achieve $290k/month (cash flow) in 14 months with a humble beginning $350k seed round?
Through a lot of self-reflection, I came up with how we’ve been able to scale from nothing to where we are today, and wanted to share those insights with other entrepreneurs facing similar challenges today (or just thinking about taking the leap themselves). Here are 3 values we followed to help us grow our tech startup with no signs of slowing down.
1) Hire for hunger and culture fit, not just skill sets.
Many companies today claim to practice this, but when asked how far are they willing to go with it, many stutter. What I mean is, would you be willing to forego the most talented developer you’ve ever interviewed because one of your co-founders has a strong feeling that he/she is just in it for the money and not care about the vision? I would. As CEO, I realized that my role in the beginning stages of the company was to get to product market-fit at all costs and survive. I have recently realized that after hitting profitability and product market fit, my main role is to build an amazing team to take us to the next level.
I say this because I firmly believe having a strong foundational team will be the scalable way we can grow from a small startup to a formidable company in the industry. Why? As much as I want to manage everything in the startup, there is absolutely no way I can. I have to delegate parts of the company to people I can trust with my baby (figuratively, not literally :)). It’s not just trust that they will do their job, but also trust that they will go above and beyond the task because they care about the business. If you want your startup to have a chance against the big boys in your space, you need to have a solid team to always be building and strategizing above and beyond.
That’s why you don’t want someone who solely provides you the skill sets you seek . At Tint, we have a 3-part interview process: first is a skill set interview with the hiring manager for that department, second is culture interview with the CEO, and third is all-team interview. After we make sure minimal skill sets are met in the first interview, we spend the rest of the hiring process understanding if he/she is a culture fit within the team. The big takeaway here is that you can always teach skill sets, but it is very challenging to instill passion or culture fit. If someone is not the best at what they do, but have the curiosity and hunger to learn, you will be blown away by what they can do in the near future.
Our team is young, nothing special in their fields. But I handpicked them one by one because they all proved to me that each one is genuinely excited to be a part of Tint’s vision and admit that they are here to learn. The result? Well, come into our office any time during the morning, day, or night, and you’ll see deep conversations on how to solve big problems for the company (and team members just hanging out because surrounding themselves with passionate people get them genuinely excited). Employee morale is at an all time high, which fosters innovative thinking, and has lead to our fast-pace growth.
Summary: Don’t compromise when hiring. Invest in the long term for your company.
2) Foster Autonomy, Transparency, and Selflessness
While our team applies these value statements within our internal everyday culture, I will be sharing more from why it’s important to foster these values with your customers.
a) I define autonomy as having the independence to make decisions. Autonomy was what I always seek when I was working with other companies at a younger age. I rarely had it, and that frustrated the heck out of me. Without autonomy, it took twice as long to get tasks completed—I had to ask for permission, and each time I asked for permission, it would take time for approval and diminish the initial excitement + exhilarating ideas I had. That’s not sustainable. When you’re a startup fighting against the big players, your advantage is speed. Speed in making decisions and executing ideas.
That’s why I make sure all our employees are trained with the fundamentals, and let them into the wild even if they aren’t fully ready. The more they learn by themselves through mistakes and failures, the more confident they become. The more confident they become, the more they can make quick decisions. My rule of thumb is that if you make a call without approval, have a strong justification behind it. How is this all helpful for your customers?
Your customers will have specific requests that will require timely decisions. They will ask for sponsorships, discounts, feature builds, and more, and your quick answer could define a won deal or a lost cause. Our rule of thumb in our decision making with customers is that you have the free will to make a call, but have a good logical reasoning behind it. For example, if I sponsor a free account with one of our customers, I back it up with the rationale that this client has an audience that would be great target customers and the exposure is worth more than the cost we charge them. Giving autonomy has led to the confidence in making quick calls, and overall increase in business.
b) I define transparency as always staying honest and communicating as clearly as possible with your customers. An obvious one, but not many practice it. We are one of the few companies in our industry that is transparent about pricing. Our customers love this because they can make quicker budget decisions without needing to email back and forth with needs and quotes. We hid our most premium pricing in the past, in hopes of charging a lot more to certain clients, but that inevitably led to longer sales cycles and unnecessary, timely emails.
We are also very honest with our product roadmap timelines and our mistakes. We get many feature requests from clients who love our product and wish we had certain features. We will be upfront in letting them know if it’s a realistic feature we will consider immediately, or something we will put in our feedback roadmap. Customers appreciate this so there are no false hopes and they can still make a decision with the most accurate information.
In addition, whenever we make mistakes like breaking features in our product or misquoting a price due to miscommunication, we always apologize and issue a partial refund or offer the best deal for our customers. Even though you lose money from this, you are building a rapport and solid foundation of trust that is worth a lot more in the long run. A loyal customer who will continually use your service because their trust you far outweighs any temporary, marginal monetary gains for your company.
c) Lastly, I define selflessness as providing happiness for your customers and focusing on their success, not just your own. Obviously you have to make money and grow your business to survive, and your customers know that. But if you look past that and focus on your customer’s success, it will inevitably lead you to more business. How? First, customers have problems they are looking to resolve, and if you have their solution, they will listen to you. If you tell them that you are willing to go above and beyond by brainstorming ideas on how to maximize their success, you don’t just maximize your chances of closing a deal, but you also form a relationship.
Businesses thrive on relationships, and when your customers hear their friends having a similar problem that they had, they will send a referral your way. The rapport you’ve established is one of customer success and not of maximizing profit. Again, customers know they will need to pay so that your service can maintain and continually provide great value to them, but now knowing that you are in the mindset of their success, it makes their decision to do business with you much more comfortable.
3) Adapt to Market Changes
You hear this a lot, but it’s much easier said than done. The reason it’s so difficult to adapt is because it’s reactionary. You act on situations after they happen. The upside of this is that you can act on more data and facts to make sound decisions. The downside is if you don’t act fast enough, the opportunity will slip right out of your hands. It takes a ‘small, fast paced team that admits they don’t know the answers and want to seek answers from their market’ to adapt effectively, which is the crux of a startup.
When I say team Tint adapts to the market, we simply listen and execute. One of my favorite quotes to accomplish this is by Charles Darwin: “it is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” To dissect how we’re adapting to the market, let me provide examples of what happened in the market to how we reacted.
What Happened in the Market-> How we Reacted
1) Multiple highest-paying customers send in game-changing feature requests -> In < 1 week, we listed all of the feature requests into a comprehensive survey and sent it out to only paying customers for them to prioritize which ones we should focus on.
2) 3 additional competitors appear in the market in separate niche industries -> In < 3 weeks, we planned our first company retreat to create a new pricing model that accommodates multiple industries while maintaining our core business (very tough to do).
3) Competitors advertise against our keywords and company name -> In < 1 week, we launched and ran a month long promo deal that gave customers a discount if they signed up for a year-long contract.
4) Two of our biggest competitors got acquired within a month of each other -> In < 2 weeks, we strategized and successfully emailed their clients one by one with how they can rely on us as a customer-centric, forward-thinking company in the business of their long-term success.
5) Tint business grows and support requests/feature asks increase -> In < 1 month, dedicated hours and hours on hiring additional 1 full-time employee and 4 interns to keep up with demand and maximize chances of continual company growth.
There were a lot of other factors and experiments we tried that contributed to our growth, but the above 3 factors influenced our success the most. And with this growth, there comes many challenges ahead and the need to balance many moving parts. Many people have asked me what keeps me going everyday, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to build the business. My answer to them is that I am humbled everyday to see my awesome team believe in my vision and want to genuinely be a part of it when I walk into the office. They are willing to ride along this journey with me, and that dedication motivates me everyday to wake up, focus, learn, and execute.
I hope the lessons I’ve learned, along with timely, smart execution, can lead to your tangible success. If you need any help or would like to chat, let me know in the comments below! Nothing makes me happier than seeing other entrepreneurs chasing their dreams for the first time, because that was me just a few year ago. If I (a young, inexperienced, but hungry entrepreneur), can do it, I’m sure you can, and I am happy to help.