To me, Prowly feels like the greatest lesson of humility. I feel that I will never be able to learn as quickly as I am learning now - it is both the advantage and disadvantage of running your first startup. Here is a collection of the biggest lessons I learned in 2016.
It is not easy to spend money quickly and wisely
The pre-A series round of financing which we have closed at the beginning of 2016 was the first significant amount of cash to be found in our bank account.
In retrospect, I think we went in over our heads. We never knew how to spend vast amounts of money. If anything, our previous experiences - from when we didn't have cash - taught us to spend frugally. On the other hand, we simply lack experience in investing money into effective sources of leads and generating sales as a result. It requires time and unfortunately, in the case of projects such as ours, time is the greatest enemy. If it wasn't so, every startup which gained financing, would become a unicorn in its category the day the money landed in its account.
Our business plan for 2016 assumed almost 40% more increase in both turnover and cost. We have maintained a proportional rate of growth, but our pace is still too slow. This year we plan to change that.
HR is the second job of the CEO
I like this article:
There is only one thing I do not quite agree with – it‘s the fact that, according to what Ali says, after launching a product (which people loved), the CEO does not have to be involved in its development. I do not believe in the long-term company growth without a good roadmap for the product and it’s the CEO who should be the product‘s greatest evangelist both inside and outside the organization. Otherwise product can very easily spin out of control - technology is advancing at such an unprecedented rate that missing out on even one phase of product development may send ripples through the entire business. Making sure this does not happen is an equally important task of the CEO to managing talents.
Prowly as an organization now employs 18 people. Exactly one year ago there were half that many of us. In retrospect, I think that at a certain point I did not approach HR issues with enough sincerity. We have experienced a few failures in this field. We have set up a team in the US market, which we thought was a must-have at this stage of growth. I have made a range of mistakes from recruiting to onboarding new people in this market. We have replaced this team twice, while the actual error was in a wrong initial assumption that we had made. After 4 months of trying, we decided to give up on this assumption. Together with my partner Sebastian, we took a step back and started to wonder whom do we really need in our team. That was the moment in which I began my evolution from being a phase 1 CEO to phase 2. Today, I am still at the beginning of that road, but I am building the company with a much greater awareness of the needs that we have within the team and the commitment which developing this business and motivating the people with whom I am co-creating this company every day requires from me. I must admit that I feel super excited about this and I cannot wait for 2017 in terms of development in this area!
Working in a remote team is not an advantage, it is a flaw
Following my experiences in 2016, I do not believe in that thing called the remote work culture. Today I sometimes curse the day that the inventors of Slack invented Slack. Development of the company, which is made up of people scattered all over the country or the world, is a challenge requiring massive commitment from everyone. The time that we spend on solving problems within the organization is significantly extended and the written language is imperfect in terms of expressing emotions.
Prowly has two permanent offices - one is where the sales, marketing and client service teams work and the other is the location of the product team. Not only did we have to struggle with a division between the product team vs. the rest of the company, but also with the fact that some of the members of those teams work from remote locations. This was one of the reasons to implement scrum within the entire company in the middle of last year. Unfortunately, the truth is that in addition to scrum within individual teams, extraordinary discipline is required within the entire organization in order for this system to work. Someone else would call it a culture of working remotely. For me it is the discipline, which is associated with the flow of information and building bridges between teams. We are continuously learning about this.
We organize recurring retreats involving the entire company where we perform different team building activities. For example, once we divided into teams trying to put together a press release regarding Prowly 10 years from now. It was cool that we had a chance to confront our visions of the company's future, and everyone’s thoughts in this regard. This was my favorite press release:
Our latest idea for team building, which we have introduced recently in addition to the regular company-wide retreats, are hackdays, which are aimed at integration between teams. And fun! Every Friday a group of people from different teams work on products which are not related directly to our core businesss. I hope that in 2017, thanks to close cooperation between team members, we will learn to empathize with one another more even when they can't see one another.
To say that people are afraid of change, even for the better, is not only true in life, but also in a SaaS business
This lesson hurts. I love our product and I believe it will be the best in class really soon. This year we had to face the biggest update so far in terms of the product. CRMs tend to quickly overgrow with features that in retrospect seem less useful than anticipated at the beginning - it is not always true that what your clients expect is unequivocally good. There is a risk that at some point you lose control.
It's pretty easy to update your software each month. The trick is to define the moment in which the software wanders away from the vision you have in terms of functionality and usability. This is what happened in our case. After 3 years of product development our product lost the one clear value proposition it had. We have become an all-purpose media relations CRM and slowly began to step into the field of content marketing. While speaking with prospect clients worldwide we began noticing that their needs are too specific to be addressed with an all-in-one CRM. In mid-2016, we decided that Prowly can no longer be so monolithic. This caused a range of consequences. Reconstruction of the product required from us to completely change its architecture, UX and in a sense, also design.
Due to the significant change and the implementation of new programming languages, we had to actually rewrite the entire product from scratch. On the day of the release our users got to use something, which from their perspective fulfills the same functions, but works entirely different. Some of them simply became overwhelmed.
At the end of the day I do not blame our users for complaining. We made a mistake by not preparing them entirely for what was coming. When we launched the new version and received initial feedback, the worst thing was the moment of doubt. We questioned whether it was definitely a good move, we worried what we would do if users left, because they were so angry, they didn't like what we had done...
It was a real test of strength, which we fortunately passed thanks to our high standards of client service. Our users began to notice more and more of the advantages of the new system each day. Human nature does not like change, but gets used to it quickly. And it shows appreciation, which was evident when I decided to personally apologize for causing any inconvenience by sending out hand-written letters to our clients, those who particularly felt the impact of the change. One of our clients sent me a hand-written response :-D
Content marketing is a test of faith and patience
In January 2016, we decided to base all of our content marketing activities on the Prowly Magazine and we had given up communication in the mother tongue entirely. Since that time, we have published 126 articles in our magazine, including 41 in cooperation with external contributors, and the 71% of our site visitors constitute our regular readership.
Our marketing team has put in a hell of a lot of work and heart into this. I admire them for their patience, which must be an inherent part of this kind of activity. In January last year, our magazine generated 5k page views per month, today one good text generates about 15k views. In the meantime, we are testing other, external sources of traffic - ranging from PR publications, cooperation with bloggers, to Product Hunt and Quora. It takes terribly long, but finally begins to bring results.
We are still learning to, first, convert this to an increase in the number of leads generated with the use of the right tools, and second, to skillfully measure it, again, with the use of the right tools. We know that with twelve requests for a demo of our product coming from inbound marketing each week we are still in the early stages.
The greatest trick is not to grow proportionally month-to-month
Inbound and outbound sales work like a snowball. Each month the company grows, but the problem is that the pace usually remains constant. The biggest challenge of today's startups is finding sources of growth acceleration. This, the product roadmap and development of the company and the people I work with, this is what I dedicate 2017 to.