The article was written by Julien Labruyere, a serial entrepreneur based in Singapore. If you would like to contribute an article, follow this link.
Whether it is January 1st or Chinese New Year, this time of year always invites reflection about the year that is wrapping up.
Since growing a startup makes you feel like you’re moving in hyperdrive, I’m amazed when I think back about what I wanted to do back in Jan/Feb 2018 with my startup, Sleek.
It’s funny – did we end up getting to where we wanted to? Yes, almost to the dollar, revenue-wise. Did it look anything like we expected?
Not at all.
We planned one roadmap of where we wanted to go, then wound up at the same destination but from a very different route.
When my cofounders and I sat down to make a business plan for this year, that plan contained assumptions that were fairly wrong compared to what we know now.
To illustrate – here’s three resolutions I made as a startup founder at the beginning of 2018 that didn’t turn out anything like I planned.
Grow our tech team
Sleek helps entrepreneurs and investors with their company secretary and accounting needs, all online. Central to our services is an cloud-based platform that means people based in Singapore (and overseas) can incorporate their company from wherever they are. We wanted to create an easy, intuitive interface (don’t we all!) and so we needed a solid technology/development arm of our business.
This is a tricky one. In December, our technology/platform team was seven strong, up from four at the start of 2018.
What’s unexpected is that no one from our core tech team from the beginning of 2018 is still with us. We’ve had 100 per cent turnover of our development team.
Some have left for larger companies, some were interns that finished up their time with us, some we exited on good terms. The plan was to have a great team — and I think that we do — it just wasn’t smooth and incremental.
The current team has been rebuilt from the ground up and I would say it’s stronger than ever now – I just wasn’t expecting it to look like this.
We have also brought in two senior guys, who are just in a different league to our initial team members. I’ve learned this year that having talented developers isn’t the whole game. Having some great product managers, designers and veterans with the skills to manage a team goes a long way in keeping the dev team focused, engaged, and supported, so that they have everything they need to get their best work done.
To me it also shows just how strong the tech scene in Singapore is right now. Tech talent is scarce and everyone is scrambling to hire devs. This means that resources are in demand, which can sometimes lead to friction, big egos and expectations, and occasionally complacency.
Build a flourishing marketplace of accountants in Singapore
When we began in 2017, our core offering was online company secretary services to disrupt the conservative paper-based industry. But we quickly found that once people had incorporated, they were also on the hunt for an accountant.
We didn’t have the capacity in-house and wanted to focus on doing one thing really, really well – and so our solution in 2018 was to build a marketplace of accountants that we could connect customers to, and take a margin off the services rendered. We thought, let’s get a range of different accountants – from startups through to ex-Top 4 CPAs, something to match every type of business.
Our goal was to get to 100 accounting clients? Did we get there? Yes – but we completely ditched the marketplace model along the way. The classic startup pivot!
We had the demand, but in the end we realised that although we were passing the work onto the accountants, we were still accountable for the quality since it was sold under Sleek, and because of that accountability, we were still very much involved… way more than we should have been given the margins we were making.
Since the accountants offered came with Sleek branding, we knew we needed to deliver on our brand promise of quality; the price, commitment, and level of engagement that we had made us think, ‘this is not going to scale’.
So we took a different route and took it all in-house. Now we can control the quality of our output. And since then it has been crazy.
In less than five months, we have a team of eight, 100 clients and, thanks to the great work of our Accounting & Tax Practice, we have been consistently delivering great work, with great commitment. There’s a great synergy between the corp secretary team and the accounting team, and the result has been great customer service to our clients.
Daily one-on-ones with my employees
When I became CEO I instituted daily 1-on-1s with different staff of the company every day. I’d first heard about it on a podcast, and I thought it would be a good way to spend more time with my staff. I wanted to prioritise getting feedback from the team, since they’re the people on the front lines, growing the company.
So I thought ok, let’s do it. At the same time every day, I’d be catching up with someone – taking a meeting room, or have coffee in the sofa area, not with any precise agenda, just catching up and hearing what they had been working on and what was on their plate.
But I noticed after about two months – that was about two cycles through everyone in our company – that my time was getting too fragmented, and I felt like it was harder getting into the ‘flow state’. Yes I was getting more feedback, but it also made my agenda feel hectic.
Overall I thought, “I’m not doing better as a CEO because of this”. I knew I needed to retune things.
I dropped the one-on-ones. Instead I’ve moved to weekly Friday lunches with small huddles of 4-5 people from across the organisation. I’ve made it clear to the team that they always have my time, if they need it. If there’s a topic, put a time in my calendar, but if there’s no topic – skip it and let’s save it for lunch.
I still get ideas and feedback from the ground – and I’ve noticed that there’s also the benefit that colleagues have the opportunity to catch up with people they mightn’t necessarily get to talk to every day, so there’s a lot of cross-company team building.
People don’t know as much about each other as I expected, we need to do more to encourage the team to talk to each other — especially in a place like Sleek with massive diversity of jobs, nationalities and cultures. I’ve found that when they know each other, they like each other, and work better together.
In terms of feedback I feel like we’ve gone from nothing (no structured feedback) to something that didn’t really work well, to something that I feel works.
The road to success is non-linear, but I’m proud of where we are now. Do I have resolutions for 2019? Definitely… but that’s a topic for another time.