2018 has been a rollercoaster for us, and for me personally. It was an absolute thrill for the most part but, like every rollercoaster ride, at times I felt sick. Such is the life of an early stage founder.
When I look towards 2019, I feel really optimistic. Despite the uncertainty – something I have learnt to live with on a daily basis – the future holds no fear for me. Just like with the stock market, past performance is not an indicator of future performance in the startup world. So there is no point reading too much into past achievements. However, there are a few key moments that have fortified my conviction. Not because they’ll be repeated, but because they are evidence of what our tenacious team is capable of. In a sea of chaos, these small, but hugely impactful, moments are strong signals. As a founder, it’s my job to discover what made these magical moments possible and double down. Because everything else is noise.
The year began with a capital raising. Every founder knows that raising money is a huge distraction and emotionally exhausting. However, being forced to tell your story again and again, and be subjected to scrutiny by complete strangers, can lead to moments of clarity. A seemingly innocuous introduction by a venture capitalist, who I have since thanked, made us completely rethink our go-to-market. The chain of events that followed is remarkable. Mark Godley joined as an advisor, and Damon Gage came on board to build and lead our sales team.
We announced our capital raising in May, and the four months immediately after were pivotal in the evolution of our company. First we learnt how to tell our story with the clarity we had spent so long searching for. This eventually manifested in the release of the video we are so proud of.
We then launched our machine learning features, which solved a very real problem for our clients. Forget the hype about AI, it’s irrelevant. For us it was a very simple question of bringing our mission to life. In order for hiring to be truly about merit, not background, we wanted to ensure that every candidate has the opportunity to showcase their talent. In high-volume roles, it’s too time-consuming to review every Talent Trial. We wanted to build an experience that made screening completely redundant, so we created a way for candidates to be ranked purely based on how well they perform. This made it possible for companies to test skills for any role, at any scale, at the point of application.
It turned out to be a watershed moment for us. The combination of the product’s ability to solve a major pain point in a differentiated way, a strong team to sell it, and the right message, made everything click. The market responded immediately.
While all this was happening there were two undercurrents that only became apparent to me later on. First, the team we built earlier in the year was coming of age. Second, I was dangerously close to complete burnout. I failed to see both. Things were going really well and, after going at a million miles an hour for so long, I was in a tail spin. It took a serious “talking to” from my co-founder for me to realize I needed a break. In hindsight, the team probably needed a break from me as well.
In September I spent nine days in Utah completely alone. No people, no technology, no work and hardly any contact with the outside world. Two things happened. First, I completely changed my attitude. I learnt that it’s possible to disconnect without feeling guilty. It’s ok, even as a founder. In fact, it’s critically important. Second, the team stepped up in a big way and outperformed. Turns out they weren’t outperforming, they were just unshackled and freed up to do what they do best. They were dying for an opportunity to go to the next level. When I returned to civilization, I decided not to “come back” to my old role. Instead, I let everyone keep doing what they were doing and I reinvented my own role. Everyone was better off and there was no turning back.
There were also a few surprises that delighted us.
We started surveying candidates, a decision that had an unexpected, and unbelievable effect. We originally did it to collect feedback about technical problems and the overall candidate experience. It was very important to us to ensure that candidates see Vervoe as an opportunity, not a hurdle. Otherwise we can’t deliver value to our customers. But what started as a fairly standard use research initiative became a goldmine. Candidates, it turns out, don’t hold back when given the opportunity to speak their mind. As a result, we saw an inspiring outpouring of encouragement. So many people were energized by the opportunity to put their best foot forward instead of being arbitrarily eliminated. It’s almost impossible to choose from the thousands and thousands of responses, but here are a few examples:
“I feel privileged to be given an opportunity to showcase my talent and skills…”
“Asking potential employees to demonstrate their abilities is a great idea.”
“It was a really different experience which made me feel free to express myself.”
Then one of our engineers inspired us by learning English, something he did secretly at his own expense. We can’t take any credit, all we can do is recognize and admire his endeavour.
On a personal level, I witnessed my wife’s incredible perseverance to put herself through veterinary school after a career in law and while also being an awesome mother. I mention this because it’s yet another reminder that anything is possible and, when you’re a founder, those reminders can come in handy.
So what’s next? I subscribe to the common view that early stage CEOs need to focus on three things: setting the vision, building a great team and not running out of money. Sure. But what I learnt this year is that there is something else, something entirely unscripted. I have to know which shots to play. It’s my job to look out of for those magic moments and, when they appear, to throw everything I’ve got at them. Because they will make all the difference.