Startups have become mainstream in India. Yet, as an ecosystem, we are still learning how to deal with the common struggles that first-time entrepreneurs face to go from the startup phase to becoming an established company.
Statistically, the first five years of a startup are the hardest. Research suggests that you need to survive those first five years just to have a valid business model. But startups must not just survive, they need to thrive. Merely surviving is worse than failing and starting again.
Startup CEOs must make the call of when to keep fighting and when to call it quits. Only some startups have the fortitude and strategy to struggle through the early stage and become a flourishing company.
Surviving the abyss
A recent event made me reflect on the journey our company has taken to reach where we are today. We still keep track of how candidates hear about us, so I asked a recent candidate how she came to know about our company. She responded very matter-of-factly, “Kissflow is a big company; how would I not know it?”
Our product has been out for seven years now and we’ve grown from a team of less than 20 to nearly 200. Our customer count and revenue have also grown steadily every year but this was the first time I’d ever got that response.
For most of our journey, we’ve seen ourselves as a startup, swimming against the current to try to survive. Not the kind of startup backed by millions of dollars of venture capital money that can make a huge splash in the market, but the kind that grows slowly and organically one customer at a time. As such, we’ve never been such a big name that friends and family of employees immediately recognize our impact or find it a matter of pride to say they know someone who works there.
This comment from a candidate was a huge shift for me. It made me realize that we are no longer a fledgling startup, but an established technology company. We aren’t a baby anymore, and have finally reached the stage where even our hiring is starting to become more inbound.
When talented individuals start coming to you, and when past employees that you lost during a downturn re-apply, that’s a good sign that your company is on the upswing.
Here are three key lessons that helped us get to where we are and what helped us weather the storm.
Nothing happens without a team that trusts each other
Our product officially released in 2012, but our core team has been together since long before that. We had seen a lot of ups and very low downs. We launched with a lot of fanfare, but the product wasn’t taking off and it struggled initially. Our board began talking about other options and we all heard the advice from others that we should drop out and do something else. Yet, we stuck together.
We believed that this core team could build something great and all of the struggles we experienced were actually making us more capable of surviving and thriving in an anti-fragile manner. Our 12 years of domain expertise also convinced us that we knew the market and knew the problem we were solving was real.
Because we had that core team together with an inbuilt trust when we launched, we were ready for anything. We knew not to expect clear sailing every time and we know how each other responded to stress. We had already seen the worst and were no longer afraid of failure.
Even today, this team forms the core around which the company is built. Because this trust is spread out over many departments, we haven’t lost that ability to keep our focus and not lose our heads when things get tough. At the heart of every company that has crossed the startup phase is a core team that is baked together with trust. If this doesn’t exist, no matter what amazing product you are building for which ripe market, success will be fickle.
Build a product people will pay for
This may sound simple, but it is the most fundamental part of our growth. From the beginning, we’ve trusted one metric above every other: sales conversions. If we can convince someone not only that our product will help them solve their problem, but also that it is worth the price we associate with it, we know we are in the right place.
Startups that are more focused on building market share delay some hard decisions for a long time. They have fancy looking products and a large user base, but when it comes time to actually see if the product is self-sustainable and profitable, it is a huge challenge for them with much more on the line. We are continually tweaking our strategy, but we always have our eyes focused on those sales numbers.
By having so many paying customers behind us, we can make much more intelligent decisions. We know what the market can handle and what we can expect. We know when we add a feature if it is just a bonus, or if customers are happy to pay more for it. Having a solid base of happily paying customers also gives us the freedom to take risks and make bold moves, knowing that we can always go back to where we were before.
I find a lot of startup founders need to be reminded that revenue and profitability make a business. Don’t be scared to turn the switch on.
Homegrown wisdom is better than industry standards
Time and time again as our team visits industry events, we realize that we have far better insights on our core disciples like inbound marketing. More than 85 percent of our sales pipeline comes from inbound sources and we’ve found that our experiences have taught us more than any advice we can find outside.
Industry best practices are averages of the best and the worst; they tend to be generalized to appeal to a wide range of audiences. If they are truly best practices, then everyone, including your competition, follows the same thing. As a startup, you have to dig into your unique insights and understanding of the market to build differentiation.
We’ve never had a clearcut playbook. We’ve always been a scrappy team based out of Chennai, and had few examples and best practices to follow. We’ve had to invent the rules as we go along and come up with new strategies in marketing, sales, product management, engineering, customer success, etc.
When we hire new people, we have to teach them how we approach these topics. That doesn’t mean we only hire fresh graduates. We’ve also found success with experienced people who are willing to come in and learn a brand new system that stretches them from their comfort zone. These people also give valuable feedback and ideas on how to improve.
However, many people in our top key positions are younger than the industry median. They’ve been with us for several years and have learned with us and helped refine our position. It’s taken many years of investing time, and might have potentially slowed our growth, but in the long run, it’s been much better to build our own systems.
Pressing through the startup phase
You go through phases as a startup–from ideating the product-market fit, to the happy-but-stuck, to the growth phase. In each of these shifts, you have to re-look at the way your processes are built and fine-tune them to operate at scale.
Today, we are a “well-known company” and that makes me look back to see the ground we’ve covered and the lessons we’ve learned. We’ve made our share of mistakes, and taken our time in building capability and processes, but overall, we are very proud of the path we have taken. There are many ways to become established as a technology company, but I love our story the best.
Suresh Sambandam is the CEO of Kissflow, the first unified digital workplace for organizations to manage all of their work on a single platform. Kissflow is used by over 10,000 customers across 160 countries, including more than fifty Fortune 500 companies. Suresh is an expert and renowned entrepreneur on a mission to democratize cutting-edge technologies and help enterprises leverage automation.