- 🙅🏻♂️🙅🏽♂️We're Not Hiring
- 🍀 Beginners Luck
- 🧪 What it means to be a Venture Catalyst
- 📚 Offer #1: Education is an investment
- 💆🏻 Tie the knot
- 🔮 Converting dark energy
- ✍🏼 The Test
🙅🏻♂️🙅🏽♂️We're Not Hiring
On a corner of Shoreditch High Street, heavy rain mutes the buzz of the city streets along with the impassioned voices of Pete and Raj. The heat differential is causing condensation to form on the windows of the open plan flat. Both are locked in hot debate and today's subject is: Hiring.
Pete, tending to the whistling kettle, holds a strong opinion to refrain from hiring early - "there are so many new aspects to this journey. We know we can work well together, but who knows what lies ahead."
For context, it's worth knowing that Pete's 6th form yearbook foretold of his ventures to come, and like many enthusiasts, he knew the start-up fairy tales inside and out. More than once had he recited to Raj how the AirBnB founding team took 6 months and hundreds of interviews to find their first employee. It wasn't surprising then, that Pete expected the pair to be as picky as Brian Chesky in the search to find theirs.
Moving the steaming brews from the kitchen counter, Pete continued. "The first year is formative. We still need to figure out our formula and our ways of working." He passes the mug. "We need to cement our cultural values and vision. I totally expect that for the first year of business it's going to be me and you. Besides, a new perspective at this embryonic stage of our company would be destabilising."
Taking the tea in hand, Raj signalled his gratitude with a nod, replying "Fair points" and both take a tentative sip.
The pause breeds a reflection, "but in the nature of our business, where the people unquestionably are the product, a year without hiring is a year without growing our bottom line." The clarifying comment floated in the air like a butterfly passing between them -- both appreciated the significance but said nothing.
Raj was steered by Pete's argument, noting that the urgency to grow was in part driven by a desire to be perceived as 'successful'. Pete had impressed the merits of patience, and both agreed that twenty--twenty was not open to hire. 3 weeks later, as the world was plunged deep into a pandemic, Raj found himself grateful for his co-founder's direction.
Key Takeaway: • Often we're asked, "so how big is your team now" as a proxy for success. It's tempting to be influenced by vanity. Don't succumb. • Hiring simultaneously reduces and increases your workload. Yes, you have someone to take on additional work, but they require vision, structure and clarity of purpose. Wait until you have a clear direction before hiring.
🍀 Beginners Luck
"Every search begins with beginner's luck...
Lockdown is in full swing. Pete and Raj's stint working at Perfocal's Tech Hub office in Shoreditch was all too short. Like many their age, they were both now working from their childhood bedrooms. Movements restricted, they engaged with the outside world digitally. Meeting rooms were traded for Zoom calls, presentations for LinkedIn Posts & "have you got a minute?" for notifications.
The message made Raj pause. One eyebrow raised, he began to analyse its contents. It's short, to the point and at this very moment, he suspects, a cut & paste. Seeking a second opinion, he dials into the pair's evening sync.
Pete crackles through the laptop "How did she even find us? We're practically a ghost company.”
“I know right!” Raj replies.
“So what do you think? A cut & paste?”.
“Yes, definitely" Pete answered.
Raj, "Haha, I liked it! Think about it, she's using her business development skills to sell us her business development skills! Isn't that wonderful?"
Curiosity sufficiently peaked, Raj provides his email address, and two hours later receives Holly's CV with a Zoom link attached for a meeting in a few days time -- speedy and clear communication. Updating Pete the next morning, "If she can reach out to clients like she's reached out to me, then perfect."
The days pass quickly, and in between a cramped schedule meeting Perfocal's photographers, Raj meets with Holly for a short 30-minute interview that ends on time. Whilst not wowed he's left with the distinct impression of competence, noting how polite, confident and concise she was.
The spark of an idea twitches into life and like a traveller who starts to recognise familiar surroundings, he sees the path. Syncing quickly with Pete, after the interview. "We've been looking for a solid content writer for Perfocal, let's bring Holly in as a contractor for a short test project under our name. It's literally perfect! Perfocal actually need this, plus we can make a tiny margin on top. There's very little commitment on our side, and if she's not right, there’s no risk."
The new suggestion didn't fit Pete's initial hiring expectations. That conversation on a rainy night in Shoreditch resurfaces. "We said a year - it has only been 5 months!". As a highly self-reliant thinker, Pete typically responds to large changes with a slow down or a stop: conservatism or hyper-analysis are norms. "This is ahead of schedule."
Raj encourages Pete to arrange a call quickly, stating "When you come across good talent you need to move quickly and bring them in with confidence."
In the first interview, Pete had a few goals in mind. To seek value fit, a growth mindset and to set expectations with transparency. All needed to assess if the twenty--twenty journey was the right one for a potential team mate. "We are incredibly young, and to be completely transparent, we're not sure where we are going. But what's certain is that if we do invest in you, it will be with full commitment".
To Pete's surprise, Holly took it all on board, understanding the need to find product-market fit. To even greater surprise Holly pushed it further. "I'm very curious about your business model and I think it's a good idea - it balances incentives well". To Pete, their business model was young and not wholly proved out, and here it was gaining external validation of some kind. Always the skeptic to praise and flattery, took the comment and moved on.
He comes away satisfied to continue, but not impassioned. There was something missing in order for Holly to be the first employee but he couldn't grasp it. He expected force, direction and transparency. In hindsight, he'll learn that this was too much to expect of a first conversation.
The next stage was the competency interview - Pete's favourite piece. As a growth consultancy, the young twenty--twenty team needed people who understood the growth channels. In their 3rd virtual interview, the pair methodically stepped through the 20 growth channels and investigated Holly's exposure to each of them.
🐘 Holly's Growth Channel Competencies
|Name||Description||Pete 🐉||Raj 🦄||Holly 🐘|
Growing your user base by encouraging your users to refer other users. Example: Airbnb or Uber: Referral Credit.
The art of gaining attention through traditional media outlets, like newspapers, magazines & TV. Example: Perfocal article on 80k a year to travel the world as a family's personal photographer
Doing something exceptional to draw media attention. Example: Transferwise protesting outside parliament or even in Zappos going above and beyond for customers.
Search Engine Marketing
Marketing effectively on Google and other search engines Example: Google Ads
Social Display Ads
Ads on popular sites like reddit, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hundreds of other niche sites, can be powerful and scalable ways to reach new customers. Example: Instagram Advertising
TV spots, radio commercials, billboards, infomercials, newspapers and magazines, as well as flyers. Typically for less tech-savvy customers. Offline ads also more trusted. Example: Advertising on the London Underground
Search Engine Optimisation
Process of making sure your website shows up for key search results. Landing pages and relevant blog content. Example: We built a landing page engine called Mass Landers for Perfocal, which allowed us to instantly build beautiful landing pages from a single row in a spreadsheet (pretty cool right? 😎). Consequently we have the capability to launch 1000s of pages targeting long-tail keywords in a single day.
Many start-ups have blogs, but most do not use their blogs to gain Traction. Example: We wrote this blog piece for Perfocal to build customer trust, generate backlinks & to generate 6 months worth of social media content (3 birds 🐥, one stone). So far it's garnered 1,800 interactions (196 shares, 569 comments & 1,000 reactions).
One of the best ways to convert prospects, while retaining and monetizing existing ones. Example: We developed a lead re-engagement email flow using customer.io at Perfocal, which lead to higher conversions in our photography product, more customer reviews & upselling additional products.
Engineering as Marketing
Using engineering resources to acquire customers is underutilized. Successful companies build microsites, develop widgets, and create free tools that drive thousands of leads each month. Example: Option type comparison widget by Vestd
Process of creating strategic relationships that benefit both your startup and your partner. Example: At Perfocal we built a strategic relationship with Churchill Gowns
Directly focusing on exchanging a product for cash. Sales funnel creation & generation, cold calling, door to door sales. Example: We've built a business development function at Perfocal, arming them with marketing collateral we closed Perfocal's largest business client to date in July 2020. We look forward to setting more records 😉 .
Arrangements in which an online merchant Website pays affiliate Web sites a commission to send them traffic. These affiliate Websites post links to the merchant site and are paid according to a particular agreement. Examples: Comparison websites (gocompare), product aggregators (Lyst), online publications, Amazon Affiliate scheme
Focusing your growth on existing mega-platforms, like Facebook or Instagram, Twitter or the App Store Example: Focusing on building a engaged following on Instagram.
Creating chances to show off your latest products. These could be Tech events, wedding shows or any event that lets you show of your product.
Sponsoring or running offline events - from small meetups to large conferences, can be primary in gaining traction. Example: Twilio sponsoring engineering meetings ups
Using hype about your company story to promote it further.
Forming passionate communities around your product. Example: Monzo with their online community for users and developers
Enabling the supply side to do their own marketing Example: Just eat partnering with local businesses to provide marketing materials and discounts
Developing new income streams by creating add-ons for your core product. Example: We increased Perfocal's capabilities to include photobooks and frames.
Realising that Holly's experience was beyond her years, a final discussion, in which Raj reasons that the decision was full of opportunity and highly reversible abates Pete's scepticism. "Let's do a test project with her".
Holly signs on as a part-time contractor to complete a test project over the course of 2 months.
Key Takeaways • If you want to know how good someone is to work with; work with them! Interviews are informative but limited. • If you can, de-risk hiring decisions with test projects. Every hire we've made to date has been based on a test project. • Move with pace and confidence when hiring.
🧪 What it means to be a Venture Catalyst
The first London Lockdown wasn't kind to Perfocal. Pre-pandemic, the photography company was heavily B2C focused. It's two biggest customer segments were weddings & events and with one prime ministerial speech, both were discarded. The impact was tremendous and in real terms, Perfocal saw a 90% drop in revenue.
By July, Pete, Raj and Tony had spent 5 non-stop months working every second of every hour to turn the tide. They implemented a number of major projects, which included expanding Perfocal's offering to merchandise, so they could go from 'photo to frame', investing an extensive SEO strategy, so they'd reap the rewards post-pandemic and finally launching a B2B Offering to target high-value customers with 'recurring photographic needs'. Holly's test project contributed to the latter. The structure of the test project was simple: Niche ideation session + blog writing + business development.
To cut a long story, short; she absolutely nails it. She's energetic and creative in her first workshop with Pete, deciding to target E-commerce Sellers on Not On The High Street (NOTHS)🛍 . After which, she quickly develops a punchy blog piece, which she uses as a hook in her cold email outreach to 100+ sellers.
Raj & Pete are already impressed. For a recent graduate, Holly's pro-activity is off the charts.
Not only did 20 Sellers respond to her email (a HUGE conversion rate), but NOTHS themselves, reached out to Holly to discuss a potential partnership. She broached the news, with a draft email prepared and not long after the team initiated their first Proof of Concept with the national brand.
If her first interview didn't wow, her results certainly did.
With Holly on board, the new team's efforts culminated in Perfocal breaking a company revenue record 🎉. Accordingly, Pete & Raj met the Objectives agreed with Tony & Perfocal's investors.
Everyone was jubilant. They had the uncanny feeling, that they'd defied the odds. The investors congratulated. The Perfocal team acknowledged the hard work they'd all put in, and for the first time since starting twenty--twenty Pete and Raj allowed themselves to cautiously celebrate.
Leaving their family homes, the pair moved into a 3 bedroom warehouse flat in Dalston, the 'Floffice' (The Flat Office).
As the highs faded, Raj & Pete wrestled with the question: how do they ensure sustained progress after they leave? Pete, for some months, had been training Perfocal's Junior Product Manager for this very transition. In Holly, Raj could see her replacing his role in leading Business Development, Content Creation & Marketing.
Making his intentions clearer over slack "As we ramp-up at Perfocal, I’d want to know that you aren’t carrying too much, as is our duty of care towards you! I’d encourage you to think about what work outside of Perfocal you can actually commit to." Holly replied, "I’m really keen to start prioritising Perfocal / twenty--twenty work and consequently have no intentions to take on anything new. It might be clearer for you to understand my commitments by looking at my timings this week (see screenshot)."
"Anything new?". It seemed to Raj that Holly was either the type that didn't feel she was carrying enough until she winced under the load, or she didn't fully grasp what twenty--twenty were offering. Compelled to create clarity, he wrote:
Raj's message "to act like the co-founder of a 4.3 million company" was read loud and clear and throughout July and August Holly had upped her hours on Perfocal and reduced her time on other projects.
It was going well, really well. As the days became shorter, and the nights longer, each evening Pete & Raj would sync on what they'd observed about Holly. How she was punctual, how she'd get through a huge volume of work, and how each new responsibility was met with eagerness. They observed how she was always her word, and how she shared with transparency. When they first met, they noticed how she greeted colleagues with respect and forged new relationships. They noticed, how she would serve others first, and make a bee-line for the sink with the team's finished plates. They even observed how much she observed them. The energy of each interaction built upon the last, until the point where a wordless decision was made. Pete & Raj became certain that Holly was the right fit.
Key Takeaways • Set them up to succeed and then judge a potential hire by the results they produce. • Be clear about your intentions, seed ideas. • It's easy to simplify the activities that are encompassed by the 'work'. Some jobs are just a job, but if it isn't, be sure to damn well explain it!
📚 Offer #1: Education is an investment
On one morning call, Holly introduces Raj and Pete to the Centre for Entrepreneurs' programme, NEF+, and expressed her desire to participate. She mentioned that the founder from the other start-up she supported, had suggested she'd be a great fit. On the surface, it looked like a comprehensive course for any budding founder. Without knowing the details in the meeting they fell back to what they knew. "We can tell you that on principle we're willing to invest heavily in your development, but please prepare us a proposal as to why this very course".
24 hours later, the proposal flew in. Switching from their tasks in unison, the pair scanned through the proposal. It was concise, to the point, and the words didn't fail to convey just how much Holly wanted to be sponsored for the program. The price, however, was an eye-watering £5,000 (excl VAT) -- 5x the training budget the pair had put aside in their working draft of an employment offer.
Instinctively the pair knew this was an important moment and the short application window prompted a speedy discussion.
"Hmm, a structured course would give her the formal training that we won't have the time to deliver ourselves."
"To be honest, I'd rather she learn Growth specific skills on courses like Reforge, or Demand Curve."
"It's a large investment for someone who could just walk away"
"Will this distract her from her work? It's 20+ days of billable time."
"Well, we've always believed in having 20% for training and development"
"Can we actually afford this? 🤔"
"Is this the precedent we set for all employees?"
The conversation was a formality. In their hearts, they knew that Holly was set on the NEF+ program. Arguments about cost and value would rightly fall on deaf ears. Besides, as dream chasers themselves, they relished an opportunity to fulfil another's dream. They wondered, was this what it felt like, to be subject to the universe's will?
"And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it."
They knew what the decision would be, but forced themselves to go through the process. After all, chasing dreams and lunacy are not too dissimilar. They ran the numbers, it was a push, but they could make it work. The NEF+ course was subsequently woven into their first employment offer alongside the condition that Holly stay with twenty--twenty for a year post-course completion.
[Ping 🔔] Ms Simmons, we'd like to make you an offer.
If the neighbours had fancied a look out their window at that ordinary September evening, they would have noticed the pair dancing to Kool & the Gang's Celebrate! Now all that was left was to get Holly onto the programme. Did they doubt, she would get in? Not for a second.
Behind the scenes the NEF programme director let the co-founders know what they had known some months ago.
Key Takeaways • Employees that truly desire investment in their education are rare. When they ask, respect their request with due consideration. • Go the extra mile to give people what they want, not what you think they need. • Be generous, but put conditions to reduce your risk.
💆🏻 Tie the knot
A digression: Starting a consulting company is almost as easy as switching jobs. Any budding founder could exchange their employment contract for a consulting contract and from day 1 be a 'profitable' business. However, growing a consulting company beyond oneself is much harder. The founder now must spot the work to be done, sell the need and match it with someone to actually do the work. She must simultaneously nourish two relationships, her new potential employees and her clients. If she drops either of these relationships, she will suffer reputational damage. This is a crucial moment when the client must believe in the new brand the founder has created. Like tying a braid the founder must hold each lock in her hands and delicately weave them together. The founder and client need to be intertwined. The founder and the contractor need to be intertwined and finally, the client and contractor need to be intertwined.
With 6 months of great work done at Perfocal, and Project 2 scoped with Holly as the Business Development lead, Raj was ready for the “think-week holiday" the pair had been planning since May. They’d promised themselves a break at the end of their first project to “zoom out” and think about the future of their company. So when Perfocal’s Junior Developer, Ranieri invited them to visit him in Lisbon, Raj felt the stars had aligned.
On one October evening, despite wearing half his wardrobe, Raj shivered in his floffice chair. Scrolling through the list entitled “things to do after our first project” that they'd started in May.
He imagined debating their cultural values on a gorgeous coastline tucked in the Algarve. He imagined actually using the surfboard in his room. He imagined Pete with a bucket hat and a book on a beach adamant that his pursuit of learning was the only inhibitor to taking swimming lessons.
Pete, on the other hand, was not ready for a holiday. A habitual non-praiser and relentless progressive, he was taught in his childhood that you shouldn’t be too proud of your achievements. Too much praise can turn into big headedness and a loss of awareness. So Pete pushed back "I'm not sure about this holiday". And Raj pushed back "Really?!". Raj felt as though they should respect their hard work with reward. “What’s the point of working this hard, if we can’t enjoy it? Lord knows we deserve a break.” Without resolution, the co-founding pair took some time out to think individually. Pete did some journaling...
"6 month planning" Pete’s journal 27/09/2020, shared with Raj the next day. It feels financially tight, it feels irresponsible to be taking breaks prematurely. How will external people think people of your decisions? Ultimately the most fearful outcome is that one of those "I told you so" scenarios actually happen and I will have regrets. "If only I didn't be so in need of play, I wouldn't have lost my company". I think I need a break as well, but I'm preventing myself from having one because that's the voice of discipline telling me off. The internal discipline voice is loud, and it's muting the 'fun' voice". Taking a break already? You've only worked 9 months". I need to do some unlearning on that, and it starts with this move. Would like some 'conditions' to make sure we're not being super irresponsible - drawing the boundaries. Like a holiday budget and making sure we do the right things. All things considered, going to Portugal is a good idea.
Pros and cons assessed, thoughts processed, the next morning Pete shares his journal and champions the holiday. Both agree it's time to head out and take a well-deserved rest before such a luxury is out of reach. Perfocal Project 2 would take another monumental effort. They pencil in 4 working days off and 6 days of remote work in Portugal.
Further context: It's worth knowing that some months before, believing that their past performance justified a price hike, the pair had presented Tony with a proposal that was priced much higher. Tony, staring into the depths of a second lockdown, naturally felt hesitant about taking the plunge, and in the final few weeks of Project 1, Raj and Pete were not able to get the sequel signed. That meant as they left for Portugal, surfboard on shoulders heads in the skies, Holly was working for Perfocal outside of a contract in the good faith that eventually the companies would come to an agreement. What could go wrong?
The first few days in Portugal were gorgeous. They spent their mornings basking in the late October sun, an espresso in one hand and a Pastel de Nata in the other. Hosted by their friend and colleague, Ranieri and his Italian expat-community, the evenings were filled with wine, good food and laughter. It was the perfect backdrop to zoom out and invest in their long term foundations. These precious few days, were the first consecutive days not working since starting twenty--twenty 9 months earlier, and it took some time to adopt the easy demeanour the setting demanded.
As planned, after a day within Lisbon’s artist community, they retired to their AirBnB located in the middle of Lisbon for a Project 2 check-in with Tony. Mute off, camera on, Tony popped on Pete’s laptop. Immediately, they could see he looked tired. Deep bags had formed under his eyes. His matted hair was hidden behind an orange beanie. He looked uncomfortable. Lingering on the pleasantries, Tony finally moved onto the subject of the meeting:
“Guys, I’ve been thinking lot recently."
"I’ve been taking some advice around our situation…” He paused uncomfortably,
"and..." Another pause.
"...and I think we should put a pause on the Project 2 negotiations.”
A stunned silence hung in the comment’s wake.
In the proceeding dialogue, it became clear that blinkered by their initial success, Pete and Raj failed to paint a picture of how they would navigate a second lockdown with Tony. Arrogantly believing in the strength of their client relationship, they’d thrown out a spreadsheet full of costs, without articulating what they would achieve, and how they would mitigate the impending risks.
It was dark by the time the call ended.
Pete felt like he’d been punched in the stomach. “I feel completely foolish, how could we let ourselves get into this position”. Suddenly feeling a deep sense of dread that his pre-holiday anxieties were about to be confirmed.
Raj had spent the final minutes of their call wearing a knowing smile. To him, they'd failed to act on the signs that led to this moment, and finally, it had caught up to them. “Pete, this is the challenge we've been waiting for. Til this point, it’s been too easy. We’re being tested and now it’s time to switch on."
Immediately jumping into the next steps, "First up, it's Holly. We’ve been waiting for Perfocal to sign the dotted line to employ her risk-free, but regardless of whether we close this deal or not, we should hire her."
The pain in Pete's stomach was building. Pete deeply wanted to hang onto the past and ridicule it, but needed time to process his emotions. “Agreed,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Right, that means I need to finish her contract.” Springing up to his feet, Raj crossed the room in search of his laptop. Hand outstretched, a concerned thought made him pause. Turning, “Pete, are you ok?”
“Somethings not right, I think I need to have an early night man."
“Oh man, sorry, yeah sure”. Suddenly feeling inconsiderate, Raj packed up Pete’s items as Pete retired to his room. Coming to his side a few minutes later, eyebrows furrowed with concern, a glass of water in hand. "Drink this, it will help.”
Pete took a few sips. Raj waited, and as Pete drifted off, he tip-toed out of the room.
Key Takeaways • The transition from market filler (consultant) to market maker (pulling together supply and demand) is hard! • Think like a co-founder, understand your client's perspectives, pressures and desires. Never forget how they feel.
🔮 Converting dark energy
Friday 9th October
Pete loves working in the dark - figuratively and literally. It started in his schooling years, where before any academic revision, he would ritualistically prepare his bedroom. He'd wait until the early hours of the morning and turn off all the lights apart from a small single desk lamp. Then he'd reduce the table's elements to just a textbook, paper and a pen. The cold, dark and simple conditions focused his mind and helped him find a meditative flow. His high expectation upbringing taught him to chastise himself heavily in the face of mistakes. Over time, Pete found that strong disciplining was the primary ingredient to his own growth. Only by thinking deeply about where he went wrong and punishing himself until he truly felt the fear of making the mistake again, was he then able to channel that darker energy into greater drive and motivation. Pete’s track record is testament to this discipline.
The previous night's events prompted an open and direct discussion. Throughout this period, Pete had been networking relentlessly with agency founders, asking for their wisdom. “Niche early, specialise and build pipeline” were consistent pieces of advice preached. Pete took this advice to Raj for discussion, but Raj pushed back Pete’s calls to build a pipeline, believing that a focus on Perfocal’s success without the distraction of other clients would get game-changing results. Intentionally placing all their eggs in one basket in the hope of forging a founding story like no other. He'd argued that their skills were still largely unproven, preferring they excel in a single project than be merely satisfactory in many. Much like a formative joint holiday in Amsterdam years before where the pair had their bikes stolen, Pete’s doom sayings were pushed aside in favour of focusing on the moment. Like tying three bike locks instead of two, how much harder would it have been for the founders to fit in that extra networking call?
With Tony’s new mindset, and their other client leads in early stages, Pete & Raj were suddenly exposed and for the first time in the history of twenty--twenty, the founders felt truly vulnerable. Significantly, the loss of Perfocal and the resulting short-fall in cash, could put hiring Holly in jeopardy.
"We’ve been foolish, we could lose our only client, our reputation to date, and our potential first hire in a single week.”
The realities conveyed in his sentence laid the foundation for Pete & Raj’s first significant argument as co-founders. Raj’s attitude to this point had been to plough on with haste.
“I hate to say it, but this is why you build the pipeline, so you have options and remove dependency” Pete began.
“Yeh, it would be good to have a fall back.” Raj agreed.
Pete continued “we’ve been reckless. Building pipeline is a business basic, and now we have no options. We need a deep retrospective, to figure out where we went wrong and why."
Raj responding, “We decided to focus on getting results, and we did. We didn't anticipate this move from Tony, but I don't think we've done 'wrong'.” Raj wanted to move on quickly.
“This isn’t the time for wallowing. We need to secure an interim agreement with Tony if possible and complete with Holly.”
Pete froze the progress to keep the focus on reflection and discipline. “I had a feeling that building a pipeline was the right strategy and to confirm that I spoke to like 10 agency founders. In hindsight, I think I should have been stronger with my thoughts. Instead, I thought I was doing the right thing by backing your decision without conveying how I fully felt.”
Itching to move on, Raj asked for a direct suggestion from Pete. “So what do you want from this?”
Sensing a lack of self-criticism in Raj, Pete responded. “Honestly, an apology.”
Triggered, “An apology?” Raj remarked face taught with disbelief. “You must be joking?! Every decision we've made to this date has been a joint decision based on the information we had at the time. Besides this is hardly the end of the world. It's just a setback."
“The lesson is that we’ve always got to be thinking about the doomsday scenarios, and guard against them.” Continued Pete.
“Here we go with the f*cking doomsday scenarios." Hands up in frustration. Raj's voice almost pleading now "Pete, we can't live our lives constantly worrying about what might or might not happen."
As they re-established control over their emotions the sharpness of their remarks were blunted. This wasn’t the first time they’d argued, in their long history there had been many disagreements and reconciliations, but this was the first time where they’d questioned their judgement as co-founders and business people. Pete explained how he was taught to learn in an environment of high expectations, and sought to establish whether Raj actually felt like he’d made a mistake.
Raj felt like they’d made a mistake in the execution of the strategy but didn’t think the plan itself was flawed. "Yes, it was high risk. But logically speaking we were in a strong position. Think about it, we exceeded our targets proving we can execute. We have deep relationships with all the team members and super positive interactions with their investors. What’s more, is that we know we have the skills that are critical to Perfocal’s future success. Only last month our relationship with Tony was rock solid!” Raj chipped. Pete began to surrender to the positive angle.
Raj resolute, “where we’ve f*cked up is that we didn’t think about Tony’s emotions, we slapped a proposal down with a price hike and expected him to bite the bullet. What’s painful is that we let a huge distance develop between us, to the point where Holly, who practically graduated yesterday, is giving us project updates about the health of our client.”
“Yeah man, we were arrogant. No two ways about it” Pete agreed.
Another digression: What is a mistake? A mistake is when you make decisions in order to achieve a stated objective, and you don't achieve it. In an exam, a mistake is easily identified. The objective is crystal clear: select the option defined as correct by the examiner. What about not building a pipeline? Is that a mistake? First, ask what's the agreed objective? If the objective is to build a stable and profitable agency, then unquestionably it's a mistake. Speaking to Syed, an advisor and friend from Raj’s Accenture days. "Raj, you don't build an agency by playing a game of love and committing to a single client. This isn't Bollywood.” But what if the goal is to develop a world-leading case study? Or to develop the secret sauce? Or what if you like Bollywood!? Is not building a pipeline a mistake then? Or is that just called focus? It all depends on what your goal is.
Here Raj & Pete’s goals were misaligned. Pete had been around the houses asking for advice as an agency founder - “We want to catalyse 1000 ventures”, and whilst true, that statement didn’t sit comfortably with Raj. Ever the romantic, seeing a single venture through would have been enough. Regardless of the facts, he wanted to complete the Perfocal mission. He didn’t want them to be just good; he wanted them to be great.
Complete the mission no matter what? Is that sensible for ‘growth agency’? Hell fucking no. As a growth agency you have to systematically assess the risks, and pick winners.
For Pete, an academically driven person who culturally was brought up to highly respect the teachings from those elder and wiser, going off script, and being caught with your trousers down was a cardinal sin. The ‘punch’ he felt was a representation of that.
Understanding each other's perspective, Pete and Raj dropped ego and moved past the emotion. Resonating on the fact that both knew they were doing their very best to make the venture a success. Taking Pete’s lead, the pair deep dive into their failings, dissecting their problems and crystallising their mistakes through a methodical process.
With every niggling thought on the table, they drew a line under their woes and focused on fixing the future.
Key Takeaways: • Time spent aligning is never wasted. At this early stage, the foundation of our business is our co-founder relationship; nothings is more important. • Reflection yeilds learning. Learning yeilds better outcomes. It's as simple as that.
✍🏼 The Test
Saturday 10th October
It was time to fix-up and look sharp.
Calling for advice from those older and wiser than themselves, they spoke to Syed once more. “Guys, in the long term, doing honest, high-quality work with integrity always wins out. Don’t be afraid to stand for that. Look at each of your choices and think about impact and reversibility. Forget about the low impact and highly reversible decisions. Focus on the items which are highly impactful and irreversible.”
These sage words came just in time. Accordingly, they separated out their problems:
- Their existing client disagreed with their pricing and as a result, their contractor was operating outside of a contract → they needed to secure an interim agreement. [ High-impact 🔴 , medium-reversible 🟠]
- They needed to lock down their first hire → that meant completing Holly’s draft employment contract and writing down their cultural values [High impact 🔴, highly-irreversible 🔴]
- Their 'hot lead' Holly's other client wasn't impressed by their offering → They needed to rethink how they positioned and priced themselves [High impact 🔴 - low-irreversible 🟢]
Sunday 11th October
Operating with the speed of people with something to lose, Raj completed Holly’s contract, whilst Pete financially modelled a path to Holly's inclusion. Both of the opinions that drastic times called for drastic measures, they re-worked their pricing to offer Holly’s time to Tony at barely over break-even for the interim period without a contract.
The period of reflection that Pete had forced, had the pair think deeply about the kind of company they wanted to be. Taking inspiration from AirBnB, they decided that before hiring Holly, they first wanted to define their company values or principles. Knocking their heads together in Lisbon's 'digital nomad' cafes, inspiration took hold and the pair formulated their founding principles in just short of a single day:
Drawing on their recent experience with Tony, #3 Have a Co-founder Mindset served as a reminder to always understand and treat their clients with the same love, care and understanding as they treated one other. v1. Principles complete, they finally sent Holly a welcome pack in the early hours of the next morning, containing her official employment offer.
Monday 12th October
Scrolling through his notifications later that morning, Raj spotted Holly's message. His heart sank as he read the phrase “got quite a few questions, I'd like to run by you both”. Letting out a deep sigh, “here we go” he mumbled to Pete. Drawing in a breath, he mustered the energy needed for the day ahead.
Tuesday 13th October
Holly came into their call prepared. With a clarity of speech the pair had come to expect. Her scrutiny centered on three items:
- The number of vacation days they were providing, Holly was sure this was below the legal limit.
- The difference in take home pay between being a contractor and an employee.
- The restrictive covenant on working with other companies.
In the proceeding days, they answered each point in turn.
She was completely right. Chastising themselves for the elementary mistake, Raj and Pete quickly adjusted her holiday and remodelled the impact.
Contractor v.s Employee take home pay 💸
The second required further modelling, explanation, in their opinion vision selling. Appreciating that Holly would indeed be 'taking less home', they realised that they needed to paint a picture of what a career could look like at twenty--twenty. They knew from the marrow of their bones, that a role at their company was compelling for any young graduate. They felt the difference in experience that Holly got compared to their own. So the articulation came in a moment of genius in an Indian restaurant named “Gandhi Palace”.
Borrowing a biro from the waiter, using the paper table cover as their canvas, they compared their graduate experience. Raj, as an analyst at Accenture, recalled with a chuckle, how he was given the high responsibility of scheduling meetings and writing minutes. Comparatively, Pete working in a start-up felt he was given a tonne of responsibility, but with little support. The 13-minute video entitled the "Ultimate Start-up Graduate Scheme", explained how in contrast, Holly would be given responsibility far beyond her years with the reassurance of Pete and Raj to guide and train her. "Effectively, as a young graduate, you're going to be able to walk into positions of responsibility at a variety of interesting start-ups, with constant support from Raj and I". This vision, was complimented with a deep dive, into how they'd structure bonuses, divvy up client commissions, and generally nourish Holly's development.
Working for others 😬
The last point was particularly concerning because Holly had just informed them, that a competing employer and their potential client had just offered Holly share options in their company for continued part-time work outside of twenty--twenty. The founder had gone on to insinuate that it was improper for Raj and Pete as an employer to control Holly's out-of-hours activities and they were drifting "too far away from the industry standard". Here they were conflicted.
“Options, are you kidding me?” Raj said exasperated.
Pete questioned, “is that so bad? I still have shares in Monzo, you in Accenture”.
Drawing on instinct, Raj “of course it's bad! It totally misaligns Holly’s incentives. I’m pretty sure, I wasn’t allowed to work for others whilst at Accenture.”
“Yeah I think that was the same at Monzo, do you know why?”
Raj paused, as he raked his mind. “Well, it's a tough job that by nature requires one's full attention, so I imagine that's why. But I'm not sure, I guess we need some legal advice here.”
Calling up their legal advisor, ex-employment Judge and Raj's mother Susan. They explained every minute detail of the situation. It wasn't long before Susan created clarity, “This isn’t about what’s proper, or what isn’t. At the end of the day, this is your business and you have to decide for yourself what you want in your first hire. No one is forcing you to hire her.”
Wednesday 14th October
Making sense of it all, they pulled together a document for Holly with excerpts of all their past contracts, with the following executive summary:
Notice that your other client's founder's essential point is that it's unfair and it's perfectly fine for both contracts to co-exist. There's missing information, improper comparison. We're not imposing restrictions on what stock or class of securities you can own. Although Accenture restricts ownership to listed companies only. We take issue with you working for another company outside of twenty--twenty in which you would practice the same business activities. Here, any external company benefits from the skills, training, network, intellectual property, confidential information that you are privileged to by virtue of your employment with us. Quite honestly, it discourages us from investing further in you. It's standard for employers when offering full-time employment to ask employees to not be engaged, employed or concerned or interested in any other business, trade or occupation. This is the term in your contract: "During the course of your employment, you shall not without the prior written consent of the Company directly or indirectly carry on or be engaged, employed, concerned or interested in any other business, trade or occupation." We've provided 3 other examples of similar clauses, from Monzo, Accenture and Seedlegals (a contract template). If they would like to offer you vested options or equity for the work you have already completed, we'd encourage you to take them! But if those options are in exchange for future work, we feel such an agreement would misalign your incentives and interests with the company.
Tidying their new inputs into her welcome pack, they sent a revision of their offer to Holly with a slight bump in salary to arrive the morning before a dinner Holly had planned with the competing client. Clicking send, Raj and Pete sat back on the AirBnB sofa breathing a momentary sigh of relief. They'd done all that they felt appropriate. Now all they needed to do was wait for a response.
They consoled each other with a truth, "if we lost Holly, it wouldn't be the end of the world, there would be others". But in their heart of hearts, they knew a different truth, that it would unequivocally be a major setback.
Thursday 15th October
It was Raj's turn to have his feelings physically manifest.
You'd think that knowing they had done all they could, would have warranted a calm and resolute attitude, and for Pete his was the case. But for Raj, it was the opposite. Anxious energy balled up inside him, sapping appetite and concentration. He felt like he was moments before an exam result, when what happens next is outside of your locus of control. Raj felt he couldn't focus on his surroundings. His mind kept returning to the intricacies of their predicament. He wondered how the competing start-up would respond over dinner. He wondered if they'd ever actually work with the start-up in question. He wondered what mindset Holly would adopt. Whether she'd actually sign.
As he paced the flat that morning, Raj realised that there was nothing more he wanted. In the past week, they'd gone from soaring highs to painful lows and through it all, their vulnerabilities had been surfaced for Holly to see. How she'd acted; re-assuring them of her intentions, meticulously analysing their offer, and refusing to leverage the weakness of their position, had confirmed the most important quality in any new relationship -- trust.
22:11 Missed call from Holly Simmons
Adrenaline shot through Raj's body and once more, he couldn't focus on his surroundings. Catching Raj's eyes over the dinner table, not to alert Ranieri and company, with the slightest of movements Pete wordlessly asked if Raj was ok?
"She called" Raj responded, looking pale. Again, Raj zoned out of the conversation. He was weighing up how rude it would be to leave the table halfway through the mains.
Pete, "Bro, you take the call, I'll cover here".
Raj left the restaurant and Pete made his excuses.
Answering the phone, Holly sounded exhausted. She explained what had transpired over dinner. How every explanation of why she was going join twenty--twenty, were rebuffed "but they haven't even found problem-solution fit?”, "they're such a young company" and "what if they can't find start-ups to work with under terms". Pacing around the nearby plaza, Raj nodded to each comment; these were the risks indeed.
It was then that Holly said something, that he'd later repeat to Pete. "You're right, these are all huge risks. But if we can't find start-ups to work with us, we'll just start our own. Put three Catalysts in a team, just watch what we will achieve."
Friday 16th October
"Every search begins with beginner's luck. And every search ends with the victor's being severely tested." - The Alchemist
Key Takeaways: • Forget about the low impact and highly reversible decisions. Focus on the items which are highly impactful and irreversible. Do them as soon as you can” • Know your principles and stay true to them, in our case, be radically transparent and think like a co-founder • Use principles to determine your limit, then do everything within your power up to that limit. • Ray Dalio was an inspiration here - "When hiring great people, find fair, and be north of it".