What going remote pushed me to learn about building a successful business
My team and I just did a major product launch and we haven’t been in the same room for over 3 months.
For this launch, I wrote the names of new customers on sticky notes until they filled this board!
In the last year, several companies have decided to scrap the idea of a HQ and become entirely remote. Africa’s Pocket is no different. When the pandemic sent us home in March 2020, the team was much more productive and happy working from home. No traffic, full control of diet and flexibility around when to work (early birds vs night owls) were high up on the pro list - it was great!
I knew we were in trouble when about 6 months in - we were out of sync, productivity started slowing down and motivation was at an all time low, even for me who holds the vision; to build a global African company.
I call this period "kindergarten" for my startup journey. This is when my learning really started.
So how are we here, another 6 months later, running a successful launch with a new team? I reflected on the big shifts I made that I believe contributed the most to this win:
1. I changed my approach to hiring and firing.
Fun fact: I’m the only current employee who was there when we launched our first flagship personal finance course, Your Roadmap to Wealth - more on that another time 😉
I adopted a principle shared by a mentor, “If someone is not smarter than you, then they are just reducing the average of your team.” It’s something that I’ve heard said often in reference to building teams; It comes in different forms - ‘If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room’, ‘You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with’, etc, etc.
Honestly though, I hadn’t implemented this. As the CEO, a majority of my time should be spent sharing what to do, not how to do it. I was doing the opposite - as an example, I considered doing a course on design because I felt like I needed to do everything! I had to be introspective about what I am good at and what I know, then stay in my lane, humble myself and actively seek out people who would make me the least knowledgeable person in the room about most things that happen in my company. This is scary but I will never be better than a good designer who’s had 5,6,7 years more high quality experience than I do in design.
Since I haven’t found the hiring expert yet, this approach means that I trust my instincts and past experience to figure out who fits the bill, so it also means being open to making the wrong hiring decisions sometimes. I know how expensive wrong hires are (in terms of financial cost and opportunity cost) and so my remedy is to fire fast. I’ve had to build the courage & confidence to correct poor hiring decisions ASAP. If I find myself coaching more on how than on what a few months in, I know it’s time to make a change.
With this new insight, I set out to find, retain and work with people who are smarter than me, who keep learning relentlessly and who can quickly illustrate that they know waaaay more about their job than I think I do.
This is a continuous journey and I now understand why so many business leaders say that their biggest challenge is finding good, talented, hard working people.
P.S. If you are reading this and thinking… mmmh, Val should meet X or mmmmh, I think I want to jump on this bandwagon - find me please!
I am a busy body; I suffer from shiny object syndrome and almost can’t resist tackling new problems. Sometime in late 2020, someone told me ‘priority’ only got a plural in the last few hundred years, because for a long time, it was a singular word - as in, you couldn’t have more than one priority! 😱😱 That history lesson hit me like a tonne of bricks, because at any one time I (used to) have 47,873 different things that were “priorities”.
Who is like me? Tell me so we can bond 😂
So, I distilled the mission into 1 overarching goal for Q1 2021 and 90% of what we did was linked to that goal.
Every week at our team meeting, we first reiterate the goal, confirm that it still makes sense then everyone highlights what part they will play to achieve this goal. This does two things, first, it makes this a shared goal & breeds ownership. Second, it gives us an opportunity to see incremental progress and gives us momentum because we all accomplish something every week or even every day - 1% everyday leads us to 37 times better over a year. Yep, compounding is not just for money!
For the 1st time ever we’ve all worked incrementally on a singular goal instead of sprinting towards 3 or 4 goals, and so far, it’s paid off! I suspect this principle has had a profound impact on our ability to succeed at this launch. I’m excited to see how we evolve in focus and how we can consistently use this principle to bring us closer to achieving our mission.
Previously, I would only talk about the mission when something went wrong - in hindsight, this must have created a negative connotation with ‘mission talks’. Additionally, I was the only one talking about the mission, so it was my mission.
I am taking a different approach to vision building & goal setting. Now, we craft the plan together, share ideas on how to do better, what to build and how to tackle different problems. We also talk about our why more consistently - every week to be precise. It’s easy for weekly team meetings or check-ins to be entirely about task management but I’ve found it useful to spend some time on why it’s important to achieve the goal at hand and how it fits into the larger plan.
We’ve leveraged technology to make this happen more efficiently & effectively. Between Google Suite, Notion and Slack, we have pretty much everything we need to communicate & stay on top of what’s happening.
G-Suite is at the center of most things we do; Google Meets for video calls, Google Calendar to time-block tasks and coordinate meetings & G-Drive to store & share documents.
Notion is the home of all thoughts, processes and projects. This is where we plan and reference everything from weekly goals to social media. Notion has been a game changer for communicating the vision, documenting and storing institutional knowledge and breaking down major goals into tasks & milestones.
Slack is great because it’s almost completely eliminated the need for emails in our team (we mostly use emails for communication with external parties). An added bonus is that it allows us to keep work-related comms off Whatsapp, and allows us to create boundaries around work hours and holidays.
What tools do you use in your company to communicate? How often do you talk to your team or managers? Let me know in the comments!
Moving from Kindergarten to 1st Grade
The pandemic did me a favor because it forced me to be a better communicator and to be better at assessing progress towards our goals. When the turbulence hit, I felt lost. I wondered why in the world I chose this path and would consistently think of the job offers I had walked away from right after b-school with the big fat salaries. The thing is though, this ‘fantasy’ is just not as exciting to me as the idea of building a global African company. So here we are, in startup kindergarten with another big win made up of 1,000 tiny steps for Africa’s Pocket - I’m ready for 1st grade, for the next 10,000 steps and the next 10 big wins.