From the blog

Working at an Early-Stage Startup in Sri Lanka

November 19, 2015

All the first employees of our new venture Vgo came from corporate backgrounds. None of them had worked at a startup before. The entire Vesess team, on the other hand, had never worked at anything other than a startup: for every one of us, Vesess has been our first and only place of work. There was clearly a culture gap to be bridged.

Immediately after hiring the first few members of the Vgo team, we had a brief orientation programme to help them get used to the idea of working at what is essentially their own company. This article includes selected slides from my presentation to them along with brief explanations. Hopefully it will be of use to others who are considering joining or even starting their own ventures, especially in Sri Lanka.

What kind of company is this?

When those first employees walked into Vgo, they literally entered an empty building. There were no tables, no chairs, no computers—just freshly painted walls. It was as blank a slate as you could imagine. For someone who has never seen what it’s like to start a company from zero, walking into an empty office to work can be a jarring experience. So our first job was to explain to them that it was nothing to be afraid of.

We are an early stage startup

“Early stage startup” is incomprehensible jargon to most people outside the tech industry (and unfortunately, to many inside too). Therefore, simply knowing that the company actually belongs to a certain well-known category can be somewhat reassuring. The next step then is to explain what this means.

Startup: a business built to grow rapidly

Uber was the first—and now the largest—successful venture in the taxi and logistics industry to use technology to challenge the business model of traditional operators. We warned the local taxi industry, before Uber entered the market, that things were about to get much more difficult for them.

Uber is not the underdog anymore. Its days of being a young startup are long over. It’s now a multibillion-dollar operation with a lot of political clout. Being skeptical of such lofty proclamations from a huge multinational is justified. And yet, consumers love Uber. What they imply here is undeniable: for better or for worse, Uber has changed the playing field, and if traditional taxi and logistic services are to stay relevant, they should up their game.

Adapt or Die: Surviving the Multinational Threat

Vgo is designed as a solution to address this problem. It would be pretentious to call ourselves true pioneers of this technology or business model, but we’re still innovators. Many opportunities have been created in the wake of Uber’s disruptive entry into markets around the world, and we plan to capitalise on them.

Ingredients of a startup

What makes a startup work? First there has to be an idea that can lead to an actual product or service. There must also be a team that believes in the idea, and is capable of bringing it to life. As the saying goes: ideas are cheap, execution is everything.

And then there’s luck. Only the most delusional of us would deny that we are not always in control of our journeys. Sometimes you can have the best team, a great idea, a wonderful product and still get nowhere with it. That’s just life.

According to product development cycle

Most successful startup journeys follow a natural path of progression of their product, as illustrated above. A sound business model will also be reflected in the company’s financial cycle.

According to financing cycle

Having discussed the general idea of what it means to be a startup, we wanted to show our new members where Vgo could be placed on this path.

How do we stack up?

We had acquired seed funding, and had a working product developed by the Vesess team which was already operational with a few early adopters. We had a clear business model in place and the first revenues were coming in. Vgo was ticking all the right boxes: it was indeed an early stage startup!

What does it mean to work at a startup?

How does working at a startup differ from working at any other type of organisation?

Probably the scariest part, especially given the risk-averse culture of Sri Lanka, is uncertainty. Most startups fail. This is true even in the most entrepreneur-friendly economies during the best of times. The only way to counter that is by strengthening the four ingredients mentioned earlier (idea, product, team, execution), and hoping that luck plays in your favour.

It is all about growth

Startups are geared for rapid growth. They also offer great opportunities for team members to grow personally, to use their skills, experience, drive and intuition to build a business from scratch. For those people who walked into that empty Vgo office, the message was clear: here was a place to fill with their ideas of how things should work. It was both an invitation and a challenge.

There is a lot to do

Few startups have the luxury of having enough people to do the work. Each individual I spoke to was going to handle an entire department of Vgo on their own: marketing, operations, customer care, administration and finance—one person each. There was no cavalry waiting to support them.

Process? What Process?

We were not going to impose Vesess processes on Vgo. We shared our best practices, but Vgo was simply a different type of business, requiring workflows and processes that were quite different from anything we had done before. It was up to the Vgo team to define how things would work in their company.

A bright and motivated team

The team we had put together was talented. They had plenty of experience in their own fields. But they didn’t know much about running a business or being responsible for it. Good communication and close collaboration was essential to make sure that they could work together to make Vgo function smoothly.

No fixed roles

Job titles exist at startups, but they don’t define boundaries. Instead of being a Software Engineer, you have to be the Software Engineer-Online Marketer-Support Executive-Janitor guy. There simply aren’t enough people for you to just play one role.

Titles are overrated anyway. When we started Vesess, for example, we didn’t give ourselves big titles because we were simply too young to make them seem believable. It took a few years for Lankitha—our founder and CEO—to call himself “Manager (Administration)”. He became “CEO” much later. The last time I checked our CTO still had “Nerd” as his title on LinkedIn.

Chaos is natural

The world is a chaotic place. A startup is an attempt to create temporary states of order out of it. There are no corporate headquarters imposing order upon us. It has to be done by ourselves.

Evolve or be extinct

The ability to adapt quickly is supposed to be an advantage of a startup. That is only possible if the people who run it are also able to adapt to new situations quickly. Acquiring new skills, exploring new technologies and experimenting with new business models is the only way your company can stay competitive.

Customers

Our current customers are early adopters. They are important stakeholders in how Vgo will evolve. It is important to see them as partners in our startup journey. The customer is not king: he’s a friend.

Execution is everything

The founders and early employees will leave their mark on a startup long after its scrappy days. Knowingly or unknowingly, they will define its culture. We wanted to make sure that these early team members of Vgo understood that responsibility.

Is it hard work?

Working at a startup is not for everyone. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with working for a large corporation if that‘s what makes you happy. In the end, it’s a matter of personal preference. I know that the people at Vesess do it because they love the sense of freedom, independence, satisfaction and pride it brings them.

We are on a rocket ship

Vgo is growing faster than anything else we’ve done so far. It’s going to be one hell of a ride.

 

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