My Company’s Journey From Startup to 100+ Employees: 5 Critical Realisations
Second to sugar, what the world craves like a starving savage, is warm and fuzzy startup success stories. From rags to riches, from curbside to ivory tower, from college dropout to unicorn founders — we crave stories. In the ugly real world though, most businesses fail.
Yes, you’ve heard it before, though you never liked the numbers enough to receive them as truth: 9 out of 10 startups go down the shredder (in India and globally).
Am I a silver-haired naysayer? Far from it.
I know entrepreneurship is impossibly tough unless you’re stinking-lucky. In building Neuronimbus — from a one-person company to a 100+ strong full-suite digital transformations partner for recognizable global brands (not boasting, it’s true) — I’ve tumbled, floundered, and embarrassed countless times. It’s been the most draining yet most rewarding experience of my life. And my biggest lesson is: the marketplace is a boxing ring.
So I submit myself to the comforts of the pen, hoping for a cathartic release in revealing 5 of my rudest realizations in the shoes of an entrepreneur.
5 Critical Realisations Building My First Company — Neuronimbus
1. You can’t be everyone’s go-to guy (or girl).
Business grows — more customers, more work, more money, more everything, and then, more people.
I started solo, hired 5, then hired 5 more. Supervising a team of 11 isn’t challenging; you learn, build rapport, identify strengths and weaknesses, and can keep the machinery well-oiled. Things change when 11 changes to 31, and then to 51.
For me, trouble tapped its gnarled knuckles at my office door when Neuronimbus was 25+ people strong. I’d snarl at the unnecessary question, forget to approve requests for leave, confuse names, rate everyone ‘above-average’ in appraisals, and lose track of who was responsible for what.
Studies suggest that teams of 25+ members disintegrate into apathy. Here is a representation of possible communication paths for different team sizes.
So, learn to delegate.
Don’t let your zeal for supervision encumber your business. A reason why small teams work better is clearly defined lines of communication. Don’t be everybody’s supervisor, because then you’ll be nobody’s.
2. Money — like a portly, lazy batsman — will run itself out.
From 2003 to 2005, life was good at Neuronimbus. The West’s appetite for Indian IT was insatiable. Perhaps we’d hit the growth plateau and sort of dawdled on from 2005 to 2008. To propel the company out of this crippling gravitational pull, I invested: hired more people, marketed like a man possessed, and upgraded the office infrastructure.
And then sounded the death knell of 2008 from the shores of America.
Our balances were robust enough to ensure we didn’t default on any payments, but some of Neuronimbus’ clients weren’t breathing as easy.
● A Southeast Asian retail giant rescinded a 5-year CRM support contract.
● An Indian motor manufacturer told me point-blank, “You’ll need to wait till this is over before we can pay your invoices.”
● Almost everyone unplugged their marketing machines, and half of my team was without projects for more than 6 months.
Result: a string of months when expenses were many times earnings.
Was I stressed? Yes.
Did I have confidence (in myself, the market, and global leaders) that things would be normal? Yes.
Was I still stressed? Yes.
The lesson: money will run out. Profitability numbers will shrink, even disappear. Banks will limit lines of credit. Regular clients will behave unreasonably.
When the going’s good, be financially disciplined. Remember, by living on, we’ve all signed up for more troubles like 2008 and 2020. Brace yourself, cultivate the boring virtue of discipline, and remember Winston Churchill’s wartime axiom of ‘business as usual’.
3. Finding 1 customer is easy; finding 5 isn’t.
When I started Neuronimbus I already had my customer onboard. To be honest, it was not very hard either to find and convince the customer. I knew I had a solid solution for them and I ensured they knew it too.
The struggle began after the first couple of years. The company’s needed more than a trickle of the odd project here and there, apart from one regular client.
I was at crossroads: go back to the solopreneur mode, or stick it out as a company director?
That’s when it hit me: I’d begun with the hope that I’d find clients but never toiled over the hows and whens.
Customer acquisition is an always-on appliance. The sooner you automate the process, the more immune your company becomes.
4. To decline is (often) to hasten your descent.
Today when I look back at my entrepreneurial journey I laugh at myself. I (like many others) believed that I would be the one to decide when I’d diversify my services.
Well, the customer is the king, and if you don’t treat them like one, they’d make sure you do eventually. When a customer demands more than you can offer, thank them (silently). They’ve given you an opportunity to learn, and get paid for it.
I’ve had bouts of complacency. I’ve politely declined opportunities to do more. And had I instead snuck in gold-plated business cards of Neuronibus’s competitors, into my clients’ hands, I’d have achieved precisely the same results.
You can diversify at the right time only when the opportunity doesn’t unsettle you. Poke your limits, not push them. Specialization in your field is valuable, as long as you don’t lose sight of the fertile soils in the neighborhood, which are yours to de-weed and till.
5. Culture is an oiled eel; it glistens, and it evades your grasp.
Today, after 17+ years of Neuronimbus’ existence, I can declare my resounding agreement with Thomas Wolfe’s pithy exclamation: Culture is the arts elevated to a set of beliefs.
More specifically, company culture is business fundamentals, elevated to a set of beliefs.
Whose fundamentals, but? Mine (I’m an early millennial) are very different from those of the youngest programmer in NeuroNimbus, who’s a gen Z. Neither is wrong.
I believed my beliefs to be my company’s culture. That was never the case. What appears like a finished tapestry today, is the interweaving of thousands of strands, dyed in every shade imaginable, and knitted closely by the twin forces of care and luck. Each of these strands is a belief of someone who’s been associated with Neuronimbus.
Had I realized this about organizational culture, I’d have slithered into the role of a nurturer much sooner than I did.
You will have to do it too. Do it like a shepherd; but let the sheep figure most of the stuff out, while you stay around.
Why reveal the toils of entrepreneurship?
By revealing what I learned the hard way I don’t mean to discourage you. After all, your journey will be different from mine.
I am all for promoting the spirit of entrepreneurship. And as an angel investor and serial entrepreneur myself, I declare: the world needs fewer phone covers, and more Pvt Ltd.s. What irritates me, however, is ‘just-do-it’ and ‘follow-your-passion’ hogwash.
Will this information save you from the struggles, challenges, and problems faced by businesses? No.
Will it help you prepare better and spend much less time scratching your head and wondering what to do? Definitely.