My Week Managing A Startup
I am sat in an interview, at some point in the future. A suited figure sits in front of me, thumbing my CV. They pose the following question: “Can you tell me about a time when you had a lot of responsibility?”. An occasion will immediately spring to mind and that’s what I want to write about today.
A fortnight ago, my boss got married, a date that had been on my calendar for months. It was to be day one of six working days in the office without him, while he took a short holiday to celebrate or, as he described it, a “mini-moon”.
For most companies, this would be no big deal. But when you are the only full-time employee, six days without your director is a big deal. Especially at 23 years-old.
Now I had manned the ship before: whenever he took the rare day off, went to meetings or for client visits. This time it was very different though. Whereas before, he had only ever been a WhatsApp message away, for this week, I resolved not to disturb him under any circumstance. He deserved the time off.
So began my week of managing a startup, or I might describe it as my short fire-fighting career. It was an invaluable experience that I’d like to reflect upon.
4 Reflections From Playing CEO
#1 The Importance of Time Off
The biggest realisation I had during the week was just how full-time being a director and not an employee is. My lunch-break was regularly interrupted with the office-phone redirecting to my mobile. At 7:20am on Sunday morning, I was woken up by a call from the United Arab Emirates.
As an employee, you clock out at 5:00pm, sometimes a little later, you go home and you forget about work until 9:00am rolls around. You might have side-projects and hobbies in your free time. When it’s your company, or you are in charge, you live and breathe work. You take your problems home with you and weekends are almost like lost time, allowing more emails to pile up.
To be honest, I feel sorry for my boss if he could not switch off, even on his honeymoon. If you spend your one week celebrating your marriage, worried about the business, when do you get a chance to enjoy what you are building?
As someone who similarly struggles to compartmentalise work and play, the week made me realise that being a CEO doesn’t actually appeal to me. When it comes to future side-projects, they should be something I can do on my own time.
#2 You Can’t Prepare For Everything
In the week leading up to my boss’s time off, we tried to prepare for a range of circumstances. We made a list of the customers who we thought were the most likely to call with a problem. I made notes on the status of ongoing deals to familiarise myself with them. We even set up a “support desk” that I could hop onto for quick access to all the tools I’d need to answer support queries.
Within the first 48 hours of me riding solo, we must have had over 20 calls and emails. The vast majority of which were support issues with a few new leads thrown in. Were they the difficult clients we had anticipated to hear from? No. Were most of the issues simple queries I resolve on a daily basis anyway? Of course not.
All I could do was address one issue at a time. When I didn’t know the solution, I would apologise, buy myself some time, and investigate it to the best of my ability. I was able to resolve 95% of the support issues just by being logical, sometimes asking contacts for help. The key was keeping a level-head and not getting overwhelmed when the phone rang in the middle of something else.
The week was an invaluable crash course in customer-management. I learned the importance of maintaining an illusion of control, even when I felt out of my depth. Being polite and assuring to unhappy customers took the heat out of a situation.
#3 How Being Reactive Stunts Business Growth
Over the 18 months I have worked at the company, this week was simultaneously one of my most and least productive. On the one hand, I spoke to more customers, sent more emails and resolved more problems than ever before. On the other, I achieved hardly any of the work I had set myself.
Sitting down at my desk first thing, I would be greeted with an inbox of emails, a missed call or two, and the recollection of unresolved issues from the previous day. Any agenda I had for the day was put on hold. Just as I would clear my plate, another call would come in with something else that would need my attention.
Fire-fighting is, of course, part of the job at a startup. But my brief stint as chief fire-fighter made me realise just how much of my boss’s time was spent in the trenches, reacting to problems. In a customer-orientated business like ours, it takes a lot to just keep users happy. Yet when you spend all your time reacting to issues, business growth can easily be stunted.
The week granted me an outside perspective on this, highlighting the need for us as a business moving forward to allocate more time to blue-sky thinking about the future. Our priority has to be freeing up our director to spend time on higher pay-grade issues than basic support.
#4 The Need To Review Core Processes
When you do the same thing, day in, day out, it’s easy to become stuck in your ways. Familiar processes become repeated without any thought over their efficiency or effectiveness. It isn’t until you are forced to approach something from a different angle that you can suddenly reevaluate how you do things.
Once again, this reflection relates to our stream of support issues. Before my week in charge, support calls would be approached with a scrap of paper in hand to scrawl down the details. When resolved, they would be forgotten about. Even when not resolved, they would occasionally be forgotten…
While my boss was away, I started an online log of all the issues I encountered, the time they arose and their status. While intended for his benefit upon return, the simple list became an invaluable tool helping me to stay on top of everything.
When talking about this with our intern, he mentioned that he had previously used a support log software while working in a call-centre. This gave us the idea of creating a support log spreadsheet moving forward.
In hindsight, this seems an obvious requirement but it was not until then that its need became clear. It was a very useful outcome of the week.
My week managing a startup was probably my biggest career challenge to date. Both as an individual and as a company, the experience was invaluable in providing a number of lessons. While the week was not without drama, I am proud of how I handled myself and know I can step up again in the future.