My Top 10 learnings from 2011

I write this from a snowy and beautiful Zermatt, Switzerland on (appropriately) the last day of the year. The snowfall is too heavy for skiing and alas a perfect opportunity for me to compose the thoughts and reflections on 2011 that have been circling my mind for weeks now and finally crystallized in the crisp air of the mountains.

 And I start with this: wow, what a year! Naturally as an entrepreneur the dominant story of my last 12 months is my company that consumes so much of it. What am I saying – hell – PeoplePerHour IS my life.

A little over twelve months ago we were about 15 people crammed in a little basement outside of Earls court, London. Now we are approaching 50 people, split between two locations – London and Athens, the latter being where we built our Engineering centre, and we just created a subsidiary in the US where we are officially creating a presence from March ’12 onwards. Our community has doubled to near 250,000 registered users and our non-UK trade (a key metric for us given that we are still a UK centric business) is now over 40% of the total, making us a truly global play business. In the last 12 months we’ve gone from being 100% GBP denominated to now accepting trade in US Dollars which has surged to 30% of the total and Euros which remains small still but growing. Our top line metrics of revenue growth and Gross Merchandise Sales also more than doubled in the year.

But it wasn’t all a bowl of cherries.  Its been a very tough year for all of us and we had our fair share of screw-ups – arguably its hard not to at that pace of growth. We made a lot of the common mistakes in the book, from hiring too fast, firing too slowly, rushing product features too much, and  – worst of all – not listening to our hunch. But we learnt and we are better now for it.

 So without further ado, here’s my top 10 learning from the year which in themselves define my new years resolutions

1.     Trust your hunch more: if it doesn’t feel right just don’t do it. No matter what the figures tell you or what your customers say. Just listen to your hunch. If you have a burning feeling there’s probably a good reason for it. Don’t ignore it

2.     Blue chip CVs are just that: blue chip CVs. What you need is great people who are smart, passionate and deeply care about what they do. As this year has show us some of those who tick all the boxes on paper (ivy league school, blue-chip company experience), whilst they do bring in necessary experience, they are often just lost when they find themselves out of their comfort zone. And in a startup they invariably will. They are conformists, politicians, ‘yes-men’ who are accustomed to maintaining the status quo. A start up needs people who are courageous, who poke the fire fearlessly and keep questioning the status quo and constantly pushing for change.  If you find that AND the blue-chip crap in one then you’re onto a winner.

3.     Culture matters: one of the best things we did this year is take the time to define our values (which I talk about in a previous Blog Post).  As we started facing the people challenges of growth we went back to our grass roots and asked ourselves ‘what is it that got us this far’ and out of that defined our 10 top values. We made these a dogma in the company, baked into every key process: hiring, performance reviews, and firing. It’s the best thing we did. We transformed ourselves from a rules-based business to a culture-based one. Its harder to do but if you get culture right you can relax rules and procedures more and trust in peoples judgment. If you are bound by the same mission and values that judgment will serve you more than rules which – in a high growth business – render themselves obsolete every few months.

4.     Some turnover is good: when we first started we were very conscious of turnover even when we could tell that someone didn’t fit in. We almost thought of it as rejection or failure on our part to retain people. How can someone leave such a great company? Defining our culture and baking it into our key processes – hiring, performance reviews, firing and day to day decision making – has done something fantastic for us: it urged those who didn’t fit in to just leave. And that’s not a bad thing it turns out. Now after a (excuse the expression) ‘cleansing’ period with some painful turnover of people we are left much stronger, with a core team that has a very binding set of principles and values that makes us one. Now for the first time I feel that both in Athens and London we have a real team and magically we’ve managed to bridge the distance quite remarkably and made it insignificant.  We all think alike, we behave alike, we share the same passion, we eat together, we go out together, we get drunk together. Its more than a team – it’s a family.  And it’s the number 1 thing that poises us for our future success. I feel proud of it

5.     Always keep raising the bar: if you are really aiming high what was acceptable yesterday should be ‘not good enough’ today. As the leader of a fast growth company you need to keep raising the bar constantly and ruthlessly and yes this is not easy and often met with resistance from the team. They will think you are undecided, they will think you are amnesiac even… “but this is what you said yesterday”. I’ve learnt that walking in the office every morning with a total sense of amnesia is the best thing you can do and I practice it daily now. Yesterday doesn’t matter, it’s history, don’t live in the past. Look to the future. Have no emotion about the things that you have been built with great sweat. If they are obsolete today or not good enough for tomorrow just kill them,  point blank. Explain to your team that business requirements move fast and if you don’t move with them you’ll be dead. Amnesia has a place in the world after all.

6.     If you don’t cannibalize your own business someone else will: perhaps the deadliest mistake to make is to rest on your laurels for fear of ‘breaking’ a product that ‘works’. This I’ve learnt is one of the hardest things to bring yourself to do.  Why start fiddling with something if it works ? The real question of course is not whether it works today but will it be good enough for tomorrow. Towards the later part of this year we had to take some tough decisions which put us on that crossroad. We debated endlessly whether we should risk doing things that could cannibalize our business.  And we decided to go for it. Its scary, its exhilarating, and it feels we are starting over. Only with a lot more knowledge, a much more solid team and a very loyal, raving community. Some we will upset no doubt, but we have to reinvent ourselves. It’ in our roots after all: the way PPH started in the first place was via cannibalization of my previous brick-n-mortar business which was a ‘by the hour’ concierge service. And as that became one of my best decisions ever I’m sure so will this.

7.     Innovation takes time: one of my key regrets for the year is that we rushed the innovation process at times. We confused good ideas with building world class product. Ideas may come in a flash but to bake them into world class product that defines user experience and sets it on a new level takes time. Get a prototype out and leave it, sleep on it, play devils advocate with everyone even yourself, get everyone’s opinion on it, listen to all of it and act on none of it for a while, contradict yourself till you’re blue in the face, strip it apart again and again until your’re bored sick of it. And if it feels right then and only then get it out. And – key learning – never listen to those who look down on you for playing devils advocate. As a leader it is your job to play devils advocate. One of the key reasons why my partnership with my cofounder Simos works well is that we always keep switching sides. Its healthy. Battle it out. Consistency is for wimps – it takes guts to contradict something you said.  But it  gets a better result in the end, even if you flip back to the original viewpoint. And yes, some will call you undecided…they are fools. Decisiveness is needed to take action when what needs to be done is clear but not easy. For example its clear that you need to let someone go but you’re not doing it.  Or its clear that you need to shut a product line down but it’s nerve-breaking. That’s when you need decisive leaders. But when it comes to really difficult choices where the answer isn’t clear or obvious great leadership is about being thoughtful and playing  devils advocate again and again, pushing and challenging your teams and customers again and again until you get to a great result. Its painful and slow. But it’s the only way to get the right result. (And for those who fall into the trap of thinking “im a genius I have the answer right here” well here’s something to ponder on: even Steve Jobs – arguable the biggest product genius of our generation – scrapped the first iPhone version a week before it was ready for launch , after 9 months of hard work, because he didn’t like how the glass fit within the casing. The team went back to the drawing board.) If only I was more like that in the past 12 months.

8.     If you were dying tomorrow what would you do today? A great turning point in the year that past was a Saturday morning breakfast I had with my cofounder Simos sometime in early Autumn. We met in a café in South Kensington and asked ourselves a simple question that that we had lived before: if we were going bust in a month, what would we do today to save the business? It’s amazing what insight you derive out of this exercise. Necessity, they say, is the mother of innovation. We’ve vowed to make this a common practice. Its what saved our business back in 2008 (when we REALLY did have a month to live). And it proved a turning point today (even though the scenario was fictitious). Why wait for it to be real in order to shake you up and make you smell the coffee? In the words of Steve Jobs in his awesome Standford commemoration speech  “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life”. Its as true in life as it is in business ( I love that speech so much i have it on my iPhone and play it back to myself at least once a  month !)

9.     Always go back to your roots: things got a bit chaotic at times this year. One thing that got us back on track is remembering how we did things when we were just in our infancy. There’s a magic to those early days that you should never let go of. We almost made the mistake of letting the whole corporate fluff, the management by ‘processes, rules and procedures’ and all the things that come with running a bigger business in a more structured way, spoil that magic. I’ve vowed to not let this happen again. Remain entrepreneurial, do what you do best, remember your grass root tactics that got your business off the ground and stick to your principles I say. I’m sure this statement will raise a few eyebrows but every day that passes I’m coming to realize more and more that this whole rhetoric of ‘business goes in phases’ and management style needs to change with them etc etc is a load of crap. Business is all about common sense, vision, passion, and perseverance, with a little help of luck and timing. And those are things that are as important in the early days as in the later stages. Don’t let corporate philosophy and all the “you’re now a big company act like one” b*shit take any of that away from you. As my company enters a bigger phase today I’m going back even closer to our grass roots days and vowing to be even more entrepreneurial. I’m determined to prove the bureaucrats wrong.

10. Make sure you enjoy the process: anyone who knows me even in the slightest will tell you that my life pretty much IS my company. I love what I do. I consider myself so lucky. When I’m on holiday I can’t wait to get back to work, when I’m at work I don’t want to go home. I force myself to take vacation even though I barely do. Yet I’ve become victim of the same mistake that so many others less fortunate than I make: I sometimes forget to have fun in the process. I forget to self-reflect and see how lucky I am to be going through such an amazing experience of building something with global reach that touches so many lives, with a bunch of truly charismatic people who I’m lucky to have around me. I forget to step back and take a birds-eye view of it and let go of some of the petty little things that inevitably happen along the way that agitate you and aggravate you. I forget to remind myself that its part of the process, its part of the uniqueness of it, its why it makes it special and unlike any other boring corporate job. I forget to remind myself how amazing it is to feel that your team is your family, that you all share a common cause that goes above and beyond any job description.  I forget to remind myself every day that I’m living my dream. I wont make that mistake again.

I was thinking the other day what I want to achieve for the next year personally and professionally (to the extent I can make that distinction), and I had an epiphany. I leave you with it and wish it becomes reality for all of us. I know I will certainly pursue it.

“Life is too short to waste it with people who don’t get it, whatever “it” may be for you, so make sure you surround yourself with people who do”

Happy New year! 

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