Everyone thrives on being productive. For startups, being productive or not can be the difference between being alive or not. Startups experience unique constraints in terms of time, talent, resources and money. The combination of these constraints makes them productive in creative ways.
There are a lot of productivity tools to help startup teams out there. However, being successfully productive requires a unique combination of tools, tact, techniques and attitude to nail the unique challenges of small teams and huge visions.
Today, we are in a much better place than we were when we started out 5 years ago. There were some up’s, lots of down’s, challenges that seemed to overpower our every move. What we don’t talk about often is that we came very close to shutting twice during this time. And surviving the down’s wasn’t a coincidence. It took a lot of grit and some things that stayed with us through the journey.
Building a product is a tremendous, sometimes transformative process. It is not unusual to find stories where creators identify so much with their creations that they fail to make the connection with the audience it was meant for. The best way to combat this is to stay in touch with your customer at all times.
In the age of “personalised emails” and messages bombarded all around us, it becomes imperative to be able to cut through all the clutter to really connect with our customer. It is impossible to pick up tonal cues from an email and it can belie the real need of your customers.
Picking up the phone and talking to the people who use or will use our products helps a great deal in keeping the right perspective for building products that truly serve others.
It is doubly helpful that Exotel helps other businesses stay in touch with their customers. Here’s how one company created a simple set of rules for telephone communication with his customers and watched his business soar.
In most cases, startup teams do not have different people handling various functions. A marketing guy doubles up as a sales representative. A customer service executive becomes a test engineer. With teams managing several roles, relying only on email as a tool for communication can backfire, due to overlapping or missing information that can be overwhelming.
In our experience, the best ways to handle this problem is to use team collaboration tools. Team management software like Trello and Basecamp help us to keep the team updated on tasks and status without having to email everyone. Also, it becomes easier to track work and hence distribute work more appropriately, resulting in reduced meetings, standups, etc.
Early in the day, we realised we could ease our cash-strapped situation by changing our payment model. We needed to make a major tech adjustment and also had to communicate the change to our customers in record time. There was not enough time to do the typical phase-by-phase rollouts (as happens so often in a startup environment). So we decided to cut out everything else for a whole week and run a tech sprint, and by the end of the week, we had accomplished something that would have dragged on for months otherwise. Not only was it immensely satisfying, it was also invigorating. Since then, we have proudly stuck to this practice and have solved several challenges since and celebrated.
Hiring right is easily be the most significant productivity hack. Hire the wrong people, and you have not only wasted resources but the time of everyone involved in the hiring process and the entire team.
One of the ways we have managed to combat the problem is to invest time into gaining clarity on the kind of skill sets we need for a particular role and finding the talent for it. Having clear job descriptions helps.
At Exotel, we issue relevant tech challenges for roles to be sure about the skill sets we were merging into our team. Here is an example. As an outcome, we have steadily built incredible talent into our teams.
Hiring the right talent is one thing, keeping them is another. Once the member is on your team, he should feel valued and catering to their needs is one surefire way to make it known that they are valued. Keeping with the work trends worldwide, we realise that our team also likes a lot of flexibility to accommodate other interests in their lives- and we make way for it. Remote working and flexible timings are the norms of our culture. Two of our team members work remotely in permanent roles and
Remote functioning requires us to double up on the communication front. A remote team is more likely to duplicate the work already done, or miss out on major milestones due to gaps in communication. Using collaborative tools mentioned above help a great deal to ease the challenges of a remote team.
One of the best ways to retain talent is to keep them sufficiently challenged. Studies say that amongst other things, money is an extrinsic motivator, and can help in the short term. However, to keep the intrinsic motivation, employees need to see their work being valued and attributed rightly.
To keep the challenge quotient high, we organised Hackathons for our teams, where people are challenged to build something new or solve an existing problem in an innovative manner. Our hackathons typically run for 60 hours non-stop, at the end of which we had great products and solutions from members immersed in our eco-system. The hackathons sprouted fresh ideas for new ways to spread our wings.
We are in the age of the API economy. Tweaking APIs to do specific things is not only incredibly beneficial, but it’s also increasing desirable. One of our colleagues at Exotel created a “No-surge-assistant” from interweaving the UBER and Exotel APIs, that notifies him whenever cabs without surge pricing are ready for him. While this is something he did of his accord, encouraging a culture of building and innovation within the company embeds this behaviour into the ethos of the company.
Around the FIFA world cup timeframe, we floated a fun service. People could register with our service to be woken up for a particular match and our service would give them an automated call before the match. The service saw a surge during the Olympic seasons well. The response was so awesome that we ended up using our service for our Hackathon. In our Hackathon event, the major participation was from the tech team, but we woke up our entire Exotel crew at 6 AM on a Sunday with automated calls to prime them for the upcoming Hackathon results. Exploring innovative, fun ways to use our work has kept us buoyed up even through challenges.
Startup productivity is as much about feeling good about your work, having the right outlook, managing everybody’s energies and own confidence levels, team bonding as it is about getting things done. The benefits of developing a unique approach to productivity accrue over time, building into productive time for a startup.
Sometimes, it’s just a matter of being aware that there is no right way or wrong, and watching out for what’s working for you!