What’s the most important skill I’ve learnt from our startup?

skillsThat was a question I was asked last night.  I was fortunate to be invited to be one of the mentors at a startup mentoring session held last night in the city.

Now that we’re out of nappies and are starting to wear big kids pants, being asked to mentors others who have big, bright ideas is not only an honour but a way that I feel like I can give back for those who took the time to mentor us on our startup journey.

When I was asked the question, I’ve got to admit that I found it hard to come up with a quick answer.  Having been in business for most of my adult life, I feel like I’ve amassed a number of skills along the way, so coming up with one that’s particular to this startup journey is not easy.

I really had to dig deep to come up with a particular skill.  I’d definitely learned how tenacious I can be (but that’s not a skill), I’ve learnt just how much pain I can bear (!), (also not a skill).  I’ve dug deep to use every bit of marketing and business knowledge I’ve amassed over 30 years in business (not new) and, while we have a tech business, I haven’t learnt to code (we’ve employed that skill) so that doesn’t count either.  I’ve continued to learn about business, am an avid reader of all things around growth hacking, but again, that’s not a skill as much as it’s thinking a little differently about what I kind-of already knew.  I’ve managed staff before, and I’m an Accountant by training, so have got the financial thing mastered too.

So what new skill have I learnt?

After standing for what seemed like an eternity mumbling phrases like, “hmmmm, good question” and “let me think…”, I finally came up with one – consultative selling.

I’m the first to admit that I’m not a sales person – not by a long shot.  Cold calling scares me silly and selling has never been something I’ve considered myself good at – or even capable of.

But over the last few years, I’ve realized that it’s not that hard – in fact, at times, I really like it.

I give credit for that skill to a client – one in particular.  She was the HR manager at a franchise group of well-known fast food brands.  It was one of my very early sales calls, my first big potential one – and I was all by myself.  There I was, sitting in their boardroom, armed with my nifty powerpoint presentation and a list of bullet points to go through to tell her how great our product was.  And in she walked – or rather strode.

The first thing she did was pull every blind open, each one made a bang, then strode to me and shook my hand.  She sat (or rather plopped) down and, before I could say a word, said “So, tell me why I should buy anything from you?”

Talk about taken aback.

And then she smiled, very warmly.

I immediately let go of my breath, realizing that she was actually not at all terrifying but she was actually messing around with me and, without thinking any further, my competitive nature go the better of me so I smiled and said back “Well, why don’t you tell me what I’d need to do to be able to do that?”

And that’s where the magic happened.

She immediately gave me a list of all of the problems she had and all of the solutions she was looking for.  And I had the perfect client brief.

That one conversation taught me what consultative selling really is – finding out exactly what a potential client is looking for – and we use it every time now because it works.  It’s taken me from something i thought I hated – selling – to something I really enjoy for a number of reasons.  The first is that it gives me a way to know exactly how to position Workible to clients, it gives me true insight into what our clients want, it gives us ideas for further Workible features that our clients want (and will pay for)  and, just as importantly, it actually allows us to build relationships with our clients by talking about them.

And all of that gives us a huge competitive advantage in our market.

It’s an interesting question to pose to yourself – and I’ve just asked Alli (my partner in Workible crime) the same question.  Her answer?  “Hmmm…… I’ll have to think about that.”  Funny, huh?

See her answer in the next blog.  In the meantime, what’s yours?

What’s the most important skill I’ve learnt from our startup?

Monkeys see, Monkeys do – but Monkeys will always be one step behind

innovationCopying others is a business reality.  Always has been.  You see someone doing something successful, you want some of that success for yourself so you look at what they’re doing and imitate.  But you will struggle to become and remain an industry leader by simply following the “Monkey see, Monkey do” philosophy because without an understanding of why, you’ll forever be one step behind.

When we started our business in 2011, we were in a land of our own.  Fiona and I were people with a need.  A need we validated with others and supported with statistical analysis of labor market trends globally that showed the need would grow substantially in coming years as the workforce evolved.  Armed with a strong business case, we went to market.

But in that first year, we made a fatal flaw – we copied an existing model.  We tried to force-fit the online classified approach to the flexible workforce.

A year in and only marginally profitable, we were scratching our heads as to what was holding us back?  It took a thought-provoking global tech conference in Silicon Valley to wake us up.  Why were we limiting ourselves by re-purposing a model?  And not just any model, but a dying one that’s becoming less and less effective by the day.

Liberated from “the way it’s always been done’, we were free to call on our creativity and design a new way custom-built to cater for the idiosyncrasies of our market.  It allowed us to innovate, not imitate.  So, after months of research and development, we put HireMeUp out to pasture and launched Workible.  And as a testament to the success of our brave new model, Workible surpassed HireMeUp’s revenue by 1400% in it’s first year.

This experience taught us an important lesson that remains core to our business… Never be content with the obvious answer.  Or the first few solutions or the way it’s already been done.  Clear the deck.  Start fresh.  Challenge the status quo and approach the question or problem from a place where there are no rules.  That is where innovation happens.

Apple's 1981 "Welcome, IBM" Ad
Apple’s 1981 advertisement published two weeks after the debut of IBM’s first personal computer. The playful ad was Apple’s way of “welcoming” IBM into the PC marketplace.

Now, like I said, copying is ingrained in the business world.  And,  it’s even more prevalent today when technology businesses are sprouting up like weeds.  It’s becoming harder and harder to defend against copycats.  There are vocal advocates who commend imitation over innovation as a better way to make money because it’s more of a sure bet.

It was frustrating when we first started speaking to investors about the untapped market of flexible workers because they couldn’t see it being viable.  Fast forward a year or two when copycats and competitors started popping up and suddenly not only did more investors agree it was viable but then pointed to the newcomers and thought they had come first.

The majority of our competitors have profiles on Workible hidden amongst our job seekers and employers.  One in particular has been infiltrating our user bases since our pre-Workible days as HireMeUp.  We often find our exact language used in website copy and ads (what’s that saying… “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”)

But, it really doesn’t bother us (okay, we may make a few not-so-nice remarks and have a laugh when we find one – we’re only human!)  At the end of the day, you can’t hide and you can’t stop people from replicating what they can find.  You just have to keep moving.

So, when it comes to innovation versus imitation, for those of us at Workible, we prefer to stay one step ahead.

Monkeys see, Monkeys do – but Monkeys will always be one step behind

A Cautionary Tale Serves as a Reminder to Always Tread Strategically

Source: Vanity Fair; Pat Fili-Krushel, Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, Andy Lack, Deborah Turness, and Steve Burke. Photo Illustration by Sean McCabe; Photographs by Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images (Logo), Natan Dvir/Polaris (Background), Jennifer Graylock/SIPA USA (Fili-Krushel), Gary He/Insider Images/Polaris (Burke), Matt Rourke/A.P. Images (Brokaw), David Sandison/The Independent/Rex USA (Turness), Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images (Lack), Jeffrey Ufberg/WireImage (Williams).

Catching up on my Flipboard “10 for Today” emails this morning, a Vanity Fair headline caught my attention, “The Inside Story of the Civil War for the Soul of NBC News“.  The ex-journalist in me was grabbed by the headline and behind why I started reading, but I soon found that it was the entrepreneur that became engrossed.

In brief, the article centres around the public discovery of US anchorman Brian Williams’ inexcusable fabrication about coming under fire in a U.S. Army helicopter during the Iraq war in 2003.

In a day when true investigative journalism is scarce and it’s never been harder to compete for viewers/ readers due to the sheer volume of content available, to have a well-respected anchorman for one of the biggest media outlets in the US admit to lying — it’s a serious blow to the credibility of an already-shaky industry, not to mention society in general as it is the access to verifiable information gathered by independent media sources that empowers citizens to meaningfully participate in the political process.  But I digress…

The Vanity Fair article goes on to demonstrate that the Williams’ scandal is just the latest catastrophe in a series that have plagued NBC News since NBCUniversal was bought by Comcast in 2011 – and this is where the entrepreneur perked up.

You see, Fiona and I are facing some big decisions at the moment regarding the direction of Workible.  In our four years of business, we’ve never been in a stronger position and that is evident by the number of interested parties that have started to come calling — private and institutional investors, global partnerships, licensing deals, joint ventures and the like.

Reading the NBC story, you can see how key decisions began to destabilise the media company – long-regarded as one of the gold standards of television news in the US.  Inappropriate hires, poor management, civil war amongst staff and the biggest blow being the sale of NBCUniversal to Comcast, the Philadelphia cable/phone/Internet giant who applied cable utility company business logic to a broadcasting company where talent management is key.  And, actually, a very similar situation occurred when NBCUniversal was taken over by General Electric in the ’80s which was also followed by a period of instability and scandal.

Fiona and I have always been aware that the decisions we make from new hires to partnerships to investors have the potential to make or break the future of Workible.  On several occasions we’ve rejected offers of investment – even purchase – because the fit or timing just wasn’t right for one reason or another — not an easy thing to do as a up-and-coming tech company where cash is king and competition is never far behind.

I can’t help but feel that we’re at a juncture that we’ll look back on and point to as a significant landmark along the Workible journey.

So, as we navigate the opportunities we’re so fortunate to have, it’s cautionary stories like that of NBCUniversal/ Comcast that remind us to tread strategically and keep the long-term vision at the forefront of our minds at all times.

Watch this space!

A Cautionary Tale Serves as a Reminder to Always Tread Strategically

Ideas from a hotel room floor

Last night I felt really inadequate!  In May 2013 I was privileged to be invited on a Study Tour to Silicon Valley with 9 other Australian businesswomen (and one very brave host) hosted by the fantastic team at the Commonwealth Bank’s Women In Focus.

This is how we do it - ideas from the floor or Room 339
This is how we do it – ideas from the floor or Room 339

While I’d been there before, this trip was one of those life-changing and unique experiences.  Not only did 11 high achieving women get along like a house on fire (unique in itself) but we become a bonded band of “silicon sistas” who shared the very real ups and downs of life as an entrepreneur – and, of course, got the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing the inside running of some of the Valley’s biggest businesses.

Three of us stayed for a few days afterwards to get the lay of the land in respect to launching our businesses in the US.  After each day of meetings we’d congregate on the floor of my hotel room, Room 339, and work together on pitch decks, presentations and business plans.  And we talked about how great it was to be able to collaborate and share resources with other like-minded people.  Those sessions were gold.

We joked that, once we’d all “made it” we’d launch a co-working space (working title: Room 339) to help other women in startups to benefit, like we had, from collaboration.

Last night, one of the three of us, the fantastic Catriona Wallace, made that idea a reality with the launch of her women’s co-working space, “The Ventura”, in Sydney.  With a vision of collaboration and with plans for more centres around the world and with a focus on including areas where women lack these resources, such as in regional areas and areas where there are disadvantaged communities.

Catriona’s energy, passion and ability to run 3 businesses and 3 charities – as well as raising 2 young children and 3 older ones as a single mother – continues to amaze me.  And makes me feel totally inadequate as I struggle to balance time with one fast-moving start-up and time with my loved ones.

Each week, on more than one occasion, we get asked about how our business started.  It started from one idea – and one conversation in a car between Alli and me that went “wouldn’t you think that if a dating site can match hair and eye colour, a job site could match the days and hours you want to work”.   The Ventura came from a similar conversation on the floor of Room 339, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could create this type of collaboration for all women in startups”.

We now have Workible (now much more than a matching site due to more of those “what if” conversations) and the women’s start up community have the first (and I’m sure not the last) “The Ventura”.

Never doubt that those “what ifs” can turn into great things.  They can, and they do – every day.  In fact, it’s the only place they come from, so never be afraid to dream, question and create.  It can be the start of some amazing innovation – and the ride of your life.

Ideas from a hotel room floor

Dame Stephanie Shirley: Why do ambitious women have flat heads?

I came across this TED Talk today delivered by Dame Stephanie Shirley that really resonated with me — and, subsequently introduced me to a new-found hero.

I don’t allow myself the “luxury” of taking 15 minutes to watch a TED Talk very much these days with so many things to tick off my “to do” list, clients to contact and email support to manage but this one caught my eye and with a headline like “Dame Stephanie Shirley: Why do ambitious women have flat heads” — my curiosity was piqued, then the description (shared below) sucked me in and I just had to push “play”.

“Dame Stephanie Shirley is the most successful tech entrepreneur you never heard of. In the 1960s, she founded a pioneering all-woman software company in the UK, which was ultimately valued at $3 billion, making millionaires of 70 of her team members. In this frank and often hilarious talk, she explains why she went by “Steve,” how she upended the expectations of the time, and shares some sure-fire ways to identify ambitious women…”

You’ll have to watch the video above to find out what those ways are… I hope you find it as worthy an investment of your time as I did!

“It’s one thing to have an idea for an enterprise but, as many people in this room will know, making it happen is a very difficult thing. And, it demands, really, extraordinary energy, self belief, and determination, the courage to risk family and home and a 24/7 commitment that borders on the obsessive.”

— Dame Stephanie Shirley (aka Steve)

Here’s to all of the flat-headed, big-footed women!

Dame Stephanie Shirley: Why do ambitious women have flat heads?

Why no experience can be the best thing for you

Last week, a member of a Facebook group I belong to posed a question about how to counter the “no experience” argument.

He’s a consultant and has been given the opportunity to put a proposal forward for a really big job with a company in an industry he’s new to. He asked the group how he should best address the “no industry experience” argument that he was sure to get.

no experienceThere were a number of answers – let them try you out before charging them, give them a money-back guarantee, try to find a connection who can give a testimonial – all of which, while trying to be extremely helpful, were about seeing this lack of experience as a negative.

I couldn’t resist throwing my two cents into this one. You see, I’ve been on the receiving end of this for the last corporate job I applied for. That particular company was a very well known provider of credit cards and they were looking for someone from one of their 3 competitors to take the role so they could bring “knowledge of the industry and how it’s done here” to the business.

To my way of thinking, that’s ridiculous. Isn’t the whole point of bringing someone new in to “break the mold” and do things differently rather than bringing in someone who does the same thing – but just getting them to do it for a different company?

So that’s how I framed my answer to the gentleman in the Facebook group. I said to him that rather than putting a negative spin on his lack of industry experience, he should point out the benefits of having someone who doesn’t know “how it’s done here” and how that allows him the advantage of being able to look at the business with fresh – and disruptive – eyes.

Disruption is what it’s all about these days (but more about that in my next blog).

My Workible Co-Founder, Alli, and I had no industry experience in either recruitment or technology when we started our business. Given we have a recruitment technology business, you’d think that that was madness. But it wasn’t. What it was was an opportunity to look at a problem and an industry and re-invent the wheel. We had the luxury of giving ourselves free reign to say “how do we think it should work” without any preconceived ideas of how it “should”.

The result is that we’ve invented a totally disruptive platform that, we believe, will change the way recruitment is done. And that’s the benefit of no experience.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re applying for your first job or your next job, or applying for a huge consulting contract like my Facebook pal, don’t let your lack of experience hold you back. In fact, it’s a huge advantage so spin it that way. You bring a fresh set of eyes to a business, and it allows you to think outside the square.

As an employer, I’m always happy to employ people with no experience – for that very reason. And any savvy business owner, presented with that argument, would see it that way as well. Let what others see as your biggest disadvantage, be the advantage you have over everyone else.

Why no experience can be the best thing for you

Are you brave enough to ask the hard questions?

Last week we did something really scary. We asked our users what they didn’t like about Workible.

Yes, it’s a pretty gutsy move.

The idea came from an article I read about how engaged users can help you grow a business. It seemed like, on the surface, a great idea. Give people some vested interest in helping to create what you want and they’ll be more invested in it. Sounds reasonable. But the sceptic in myWorkible questions wondered whether they really cared or whether they’d use this opportunity to point out all of the little things they hated.

We spent quite a bit of time agonizing over exactly how we would phrase the survey to “soften any blows”. How would we phrase the questions so that we limited feeling totally ripped apart by the answers? In the middle of the conversation about just that, we decided not to. We decided we wanted the warts and all feedback.

You see, if we’ve built a product that sucks, then we want to know about it before we waste any more time going down that road. (BTW, we don’t think we have – but it’s not really our opinion that counts).

So we put together a survey giving users every opportunity to bag us out, and then held our collective breaths and pressed send.

Within a few hours we had hundreds of responses – and they kept coming in the next day and the one after. And we learnt a massive lesson.

First of all, we were absolutely thrilled with the results. Not only did we have oodles of suggestions as to how to improve, we got tons of feedback on the little things that people wanted. What surprised us more was how engaged people were in telling us how to build the product they wanted – and, amid all the suggestions, how positive they all were..

To be honest, most of the suggestions are already in the pipeline (which is proof that we are on the right track), but we did get some extra gems as well.

Some wanted us to get in touch to help them with their profiles and applications. Some told us that they loved Workible and not to change a thing (although that wasn’t the point of this exercise.) And some of the suggestions also centered around how we should do more surveys and keep asking these questions. What a relief!

The thing is – had we never been brave enough to open ourselves up to a possible barrage of criticism, then we would have never had this insight from the very people who determine our success (or failure).

Our commitment back to each and every one of the people who answered the survey – yes, it’s time consuming but we figure it’s a great relationship builder.

Interestingly, the last question we asked was “Would you refer Workible to a friend?”. After giving them 11 different opportunities to talk about what they don’t like, we were thrilled to get over 90% of yesses.

So here’s the kicker…

Your customers, clients or users are the ones who will determine whether your business fails or succeeds – and will determine the level at which you do either. Don’t be arrogant enough to think you know what they want. Ask.

Be brave enough to take the criticism on the chin. Most people won’t so you’ll stand out for that alone.

Our exercise in asking has shown us a couple of things. One is that lots of people are willing to help you. Secondly, people do feel more engaged in a product when they can contribute to its development. And thirdly, don’t make assumptions about anything.

Are you brave enough to ask the hard questions?