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Lessons from building a start-up during a global pandemic

23 August 2021 | Posted by Rob Brockington

When you’re in the early stages of building a business, it’s likely there are a number of things keeping you up at night.

🤔 Will I secure the funding the business needs to grow?

🤔 Will enough people be interested in the product?

🤔 How will we differentiate ourselves from the competition? 

Dealing with a global pandemic, however, is not something that usually crosses your mind. 

Back in February 2020, just before the world turned on its head, there were just three of us in the team. Me (CEO), Sushant (Operations) and Alex (Marketing). 

We were working with an agency to look at the work we’d done so far and establish how we’d spin this straw into gold. One hell of a lot of market research later, and the team came to a decision that we didn’t feel comfortable going ahead with the product as it was.

We pivoted – risking all of our jobs by pitching a brand-new idea to the investor – and luckily secured approval to build the new product. 

Then boom: coronavirus struck. 

Of course, reacting to worldwide pandemic is tricky for any business. But for a company who’s barely learnt to walk, let alone talk, it’s a whole new ball game. Looking back on our journey building Claro, there are five areas of learnings that stand out to me.

Hiring

  • What roles do we need? 
  • Which ones need to be prioritised if we can’t have them all? 
  • How do we get people to buy into a company that they can’t even see is real?

These are some of the questions you might be asking yourself when you’re recruiting. The last one even more so during the last year.

The struggle for us (as well as countless other businesses) quickly became finding people to help us build a product. Because by the end of March, everyone was confined to their own four walls and there was a lot of uncertainty around the future of the job market. 

Convincing people why they should come and work for you when you can’t show them the usual tangible stuff like colleagues and an office is difficult. It’s even weirder for anyone who does agree to join when they’ve never met their team in real life.

As my close colleague (and employee number 2 at Claro) Sushant put it, “anyone who has participated in recruitment processes would tell you that an important factor, in the decision to hire or reject, is the body language of the candidate and the ability to communicate effectively.” When a face-to-face interview is out of the question, how do you assess this?

To help us navigate this ‘new normal’, we transformed our interview process to include a ‘take home’ task, tailored to the candidate’s role. We found this was a great way to test how people think and work, their openness to accepting feedback, and their commitment to the role based on how much effort they put in. 

Thanks to this process, we’ve hired 25 people since the pandemic broke out.

We’ve worked hard to make sure this is as diverse a bunch of people as possible. The wide range of skills, backgrounds and knowledge of our talented team helps to bring different perspectives and solutions. I’m confident that continuing this focus on diversity and inclusion will help creativity to thrive and the business to flourish.

My advice to anyone who’s going through this phase of growth is that interviews are natural breeding grounds for nerves. There’s something very different about a conversation face-to-face and over Zoom. So when everything is remote, it’s important to combine a formal interview with a more informal one. It’s easy to forget that when you meet a candidate in an office, you might chat to them in the lift or while making coffee in the kitchen. That social interaction is missing when you simply click a button and join a call. 

Find a way to replicate the normality of the interview experience – my tactic is to find a subject that the person is interested in. Create a personalised chat around something they’ve mentioned to understand more about them and dig into what drives them.

Networking 

You can’t deny it: there are certain things in business that are massively improved by who you know. 

It’s natural that – in pre-covid times – you’d meet people by chance, and through those experiences, you’d make contacts who turn out to be useful for the project you’re working on.

Networking has typically been a physical event. One of the biggest selling points of industry events is networking. It’s why many attendees buy a ticket in the first place: the promise of new connections.

This lack of in-person contact has made the whole networking process longer and more complicated than it once was. Raising funds, for example, is a key part of every startup’s journey. When networking is out of the question, this can feel like an impossible task (since you often have to reach out to investors to gauge their interest in the product you’re building). 

We’ve had to be more proactive in forging connections through LinkedIn introductions or exhausting our current networks. It makes the whole process slower, and the conversations themselves are very different via video call vs a face-to-face meeting in a cafe.

The good news is it looks like there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Events are starting up again and we’re heading to the rearranged Money 2020 in Amsterdam later this year. This should be a fantastic networking opportunity, as well as providing a dose of much needed normality.

Communication 

Communication has become a crucial aspect of both hiring and working at Claro.

When it comes to hiring, for some roles, certain qualities aren’t that important. For example, developers don’t traditionally need incredible communication skills. Attention to detail and problem-solving skills are usually much more important. But when you’re working remotely and you have limited interactions, communication becomes a much stronger requirement. You can’t afford to have misunderstandings and for things to get lost in translation.

So very early on in the pandemic, we set communication as one of the top priorities to test for in interviews.

Similarly, in terms of working, you don’t want people at home stuck only speaking to their colleagues once a week. We’ve worked hard to set the standard for what engagement should look like. This involves keeping people up to date but not bombarding their calendars with so many meetings that they don’t have time to work. It’s easy to forget that you now have to strike up a meeting for things you wouldn’t need before, as you’d just get your answer over a ‘water cooler chat’. 

Even something as simple as a meeting over video chat has changed. When you’re less than 10 people in a business, it’s fairly easy. You can quite comfortably accommodate most people in a single call (like a weekly company update) and still be productive. When there’s 25+ of you, keeping everyone engaged and making sure everyone has their voice heard is harder to navigate.

I’m not saying we’ve nailed this balance by any means – there’s still some way to go. It’s a hard line to strike and I don’t think anyone has the answer just yet.

It certainly helps that, because we’re a start-up, we can use cloud-based platforms like Slack and Google docs. These are much better for communication and collaboration than something more traditional like Microsoft suite, as multiple people can work on the same document, spreadsheet or presentation at the same time. 

I’m confident that tech as a facilitator of communication is one of the biggest positives to come out of coronavirus. We’re now able to run global conferences over video. Yes, you still get the occasional WiFi error or “you’re on mute” situation, but companies have adapted at an impressive speed. Do people really need to fly around the world on a monthly basis to meet partners and speak at events? No. Tech has been instrumental in making virtual communication more successful and more mainstream.

Business partners

At Claro, we’ve been set up from the beginning to use cloud technology. Nothing about our processes was affected by location, which made the transition to 100% remote working much smoother. We didn’t have to go and find brand-new tools and learn how to use them and roll them out. 

However, some of our partners were global companies that struggled to adapt to this new way of working. Some industries, like accounting and law, are still very process and people based. During the shift to remote, their resources would have been heavily in demand causing delayed responses for many of their clients. Interaction with one of our partners suffered for a period because of this transition to home working that they simply weren’t prepared for.

I don’t think we’d anticipated quite how much tech capability and resilience is important in all of your business partners – not just the direct IT partners.

They’ve been forced to take a leap forward when it comes to tech to bring them to a place where they can work remotely effectively. This wouldn’t have happened for a while if it wasn’t for covid, so it’s a good thing for them, and for us.

Creating (and maintaining) a team culture

Before joining Claro, I spent many years working for businesses where the culture was toxic or not really there at all. Hard work often wasn’t rewarded and people started giving up on their roles because they had become disenfranchised. In a global bank, for instance, there are so many employees that as individuals it can feel like you have no power or voice.

For me, the ideal team culture comes from a combination of alignment with our mission and diversity of team members.

It’s hugely important for people to be aligned on our mission. We’re building the UK’s first digital financial coach with a focus on sustainable money management, and we want every single team member to be behind this. Everyone here wants to work on something that has a positive narrative. And when it comes to hiring, people who bought into that vision get a natural head start in the interview process. This is one way to add to culture: hiring people with similar beliefs.

The second way is to hire as diverse a team as possible. Having 25 people from the same industry or background isn’t good. You want a mixture of people with different experiences and ways of doing things. That’s why, when we’re hiring, financial services experience isn’t the be all, end all. We’d rather recruit people with less relevant experience who show a willingness to learn and get stuck in.

It’s also difficult to judge cultural fit with just a couple of people’s opinions and perspectives. So as we’ve grown, we’ve adapted our hiring process to involve more people at different stages. Skill set and ability are easy to define; cultural fit not so much. When you’re testing for cultural fit, it tends to come down to gut feeling. When you know, you know.

I’ve tried to create a culture based on flexibility, ownership and feedback.

At Claro, the logistics of how someone gets their work done aren’t important as long as it’s done on time and to a high standard. One positive to come out of 2020 was the focus it placed on workplace flexibility. With people physically unable to travel to work, it became apparent that productivity translated just as well from your living room as it did from the office. Luckily we were already very comfortable with remote working, but we recognise that a hybrid approach is likely the way forward.

It’s also important to give people ownership and responsibility early on. Obviously, during covid, part of this was intentional and part of it wasn’t – you didn’t have a choice as there was no office to come into and no one to physically account for the work you were doing. But everyone at Claro is good at picking up what they own and getting on with it. No one needs hand holding or constant redirection.

Another factor is feedback. We try to involve everyone in key business decisions. There are very few decisions that we make without consulting lots of stakeholders across the company. And we’re keen to keep it that way as long as we can. I’m aware that this might start to fray when we reach a certain size (I’ve been told that around 100-150 people is when you start to lose the benefits of being small). You have to put certain structures in place. We’ll learn that and find our own way.

Of course, the future of our culture will depend on what happens in terms of returning to the office. 

Not having people in one place as often undoubtedly affects company culture. You can’t forge relationships with people as easily in online meetings when there’s a strict agenda. Culture is built in the time around meetings. A lot of collaborative and creative roles need the stimulation of an office to get the job done. That’s why we’re so keen on a hybrid working approach as a means of maintaining our culture.


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