Introduction: Start Ups are F***ing Hard
This week, we celebrate Bridge’s 4th year anniversary. It’s been an incredibly wild and rewarding ride.
As a startup, we are growing stronger and stronger, having determined our model, developed our growth strategy, and assembled an amazing team. But even as we celebrate this milestone, I’m very well aware that most startups never make it to their 4th birthday. More than pride, this reality brings a sobering humility that success is elusive, and we must be more vigilant than ever to do the necessary hard things. While we’re still early in the journey, I’d like to highlight 4 lessons (from the many) that have helped us get this far.
Lesson #1: A Valuable Mission is an Incredible Strategic Advantage
Having a valuable mission means embracing a purpose that has significant worth to people. Our mission of improving the results and rewards of work affects so many lives and, if achieved, is extremely meaningful. Our People Solutions subsidiary provides HR Tech and HR Solutions for the Human Resource departments of some of the most respected companies in the Philippines. More than providing “admin support” or “back office systems”, we see ourselves as strategic partners in helping manage people effectively. Recruitment isn’t simply about hiring. It’s about career opportunities and advancement. Payroll is not simply about salaries. It’s about quality of life. With Access, our Fintech platform, we improve the Rewards of work. Compensation and benefits to us are not simply for amassing “stuff” but for achieving greater security.
Lesson #2: The Quality of Your Leadership Team Determines the Quality of Your Organization
I cannot emphasise this enough. When I was an investor, when evaluating an early stage company, more than P&L, more than decks, more than tech, I looked at the leaders. Who were the ones responsible for stewarding the vision and mission? Who was ultimately accountable for the achievements or lack of achievements of the company? This is not to say “Ignore financials!” That’s just stupid. Of course you should also look into those. But because there is so much ambiguity and lack of data to benchmark with, don’t make quick judgements about the company on initial performance. Instead, look at its ability to attract, develop, and retain high level talent.
Bridge got off to a slow start. A very slow start in some people’s view. But I was regularly reminding the team, “Trees need to grow roots before it shoots up. You can’t see roots. You can only nature the conditions that lead to strong roots, like keeping the soil healthy.” To me, great talent, however way your company defines it, are like seeds. The soil is the company culture. We asked ourselves, “What type of culture can we plant great talent in and thrive? This of course didn’t impress anyone. For one, it’s hard to measure. It’s practically invisible since it’s underground in a figurative sense. But, from experience, I knew that of all the “debt” a startup incurs on its way to success, including financial and technical debt, there is one kind of debt that’s rather permanent, and that is, Cultural Debt. It is inevitable that high risk, hyper speeds, and loads of work will lead to some form of disfunction that needs paying off or correcting later on. A bad cultural precedent is difficult to change.
The early leaders set the that culture, and they set it mostly accidentally, since the company lacks a lot of the codified principles at the start. Bring in people who can lead by example as soon as you can. And cut-off the wrong ones quickly too. I’ve wasted so much resources on not cutting a bad talent fast enough.
Lesson #3: Focus on Highest Impact Activities
Given that startups are working with very limited resources, it is important to focus those resources on the things with high return. For me, that’s great leadership and getting those leaders to do only 3-4 things that have the most strategic return. I find that being able to make wise trade-offs, not trying to accomplish everything right away, is an important discipline to develop.
Executing this way means that you will also leave many things undone. And that’s fine. You can’t do everything. Knowing what you can’t live without, what is most necessary, getting good at identifying these things, will help your company for the long term.
Lesson #4: In a World of OR Look for AND
This statement is now our Core Principle at Bridge. It captures our desire to bridge seemingly unconnected things. In Lesson #3, I talked about the reality of trade-offs. When running a startup, one will be regularly faced with OR situations. Do we do this OR that? Do we spend on this OR that? Do we hire OR not? Do we fire OR not? But even as we are presented with these OR situations, before making a decision, I’ve learned that it is a valuable exercise to look for AND scenarios, and consider them, before making a decision.
This is easier said than done. We’ve had to struggle with living up to this very aspirational principle. But it has been extremely valuable. There are situations like when two key talents could not get along, but somehow they found their AND, so we benefit from both their contributions. There are situations when it seems like the budget constraints would prevent us from having a successful team building, only to find that a free company-wide MOBA tournament is all we needed to get everyone together. I can go on and on about how powerful this principle is.
I really hope we continue to fight for this Principle in our company. I’m convinced it sets our culture apart.
Conclusion: We’ve Only Just Begun
I’m excited about the coming years. When I look at our current growth, both users and revenue, our current tech, and our current team, all assembled and achieved in only 4 years with little experience, I can’t help but be excited for the future of Bridge. Despite the doubters, despite the challenges, and despite the conditions, we’ve marched-on, we’ve set a strong foundation, and we’re positioned to dominate our segments. I’m very grateful to the many men and women who make Bridge’s success possible. Thank you for going on this great journey with us! We’ve only just begun.