Almost a year has passed since THAT meeting, and I still remember it, and I probably will forever. I was telling a potential investor, a possible next business angel, about our business, our team, about the where we currently were in our start-up.
We created Nais – an innovative platform for motivating and rewarding workers. It can be used and implemented by even small businesses with up to 4 employees, regardless of the fact whether they work on contracts or in B2B. It is our idea for rewarding workers, for benefits carved for today’s reality, and most of all, for workers born as ‘digital natives’. Thanks to NAIS an employee can receive a bonus, a reward from the superior right after a successful presentation. It can be spent at one of our suppliers, who also stem from the modern world: Tidal, Showmax or Zalando.
I must admit, during that meeting I was not in my best form. We only had enough money in our bank account that would let us survive for maybe 2-3 months. Our start-up already consisted of 11 people. A lot of them were experts, specialists in their own fields, who’d left their previous jobs or dropped their safe spots in big corporations, to co-create the start-up. We’d all lose our jobs. We’d all have to start a professional career from scratch. Most of us would probably never again risk becoming independent and venturesome. The level of stress was causing lack of sleep and loss of faith in the project. I was trying really hard not to show it during my meeting with the investor. At the end of our meeting she said: I feel sorry for you. I was sure I had not hid my desperation. And then (the potential investor) she continued:
“ You are entering a classic death valley. Stress does not let you sleep, does it? Refresh your knowledge of the case, go read about it, face it; deal with it and be patient.”
So I went back home and started reading.
That’s how our death valley started.
Iwona Grochowska, Nais, CEO
Expert and practitioner of building, managing and motivating teams in order for them to realize their goals with satisfaction. She created „Nais”, the innovative platform for rewarding and motivating employees. Before starting her own business Iwona worked as the Board Member of one of the Benefit Systems companies, a long time CEO of the recruitment system businesses for Agora SA, and also as the Board Member of HR Link. A psychologist, coach, business trainer, change manager.
Time and money are running out
I sat down with my partner; we saw the mistakes we’d made and how they raised our level of stress and frustration. We shared our observations with the team. A lot of our meetings started just like this: “Listen, we are in the death valley.”
When in January 2017 NAIS got its first big client, we all thought it was going to be a pretty smooth sailing from there. Nothing could have been further from the truth. One week after another the situation was getting worse. We were holding a lot of meetings that seemed to be promising; yet no contracts were signed. No decisions were being made, whether a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ ones. The only thing we were getting then was the information that our product and the concept of its development were highly praised.
And then I realized where we made a mistake: we had not secured our finances to have a safe start and to grant time to convince the unconvinced. As for our basic strategy, I was still sure it was right but we still did not have paying clients. And on top of that we just encountered our first team crisis; people were becoming tired and doubtful about the idea and its timing. After my conversation with this potential investor, I decided to change my attitude 180 degrees. It did not rid us of problems but it gave us much more determination.
Since we are a technology business, we started with the subcontractor who physically prepared our product. The outcome was far removed from our expectations, imagination and the brief. We needed to change the product and, most of all, we needed a good developing team which could manage someone else’s realization.
We were running out of our own money and the financial support from our first business angels. Everything had to be done at once: 1. taking care of the product, 2. looking for money, 3. completing and building a team – because we needed to survive and move forward.
We are leaving the death valley
Spring came and we sat down over a blank sheet of paper; we created a plan to leave the valley:
- We divided our team into departments: sales, product, IT, looking for investors;
- We changed the IT subcontractor; we decided to start cooperation with Infoshare Academy. Almost immediately, we had a new team leader and then next members of the IT group. It was by far the fastest and the sharpest cut during this operation. Well, there was still a possibility a patient could not survive…
- We started searching for people with the desired key competencies; we knew very well who we really wanted in our team
All our key employees were hired only if they were recommended by other people or companies we trusted. We were looking for the sales manager who would be able to make sales by themselves, but also, in future, could build the sales structures within our company. For our marketing department we wanted someone who could present our product in a way that would show its full potential, all its values, and stir interest in the desired target: clients, managers and HR managers. Additionally, we were trying to get the best IT team – the one that uses our product, likes it and has the ambition to develop it to make the best of it.
- We created a very detailed plan to get the next investors (we wanted a certain type of people, and then later their money)
What was more important for us was than investors bringing to our start-up the substantial content; it was more about the knowledge and the support they could share with us.
Secondly, we needed people with contacts, with the ability to present and sell our product to others. We were looking for investors in HR, IT or mobile services. The last thing we were seeking was the money.
- In our decisions and actions we became more consistent than before;
Earlier, whenever something was not going our way, we always tried either to change the way itself or adjust the course of action. Since the valley of death, we started waiting longer, being more patient; we were not thrown off that easily. We were more consistent in what we were doing.
- We became more patient
It is connected with the previous point – consistency; we just tried not to panic after the first failure.
What happened after we created and followed the plan?
In June we got new clients who totally changed our position. The IT team took over our product and pushed the tempo of its development. We lost all the employees and co-workers who couldn’t stand the pressure, who could not deal with failures and changes of strategy, those who doubted the product itself.
We finished year 2017 with over a hundred companies and many thousands of users of Nais. We have an engaged team and plans to develop, also abroad. We successfully finished our next investment rounds.
Trust yourself and have good people around you
Anybody who is entering the death valley should know this: it is horrible and scary, but you have to know it exists. You must recognize it, confront it and then have an entry way. The fact that we acknowledged it and told everybody in our company about it helped us greatly. We just encountered it as if it was temporary, like an illness.
Moreover, you just need to love changes and make your whole team ready for them, because change is the only constant thing. Those who cannot handle it should leave immediately by themselves or they should be let go by the boss. Consistency and patience are extremely important. There are weeks during which you get no good news. These times pass by, you just have to do your job.
Try to treat every failure as a lesson; learn from it, it is just a challenge.
Always ask yourself and your team: what can we do it differently next time?
Even in the hardest moments do not stop trusting your intuition – after this year I know I have it and it is my advisor.
And last but not least; the people you work with. If you mutually inspire one another, if you all focus on the same goal, if you all really want to be successful and take responsibility for it, you can do it. I am very proud of the way we all in Nais conquered our death valley.
Literature that helped me: