Tag Archives: startups

The best thing about hard things

It has been just a couple days since our last board meeting and we were settling back into business as usual. And that’s when it hit me.

I would have never imagined that one of the most compelling, motivating and reassuring days of my life would have been when we were pushed into a corner, almost powerless, close to defeat and left only with a choice between overcoming insurmountable odds or packing up.

If you’re expecting this blog post about some company that came back from dead and turned it around into a billion dollar business, sorry to disappoint you. I am too impatient to wait and see what happens to LeadSift and then write about it when and if we’re successful, also frankly, I don’t care. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. Although most smarter folks would wait to write this post until they make it through, I want to share a profound experience – at least to me, a first time founder.



The Startup Menace

In late 2012, we raised a sizable seed funding from some of the hottest names in Canada, been tech-crunched, signed a partnership with SalesForce, launched a premium app with HooteSuite, inked a few other partnerships with large agencies, had media flogging us and raving about us, people wanting to work with us and we were pounding out code like nobody’s business.




holy_shitAttack of the Business Model

The problem was… it was indeed no body’s business. Soon we realized our product would never scale, the press died down and we were left scurrying towards a… you guessed it… pivot. (Except that we didn’t call it that). We survived that storm, the board supported us through figuring out our shit and build, rinse, repeat.


After much effort and grind, we are currently at the best place we’ve ever been at. Customers want us, large enterprises return our calls and set up 2nd and 3rd and 4th meetings. They take our ideas and pass them on to their creative departments. They line up as pilots.


 Revenge of the Bank Balance

Except…. we’re out of money. And, after a couple failed tries and overall rookieness, we’re not winning any awards with our boards’ confidence. I think I experienced what it feels like, getting kicked in the nuts, at our last board meeting!


 Return of a Game Plan

Within the last week, we’ve had to lay off some very talented and some of our favourite folks, and, in spite of making quite meager salaries, take paycuts ourselves. We talked to the rest of the team to describe what we were up against and what our game plan was. We need to be super focused and our future depends on the timelines of some of the customers’ in our pipelines and other external things that we can’t always control. We’ve also realized that we should have done this a couple months ago. Sounds grim, right?


LeadSift Team Strikes Back


But I feel compelled at this point, to quote some of our teammates and employees reactions when we broke this news to them. Ranging from the one person wanting to keep helping us with LeadSift for free to another person insisting that he wants a paycut with the founders! Another founding member who had kids, family, house, the whole 9 yards of responsibility, after a few beers that night, came in next morning and kept reassuring us that he’s here till the end and he’ll do anything for LeadSift, anything. Among other things that day, he gave away his personal cell phone number to a client who runs a 24/7 call center, for customer support requests, to ensure no matter what, we do our best! We support our university by hiring students for research and our post doc student took some of the pressure off our shoulders and talked to the professors and the research assistants giving them the disappointing news. A co-founder, who just had a kid, offered to go off payroll and on parental leave to save money.


New Hope

You might know, that as egoistic over achieving startup people, we go through a lot of clashes.

But, we all came in the next day, stronger, more determined, more unified than I’ve ever seen the team. Everyone had their war paint on. Everyone was aligned on one goal, and one goal alone. Each and every move, strategy, discussion, no matter how doomed it should have been, seemed more pumped, hopeful, exciting, confident. A chance to prove ourselves, a chance for victory, a chance to not die a zombie but a plan to go out with a bang if needed.




There is absolutely no way, that with this team, this passion, this hard work and this loyalty and authenticity, we won’t see a win. And… come to think of it, this IS our win! Anything else, is just gravy.




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Founders’ Mania

This is going to be a very hard piece to write, because some of the thoughts are fogged by my personal emotions while the others are just controversial.

For the last few years, tech-company founders of the young, unabashed, hoodie-wearing type are being given celebrity status that is hurting their business and everyone else involved. And this needs to stop before there’s too many people crushed and a bubble burst and a lot of good cash lost.

Let me elaborate where I am coming from.

A lot of the first time founders find themselves flogged by media and hype. It’s not easy starting a company but come on, people have been starting businesses and making money from them for ages and, that endeavor, until recently, has never been looked upon as something “heroic”. This pr and superfluous attention is drawing more and more people into “startups” just because they like the way it sounds and not necessarily because they have a great business idea that they are committed to. This is spawning lots of really bad startups which live with ridiculous expectations.

The coolness of startups are also attracting and creating lots venture capitalists or investors – either people with personal wealth or folks who have been hired by institutional VCs because they needed positions filled. These investors create a whole new round of issues – they bring with them limited experience of running and growing a company, very little experience of leadership and venture capital and a tiny or non-existent network of connections – therefore being unable to support the young startups with the essentials they need at the early stages.

Who suffers? Almost every startup. While lots of the startups actually have a real business idea, the enchantments of startup life puts unnecessary pressure to live up-to the big fake picture. It instils incorrect priorities in pursuing “cool swag”, promotes stupid ideologies as the CEO is hailed as a rockstar, creates confusion as the tiny company slogs their ass off with minimal mentoring and publicizes ridiculous expectations about the little company that has a 99% chance to fail. It creates an unhealthy environment for employees who join startups and are expected to work super hard for a lower pay while neglecting family and have little to gain other than experience – the unfair part being, even in the off-chance that the company succeeds, the founders make most of the cash.

And the newly christened investors end up funding one failed startup after another.



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First Love, First Cheque & Recurrence of Happy – All from Marketing

At LeadSift, we launched a HootSuite app, started a new PR campaign, began aggressive sales and took marketing by the horns, all within a couple weeks. Long Overdue and some good display of team Hustling! And what we found out from this exercise is.. total dope!


At any cash-strapped company, it’s always marketing that takes a back seat. Why spend money on blogging when we can write it ourselves. Why pay for PR when we can just use Facebook and Twitter (to broadcast it to who? Our friends???). We can obviously create some slides ourselves – after all we made so many in school! Those slides look damn good when pitching to the Fortune 500 companies. We got all these awesome investors, can’t we just badger them to get us into the bigger publications or customers? The product is good, we just push sales and get customers – right? NO. No. Not at all!


Here’s a real life scenario: An online bank cold-emailed Hatem and gave him an awesome no fee banking deal! Our first reaction was.. is it spam or is it a scam, let’s scram! If it would have been a bank we’d heard of, a cool new bank that did away with establishment costs and hence had lower interest rate and no fees banking – we’d be ecstatic that they emailed us! The word of mouth epidemic has amazing powers. Would you want to be the unknown amazing product? Would you have your sales team cold call people and offer a powerful cloud-based social-local-mobile app in spite of no one having ever having heard of it? No. It would do injustice to your sales team. And your product team deserves better.


Don’t get me wrong, I am an arrogant nerd and a non-believer of all non-tech roles, scoffer of all MBA’s. But Marketing has it’s role. A role that can make a startup happy! A place important enough that you need to put in money and quality time in it. Marketing can make you or your competition successful. If you’re a startup reading this, please do not skimp on your marketing budget, do not wait till the stars line up to start PR, don’t assume you can make the best slide decks… hand it over to the pros <And here’s a Heartfelt Shout out to LeadSift’s marketing team>! Let’s keep it coming~




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Feeling of can’t keep up

I am a start-up co-founder. I am also an egoistic, perfectionist control freak, borderline asshole (there’s some debate on which side of the border I am in). Often these alpha traits converge into a mash of anger and disappointment, overall a downward spiral where Over Achieving Requirements and Over Arching Deadlines rule your life.



Yep, I know you’ve been there too.

I don’t have answers on how to fix it. Yet, I know I’m not alone and neither are you. Since I’ve have been at this for nearly two years, there are some things that are sometimes successful at making it possible to live through it, with it… nay… conquer it. Or things that I hope to be reminded of those days when I’m going down the rabbit hole and this is short chronicle.

1. Trust your founding team and speak up right away and act right away. If your founding team has cracks… you’re not going to make it through. (Everyone’s heard this many times)

2. Take the tough decisions, fire, hire, add the new feature or don’t. Stop deliberating and going round in circles! Two meetings per feature, if a feature is brought up in the 3rd meeting, you could do better! (We’ve failed at this a handful of times and it’s caused us tons of grief)

3. Don’t dip your nose/hands in “everything” just because your life depends on it (yes, I agree your life does depend on it). You cannot control every aspect of a business and neither are you the best person for it. Against popular media, it’s never a one person company (nope, not even Steve Jobs) and without your team, you will not ship shit! (I am guilty of this where I try to keep my fingers in every pie expecting a sense of sanity/control, but I think I’m getting better)

4. Measure. We usually think things are much bleaker than they actually are because we’re disposed to being scared. (We once thought we were at the lowest point but we stepped back to realize we had 7 Fortune1000 clients in our funnel!)

5. Celebrate the wins, even the smallest ones. High five, get Chinese take out, get beer, get ice cream. Go out together and play cricket or paintball, get a bell in the office and ring it at every good news. (I have yet to try this but I REALLY want to, need buy-in from my co-founders.)

6. Breathe. Believe. Repeat.



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Dude, Take 5…

I love my co-founders… well ok, I usually like at least one of them each day 😉 and we have 4 so there’s enough to go around!

Of course, like every startup, we go through a barrage of difficult decision making, often about things we don’t know enough of (the bliss of trying to carve out a new market!). Which means it’s not always fully logical but guided by gut feelings and ego fueled wars often take over our discussions. We all know how detrimental it is for us and we try to put in fixes (different people have veto for different things, vote for things we deem need majority etc.) but alas, sometime we don’t let go of our “honour”!



And then, on the same day, I came across these two amazing blogs, “Give it Five Minutes” and “I Get It”. Woahhh – the first thing I thought was… who has five minutes.. we need it finalized NOW so we can begin building and shipping it. But wait.. is that a push back the moment I read something new? Irony.

We want more creativity, support, understanding, faith. We’ve gotto take 5. Or, 10. Send out an outline of the ideas or agenda before any meeting so everyone has time to marinate them, and if new ideas come up and unless there is an absolute obvious reason to junk it, we’ll take an hour before we decide to go for it or against. It’s OK if we don’t take the decision RIGHT NOW. It’s better if we take a decision a day late if it happens to be the right one, the next best thing, the silver bullet instead of us having missed it because we were undercover douches or egomaniacs.

Tl,Dr; Remember to be nice, respectful. Remember, our hearts beat for the same thing!

I am going to try and implement this strategy in our meetings moving forward – unless of course, I receive pushback 😉

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Ever been to a house where stairs creek, a tap stops leaking only if turned off a certain way and the corner window has a little crack which lets cold air in but the people living there put this fantastic decorative showpiece that blocks the stream and they’re proud of the genius behind it?

Yes, that is ownership.

It’s not always glorious, it’s a lot of hard work (shovel snow or pay for a overflowing toilet anyone?), it’s a lot of commitment and understanding. Yet, the best owners are the ones that thrive the challenges and come out proud and loving!

In a company, your team will always consist of very different kinds of people, (for tech companies, different = weird!) – someone’s wife had a bad day, someone started a new strict diet, someone had a fight with their parents, someone with loved one who’s very sick, or is in financial crisis! Your business will go through different kinds of challenges ranging from “no sales in a while” to “we ran out of water in the office”. You yourself will go through crisis and wonder, is this a real business, will this work, what if we don’t make more sales, what if my key person leaves, how long do I wait? It’s a LOT to deal with. If this a startup, there is a whole different level of instability as the icing.

Good ownership if when you can look forward to solving these problems everyday, you may not know the answers but you know your people, your team feels the same ownership as you do, you understand the subtleties, you love the high of doing something meaningful, you feel empowered,  you own the mistakes, you share the victories! You treat your company like a child, your child, which has some bad habits, some defects but you’ll do anything to fix it. And you’ll work as hard as needed. And you look forward to it. It’s not a challenge, it’s your life.


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Patience for Startups

“Have the courage to be impatient, the patience to be brave.” – When I first read this quote, I was much younger and I remember thinking to myself, this does not apply to me but I can see how it applies to grownups!

After years of reading The Letter, I have come to the point where I am grateful to Abe for so beautifully and poetically making me aware that I am not alone in this silent desperation.

LeadSift is at a stage where we must take bold steps and be most patient, both at the same moment. As a B2B enterprise software, we need to be fervent in contacting Fortune 500 companies and relentless in our patience as we move through their molluscan sales cycles. Crouch behind the trees with feline grace while breathlessly waiting for the moment we can sprint for the kill. Be ready to hear no’s because that’s where we’ll learn the most. Keep trying because we will hear a yes. It’s gut wrenching; for people who have never done sales, who have never dealt with enterprise bureaucracy, for them who take pride in weekly feature releases and working 18 hour days, for them who take pride in moving fast, for LeadSift, for me. Every moment spent waiting feels like breaths being sucked out of our lives.

Startups have two options, move lightening fast or fail. So this dichotomy feels very unsettling, painful. I don’t believe there is an easy way out but believing in the wisdom stops me from feeling like a helplessness headless chicken, enables me to gather the courage to be patient, to wait for another day, the right person, right time, so we can be brave when the moment arrives.

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