How I survived the first 3 years as a startup in the tech industry
It has definitely been among the three most difficult years of my life, but certainly the most fulfilling.
3 Years On: The journey so far
A few weeks ago I reached the second milestone in my company’s career – the 3 year anniversary (the first milestone was reaching 1000 days in business). Like any major milestone in one’s life, such as a relationship anniversary or child’s birthday, this felt no different – in some ways it felt like it was literally yesterday that I clicked submit on the company registration CIPC’s site and at other times it feels as if I’ve been running a company for at least five times as long.
Truth be told, before I decided to throw away the safety net of a regular income and venture out to unpredictable pastures, I had actually helped my two previous companies build their digital departments literally from the ground up, with client acquisitions, sourcing of the right talent and building great products so going on my own was basically using those basic building blocks, however a hell of a lot more!
The First Year: The honeymoon phase
Year 0-1 was awesome and probably not of the norm of most startups. I landed my first client within the first week of launching (by reputation and word of mouth from past work) and also had previous clients approach me to take over some of their work and guide them in taking it internally (the previous company I worked at had closed). So, without any seed funding or startup capital I was able to start with a good sized project and some marketing budget from the little projects I picked up. The mistake I did make in year one though was doing it all and getting so hands-on engrossed in my work, that I naively thought once one project is complete, the rest of the work would follow based on reputation. I also decided that I wanted to get hands on involved in my finances so taught myself how to do basic financial tasks and left the complex items to professionals. Although the basic stuff is not difficult, it is most certainly time-consuming – which also meant less time to focus on converting business leads. I also did my own marketing where I wrote my own thought leadership pieces, managed the distribution and presented at conferences. I did eventually invest in a PR consultant to assist but it was not financially viable to have this service long term as a startup.
The Second Year: The toddler phase
Year 1-2 was not as great. Unfortunately the economy suffered some heavy blows and this had an effect on not just me but many companies in my industry. Pitching for new work, especially public sector tenders was extremely time consuming. Most companies were actually not keen on investing in new technologies or improving what they had, but simply wanted to keep their existing cogs churning. Of course, there were also the price wars: where numerous other companies were posingas mobile and digital experts and trying to grab work through the offer of ridiculous prices and time-frames (which my experience had taught me were not achievable). Unfortunately, I could not compete with them, as my team had 7+ years’ mobile and app experience and quality was something I was not prepared to compromise on. At the end of the day, you learn that you are running a business, not a charity and it has to be profitable. Another challenge in the second year were unforeseen expenses that cropped up, including spending large amounts of money on getting the required documents for my first tender, spending the time to compile it but getting rejected because the courier company used failed to deliver the documents on time, despite sending it 3 days in advance. Yes, as much as I am a planner and cater for multiple scenarios, there are some things that do take you by complete surprise and you are left crying in a corner asking …Why me? Then there is the mental battle in tough times as you begin to think: should I shut down, should I look at ways to be more competitive (being part of the price wars saga), should I change direction of what I am selling? Nevertheless, despite this, I continued marketing and building the brand as it was already known and there was interest in our service offering.
Year 2-3: The understanding and patience phase
Year 2-3 was about perseverance and remembering that it is not a sprint but a marathon. This is where I finally started seeing the puzzle pieces coming together. Fortunately at this time, the space that I’m in is coming full circle where clients are realizing cheap and quick is not good and certain does not help with retention. Projects in my pipeline that I started engaging with the previous year, finally began to convert into sales and people began seeing the value and unique proposition that my company can offer and most importantly, they wanted me to be part of their success stories. We have competed with large companies for work and have shone at pitches as our passion, dedication and expertise based on actual past work was clearly seen.
Year 3 and beyond: The trust and commitment phase
So, one of my mentors told me that year 3 will be the turning point for me and if I get past this, the rest will fall into place and get easier, although still difficult in some ways. I totally understand what that means. I’ve learnt so much over the last 3 years that no formal qualification would ever teach you. I’ve also learnt that one can never be complacent or take anything for granted. What’s next for Useful & Beautiful, we just want to continue building memorable experiences, whether it’s a small startup or major corporate. We started our company wanting to be proud of our work and help businesses create products that both surprise and delight their users while still achieving their business objectives and that has not changed.
This is a difficult and competitive industry to be in and nothing can be taken for granted. Having a strong and solid support structure is also key to surviving, because it can be a lonely place at times, and while this is business, for me I had to somehow find a way of integrating this into my personal life. I am also eternally grateful to the wonderful mentors who have literally been a WhatsApp away whenever I needed words of encouragement and motivation. I also strongly believe that every kind word, referral from my professional network and media recognition has contributed (all of whom I have recently personally thanked) to me being regarded as a thought leader in the mobile and apps space.
It was definitely the most difficult years of my life, but certainly the most fulfilling and I am looking forward to the next phase.
About Useful & Beautiful
Useful & Beautiful is a fast growing mobile solutions consultancy, with a specialist focus on mobile technology and product development. Service offerings encompass mobile strategy, design and development with the aim of supporting business goals with the unique qualities that mobile has to offer. Built on 15 years of experience in the mobile and digital space, Useful & Beautiful is passionate about leveraging the latest mobile technology solutions to map out intuitive and seamless user experiences that drive sustainable business value and results. For more info, visit www.usefulandbeautiful.co.za
About Lynette Hundermark – managing director of Useful & Beautiful
With over 17 years of experience in the tech, digital marketing and mobile solutions space, Hundermark co-founded specialist mobile solutions consultancy Useful & Beautiful. With a passion for developing mobile products that are aligned to business goals, Hundermark’s appetite for keeping abreast of the latest industry trends is fast establishing her as an expert tech commentator and opinion leader in Africa . She is also regarded as one of the top 30 most influential women in SA digital marketing.
Former apps business director and head of product strategy at Prezence Digital, Hundermark developed some of the most successful mobile web and apps solutions in the country.
Earlier in her career she served as an enterprise programmer analyst for 8 years the UK. Hundermark’s experience spans the retail, financial and entertainment sectors, where she has developed the initial mobile solutions for the likes of SterKinekor, bidorbuy, Hollard, Old Mutual and General Electric, to name a few. She speaks regularly at a variety of local tech and mobile conferences and is frequently quoted in South African and African media.
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