What I've learnt about starting a company

What I've learnt about starting a company

Benoit, Co-founder and CEO

5 Mar 2024

Before I co-founded Keel, I’d been an analyst, I’d worked in business development, I’d even been promoted to CEO at my last company. But what did I really know about starting a business?

It turns out, probably not as much as I thought.

At Echo (now LloydsDirect), my co-founders and I had helped scale the company from £0 to £100m ARR in under 5 years. As CEO, I’d overseen 10X growth in 18 months through the pandemic, and felt invincible. We founded Keel in early 2022, ready to do the same thing with our big idea, which was so great we’d managed to raise a few million for it before we even got started.

Now, two years in, there’s some things I wish I’d considered more back in those early days.

  1. The only focus is Product Market Fit

Remember all those achievements at Echo I was really proud of? Well those all came after we’d achieved Product Market Fit. On the back of our previous success, it was a bit too easy to take that for granted and assume PMF would come easily. Everyone knows that your only job as an early founder is to find PMF, but it’s not always easy to internalise this when other things will distract your attention and steal your focus.

You can’t ignore how quickly managing a team creeps up on your available time and headspace, especially if you care about doing it well. But as a founder you need to safeguard that headspace to experiment, talk to potential customers, and use that to enrich your vision and make good decisions.

Part of the PMF challenge is figuring out your ICP (Ideal Customer Profile) as early as possible. We started, and continued, building with only a very loose idea of our ICP. When you’re a team of action-oriented builders, it’s always a temptation to keep building and hope the ICP emerges. But you can’t retrofit your product to customers. You need to build with your target customers.

We’re lucky that we got there anyway - we have a clear ICP and customers who are highly engaged, already helping us prove our PMF hypotheses. But I think about how much easier we could’ve made things for ourselves if we hadn’t taken PMF for granted and had been more obsessed with it from day 1.

  1. Cash can be a blessing and a curse

Maybe easy for me to say, but raising that big early round created as many problems as it solved. Don’t get me wrong, I’m so grateful that we did, for the time and space it bought us to get to where we are now. But very simply if you don’t have money, you can’t spend it.

For us, raising early meant we could hire a bigger team than we needed, with roles we didn’t really need yet. We weren’t forced by constraint to figure out all the basics straight away, and that luxury meant we didn’t start thinking about some things, like our ideal customer, until later than we should’ve.

There are questions that only the founders, the ones equipped with the vision, can answer at the start. If you try to delegate that too early you waste time and energy. That’s why early research should be founder-led. Early sales should be founder-led. It’s only once you have early traction and a repeatable go-to-market plan that this changes.

Of course that fantastic early team made a ton of progress building the product we have now and we wouldn’t have got so far, so fast, without them. But now, having made the difficult decision to say goodbye to some of those founding teammates, we’ve found that having a smaller team makes us much more intentional about the skills we need most and much more focused on the task at hand. Everyone on the team is crystal clear on their role and how they add value, and we’ve minimised the amount of management overhead. I realise now that we should’ve spent more time in this state at the beginning.

It’s obvious why we got this wrong. We’d all come from a bigger, more mature team and needed to adjust to being mindful of our burn rate and what value we needed from that early team. Some team members said to us at points, “I don’t think you’re getting the best out of me”, and they were right.

  1. Invest in People right away

I’ve listed this third but it’s probably the easiest for me to identify, and the first thing I thought of. Right at the start, we had a hunch that we wanted to get things right culturally and that that would make everything else easier. We defined our values early on and that helped me and my co-founders have important conversations upfront about how we were going to run the company.

We hired our Head of People in the founding team, who’s helped us consistently make sure we’re living up to our values and doing things the right way. Common wisdom dictates that this should be a founder’s job - that it’s OK to hire engineers to build your product, but it’s not OK to hire People people to build your company. But hiring and getting the most out of your team is the most leveraged activity you can do as founders, and most companies don’t bring in expertise until it’s too late. When you have to constantly juggle between being a leader, a manager, and an IC, it’s almost impossible to get this consistently right.

We’ve reaped the benefits from investing in People, all the way through. We hired teammates who share our values, feel appreciated and respected, and have been treated as fairly as possible. We’ve been through tough times and managed to maintain good relationships with many former team members, some of whom have said they’d happily come back again when the time is right. We’ve been pleasantly surprised, again and again, by the grace and goodwill we’ve been given by our team, because of the foundation we built those relationships on.

I’m not going to say we’ve made all the right decisions when it comes to people. We’ve disappointed people, failed to communicate things, and waited too long to have difficult conversations. But I can see clearly how much worse all of those things could’ve been, and how much longer that list would be, if we hadn’t invested in people the way we have. I’ll never regret that.

The thing about founding a company is you just never stop learning. It’s a privilege to get this chance and I don’t take it for granted - I want to get things right as often as possible.

There are so many things you can get wrong when you’re starting out, but tech doesn’t need to be one of them. Save yourself some pain and check out Keel - a product that completely solves the backend puzzle, empowers your team, and scales with you, through PMF and beyond.

Together, we build world-class products

Join the waiting list for early access to Keel

Together, we build world-class products

Join the waiting list for early access to Keel

Together, we build world-class products

Join the waiting list for early access to Keel