How to survive your first year as a start-up CEO

Romi Savova

by , CEO

at PensionBee

06 Jan 2016 /  

How to survive your first year as a start-up CEO

How to survive your first year as a start-up CEO

Founded in December 2014, my company, PensionBee, just celebrated its first birthday. We ate snowman doughnuts (yes, these exist, and they are absolutely delicious...)

I also reflected on the last year. This was a phenomenal time for PensionBee. As an online pension manager, we find customers’ existing pensions and combine them into a single online plan, managed by two of the world’s largest investment managers. Over the course of the last year, we built our core technology, put in place the most amazing team and released the pension location tool to the general public in December 2015. Just in time for Christmas! It took a lot of hard work. A lot of blood, sweat and perhaps a few tears. This is what I learned along the way.

1. Find teammates who will get in the bathtub with you.

My team is absolutely amazing and each one of them is critically important. Not only are they individually a huge proportion of the workforce (one person on a ten-person team is 10%!) they are also the key reason you will move forward or fail. The best teammates care about the company and your mission. They get angry about excessive pension fees. The company becomes a part of their lives. They think about PensionBee at home. At strange times. And they are excited about new ideas and how they can push those new ideas forward. Our CTO, Jonathan, and I like to call this “getting in the bathtub”. It can be uncomfortable, it’s very personal and it’s usually a tight squeeze! But when the entire team is in the bathtub, the company’s productivity thrives. You need the right team because...

2. It’s going to be hard.

If it wasn’t hard, somebody else would already be doing it. For us it often gets hard when we work with uncooperative pension providers. We need to ask them hard questions, like how much they are charging customers in fees - never a fun question to answer, especially when the answer is hidden in reams of paperwork. I know that when I hear Tess, our Manager and chief BeeKeeper groaning, one of those pesky pension companies has thrown an obstacle in her path. I will never forget the day a major pension company asked us to send them a fax! The key here is to keep persevering. Our customers have a right to know about their own money. As long as you stay on the right side of what is right, there is always a way forward. That’s when we bought Larry, our fax machine. Larry reinforces the principle that...

3. Good businesses are about good processes, not just good ideas.

Those who know me know I hate the word “founder”. Founder always implies the person with a good idea, but most CEOs will tell you ideas are worth very little and boring old process is the true king of start-up success. A successful company requires scalability, which is an investor term for “being able to do the same thing over and over again efficiently”. Building effective processes requires discipline. At PensionBee, we live by the mantra of plan, check, do, check, measure. It’s tempting to skip the planning stage when resources are tight, but it’s key if you want to avoid nasty surprises. Building processes doesn’t mean you have to be “corporate”. On the contrary, it’s really important to...

4. Own your identity.

Jasper, our VP Marketing, is the epitome of the PensionBee brand. He is sharp, fresh, provocative and fun. Not what you would expect from a pension company, yet everything we find distinguishes us from the stuffy dinosaurs of the insurance industry. When you’re a small company, it’s tempting to act in the way you think others expect you to act. Most pension providers communicate by post. We hate post and avoid it at all costs. Unless the package came in some pretty wrapping, post is just another chore. Be different. Customers will love you for it and when they do...

The PensionBee team

5. Jump for joy.

When our very first customer decided to combine his pensions with PensionBee, I literally jumped out of my chair with a fistpump! We had helped this particular customer save thousands of pounds in pension fees and he was grateful! All of the hard work was worth it at that moment. Don’t forget to celebrate and to...

6. Share your success and thank those that help you move forward.

Your investors, your business partners, your family and your friends have all taken time out of their lives to help your company grow. It’s important to thank them, whether that means buying them breakfast or sending them custom-made t-shirts with the company logo (which they will proudly wear!). They are your life support and they understand that you need to...

7. Keep going as fast as you can, because things always take longer than you think they will.

The devil is in the detail. Entrepreneurs are naturally optimistic. That’s why we are entrepreneurs! However long you think something will take or however much you think it will cost, a good rule of thumb is to add another 50%. Especially when you are dependent on others. If you are dependent on the regulator or another government authority, double the amount of time you think it will take. Delays are unavoidable, so...

8. Get some ‘ZZZs. If you can.

For me, the hardest part of being a CEO is the insomnia. It’s very common to wake up at 4:30am with a new idea or the solution to a hard problem or a nagging worry. If you’re like me, you will discover a newfound ability to function on several hours of sleep. In these situations, a double macchiato is your best friend. Don’t worry, you will sleep again.

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