For a tech startup, ‘common practice’ is useful as a guideline, but understanding how that maps onto your specific context is crucial for sustainable growth. CTO Mike Jones and his team at Picsa found they had to ensure their operations served their context – not the other way around – in order to save money and reduce risk. They did this by being critical and deliberate about the metrics they tracked, the customers they sold their product to, the tools they used, and the tech they worked with. Here’s how they did this.
Picsa is a fintech startup that was founded to provide financial solutions in the form of savings and investment plans to low-income workers in the agricultural sector. Mike’s team are particularly passionate about solving financial problems for those who earn very little per month, who have previously been taken advantage of, or who have not traditionally had access to financial products.
As Mike says, because this is a high-risk startup environment, the lean startup approach of iterating quickly, throwing stuff against the wall, measuring it and shutting it down and moving on if it doesn’t work, isn’t always going to work when you’re dealing with the finances of somebody who is quite risk-averse. While a lack of existing solutions in a niche market typically means huge growth opportunities, Picas’s potential customers cannot afford any risk, so traditional startup thinking couldn’t apply:
“Those types of problems - like, how to get daily active users - a lot of those measurement-type approaches are irrelevant when it comes to the kind of work that we do.” They couldn’t afford to take risks on their clients’ money, which means that they need a different approach.
By adjusting the way his startup operated, Mike and his team at Picsa were able to reduce risk effectively. They used the following guiding principles:
- Track metrics that point to quality of engagement
- Only sell to people who need your product
- Make your tools serve your needs
- Use tech you’re familiar with
Track metrics that point to quality of engagement
Typically, metrics like ‘daily active users’ are a useful health metric for tech startups. They show activity and indicate retention – both of which are useful for growth. In Picsa’s context, however, those aren’t useful for Mike’s team: They need qualitative engagement in order to know whether the person using their product is using it effectively.
By being highly selective about which metrics to track, Mike’s team reduces the risk of tracking meaningless metrics, being overwhelmed by how many metrics you’re driving to drive, and just ending up with a bunch of dashboards. “There’s no point in just measuring whether somebody is investing or not”, Mike explains. Their customers likely haven’t invested before, and providing good financial solutions requires knowing how customers are investing, as opposed to simply whether they were investing or not.
To do this, Mike’s team tracks and measures the quality and extent of change:
“What we looked at was breaking what we measure up into buckets, where moving from one bucket to another is a meaningful change.” For example, Mike tracks how a user jumps from saving R20, to saving R200 – which enables his team to better understand the interventions they can introduce. Mike says that his team tracks metrics they can have deliverable actions for: “I want to have a plan in mind of how I could use this metric if it turns one way or another, as opposed to gathering the metrics and then taking the action as a result.”
“If they jump from R20 to R200, that’s a significant event – we can do something about that.”
Knowing that, the Picsa team can adjust the messaging they send to customers, for example, because they have a targeted, specific understanding of the quality of their metrics.
Only sell to people who need your product
As a fintech startup working with a risk-averse customer base, Mike and his team at Picsa took the slower, more deliberate approach to finding customers, and only selling to people who needed their product:
“Most financial service businesses will spit out a sales team. There’ll be a person whose responsibility is to just drive the growth of loans, for example. For me, that’s a horrendous way to build a business: Just trying to sell your product to as many people as you can, rather than to serve as many customers as have the need.”
Over and above not being authentic, selling wildly is a costly endeavour – one which Mike’s team could not afford as a startup. Sales wasn’t a resource they could risk spending capital on: “It’s a cost for us, and therefore for our customers. We want them to share their rewards with us; we’re not trying to push products down their throats.”
Taking this approach means that Mike’s startup is growing slower, but more sustainably. This means his team has a better understanding of which products workfor their customers, and which don’t: “Moving slowly and selling what you have to only the people that really need it can be a practical way of getting slow, steady growth rather than lumpy, bumpy, ‘head of one doll on another doll’ growth. I’ve seen that that’s what a lot of startups end up doing after three years: Not cutting off the bits that no longer make sense.”
Make your tools serve your needs
Mike and his team at Picsa started out by figuring what the essence of their needs were. In line with minimising risk, they had to save money where they could. Having cost-effective tools was one of their top criteria, and buying Slack, for example, a tool that a lot of other tech startups use, would mean they’d need to drive their sales up which – as Mike has already explained – was not an option:
“Every time we add a new license for Slack, it means we have to add another 30 customers to cover my use of Slack that week. That’s a perpetual commitment to a third party service for a need we can serve with another tool.”
Being deliberate about what you actually want a tool to achieve makes it easier to let the tool serve your complexities, as opposed to trying to mould your complexities around a tool. They started out by figuring out what they needed, and then made the tool they chose work for them.
Mike and his team at Picsa use Telegram, a more affordable alternative to Slack, and they have rhythms to make it effective for their context. They have two check in points each day, which they call AMAs (‘Ask Mike Anything’), where everyone comes online for an hour or so to check in on things they need clarified. This method streamlines communication into two main ‘pillars’ each day. Everyone knows when the team will be online and that they’ll have a chance to ask questions and see other people’s questions answered too.
Another benefit of Telegram for Mike is that it’s better for avoiding ‘busy work’ – work that feels busy, but isn’t productive. For example, with Slack it’s so easy to mindlessly check your channels every 15 minutes. Telegram can be locked, requiring you to enter a password to unlock it before using it. “It just makes sure that you don’t get to the point where you’re mindlessly clicking icons on your phone”, he explains. “It’s so easy to get distracted from your work when you’re always available for communication.”
Use tech you’re familiar with
Being a startup generally means being at the forefront of innovation. With tech startups in particular, Mike says the assumption is that the innovation lies in your tech solutions and their complexities. “But, in our case, we’re not solving a tech problem; we’re solving an access problem, which means that adding more tech complexity into our solutions is unnecessarily layering risk onto more risk. We’re in a position where we can’t afford to experiment with new tech using our clients’ money, so we have to innovate in other ways.”
“Our main complexity is the domain complexity, and the technology is really there to serve it.”
Instead, Mike looks for answers, instead of creating new questions. His hack for searching on StackOverflow is an acronym he uses called ‘SOWHAT’: “It’s ‘Stack Overflow, what are you talking about?’ Basically, I ask myself whether I’ll be creating a question, or whether I’ll find the answer. If the former, then I’m probably not going to use that technology, framework, or library. Otherwise, I’d just be introducing risk on top of risk.”
As opposed to finding a new framework to experiment with, Mike’s team works within the bounds of what they know to develop a functional solution for that problem.
The impact of this means less risk, less financial cost, and less time spent on fixing things: “You spend a lot less time on call, coaxing ‘bleeding edge’ stacks to stop falling over. You also end up with a team that’s less frantic.”
All-in-all, Mike worries less about being a startup, and more about building a product for their customers. “Create an environment that’s more about serving the clients’ needs, and less about the thrill of building a startup.” That way, he says, it becomes easier to distill your context, understand what you really need, and mould common practice around that – as opposed to trying to squeeze yourself into a box you think you need to fit into!
- “Let My People Go Surfing” by Yvon Chouinard: Mike says this book does a great job of breaking down how to think about the complete impact of your company, rather than just the product and what’s in front of you.
- “Simplify” by Richard Koch and Greg Lockwood: Mike enjoys this from a strategy perspective, as it dives into how to segment your product as either proposition-simplifying or price-simplifying.
- “Getting to Yes” by Roger Fisher: This one is on negotiation, and Mike says it helped him improve his ability to take another person’s perspective into account.