Building the answer company: Lessons learned in 2023

Dec 29, 2023|Preston Ideh

There are very few venture-backed startups that have not felt added pressure to deliver more for less at the moment. In 2023, funding slowed down, budgets were cut, business models revisited, layoffs took effect, and some companies ground to a halt. 

Stears was no exception.

We counted many successes and avoided the worst, but we also went through a significant business model pivot that reshaped us.

Typically, when I write these end-of-year reflections, I focus on key lessons learnt in the preceding 12 months, the idea being to share the culture of deep thinking—foundational to Stears—in the public domain. This year is different. This year, the lessons learned are so aptly captured by a single phrase that we will focus nearly exclusively on it.

The phrase? Change management.

Most businesses need to evolve and adapt to survive. Startups, more so. From building new products to responding to novel consumer demand to defending against competitors and tackling underlying economic headwinds, change is necessary.

Organisations of every size struggle with change. While startups also struggle, our size and affinity for disruption offer a competitive advantage. Unlike small businesses with limited resources or large companies that slow down bureaucracy, startups are good at rethinking how to survive.

In this context, the ability to manage change becomes a necessary skill. Some managers fear it, and some thrive on it. Whichever side you fall, all managers must face it.

I once read that most organisational change initiatives are unsuccessful because teams fail to execute. But our proudest achievement this year was working with my co-founders & managers to navigate Stears through change without destroying everything we had built. 

This was only possible because of two interconnected factors that I will reflect on working with great talent & communication.

#1 Great talent wants to work with other great talent

The truth is I do not know how to build without really talented people. It just seems impossible, or at the very least, deeply unattractive. So far, I have been fortunate to work with incredibly talented people committed to doing great work. 

Stears is nothing without our people, and I sing this song every year. Across all teams, we have been lucky to work with superstars. This year, as we navigated an internal evolution, it became even clearer just how much we rely on our people to grow and why that will not change any time soon.

In 2023, we worked with more talented people—full-time & consultants— than we ever have; done it before hires who showed us the way. The most interesting part? Just how much the very best talent drew us to other great talent. 

It sounds easy when said this way. Almost like this should not be a problem or worthy of reflection. But the important lesson for us was seeing how much clarity we got from exceptional talent about the need to work with other exceptionally talented people. When great talent sets a high bar, it forces you to change your environment to attract & retain talent that scales the new bar. 

The reality is that this makes it very difficult for people to coast, leads to hard discussions, creates cultural tension, challenges performance management systems, blows up budgets and forces you to say goodbye to existing talent. 

I was not always prepared for this, so I often had to play catch up, but I learned to understand what was at stake and act accordingly. 

So, as an entrepreneur trying to build something great, you will face this question: what price are you willing to pay to work with the very best people? Because no matter where you go, great talent will demand—loudly—to work with other great talents. 

#2 Change requires a great deal of communication 

For Stears to pivot, and despite all the uncertainty, the company had to prepare [as best we could] operationally and culturally. Uncertainty can be scary, so teammates needed to feel they could ask questions or vent their frustrations without being penalised. 

Equally, managers needed to be able to read the room and understand how teammates were doing. Even the best managers will only ever partially succeed at this, so some failure is inevitable. However, keeping people well-informed was key to change management, and good two-way communication channels became crucial. We had to learn and relearn this, sometimes by getting it wrong multiple times. 

Painful but necessary. 

Sometimes, managers are tempted to believe this is the best time to be 'nice' to everyone, but a focus on niceness could often be a double-edged sword. That’s because it can misrepresent the true nature of companies.  

Some people refer to their companies as a family, but this can be misleading. As the CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings, once argued, it is far more accurate to think of professional workplaces as sports teams where winning is the goal. One bad game will not get you sent off the team, but you must fight hard for your position if you want to keep playing throughout the season. This is not the way families operate.

So, during the pivot, our most important job as managers was helping teammates recognise, understand and buy into the need for the change. And, as the CEO, I made peace with the fact that not everyone would be happy. I knew some people would prefer earlier versions of Stears, and others would leave because they did not want to or could not live in the changed world. 

That was okay. 

Thankfully, we came out with results that made us proud: teammates are journeying with us on the pivot, new joiners are bringing in fantastic energy, and older employees are taking up new leadership. Amid this, we have learned the importance of pulling in the same direction—and employee buy-in has been key to removing friction and making change easier. 

The cliché is that the only constant is change. No matter how the cookie crumbles, change comes, and 2023 proved that again. 

I know more change will come in 2024, though I do not know what change will come. I do not exactly know what the future will look like, but I know Stears will evolve. The people will change. The culture will change. The business model will change.

And that is okay.