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A little about what I’ve learned during the past six months- both from transitioning from COO to CEO and also how you prioritise and manage things as a CEO of a start up.
It has often been said that running a company and raising money are the sum of two jobs. Sometimes it feels like more than that. But what about when you’re COO, CEO and chief fundraiser too? How many jobs does that equate to?
It’s a position I found myself in at ScreenCloud at the beginning of this year. Due to factors outside of our control, the excellent CEO we had employed to run ScreenCloud, while I focused on the operational aspects, had to remove himself from the business.
Suddenly, I thought, “I’m COO but now I’m CEO too” (meaning a big switch from ensuring product delivery and team management as well as customer acquisition and investor relations) and “oh — also Mark, you need to go and raise more money too”.
So I thought I would put down a little about what I’ve learned during the past six months- both from transitioning from COO to CEO and also how you prioritise and manage things as a CEO of a start up. It’s certainly been an interesting ride!
One of my first priorities was working out which skillsets and roles our previous CEO had, that I could take on and which would need to be rerouted to other (or new) members of the ScreenCloud team. Two of his roles comprised of writing content for ScreenCloud (both customer facing and also about our general journey as a start up) and also having a high-level of focus on customer acquisition.
I decided that I would still talk to customers, as actually I’m the best placed person to do that, but in terms of acquiring leads and getting them into the funnel — that’s something I could look to outsource.
I bought in a very small marketing team of two freelancers who would work on producing regular and useful blog content about digital signage and support articles for our audience (something we were still 100% committed to doing) and also manage our marketing activity — from landing page optimisation, through to adwords and retargeting.
Secondly, I bought my partner David into the fold to manage high-level company finance and legal. Which was something I was working on, but probably wasn’t very talented at :-)
In general, I outsourced the parts of my job that I could find other people who would be good at and brought them in on a part time basis because we couldn’t afford full. That alleviated some of my role, so that my strategy could return to the next stage of business.
At this point it became clear that there was no point worrying about the next raise as our current numbers probably wouldn’t have got the raise we needed, so my priority was to double down on customer conversion.
Around Christmas time the product was young and still quite raw. Initially we weren’t doing as much direct customer outreach as we should so we switched that up and went to a very high-touch strategy throughout the customer 14-day trial period (following on from the start our previous CEO had made).
Through switching to a high-touch strategy we were able to double our conversion rate without making any feature changes. Just from being more personal, more open and being more advice-led. Namely helping customers who thought that they couldn’t do something to helping them see that they could — when all they actually needed was a bit of a pointer.
That then fed back into updating and optimising the onboarding process at the same time. A higher-touch approach meant that customers were literally telling me to my face what they didn’t like and what they were confused about during the onboarding process. I could then turn to our developers and say ‘make a signpost for that’. We did and as a result, conversion rate doubled within a month.
By this point our customers were happier, growth was in a good place and from mid-January the numbers began to fall into the right places.
My next CEO curveball: making sure we could cope with the next stage of growth.
It’s all very well having a small number of customers using the platform but can it scale? It’s fine if you’re only having a few support queries a day but as you grow you’re going to receive more and more. You need to mitigate for that — particularly when you have just a CEO/COO and no support team to deal with them! Of course our developers and technical founder were also assisting with technical support but I knew that their time could be better spent elsewhere.
We went through the roadmap and what became clear was that our roadmap was ridiculously optimistic.
It was time to stop, take a breath and go back to the boring stuff. This meant returning to the platform and asking — is it as stable as it can be? Has the code been looked at, quality checked and are we actually providing as good a service as we say we are?
If you think your screens are vulnerable with the chance that ScreenCloud could go down or break then you wouldn’t use it as a platform.
But herein lies the challenge: at this stage customers were begging us for apps. They wanted social media, news, weather plus multi-user logins and a host of other features.
No one was begging me for stability because they had the assumption that it was already there.
So we completely stopped work on any new feature (which was what customers actually wanted) on the theory that if you can’t rely on the platform it doesn’t matter what cool features you’ve got.
It was challenging because customers were saying “it doesn’t look like you’re making much progress” or “I haven’t seen many updates from the app”. In fact, we were working ridiculously hard on stuff that they didn’t see but that was the right thing to do.
As CEO you’re often led to put the needs of the customer first, but my COO side knew that ‘faking it until you make it’ just didn’t cut it at this stage. We were supporting people’s image — people were using the ScreenCloud platform in their stores or at their events. We weren’t in beta — we were a commercial product and if people are paying for a product it needs to be reliable. That was the first decision of my CEO time — put that product roadmap in the bin. Start again and get stability.
Unfortunately, the only thank you that you get with stability is support ticket silence but I knew in the long-run, we’d be thankful that we did it that way around.
Surprisingly, my journey as both CEO and COO has been great up to this point but now it’s time to split out my role and build the infrastructure. Apart from consultancy-type small businesses, no great companies are completely founder driven. If ScreenCloud is going to be the great company we want it to be, it can’t be because of the early people and their skill levels. What’s more important is how we can replicate ourselves. Hiring people who are as good, if not better, than those doing the current multitude of roles.
None of the challenges in the last year have been about hiring as we haven’t had the money to do so. The next challenge is to ask; can we, in this hot world of tech, get fantastic people to believe in us, believe in our company, believe in our values and customers and want to be a part of our journey? That’s what the next stage will be about.
What have I learned most from being CEO? That the word or entity that best describes it would be ‘chameleon’. The biggest thing on my priority list in January was product. Now, product has nothing to do with me. When I see my board now and talk about product updates or new features they say: “stop talking about product, the product’s nothing to do with you”. So I got my customer acquisition, fundraising and team growth skins on, and I’ve had to take my product one off. The only way to do this successfully is through delegation and keeping away from any control-freakery. Which is not always the easiest task!
However, that’s what CEOs have to do — keep the plates spinning. And if the plates are spinning well then you have to go to the one that’s wobbling — whether that’s over the other side of the room or not.
The question now is: which plate am I heading to next?
I’d love to hear your thoughts/questions on my journey so far — please leave me a comment or tweet at @mr_mcd