A short while ago, we returned from a successful SXSW. We visited Austin, the live music capital of the world, not only because we made it our objective one year ago, but because we believe it was just the right audience for us to test several assumptions of our business. More on that later.
An immigrant founding team on growth.
Our founding team is very unique (I would say diverse, but in the current Tech scene, this is sometimes a misused term). Even though we come from similar backgrounds, our Colombian past is overwhelmed with different experiences, each of us majored in different areas and thus, worked across different industries. We lived in Bogota (the capital), for most of our lives, but our families and traditions are as diverse as ever. For instance, Kristian’s family has a strong link to folkloric music, namely, Vallenato. See him below playing the accordion. Or for instance, Guillermo, with strong roots in the northeastern part of Colombia, in Bucaramanga, where locals eat ants (hormigas culonas – they are delicious).
For reasons we deem to see as coincidental, we ended up founding Stereotheque with the general idea of making a music tech company. We want to connect people through music, in the effort of making it a better place. With that in mind, we knew from the start the very hard task, as immigrant entrepreneurs, we were undertaking. Also considering the current political situation the US is currently under.
We knew that in all chances, our roadmap was going to serve as example for those who would become part of the Stereotheque team.
Back in October, Michael Thai, a full stack engineer reached out to us. This was our first official internship request. Even though we had managed other people in previous work experiences, this was a first for all of us as a company and in a foreign country.
Particularly, Michael’s objectives were based on helping Kristian build our web-crawler to provide insights and relevant data and match it with our music discovery platform. From the beginning, we knew of Michael’s capabilities, so we didn’t have a doubt that he was the right fit and that his work would strongly benefit our objectives. That said, we learned several things.
First of all, top-down communication is key specially at the beginning. Even though we are a small company, establishing a solid communication flow and feedback system is key. This is something we’re still learning specially being a remote team. We use Slack on a day to day basis in liaison with good old email, but a few phone calls can go a long way. You can get on-the-spot answers, spontaneity and personality traits. These things are still hard to find through team communication tools.
Second, on-boarding is very important to have in place (and iterate over time) to communicate culture and vision. We created a snappy and easy to view Trello board, so the new team member can review some housekeeping tasks and make sure he is given the proper tools and access. As immigrant entrepreneurs, we tend to think that there is already an ‘established way’ of doing business. Or that there are certain rules you must follow to accomplish milestones. It is true there has been great studies on culture and communication. But every company is a different story with a set of different circumstances.
This is definitely an aspect we need to work on, not only for new team members, but specially for ourselves. Figuring out a solid, concise culture can be of great benefit specially when the going gets tough.
Product oriented team
A short while ago, I heard Intercom’s co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer Des Traynor speak in a podcast from This week in startups with Jason Calacanis. He talked about the importance of alignment, building a product-first company, hiring by values, scaling carefully and avoiding churn. However, the most powerful insights were in terms of being a product-oriented team. Saying: “Your product’s impact must be core to your company’s success”. Understanding this right is very powerful, because the company’s success speaks directly to the company’s culture, values and mission.
Going from founders + 2, and to really going to a team of 20 or 30 is a big feat, and challenge. He explained how going from 2-4 founders who know exactly what they are doing, to 16 folks who don’t have a clue of what they are doing. Startup failure often goes back to this point, failing to establish the mission, vision and values of the startup. What makes a value? “An expression of guidance on how to behave and act when common challenges are encountered.”
More importantly, we have to adopt what he said about Alignment. Even though the initial people you begin to work with, or the first folks you hire, can have good intentions, alignment is much more important. Misalignment: you get for free. Basically, misaligned people will misalign more people. An important topic is to choose what you want to document. Writing down our core values has been important – and this needs to be codified. Maybe these can change over time, but we also have them ready to be read and reviewed by our team. In a nutshell, if we want to become a product-first company (with our values and company culture as the common denominator to achieve this), we have to worry about Churn more than growth. Growth will come later. So, we calculate churn rate as a percentage of customers lost. This will definitely be our most important metric once we launch our public beta.
Managing expectations can be a tough job to do. We are well aware that little by little, we continue to know more of each other and learn what to expect from each other. One thing that music has definitely taught me, is that every individual has his or her own pace, an own rhythm. And it’s a manager’s job to understand that rhythm and not necessarily replicate it, but complement it.
That’s something I understood after working with the entire team at SXSW. Therefore, we tried implementing a couple of things for tracking our own success, collectively and not only individually.
Every Friday at 10 am I send via slack a short post that summarizes what I’ve achieved throughout the week. Then, the others do the same and we all share notes and ideas for the following week. The idea behind this is to have a reality check and figure out if we’re all on the same page or if there’s need to change something.
In other news…
There’s another team member who joined us a couple of months ago – Nicolas Lopierre. A computer science major at NYU, he’s been helping us out with business development and brand partnerships. Indeed, we learn from our interns as time goes by. A second intern will be joining us for the summer, helping out with AI research and business development.