Founders and CEOs crave fast growth, often above all else.
That means massive funding rounds and eye-popping valuations, infusions of top talent, bandwidth to focus on more strategic tasks, as well as the all-important runway to build great products, get them to a larger market and scale the company to unicorn status of over $1 billion and beyond.
But before you can reach that, you and your ragtag team must overcome great odds and obstacles.
There’s finding product-market fit, recruiting your core team, managing your meager finances effectively, finding your first few customers, creating recurring revenue, getting earned media, among others.
And perhaps above all, in a sea of ever-changing priorities and pivots, there’s knowing what to focus on.
Few (if any) true entrepreneurs take a straight path to success. Failures, mistakes, and pivots are unavoidable in building a successful business.
So, what are the secrets of those founders who overcame great odds, wrong turns, and lots of dead ends to push through to success? And what have they done during COVID-19 to get through the worst kind of disruption, to continue, even accelerate growth?
I spoke with three CEOs of companies that achieved unicorn status and a “unicorn whisperer” for my Commander-in-Chief podcast to learn how they did it.
Here’s what they shared.
Ronni Zehavi, CEO of HiBob
“If you take a look and follow the majority of the success stories there’s one thing that repeats itself in all of them. They all talk about culture. You hear it again and again, once the game is over and [they’re] a big success. You don’t hear much about it when you’re climbing the greasy pole.
I’ve been through three crises: 2000, 2009, and last year. You have to surround yourself with amazing people better than you who can be the CEO of what they do, who can challenge you. You [have to be] humble and mentally strong enough to listen because CEOs are alone. To balance your life, you need to pause, take time off, zoom out. If you’re not surrounded by strong people, you’ll be lost. You’ll be pulled down all the time and you won’t be able to breathe.”
Omer Keilaf, CEO of Innoviz
“One of the problems for startups is, when they create the core DNA [of their business], it gets diluted when they grow. When you have a strong core, no outside force can change it. It becomes like a magnet.
Assume that you may not know anything. The first three to four months, you’re just going to learn. The problem we wanted to solve was three to four orders of magnitude more difficult than we thought. My army unit’s motto is, ‘Talent, commitment, and passion make the impossible, possible.’ There were so many times when we were facing an impossible situation and found a way to solve it. This is a bit addictive. In the last six months, we’ve had eight to ten people who left the company, then came back. People miss the company, the passion. When I see that passion is maintained, it’s the most important thing in the world.
In terms of dealing with COVID-19, we continue to work from our offices, but let people decide to work from home if they need. One of the most meaningful changes we’ve made is deciding to build our next-generation production line at our headquarters, rather than abroad (Germany). This allows us to run faster.”
Adam Singolda, CEO of Taboola
“The first four and a half to five years there was no revenue. We almost shut down three times. It was very hard work to survive. Today, we have 18 offices around the world, with $1 billion in revenue. That’s what’s shaped our culture since.
The very first people who choose [to work for you] don’t choose your vision or your company. They choose you. What truly matters is the culture you establish in the very beginning. For us, our secret sauce is how we think about people. We have 1,700 employees now, 1,700 co-founders. I want to be open and transparent to let anyone ask anything.
In terms of adapting during COVID-19, we’re committed to a hybrid model where it makes sense. I do think that longer-term, it’s critical to bring people together in person rather than on another Zoom link. We have what I consider one of the greatest offices in the heart of New York City for the random inspiration and innovation it promotes.
To attract talent in the new [remote work] world, we’ve invested in employer branding to communicate our values, why we do what we do, and why it matters. Remote work will also be the best thing in recent years to foster diversity. We can now hire from anywhere, which opens up more opportunities to those who might never have applied before.”
Hillel Fuld, tech marketer, and startup adviser
“It’s good business to help others win business. Like a candle. When a candle gives fire to another candle, it loses nothing. But if you don’t give your fire like a candle, you’ll burn out. When I focus my time and resources on value creation (marketing, getting press) and not monetization, when I exceed expectations over and over and over, I create delight. When I come back after delighting a company, now we can do business.
The concept of ‘We don’t need to make money right now,’ works. If you don’t invest in growth, you’ll never reach profitability. One of the first employees at Facebook approached Mark Zuckerberg with a business idea. Zuckerberg wrote ‘growth’ on the whiteboard. He said, ‘If we have 2.5 billion users, we’ll find a way to monetize.’ So build your product, then align your brand with it.”
Yuri Kruman is the CEO of HR, Talent & Systems Consulting, an executive coach, keynote speaker, and author of Be Your Own Commander-in-Chief.