Lessons learned from dealing with high-growth startups. When Multiple first started in 2015, the concept of an agency specifically geared to the strategic branding and culture of startups was definitely not new, but the fact that it was starting in Europe definitely was. At the time, I remember startups in Silicon Valley having access to, literally, multiple ways of scaling up their concept, from growth hacking partners to branding agencies, to many different types of assistance.
Plenty of that of VC cash wasn’t employed by the startups only internally, but also externally, on helpful agencies. In London and Europe the attitude was different: “Don’t spend it on agencies, spend it on building the product”! But as soon as Multiple appeared, I realized this was a sign that the European ecosystem was in fact maturing to be able to support this more sophisticated approach.
Part of the reason Silicon Valley has become so powerful is that it supports a wide variety of these wider ecosystem players, and doesn’t just dole out cash to raw entrepreneurs who often are pretty experienced in company and brand building. Europe, it seemed, was finally growing up.
Four years on and I decided it was time to find out from Multiple co-founder Katy Turner, as a former entrepreneur and VC herself, what she and her co-founder Gabbi Cahane have learned from dealing day in and day out with high-growth startups. After all, here at least is an organization that has seen it all in terms of company building…
The timing is opportune. After several years in the market it’s also launching its “Scale Partners network”: A crack team of experienced players from the U.K. and European tech ecosystem to extend its capabilities and help their client companies grow faster.
The network includes names such as Laurence Bret-Stern (former CRO at Pipedrive); Tracy Doree (founder at Kindred Capital); Dhiraj Mukherjee (co-founder, Shazam); Alicia Navarro (president, former CEO and founder at Skimlinks); and Rabin Yaghoubi (former CCO at Babylon Health, director of Strategic Partnerships for Google EMEA, Doubleclick); among others.
Mike Butcher: How did Multiple start?
Katy Turner: Gabbi and I originally met each other through the network of Seedcamp mentors. We had a lot in common, having been investors, operators and (in Gabbi’s case) founders, and we recognized that having access to experienced external expertise is really valuable. We’d also been non-technical people working in and around tech companies and understood the power of brand, culture and growth when it comes to company building. Multiple originated from these conversations and we founded the business in 2015.
MB: Multiple isn’t just an agency is it? You look at a startup pretty holistically. Can you explain that?
KT: We try to supercharge a startup’s progress through both brand and culture. We support progressive companies to build the capabilities, culture and communications that will enable them to take out the competition, take a big exit or, in the classic phrase, take over the world. We’ve worked alongside the founders of companies such as Pipedrive, WeTransfer, Unbabel, Kalo, Aire, beryl (formerly Blaze), Verve, Drover, Favro and Trouva; and the partners of funds such as Kindred, Connect, WhiteStar and Albion. Often founders need help with clarifying their purpose, shaping their vision, positioning, strategy, you name it. That’s what we’re good at.
MB: What are the biggest lessons you’re learned from advising startups?
KT: We’ve found there’s huge value in being fully aligned around a clear purpose, mission and vision. These are the strategic foundations which provide the platform for success. Purpose is ‘the why,’ the mission is ‘the what’ and vision is ‘the where.’ Codifying these drives the fundamental alignment of the startup, which then goes on to supercharge their progress.
MB: Is there such a thing as a founder who is beyond help? Do they personally need something special?
KT: It’s hard to help a founder if they don’t want help. Ideally, founders are coachable and willing to learn, versus having a fixed mindset. In our team, we’ve been founders, operators and investors — so we always remember how it feels in those everyday scenarios, stresses and situations that founders may face. It’s easier to empathize when you’ve done it yourself!
MB: When should startup founders bring in experienced “operators,” if they don’t have any, or can they grow into the role? When do find that you guys get asked into the picture?
KT: We find we get asked to come in at the point at which real scale is needed with experienced heads — either inside or outside the business. This can, obviously, be extremely valuable. However, we absolutely believe that founders can grow into the role of CEO, and we often see it as part of our job to help them do that.
We typically get involved at key inflection points in the lifecycle of the business. For example, when you need to lift your head up from building the product and start to build the company. Or perhaps it might be during a significant fundraise; international expansion; a rebrand; a desire to codify and refine the culture ahead of a key hiring spree, etc. It’s about achieving the next stage of progress as effectively as possible. Everyone goes through that, as I guess we have the advantage of having been on that journey many times with many different kinds of founders at all sorts of stages.
MB: Everyone always says ‘leadership is key,’ but what have you found are the best kinds of leadership?
KT: Obviously, different leadership styles are appropriate for different companies depending on the culture you want build and steer. But we’ve found there’s no singular leadership style that is ‘right,’ really. Leaders can have styles that are charismatic, transactional, situational or participative. They can all work, depending on the context.
In a startup and scaleup context, we’ve experienced that ‘transformational leadership’ and ‘servant leadership’ styles can produce highly effective organizations.
MB: What do you mean by those terms?
KT: A transformational leader is the visionary who leads their team with enthusiasm and energy, whereas a servant leader is driven by the need to have a deep impact and to help others.
In both cases, these leaders create highly collaborative, innovative and autonomous cultures, through their ultimate desire to facilitate the success of others.
MB: What have been the worst kinds of leadership?
KT: We’ve seen a few examples in our time, given we deal so closely with entrepreneurs, but for the worst I’d say ‘transactional.’ It’s just very non-motivating to feel that someone who is in charge is only ever dealing with their team on a transactional basis, as in ‘did you do this?’ Or ‘you must do this in order for this to happen,’ etc. The other one is ‘situational.’ Dealing with things on a situation-by-situation basis, where there’s just no obvious, overall strategy, shows a lack of consistency and will ultimately undermine the confidence of the team in their leadership.
MB: How much can you plan ahead in high-growth companies?
This is highly stage-dependent. The earlier the company, the shorter the time horizon for forward planning. Having clarity over your mission is critical to the planning process. The mission is the master ‘OKR’ (Objectives and Key Results) in the business. It has to be trackable and measurable. For a high-growth company, a three to five-year mission makes sense. Then you can build shorter-term plans which act as staging posts along the way — so for example, what’s the plan for the next 12 months if our five-year mission is to become the market leader in our category or enable a billion people to access education?
MB: What are the organizational structures you’ve seen which work best with tech startups?
KT: To paraphrase Ben Horowitz, ‘the first rule of organizational design is that all organizational design is imperfect.’ Structures that allow for small, multidisciplinary, cross-functional teams delivering against clearly defined objectives work extremely well. The use of DRIs (directly responsible individuals) and OKRs help to keep the team on track, enabling clear ownership and priorities so that individuals can do their best work.
MB: Is there such as thing as transitioning from startup to ‘scaleup’ or is that just another funding round?
KT: In our experience, the moment of transition comes when a product has established validation and traction in its market. And when the organization requires the systems and processes to enable it to retain and grow its customer base. In essence, it comes after product-market fit, where you need to deliver the product and revenue in a measurable and repeatable manner. We’ve found that from a funding round perspective, Series B is when the journey towards real scale is being tackled.
MB: What are the best ways to establish product/market fit?
KT: The route to product/market fit is highly dependent on the kind of product you are building for the market you are serving. Product/market fit needs to happen repeatedly at every stage. At early stage, people are willing to pay for your product even when it’s imperfect, because it’s the best or only way to address the problem they have. And what constitutes product/market fit at Series A might change as you scale beyond Series B. Product/market fit equals solid and sustainable unit economics and a product that your customers can’t live without. At every stage, ongoing customer development, obsession and experimentation are critical.
MB: Have you assisted in fundraising? What are the lessons learned? Especially in the U.K.
KT: The short answer answer is yes. We’ve contributed to our companies’ fundraising at every key investment stage from seed to Series C. What we’ve learned is that like all human beings, investors respond positively to powerful stories that illustrate the ambition of the organization and the ‘dent’ it wants to make in the universe. The fundraising narrative must also be shot through with the personality of the organization. Investment decks that don’t reflect the brand will not cut the mustard. Investors in the U.K. are like investors anywhere else — they want to believe in a team with a strong sense of purpose and a big vision.
MB: What is some of the hiring advice you give?
KT: We find it’s best to ensure you have enshrined values and practices that are imperative or directive, that can be used as a guide to hire against. Then build out a hiring process that tests whether the individual’s personal goals and ambitions marry with those of the organization.
MB: When should startups think about branding?
KT: Branding is often thought of far too narrowly. We believe that brand is everything you make, say, do and provide. Your tech, your code, your pricing and, of course, your positioning and personality are all elements of your brand. So even if an organisation hasn’t been intentional about building out their brand, they will have one anyway. The earlier you can be intentional, the greater chance you have of being consistent and coherent in your execution.
MB: Can you fix a bad tech brand?
KT: Yes. However, it takes an investment of time, resource, capital and desire to ensure that it’s fit for purpose. We always go back to the foundation stones of purpose, mission and vision as the starting point for this work. Everything builds from these strategic assets that direct the why, what and where.
MB: Is a relaunch the kiss of death?
KT: If it’s done badly and built on weak foundations, then yes. However, if you are thoughtful and intentional about why you are doing it, then it can be successful. Are you simply painting the hallways, or are you rebuilding the house from the ground up, i.e. infusing the brand with clarity around its positioning and personality that expresses genuine meaning and benefits which add value to the team, the business and your customers?
MB: Should you build a company culture or a cult?
KT: You should build a culture. Cultures adapt and evolve, survive and thrive. Cults ultimately self-immolate, let’s face it…
MB: Here’s a list of 18 startup mistakes from legendary startup guru and investor Paul Graham.
What would be your 19th?
KT: Number 19: The inability to sell. Selling is existential — in the broadest sense. You always need to be selling whether bringing on board a co-founder, selling a story to the market, convincing a customer or raising funding. We sometimes joke: “I sell, therefore I am…”