The Stack

Navigating a startup in a pandemic

Since the news came out in November 2019 that I had left corporate life to become an entrepreneur, nothing could have prepared me for the roller coaster of a journey that 2020 was going to bring, writes Chuck Teixeira.

When I started, the first three months were what I called the ‘honeymoon phase’, unshackled from corporate life, I felt the world was truly my oyster.  I thrived on the creativity; having no boundaries, no rules, no limits on what was possible.  In some ways this can actually be overwhelming when you have spent several decades in very structured corporate environments.  I felt like I was using muscles I have not used in decades, being creative and thinking outside the box.

During this period, I was traveling constantly, I did over 20 flights in my first three months. I was meeting with potential investors, clients and partners.  I was seeking out and learning from any founder who would talk to me and share their experience.  As an extreme extravert, this was an environment I thrived in.  I will touch on being an extreme extrovert and the consequences of 2020 a little later.

Don’t be afraid to pivot

Chuck Teixeira, Founder, WCKD RZR

By soliciting feedback from different constituents, I learnt my first big lesson: Don’t be afraid to pivot.

The initial idea that I had was to build a professional services firm and build a data privacy tool on the side to support my consulting efforts. When I spoke to potential clients, they were lukewarm about the idea of professional services.  They saw it as an already crowded market, with low barriers and many individuals calling themselves ‘data experts’. 

However, when I spoke to them about my Data Watchdog concept, they got excited about that idea.  They felt that it was a significant issue that they faced and that I understood the problem having lived it first-hand. Having struggled to find a solution externally they were very open to new ideas/products that could intelligently automate a significant pain point that was going away for them.  It was astonishing to find myself going from being a professional services firm to an enterprise wide software business within my first thirty days!

In March everything changed.  As many peoples’ lives around the world have been affected by the pandemic, I was no different.  Discussions centred around lockdown, the concern over infection rates and health and well being of friends and family.  Overnight my calendar that had been insanely packed completely emptied out.  Meetings were cancelled over concerns of an impending lockdown.  Angel investors were hit by the stock market crash and were reluctant to make new investments. VCs and PEs were scrambling to assess the impact of the current environment on their portfolio companies and had little interest in meeting with a start up.

Suddenly, everything became so much more difficult.  As an entrepreneur its easy to underestimate the amount of work that’s required. It’s an uneasy feeling to always feel like you’re operating on the back foot. I’m a big “to do” list person and it’s somewhat daunting to see all the items on my “to do” list, including categories for: marketing, fundraising, product development, networking, client prospecting and admin (ie. incorporating the company, trademarks, tax registration). As a Founder, I have responsibility for everything, so if I don’t do an item it doesn’t get done…  The more people you speak with, the larger your list grows, leaving you with this feeling that you’re always behind. And don’t forget about all of those tasks you’re supposed to be doing that you weren’t even aware you had to do! Add to this the pandemic and everything becomes that much harder, you have to keep following up with people multiple times, you have to work harder to get someone’s attention and it becomes much, much harder to close an investment or a sale.  I have to keep telling myself not to get overwhelmed by all these tasks and not to lose sight of my broader vision for the business.

By May a new normal started to emerge: travel stopped, meetings were on zoom/teams and as a small start up we had to adapt to everyone working from home.  Cash became king, suddenly our cashflow forecasting became our key focus and cash preservation was the name of the game.  We decided to push our initial fundraise was out to 2021 as wanted to do it with the best chance to raise what we needed at terms we were comfortable with. 

Hiring: an unexpected challenge

Surprisingly the biggest challenge that we faced during lockdown was hiring good engineers.

When you don’t have a brand name and aren’t an established company it is hard to hire talented engineers in the midst of a pandemic.  Although there were many engineers on the market, the good ones had fled to security.  The best candidates, ones who could go from understanding the problem, to visualizing the architecture, identifying the right framework or technology and then could execute, weren’t willing to make the leap to a brand new start up when the world was going crazy around them. 

See also: This Allianz CDO built a data architecture & culture “from scratch”. Here’s his advice

I took advice from other Founders, scoured my network, I was barraged daily by various headhunters who promised to be different than the rest and inevitably failed to differentiate themselves, we posted our roles on popular hiring sites and even tried new hiring platforms, all of these efforts yielding poor results for the amount of effort that we expended.

Over the last six months I have learnt a few hard lessons in this rollercoaster ride through the pandemic:

The number one thing I have learnt during that period was: you don’t know what you don’t know! I was quite humbled by all the different facets of running a business that I didn’t have a clue about. There are so many aspects of the support and the infrastructure that you have as a senior executive that you take for granted. As an entrepreneur, you’re starting from scratch and suddenly you’re responsible for everything. It was a surprise to me when it all came out in the press that I was leaving the bank to start my own company. I wasn’t prepared for how suddenly it was all out in open. At that point I hadn’t even decided on the name, much less registered the domain or incorporated myself. I was literally calling friends the next day asking them how to register a domain name.

Mental health: something of substance

Mental health and well being were two phrases that were never in my vernacular.  If I’m being honest, in the corporate world we promoted those terms for PR and good hygiene but never really backed it up with any substance. 

In a startup, your team is like a family, everybody is very connected to each other and the level of care and concern that you have for your team is at another level.  The pandemic and more specifically the two lockdowns affected not only my mental health but those of my team.  As an extreme extravert (97% extrovert versus 3% introvert according to Myers Briggs test) facing isolation and not interacting with different people each day took a toll on me.  I am the type of person who gets energy from other people and I love ideating with others in front of a white board.  But even more concerning for me was the impact it had on my team and those around me, especially working mothers. 

The discussion with the division of duties at home, the additional stress of home schooling their kids or the everchanging rules and protocols at their kids’ schools had took an alarming toll on the working mothers around me.  We tried to offer support, complete flexibility with working hours and rejuggling responsibilities to help people cope with the situation, but that still didn’t fix the problem as the pandemic continued on for the best part of the year.

Ride the wave

I have been very humbled by the amount of goodwill that has been out there to support me. Initially I started on my own and, as this was all new to me, I had to ask for help.  An incredible number of people have opened doors for me. Many of these individuals were people I met for the first time, including many entrepreneurs who shared their journeys and their biggest lessons learned. In hearing their journeys, I realized that no two paths were alike. Those who were successful were the ones who figured out how to be different, and came up with new ideas; not just with their products but also with the impact they wanted to have with their customers.

My final observation is: Ride the Wave.  With the creativity comes energy, excitement and exhilaration.  You need to embrace the wave, ride the momentum and see it through. Each week the momentum has continued to build, I started out at the end of November in the kitchen of my house scrambling to buy domain names and incorporate myself as a company of one, in December my first employee joined, then my first client put up their hand to be my first Proof of Concept, a week later I did my first fundraising trip in North America.  Despite the hurdles we have faced we have managed to build a strong engineering team and are a few weeks away from launching an alpha version of our first product Data Watchdog.  We have survived a pandemic, are continuing to hire new talent and have set ourselves up for a successful year ahead. 

Chuck is the Founder and CEO of WCKD RZR, an enterprise data privacy software company. Previously, Chuck was the Chief Administrative Officer and Head of Transformation for Global Banking and Markets at HSBC.

Under the Transformation banner at HSBC, Chuck led the global, cross-business effort of business model redesign and solution, using the latest market capabilities; Big Data, Automation, Distributed Ledger Technologies, Digital Platforms, FinTech partnerships and Cloud enablement.

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