Advice

Lessons learned from 2 years of running a startup

It has been almost two years since we started Knowledge Officer and we’ve already seen a lot. During these two years, we’ve built the initial MVP, went through an acceleration program, raised seed funding, hired an amazing team, launched the product, grew it to 50,000 users and started making some revenues.

Building an EdTech business is extremely challenging especially when it comes to last-mile training and career fulfillment. We have learnt a ton of things during these 2 years – some the hard way.

These are some of the biggest lessons I have learned and would love to share with you. Many of these may seem like obvious things but trust me more often than not, founders end up making the obvious mistakes when they’re just starting.

Devote enough time for hiring

Our first company value is “We value people”. We believe in investing in the right people and the fact that if we do that, it will yield returns. But getting this right is not easy. Hiring the right talent is one of the biggest challenges for any startup. And more often than not, startups don’t allocate the right resources for this. We sort of committed the same mistake. Allow me to explain. Initially, we always started hiring ONLY one or two months before our vacancy fulfillment deadlines. Hiring takes a HUGE amount of time and requires dedication. We usually interview at least ten candidates for each role before picking the right one. The late start many time has forced us to keep some roles vacant for long and in some cases delay our milestones until we have the right resources.

Lesson: Initiate your recruitment process i.e. sourcing the candidates way before you expect to fill the position and be in continuous hiring mode!

Build a lean MVP

During the phase of customer discovery and market validation, we had an initial MVP that we used with early users and customers. It took us around six months to build as we fell into the trap of adding in a lot of features. Six months was a huge amount of time. This time could’ve been used somewhere else, but, back then, we probably didn’t understand the right concept of MVP. You basically have to cut down almost EVERYTHING and keep the essentials to validate the idea.

This is a lesson learnt the hard way and we would never do this again. Now, we work on short and iterative cycles to test new features before putting more investments of time and resources into them.

Lesson: Don’t invest a lot of your resources on MVP. Same goes for new features.

Build and grow a support network

To be able to grow your business, you need to have the right partners; and to have those partners, you need to have a network of connections beyond your direct reach. We did not know the value of this network and the value of having the right mentors and advisors until we finally started reaching out to them. I really wish we had spent more time, during the MVP stage and right after it, enlarging this network and nurturing the right connections. This could have boosted our progress during the MVP stage way more than after launching the live product.

We are, now, proud to be supported and advised by a great pool of talented professionals across the UK, US and India, our three target geographies. The other benefit of having a support network is that they are also your cheer leaders who protect you from stress, anxiety and all the downsides of being an entrepreneur.

Lesson: Make sure you surround yourself with the right network.

Split power and roles between founders

I am lucky to have a co-founder who I can trust with my life and rely on, in every aspect of technology and company building. We have studied and worked together for years. And maybe because of that, during the initial days of building Knowledge Officer, we did not set the right responsibilities for each one of us and both of us eventually ended up doing almost everything. This created friction and delayed our progress. After we set together the rules and divided the responsibilities among us, given the mutual trust we carry for each other, we’ve seen a significant improvement in our progress.

Lesson: When you are starting up, choose a co-founder that you can trust and make sure that you have the ‘who does what’ part figured out from the very beginning. 

Avoid “if I build it, they will come” myth

If you are building a B2C startup, you need to think of your growth strategy and acquisition channels from day one. Without this, you might be developing an extremely amazing product but without any traffic. Some people think that if they have an amazing idea and build a great product, everything else will sort itself out. Building a business is way beyond building a product; and building a product is more than finding the next brilliant idea. Growth and acquisition planning could cover areas as big as your go-to market strategy or as granular as your launch strategy for a new feature or product.

Lesson: Don’t fall for the “If I build it, they will come” myth – believe me – they won’t come.

Be data and customer informed

Make sure you avoid wasting your time (and your team’s) by doing days of brainstorming and planning. Instead, be quick and iterative. Work in short cycles and always keep your customers close to you. At Knowledge Officer, we had many feature launches that we thought were going to be big bangs but they miserably failed, just because we had not validated them enough with our target audience. Make sure you have good analytics plugged in and cultivate a culture of making data and customer-informed decisions. You are not building a product for yourself; you’re building it for your customers. So, your customers should always be the North Star that drives your roadmap.

Lesson: Don’t rely on your gut feeling alone. Take decisions backed by data and customer feedback.

Ahmed El Sharkasy

Ahmed El Sharkasy

Co-founder & CEO at Knowledge Officer
Co-founder and CEO at Knowledge Officer, a UK-based startup that offers personalized learning paths for professionals to help them achieve their career goals. You can reach out to Ahmed on Twitter. You might also want to follow Knowledge Officer's publication on Medium where he regularly writes about the journey of building Knowledge Officer. They're also starting a podcast very soon to share their experiences.
Ahmed El Sharkasy

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