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How Knak has changed since we got Series A funding

It’s been a year since Knak obtained $25 million in Series A funding from Insight Partners. In that time, we’ve grown to 80 employees from 30, and a big Knak sign now sits prominently on our new office building.

Some days I have to pinch myself. Has this really all happened?

Yes, it has.

And getting bigger has changed a number of things in the company, from how we hire, to how I work. Here are some examples.

We now have a public profile

A year ago, not too many people knew about Knak. Though we were a profitable company, we were flying under the radar.

But getting Series A funding raised our public profile, particularly in our home town of Ottawa where relatively few firms have a VC backing them.

The external validation provided by our obtaining venture capital has boosted interest in us: People want to know how we did it. I am now getting invited to tell our story at business events.

It’s a bit of a shift going from always having to explain who we are and what we do, to people knowing about us or saying they know someone who works for us.

We have to be mindful of how we market ourselves to potential hires 

There’s something about a startup that appeals to a certain kind of person – usually people who get a thrill out of working on something new, for example, and who aren’t afraid of uncertainty and risk.

But we’re not a startup anymore. We’re a growing company, a company that is quickly becoming established.

As we grow, it’s important for us to keep hiring ‘startup’ people – people who are eager to do the work and who want to join us for the right reasons. So as we market ourselves to potential new employees, we have to make sure we continue our focus on people being the right fit.
(Interested in working for us? See our Careers page.)

It’s no longer all on me

We have a solid leadership team, backed by a great advisory board and all the experience of Insight Partners and our board of advisors. 

As a result, I’ve recently realized – to my relief – that the future of Knak is no longer all on me. There are other people around who can take on our problems, people who have much-needed experience and insight.

I recently heard another CEO (Aydin Mirzaee of Follow.app)  say that being a bootstrapped startup was like playing a video game in hard mode. Well, we’re not a bootstrapped company anymore. 

Is it still hard running a company with VC support? Yes and no. 

Yes because we now have to live up to expectations of growth, manage a much bigger team, communicate more and get more people pulling in the same direction. 

And no, because we now have more resources and more people to help us. We are no longer just earning money to survive and doing all the work ourselves because we can’t afford to pay anyone to help us.

So let’s just say the challenges are different.

Problems are harder to identify

One thing that does get harder as you grow is your ability to identify problems.

When you are a small firm with few employees and few variables, finding and addressing problems is comparatively easy. That’s because you or someone you work closely with is doing the actual work and you can easily see what’s wrong and fix it.

But in a bigger firm, a problem is harder to pinpoint. Is it being caused by people, or processes, or technology? There are a lot of variables in play.

So you need more people and more discussions and more meetings to find the problems and identify and implement solutions.

My own work now revolves around meetings

Over the last year, what I actually do at the office has changed a lot.

Instead of doing the hands-on work of building products or dealing with customers, I spend most of my time in meetings. I critique the work done by others and provide direction and input on projects.

I am learning to focus my attention on issues I feel strongly about.

For example, I am super-involved in our move to a new office. That’s because I have a vision of what I want for the new office, and I enjoy bringing that design to life.

And on the marketing side, I sometimes step in because I am passionate about marketing and want to add to the creativity.

It’s about finding a balance between helping people and micromanaging.

I’m no longer ‘just another employee’

When we were just getting going, I was one member of a small team. All the employees knew each other and worked with each other. It was a relaxed and simple arrangement, and we all felt like colleagues. It was easy for me to speak my mind about things.

But as the company gets bigger, being the CEO takes on a different meaning.

Suddenly, I’m working with a lot of people who don’t know me personally. They just see me as “the boss”.

I suppose this is something that happens as a company grows, and I have to address it.

For example, I am starting to think twice about what kind of feedback I give. 

Instead of just saying what is on my mind (which is what I used to do) I am taking a less directive approach, cognizant of the fact I don’t have the same relationship with employees I used to.

This is hard, because I am a very direct, solutions-oriented person always trying to solve problems.

I’ve had to change my management style

A few months ago, I wrote about how I was learning to step back as my role changed.

Setting up key performance indicators (KPIs) for every team has been a good way of helping me step back.

The KPIs are numbers we want every team to hit. I now feel comfortable letting every team hit those KPIs in their own way.

This is a new management style for me.

I see the need for it because when I was a consultant, I remember going into companies where the CEO hadn’t let go. I could see how detrimental that was.

Essentially, I am learning to flatten out the roller coaster ride.

With startups, there are big ups and big downs, thrilling highs and depressing lows, as you live through each little success and failure.

But once a company gets beyond startup mode, I think it becomes important to flatten out that ride, to keep the workplace from swinging between elation and despair with every accomplishment or setback.

The CEO in particular needs to try to keep things on an even keel.

I have learned that I simply cannot care passionately about every single issue. There are some things – many things – I just have to let slide if they are not absolutely critical to the company’s success.

I have a new vision of my own role

It can be hard to anticipate how a CEO’s role will change as the company grows.

One way to figure that out is to understand what you’re good at, and how to make your strengths mesh with what the company needs.

I recently found inspiration in a book called Rocket Fuel, by Gino Wickman and Mark C. Winters. 

The book’s thesis is that a company needs both a visionary – someone with the ability to see the big picture and the competitive landscape – as well as an integrator, a nuts-and-bolts person who makes the visionary’s strategies come to life. 

Until now, I’ve been handling both of these roles. But the reality is I don’t want to. I have realized I am more of a visionary, and that’s what I want to focus on because I think that’s where I add most value. I can let go of also being the integrator once we find someone else to take on that role.

The fears I had before raising capital haven’t panned out

When I look back over the last year, one of the things that stands out is how the fears I had 12 months ago have not panned out.

I was gripped by a lot of uncertainty in the months leading up to our decision to seek VC funding. Was it the right thing to do? Would I suddenly find myself having to work 24/7 to appease the VCs? Would I lose my work-life balance? Would our great culture get degraded as we worked towards VC-mandated targets under the force of external pressure?

Those fears were unfounded.

What helped me overcome them was my realization that I did not want to have any regrets. I didn’t want to wake up one day and realize I had not done everything I could to make Knak successful. Raising the Series A funding was the best thing we could have done.

Pierce Ujjainwalla (@marketing_101 on Twitter) is an entrepreneur, career marketer and founder of @revenuepulse and @knak. Marketing is his jam; doing it better with technology is his passion.

Pierce Ujjainwalla has years of experience as a CEO, entrepreneur, and marketing leader. He has lived in the marketing trenches at companies like IBM, SAP, NVIDIA, and Marketo, and he launched Knak in 2015 as a platform designed to help Marketers simplify email creation. Visit his personal blog, Unsubscribed!, for more of the insight he’s gained as founder and CEO of Knak.

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