I was 21 years old, and had yet to graduate from college when I was offered a position to lead business development for a large and growing mobile startup. The startup had launched a couple of major mobile gaming apps back in 2009 and 2010. The CEO and founder had appointed me to launch the mobile advertising division which at the time was nonexistent. So, I left the United States three weeks later to move back to Brazil, and make this division a reality. Even at the age of 21, I was fairly comfortable taking on such a large responsibility and great opportunity. Now I am not saying I was completely prepared, or even completely qualified at the time, because I wasn’t. I was not a mobile gamer, and I was learning mobile advertising from scratch. It’s funny, I didn’t even own a relevant phone, I was still using Blackberry back then, remember those? In fact, my contract included an Android phone to allow me to be able to try mobile games and view mobile ads.
I was probably the second youngest employee in the company, and I had been put in a management role overseeing programmers in my division to build the product and launch it. I was told by the founder that I had full autonomy; it was my project. It’s one thing to hear that and another to try and make it a reality. I should have taken the time to listen to my gut, my business sense, and realized that these individuals were not the right fit for the job. Don’t get me wrong, they were both great engineers, but they were not great mobile advertising engineers. But, the CEO insisted these individuals were fine, and I didn’t want to go ahead and challenge him. I just went along with his decision.
For the next couple of months we just moved along, and tried to build out this platform. Along the way we certainly had successes adding some big Silicon Valley clients, but on the other hand we also had a lot of technical problems. The backend was crashing way too much, and spiraled into a host of other problems. It was about two months later that I finally decided to assert myself, replaced the original two engineers, and hired my own people. The project began on a Python Jungle framework, and we switched it to Ruby. Today, my friends hate on Ruby, but at the time it seemed like the right choice, and hey it worked! This goes to show you that the people behind the actual technology can be more important that the choice of the technology platform itself.
It was great! All of the technical issues were solved, and we were able to better serve and scale up our customers. We had more demand than we had the tangible capacity to do, so we quickly scaled up to a multi-million dollar revenue run rate in a matter of a couple of months. All in all, prior to leaving the company to jump into venture capital, one of my passions, we were doing fantastic and the team was growing.
What I learned from this experience was the importance of asserting yourself in leadership roles, no matter what age you are. Young people tend to question how to assert themselves in situations that are not the norm, and you are managing individuals much older than you. Looking back, it would have been much easier to do if the company had not been doing so well. Any newcomer, young or old, would easily have more say coming into a company where things were going wrong, and offering solutions to fix them. In my story, it was more difficult, because the founder hadn’t been wrong yet. I also feel it’s kind of dangerous to have a sole founder, with a faultless track record, because it becomes more and more difficult to challenge their ideas as time continues. (This is actually a reason why most VC’s don’t invest in sole founders.)
Here are three things I learned from my experience that I want to leave you with:
1. I think it’s key for young entrepreneurs to establish their roles AND set expectations for the person hiring you and for the team . If you are the person hiring, then only the latter applies. I know how a flat structure is really popular in today’s culture, but you eventually have to scale. I actually recommend a recent article Harvard Business Review just released on how Google management has scaled. Now this isn’t me saying flat sucks, and we should all become the Fortune 500 or anything, but it is me saying that laying out expectations (especially in a flatter management structure) is the key to success. This allows everyone to know for what they are responsible, where they have decision making abilities, and what to expect of others. I was held responsible for the technical issues the division initially experienced, even though the founder had made the decision. I should have put my foot down, hired new people, and ultimately I feel the mini-catastrophes could have been avoided.
2. The second lesson I learned from this was the importance of being authentic. I feel that in most cases younger men and women in business feel they need to hide their age. I am by no means saying to advertise it (although in the startup culture today it’s really cool to be a young founder). But please don’t be that founder that talks about how they can’t drink, but runs a multi-million dollar company (it wont help your case!). If someone asks you your age, don’t lie about it! When you’re leading a team, they are like a family.Families foster a safe and open environment in which honesty is paramount. So,I told my team I had just come from school, and had yet to graduate college. They thought that was great. I had the greatest wins with my team when I was being my most authentic self.
3. Lets say you have the first two of these down, your role has been established, and your team loves your authenticity. Is that enough to go and succeed? Uhh no it’s not, and here is why. It’s one thing to say “this is my job”, “this is my role”, “this is what i do”, but it’s another thing to actually put your foot down and do it. You’re going to quickly encounter those times where you will have to act on what you have said. Where I failed to do this, was in the first week when I was told the division was my project. I should have asserted myself, and acted based on what I thought would be the best choice, avoiding problems from the beginning. Once I finally did act, we gained momentum, got it done and were successful.
As anyone who knows me can attest, I could go on and on about this and other topics. Yet, if you’re reading this you’re probably a busy go-getter that doesn’t have time to read a book of a blog post. If you do have some time, and some questions for me, shoot me an e-mail and we’ll set up a time to talk.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR| Anthony Hurtado
Anthony Hurtado heads up Raster Media’s business development. Anthony worked in both investor and operational sales in Brazil and the US. With his background, Anthony brings a comprehensive viewpoint to client problems. Whether it’s bouncing off a quick idea, or talking full fledged product strategy, Anthony is always available and eager to help. Follow Anthony via Twitter @anthonymhurtado Find Anthony on Google