Eating our own dog food.
If we want to encourage conversations that ignite positive change, we need to have those hard conversations ourselves.
By Lu Suárez Battán
Co-founder & CXO at Talk2U
Having the courage to co-found a startup is something that I’m proud of. I think it takes a lot of guts to dive into the unknown for an idea that you feel passionate about, but still needs to be validated for it to be a success. And… doing that while building a strong team, which, for me, is the biggest challenge.
According to a 2019 CB Insights report, these are the top 3 reasons why startups fail.
While I know that if there is no market need, no one will buy your product and if no one buys your product, you will run out of cash, I believe that not having the right team is the root of all causes. People make companies, not the other way around. So if the team could not find a product-market fit in time, people who lead the startup are responsible for it. Egos aside.
So one of our main taglines at Talk2U is “If it works, it should scale”. So we are focused on making our team work, the rest will be a happy consequence. But how do we do it?
We start with us, the co-founders, and then build the best team there is to address our magic blend of effective storytelling, innovative technology and science-based behavior change techniques. We will lead by example and practice what we preach, because we know change is not easy to achieve but we have the tools to make it happen.
And so our adventure begins…
2020 was set to be the year of the rebirth of Talk2U as a social impact tech startup. Being an experienced co-founder and aspiring to take on the company’s culture, one of my main goals was to lead this transformational process.
When I joined the team, Nico and Gastón had a track record of working together for 2 years and also knowing each other since high school. I’ve never met Gastón until Nico introduced him to me in December 2019, and even though I know Nico since university and have always been good friends, we did not know each other in a professional scenario. They had developed a bond and had adapted to each others’ ways of working from their different backgrounds and personal habits developed over the years.
Suddenly I came in with disruptive fresh ideas, entrepreneurial expertise and high-power energy ready to step out of the box, challenge the status quo and navigate a redesign of the company’s strategy and its culture… but if two is company, three is a crowd.
Add to this equation the fact that we were taking on the biggest challenge to date with a project with Unicef Brazil, Dove’s global team and CAR (the Centre of Appearance Research) about body image and self-esteem in adolescence while going through a pandemic.
Different learning styles, clash of co-founders
Cognitive, learning and personality styles are a big part of how we work and relate to each other.
I’m predominantly visual, logical and need alone time to think clearly. I learn by doing and making mistakes. I ask lots of questions to understand the big picture, and speak rapidly with general concepts or draw to express my ideas.
Nico is also predominantly visual but he is by definition a storyteller. He has a linguistic approach both written and verbal, and he needs to work with people to thrive. His way to connect with others is through stories and words.
Gastón is mostly aural and verbal, so the way he understands things is by listening to podcasts, having discussions and reading. He is also very much focused on words and meaning, and needs alone time to process like me.
These “simple” differences made our strategic meetings energy draining.
Some of them were hours and hours discussing and debating without doing, or even seeing things drawn or written, so for me and sometimes for Nico, it was exhausting. Other meetings I took the lead trying to keep them dynamic presenting lots of new concepts and ideas that in my mind were connected, but for Gastón, who needs precise information and, sometimes Nico, who needs to see and read, it was confusing and overwhelming.
We are all really smart, sensitive and well-intentioned people but we got into heated arguments over and over again. I got frustrated because we weren’t moving forward as quickly as I expected. Basically our approach was off.
To achieve different results, we needed to change our perspectives.
Hard conversations don’t happen from one day to another, especially when you don’t know the other person you are talking to. Our own personal map of experiences and history starts to kick in with its assumptions and judgements. You try to understand the other person’s motivations and intentions based on your scarce knowledge of them. And if you focus on your emotions, instead of looking at facts, you get blind sighted and things probably won’t work out.
So, in the beginning, Nico worked as a mediator, since he was the one that knew Gastón and I best and could have the hard conversations with us. Little by little we got to understand that we had different learning styles, skills and motivations, leading to a variety of possible perspectives. We talked about vision and worked on our assumptions about each other.
Just like that, we were diving head first into the adventure of building an honest society, where we were aware of our weaknesses and leaned on our strengths. We finally started trusting the process but, most importantly, each other.
Gastón understood that I wasn’t being inquisitive and challenged his ideas to prove him wrong but because that’s the way I process things and it’s my way to help him step out of his comfort zone to bring out the best in him.
I understood that Gastón wasn’t zooming out when I was talking or was underestimating me and my ideas because I was “new” to the team (or even a woman), he just needed his time to process and dig deeper in different sources of knowledge to gain the bits of information I missed in my speech.
Nico also understood that it was healthy and productive for us to interact without him stepping in to try to tell the story he thought we wanted to hear. He also got his quota of visual presentations to see what we were talking about and to get the correct names for each process right. :P
We started to agree on words usage, which may sound lame, but for some people (me!) is key. And we reminded ourselves constantly of our purpose. Why are we doing this? What is the reason why we wake up and hustle every day? We want to encourage insightful conversations that ignite positive change. So we need to have those conversations ourselves.
When we all put our guards down, we started to see each other as a solid triad, we opened up honestly and listened first, then listened more. Our perspective changed, and so did our results.
Now our meetings are much more dynamic and to the point. If we need to discuss anything further, we try to set specific time for it to let anyone who needs time to process, take a breath, plan and be prepared. We follow an agenda to discuss things so they don’t happen without structure, we try to add visual presentations and examples to incorporate new ideas, we provide additional links with valuable information and encourage each other to make mistakes while doing. We are still struggling with holding some boundaries and timeboxing our activities but we are getting better at it as we go.
We are a work in progress growing team, constantly iterating what works for us, and what doesn’t, because every new team member is a challenge knocking our door. When Dani joined as Senior Narrative Designer at the beginning of the year we also had to adapt, we were still working on our own relationship, aligning visions and ways of work. All of a sudden, Ingrid and Yuzhe, our first interns, were on board and it was a bold move at that stage, because we needed the helping hands, but we did not really know what it was that we needed. They were good sports adapting to our flow and hectic day to day. But the ball is rolling, we have ongoing projects that need to be taken care of so we wear different hats and make the best of it every day.
The bottom line is building relationships takes time and foundations are the hardest but a crucial part in the long run. So if the right intentions are in place, if you believe in your team’s talents, if you do the hard work and deal with what is bothering you to try to eradicate it from the root by having those uncomfortable conversations, you will rise stronger. We certainly are.
“Embrace and drive change” is one of our core values, so I’ll take the lead to share with you our own change processes, how we overcome our barriers, what we are struggling with and, if we have any, tips and tricks from our learnings.
This is part of our journey, hope you enjoyed this ride.