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The practicalities of building a start-up: Part 2

David Flynn
The practicalities of building a start-up: Part 2

This is the second piece discussing the logistical steps involved in setting up a new business, based on my own experience with matterlab.

In the first part, we covered the early steps - basic information and recommendations for getting your business live. In this one, we'll explore how to establish initial stability and approach growth, and I'll outline some key tools that helped us to get started delivering projects.

Prepping for growth

We will cover the following topics:

  • Internal communications
  • Getting a CRM that works for you
  • Leveraging your data
  • Marketing and brand: Twitter and LinkedIn
  • Marketing and brand: how to talk about what you do when you're niche
  • Marketing and brand: building a website
  • Launching
Internal communications

In our first business, we used Slack for internal communications and as a place for sharing ideas or thoughts for our projects.

At the time this was the right thing for us but, when it came to starting matterlab, we reviewed the options available and went with Microsoft Teams. There were a few reasons for this.

Firstly, it was included in our Office 365 license so we didn't have to pay extra for it (with Slack, we had to pay so that we could keep hold of our valuable project conversation histories and metadata). Secondly, it's been improved considerably recently - we took some time to get to know it and found it to be a good solution overall for what we needed. Finally, as a part of the Office 365 suite, it integrated directly into our individual calendars and Office account, as well as Asana (to show any pending tasks and activities alongside team chats) and the product team's DevOps dashboard (for live progress tracking). We take all internal video calls there too, which as been an invaluable resource since the COVID lockdown.

Getting a CRM that works for you

When I was studying Architectural Technology or later designing facades for epic buildings, I never expected to be writing about something called 'Customer Relationship Management' (CRM). It certainly wasn't a passion when I was learning how to draw, that's for sure. A CRM is a type of cloud software that tracks incoming opportunities and allows you to manage them as they progress from an opportunity, to a project, to a completed piece of work and (hopefully) a fully-paid invoice.

We never had a CRM in our first business and I remember moving cells around in Excel feverishly - it took up a lot of time and energy that could happily have been spent elsewhere.  

But times have changed and we settled on one called pipedrive. I can safely say that it's integral to how we run our business now and we use it everyday; it's likely to be the same for your small business too, no matter which industry you're in. There are quite a few decent tools out there though so it is worth looking around - below is a comparison chart that outlines a few of the more popular ones.

CRM options

Young companies like ours spend an inordinate amount of time having conversations with strangers about all sorts of possible collaborations, projects and concepts. While many turn to out not to be worth pursuing (despite being fun), it's important that you find a way of properly tracking each of them.

We picked pipedrive because it offers an elegant, user-friendly way of managing our projects with heaps of capability. You can create an 'Opportunity' and assign it to a certain stage (this corresponds to the progress of the conversation you're having), then you just drag and drop across different stages as things move along. You can give your opportunity an assumed value (or later an actual value, based on a PO or scope) and assign team members to follow up. It integrates with your email, calendar and contacts - if one of our team is close to winning work, I can see the related emails and offer support without even needing a meeting. And, once we have signed an agreement with a new customer, I can align it with Asana and Teams so that we can collate all project information centrally.

You may be getting the idea that we don't use Word or Excel much - and you would be right. So much of what we do now holds valuable metadata and adds clarity to a project environment. Information isn't siloed on a desktop or in a file somewhere in the depths of a server.

What pipedrive also gave us what the ability to forecast with a decent level of accuracy. We could now see when resources were becoming more available as projects came to a close. This ability to see forward was vital. We could already do static cash flow reviews using Excel and, while that's all well and good for retrospective figures, being able to track future opportunities really opens up your options, allowing you to explore potentially different avenues and enabling you to make much more well-informed decisions.

Leveraging your data

Speaking of cashflow and projections in general, we also use Power BI, a powerful business analytics platform that's included as part of our Office 365 license. It offers great data visualisation functionality that makes understanding complex data environments much easier.

This was especially useful to us when COVID came about. We usually aim for a runway of 12-14 weeks, where we have a very good idea of our cash levels (your business may need more or fewer weeks, depending on what you do and length of engagements). There was a lot of anxiety around the pandemic's impact on the AEC industry and, because of this, it became quite important for us to know which weeks funding might be tight. This insight meant we could take measures where necessary, for example, by getting rid of any 'nice to haves' like paying ourselves to allow for the right hire or purchase of new equipment.

As we grow and our business model shifts towards more subscription-based revenue, our runway will extend out ahead of us and give much more security - and we'll see this in Power BI. Below you can see an example of what can be done with a simple Access of Excel file.

Marketing and brand: Twitter and LinkedIn

Having set up tools to help with pipelines, cash flow projections and accurate resourcing, now we can give some time to marketing and brand.

While we were quick to launch our Twitter and LinkedIn, we didn't use them straight off the bat because we didn't need to. As soon as you start using them, you'll face a flurry of questions about what you do and how important brand is for your business - all good questions but it wasn't what we needed then because, during our first phase, we knew our customers personally.  

Our team is well-connected and we all worked hard to grow our organic network so that we could leverage that before we started on the marketing push. I appreciate this may not be straightforward for all start-ups, so I’d suggest being mindful to order your priorities in a way that fits your situation.

When we did come to it though, we approached marketing as a single project with two phases. The first involved basic external comms - how we talk about ourselves, our website, our online presence in general - and the second was a medium-term plan to explore how we talked about the work we do and how we could engage new customers and partners directly.

As usual, all of this lived on Asana and Teams. We also tracked the data around our social interactions so that we could understand how well our online presence was doing.

Marketing and brand: how to talk about what you do when you're niche

As part of our marketing push, we needed to find a way of communicating our work to the outside world. While that sounds pretty straightforward, it's made much harder for us by the work that we actually do for our customers.

Our team are programming specialists and computer scientists - they work with screens full of code everyday and, in reality, this is interesting only to a select few. As well, we do a lot of work with Autodesk and this means we sign NDAs. These elements combined mean that a large chunk of our work is not very accessible for a marketing push. As a result, we looked for ways of communicating that did work for us - and I recommend you do the same.

What we have found incredibly useful for this was GIFs. I share loads of silly GIFs with the team but they work for us because they offer a simple yet powerful medium; they're powerful enough to show what our products can do quickly and clearly, but also versatile enough that they can be used across different channels - be that WhatsApp or on our website.

Camtasia is great tool for creating short videos, from simple GIFs to full product demos with voiceover and effects. It's low-cost and allows you to produce semi-professional video content to support your sales. We use this along with Powerpoint (it turns out that if you nail transitions between slides, you can export your deck as a video). It looks considerably better than you might imagine and has been very helpful for us in putting together short presentations that we can send out to customers or partners.

Marketing and brand: building a website

With our marketing push done and our team delivering high-quality content, we could get started on building our actual website. Before that, we had simple placeholder page up, which was fine until our social content started getting traction and audiences moved from our social channels to our website.

For us, building the website was a fascinating process as it prompted discussions about who we were as a company and how we wanted to be viewed externally. It's easy to stick in a one-liner on LinkedIn and hope for the best, but a full site requires more of an understanding about what you want your company to mean. At around this time, we brought in Sophie to the team, whose background is in communications - not in AEC. Hiring a good external mind means you'll get asked the right questions about your company, your story and your vision - I can't recommend this enough if you intend to develop your brand internally. Sophie provided that fresh perspective from within the team and these decisions accelerated.

For the build itself, we used Webflow. If you're familiar with Adobe InDesign, you'll be able to learn how to use it quickly. While the first couple of weeks were challenging, Webflow provide a whole catalogue of tutorials, all of which are brilliantly made and free. Also their support team are incredibly helpful. After getting to grips with the basics, we chose our template, customised it to suit our branding and roadmapped the whole project on a big whiteboard.

With our wireframe and brand guidelines ready, we got to work building the site. At the same time, we were launching a product and, despite being busy, it was useful because it meant we had to figure out not only how to communicate our business, but also how sell our products.

Building a site can be expensive so, if you can do it yourself, I'd recommend it. We're now in control of our site completely - we can make changes and updates on the fly whilst simultaneously managing our product sales channels.

Launching

And now, with our site launched, our cashflow projected accurately, our project management in flow and growth happening, we can begin to turn our attention to the next phase of growth and what we might look like in two, five or 10 years.

We've never been in this position before and it's down to the work the team puts in every day - the tools mentioned above are only as good as how you use them. We can't plan for the next global lockdown or industry collapse, but we can take care of how we do things and what we want to put out into the world. As well, the sheer number of tools available shows how interconnected the world is today and it's definitely worth considering using them so that your team can be flexible (and remote) if needs be.

I'm sure the owner of one of these tools must have written something similar to this about their own business many years ago. And hopefully someone in a few years will talk about one of our products in the same way. All of our businesses can (and do) relate to each other and it's worth acknowledging that you don't always know the best way of doing something. Lean on the experience of others - it's a great way to develop.

To close this post, I want to leave you with a few thoughts.

The vast majority of the above is about making simple choices from a narrow range of options (paired with some common sense and forward thinking). Importantly, all of these are minor enough that you can learn and adjust as you go if you need to.

There's often a sense of mystery when it comes to setting up a business - how to do it and how to make it a success. But, technically, setting up a business is easy. And performing a role similar to the rest of your career is easy. Throwing yourself into it is easy. What can be hard is trusting your gut, being assertive, prioritising the baseline stability of your business over exciting growth opportunities - and paying your bills. But importantly every architectural project I've worked on - whether that was managing others or being managed - has helped me to get a better idea of how to do this. How to identify the steps and choices you need to take to make things work.

And finally, if you surround yourself with people you can learn from, people who you trust and people who care about their work, it will become so much easier.

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