Founder Insights: Callum Negus-Fancey Talks Startup Leadership

Recently, I visited the Microsoft Ventures Accelerator in London to share some of my experiences and the key lessons that I've learned from founding Let's Go Holdings (LGH).

Operating in a group structure, LGH is made up of three distinct companies – The Physical Network, Yourvine, and Freemavens – which all specialize in tech and marketing. I've definitely learned a lot of lessons about leadership, personnel, and company culture since I started LGH in 2011, and I'm happy to be passing them on to you here.

On Leadership

A startup is a reflection of its founder's strengths and weaknesses. If you are arrogant or a workaholic, your employees will likely come to embody these traits, too. However, if you become conscious of your strengths and weaknesses, you can offset any negative outcomes through hiring and personal development.

One of my goals has been to identify my weaknesses or areas that need development and either become competent myself or hire people who have the skills that I lack. For example, I know I'm disorganized, so I've hired a strong administrator.

Along with the importance of self-awareness, here are some of the other leadership lessons that I've learned over time:

  • Focus on the Important Stuff – Try to let go of all of the little day-to-day details and stay focused on only a few key priorities. 80% of my time is focused on four business-critical areas.
  • Work/Life Balance – If you're working all hours and not getting enough sleep, you'll become unproductive and so will your team, as they will mirror your behaviour. Workaholism isn't productive; in fact, it only creates more work.
  • Be Optimistic But Don't Overpromise – It's better to manage expectations and help people embrace any uncertainty than to overpromise and not deliver. This is relevant for both your employees and your investors.
  • Repetition, Repetition, Repetition – Repetition reinforces how much you care about an issue and can help bring about transformational change. As your business grows, repeating key messages helps define and maintain your company culture.
  • Know When to Pivot - We recently went through a commercial pivot with Yourvine and are in the process of launching a very different platform. Though it wasn't easy, the pivot has put us in a better position for future growth.
  • Hire People Who Will Say No –Surround yourself with people — particularly on your leadership team — who aren't afraid to say no to you and who are able to explain why. Businesses often fail because leaders lose site of the risks.

On Hiring

Companies only hire correctly about 56% of the time. You'll find in successful businesses, hiring has evolved from being something they do out of necessity to being a core competency.

In a startup, hiring isn't just important, it's crucial to your success and so talent planning really should be a priority. Before you hire, however, you should make sure that there is really a need to take on a new employee. Ask yourself: will the work be done on a regular basis? Can the work be outsourced? Is there someone on the existing team who could take on extra tasks? Knowing the opportunity cost is key to making the right hiring decisions.

At LGH, we initially focused on a "top-down" hiring approach, filling key leadership positions first. I've found that senior talent can offset my own knowledge gaps and that they bring important industry know-how to the table. Senior staff are well connected and have domain expertise that I don't have, and as a result, they know what needs to be done and will hire their own staff accordingly.

We have also found that passive candidates who aren't looking for a new job are often the best candidates - but you won't get anywhere with them just by posting a job ad. You need to be doing your own outreach to engage high-value candidates.

Our hiring practices are modeled on the performance-based methodology that was created by Lou Adler and detailed in his book Hire With Your Head. We build a performance profile for each role that describes to the candidate the actual expected deliverables and challenges of the job. During the interview process, we look for evidence that candidates could meet the deliverables based on their motivations and previous experience.

Hiring and building the right teams is so important to me that I insist on meeting all short-listed candidates before they are made an offer of employment.

On Firing

Firing is something that I have had to become better at as our company has grown. I've learned that it's important to manage expectations so that there is no firing shock when the time comes. In a startup, you have to be prepared to fire fast because you can't afford to carry the cost of someone who isn't right for your business.

The important thing to remember is that if someone is underperforming, he or she (and often everyone in the team) is probably aware of it – and this will quickly erode the person's confidence and team morale. I believe that one of the best things you can do for someone is help to build their confidence, so the message you need to send when firing isn't that they aren't good enough, but rather that the opportunity isn't right for them.

On Culture

I've devoted a huge amount of time into developing the LGH company culture because I feel that our shared values are the only certainty we have in a sea of uncertainty. I believe that if we all share the same ethos and exhibit behaviors that are complimentary to our purpose and values, our company culture will help bring out the best version of ourselves.

Scaling and safeguarding your culture can be incredibly difficult as you grow, but I've learnt that it can be done by making an effort to build and continually develop these areas:

  • Leadership and Management – Invest heavily in your leadership team. It's important that they share your worldview, as they will then be willing to help grow and nurture your culture.
  • Working Environment – Create and foster an environment that all of your employees will embrace. At LGH, we've implemented a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), which means that people can work whenever they want and wherever they want, as long as they deliver against set metrics.
  • Relationships and Reviews – We put a lot of time and effort into on-boarding our new hires and we believe that team building really does help grow the company culture. I take reviews very seriously and spend a lot of time preparing for them, and I give people a chance to deliver feedback to me during our review sessions.

My last words on the subject of culture are that I believe deeply in both freedom and responsibility.

One of my influences when setting up our company was the book Drive by Daniel Pink. In his book, Pink argues that people are motivated not by money or ambition, but by the desire for autonomy, mastery, and purpose. This provocative book is a great starting point for building a strong and enduring culture.

Regardless of where you fall in your company's organization, I hope that some of these hard-earned lessons and insights will prove helpful to you. Follow me on Twitter at @callumnegus and see what LGH is up to.