March 9, 2021

The good, the bad and the ugly: lessons learned by one man from 1000+ startups & scale-ups

The good, the bad and the ugly: lessons learned by one man from 1000+ startups & scale-ups

“Heart of a startup and the process of a corporate to bring the best of both worlds together,” is what describes Jin Han best.

Combined with corporate executive and dynamic scale-up experiences, Jin provides unique perspectives on strategy, growth, scaling and sales. He built an organization from $0 to $21M revenue in 30 months, and his clients include Samsung, American Express and NASA. Jin worked for Accenture, EY, Oracle, and scale-ups. He invests in startups and scale-ups and works with multiple startups in their quest for growth.

We spoke with Jin about challenges for startups and scale-ups and how to overcome them, his key learnings during his impressive career,  thoughts on the next generation, and the greatest pieces of advice he’s ever received from founders.

You’ve assessed over 1000 startups and scaleups and mentored all over the world. What are some things that startups must look out for when growing their company?

It’s very challenging to determine what makes a startup successful, but I narrowed it down to the “5 Cs”: Core team, Clear roles and responsibilities, Clear vision and goals, Culture, and Customers. One: Core team, formed by founders and the management, has to share the same values and determination to succeed. I once had this situation where one of the co-founders wanted to make money, and the other cared about helping people. They went their separate ways within 2 years. Two: Clear roles and responsibilities. Often I hear them say “We’re all responsible adults.” But without clear expectations, misalignment occurs. Three: Clear goals. Employees must know the goals and vision of the company.

I surveyed numerous companies of all sizes. We asked them to choose 10 things they wanted from the company, e.g. more salary, mentorship or growth opportunities. By far, every company’s employee indicated what they wanted most was a clear vision, to feel a sense of purpose more than just an employee. Four: Culture is the most important because the other C’s result from this. As Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” Culture is highly underrated, yet one of the most important traits in building a successful company. Is it a top-down or bottoms up? Is everyone respectful? Reward the risk-takers?  Political or can people speak their minds? Last but not the least, Customers are important, of course!

"The “5 Cs” are crucial: Core team, Clear roles and responsibilities, Clear vision and goals, Culture, and Customers"

What are the biggest pitfalls of growing companies?

One: having too many options, and not being focused. There was this AI company that raised 400k but squandered the money without customers. They said their AI could do anything, but even within AI, there are different streams. No one believed that they could do ‘everything’.. So start with focus, become good at one thing, then branch out. Two: when all a company does is talk. This one startup has been talking for 3 years and they still don’t have anything to show for all the talks and plans. Three: when companies spend too much time focusing on raising money but not focused on execution.

Does the media portray a wrong image of startups having to raise money?

Yes, not only the media but also other investors. I interviewed 50 founders, some successful, some less so. Most of the founders with successful exits either didn’t raise money, or when they did they had a strategic reason to do so (they did not need the money), e.g. to sell the company (to leverage VC’s network, and let them drive the sales of the company. The media often celebrates stories that sell, not the everyday stories.

What have you learnt from your corporate career that is useful for startups and scaleups?

Three key things: one of the biggest takeaways from corporate life is that it’s important to be process-oriented. A process that is less dependent on people is always the best option because regardless of who leaves or joins, the firm can still move ahead. Secondly: building a strong ecosystem of employees, customers, partners, suppliers, competitors, and vendors matters if you want to expand and scale.

Smaller companies often neglect to grow the ecosystem. Thirdly, thinking big and long term. Startups sometimes tend to be their own worst enemy by limiting themselves, for example by valuing their services lower for fear of not signing the client. One founder sold items at 10 euro while his cost was 18 euro, out of fear that customers would not buy. Fast forward 3 years later, this startup charges a much higher price for the same item and reduced the costs. So the fear of not being able to sign customers is often unjustified.

"Great companies set clear, quantifiable targets and have a good company culture"

What have you seen work very well with companies and what didn’t?

Great companies set clear, quantifiable targets and strong company culture. Once I asked an entrepreneur what he wanted his revenue stream to be in a year, and his answer was “as much as possible.”  He did 1.5 million in sales, so I was expecting a specific number like 2 or 3 million. Creating that clear goal helps you move forward. Secondly, building a good company culture is essential but not an easy thing. For example, it might seem logical to fire “jerks” even when they are stellar performers, but when there’s business on the line the choice is not as easy. However, this decision will determine the culture of the company and send signals to other employees. If you keep the “jerks” on board, the team will eventually disintegrate, and you are left with “jerks”. Culture always comes back and in the long term, “jerks” will do the company more harm than good.

You’ve worked with students a lot during your professional career, and you’ve taught at universities. What excites you most about the next generation and what added value do you believe they bring to organizations?

I think there are 2 main things. The first is the completely different mindset they have. Older generations have certain priorities in life, such as security, ownership, etc.  And for example, sustainability was not often one of them. But for the next generation that is something very important as well as the concept of a shared economy, as opposed to ownership. My 20-year old nephew doesn’t want a car or even a driver’s license. When I turned 15 I couldn’t wait to get my license and drive around. We have different values, and I like the younger generation’s values more than the older generation!  Secondly, the new generation is a lot more computer and technologically savvy. I even see 4-year olds nowadays trying to expand something on a non-touchscreen TV! So, both have pros and cons and ultimately depends on what the company needs. When we hired an intern we didn’t account for the amount of time invested to train and onboard them.

From your experience, what is your opinion on interns versus student freelancers? What are the differences?

And just when we finished training them and think it’s time to start reaping the benefits, they leave. That is the shortcoming of interns. My recommendation would be to draft very clear expectations and desired outcomes from an intern. This is beneficial not only for the company but also for the intern. They often don’t know what needs to be done, so having clear guidelines helps. I recall this one case in which the organization invested the right amount of time in the right intern and she blossomed into a full-time role, adding a lot of value to the business.

In terms of freelancers, it can be a temporary solution to hire the needed talents, and if there is chemistry, extend full employment. It’s like a dating period between the two parties, where if things work out, you enter a long-term relationship.

What are your 3 key personal learnings in life?

One: the importance of listening to others. And by this, I mean really listen to what they are saying and why they are saying it. It’s not just about listening, it’s about understanding. The second important thing is respecting other people. Never judge a book by its cover, and treat people the way you would want to be treated. The third lesson I learned from a founder who told me to never base decisions on fear. For example, if I’m afraid of getting rejected I won’t reach out to the customer, and the result would be zero revenue.

Lastly, what are some of the best pieces of advice that you have gotten from founders?

I talked to a CEO of a company on its road to a unicorn, and she believes that it’s important to not think too much but to just go do it. She also mentioned to always put the interest of the company first, never your ego or personal needs. And, it’s always about the team - so build a good team.

"It’s important to not think too much but to just do it, and always put the interest of the company first, never your ego or personal needs. "

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