Seeing Scale: Product

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October 5, 2023

5 minutes

A Balio operator's journey


From coworking in a glass box as Employee #1 to >300 people…

From Intern to GM…

From Manual Tax Calculations in Google Sheets to globally automated employee onboarding…

From Operations -> Sales -> Product -> BI -> GM

From Handshakes & Emails to NetSuite & Salesforce

I am still not sure how to describe my journey as an operator, but any of the titles above would work. Anyways, as the first employee of a hypergrowth startup the only thing that was certain was that it would be a rollercoaster. With a WhatsApp message to replace the usual onboarding. With an interview process that was around 30 seconds long – “I heard you just did 4 investments with GFC & your boss told me you want to switch to Data Science Consulting. I am calling to prevent that. You might as well tattoo ‘mercenary’ on your forehead, and you would do much better in our team” – I liked their business model, so I started 4 days later (as an Intern to keep my consulting offer open).

I joined the founders of an HR Tech Platform during their lunch break in a food-tech coworking space in Berlin. 

Task #1 – “Please, automate our manual tasks while we get funding.”

At the beginning we were selling anything around the idea of the “Employer of Record” business model & were far from building a software to automate global hiring & compliance. The first 1-2 months I spent in between sales calls to learn about the problem & operations to manually onboard international employees by collecting all their data and scrapping together a compliant contract so that we could hire them via a local partner (that often did not even exist when we closed the deal). All according to the motto “overpromise underdeliver” – but somehow, we delivered. So, when it came to building software, I went in blue eyed. We hired a developer in San Francisco and my evenings were spent creating feature designs & acceptance criteria on PST time zone to develop overnight & then at 6 AM in the morning CET I would usually have something new mocked up to present in sales calls to find out what sticks.

We went live with our MVP a little over 2 months of turning coffee into code. We had the first 30 countries with automated tax calculations & our first 10 tailored onboarding flows while all other 150 countries were standardized – but we had a software with expense management, onboarding, document management & even vacation tracking (which we had to scrap after 3 weeks again). This fast-tracked our onboarding times from weeks to days.

Task #2 – “This works & we got funding! Get a bigger team, automate more countries, build features, and scale!”

We raised a $25 million Series A after making the first million USD in ARR on the product that the team & I had built. So finally, we could go on a hiring spree. We created Sales, Operations, Customer Experience, HR, Finance, Expansion/BusDev, Marketing & Engineering departments in record time. My 2nd trial by fire, as suddenly I was the only PM managing requirements from all sides with 15 engineers who wanted to have their tasks neatly prepared in the standups. So, I decided to get help and over the coming year as the Product team went from myself to 13 people – The humble beginnings of learning how to manage a team. 

Task #3 – “Build a second product line.” 

With some of the most prestigious investors on board and money in our pockets, we had to make sure that we delivered something that stood out. Task 3 was to take a team of developers and come up with a second product which would avoid businesses churning after they set up an entity in a country that became a hiring target for them. To this end we came up with “WorkDirect” – a workflow assisted entity set up in a new country. We initially had so many requests that we could not handle them, which meant automation via software was needed. At this point I was already very familiar with the process to “explore, define a vision/concept, build a project plan, hire a team, meet in the mornings and execute” – (process might be an overstatement as these steps were often done in parallel)

Task #4 – “With scale you start having to rely on data – didn’t you do a MSc in Business Analytics? “

With scale came the requirement of being on top of things without the daily check-in or a decision without the ability to do extensive detailed analysis. This meant we needed to build Business Intelligence and a Data Warehouse, which could be used for reporting & analytics. With an AWS Architect background and a MSc in Business Analytics all I was required to do was rinse & repeat; “explore, define a vision/concept, build a project plan, hire & set up a team, meet in the mornings and execute” – Luckily this time the team included a Head of Data Strategy & BI, so I would very quickly shift into an advisor role, due to my extensive knowledge of the architecture, as I was still occupied with the first 2 products.

Task #5 – “Now we need Salesforce & NetSuite to automate more parts of the funnel and our global invoicing & accounting.”

“Explore, define a vision/concept, build a project plan, hire & set up a team (of consultants), meet in the mornings and execute” – I now knew the drill by heart. We set up a custom Salesforce implementation for case management on the operational side & prepared the launch of an ERP so that we could automate our invoicing (which is much easier said than done, due to variable & cost items across 160 countries and months). This was the moment that I truly understood how software companies become rigid rather than agile – when you start building custom software around your processes, then you are locking in a lot of your previous decisions if you are not careful. 

Task #6 – “Say Goodbye”

Finally, and maybe the hardest part, was to realize that my job did not fulfil me anymore. I considered this startup a part of my identity & attribute almost all my professional development to my time there. My firefighter drill which I became almost too good at (“explore, define a vision/concept, build a project plan, hire & set up a team, meet in the mornings and execute”) was less fulfilling in a now almost corporate environment (with NetSuite & Salesforce). I was very fortunate to look back at a very large company with a very scalable data architecture, salesforce supported operational task management & on the way to globally automated invoicing & payroll, which I helped start building from the first excel based tax calculation on my intern laptop in the glass box office of a coworking space.

So, I joined Balio - some of the smartest individuals I have been fortunate to meet through my time in Venture Capital & University…

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