Is your team working hard but running blind? Sami Linnanvuo, CEO & Co-founder of Screenful Oy, and his team found the solution that keeps teams constantly informed of their progress. Screenful is still in a progress of finding the best Product Market Fit and is about to scale.
Describe Screenful in under 50 words.
Screenful develops business dashboards that help companies to track and optimize their operations. A key part of the concept is the introduction of large touch enabled screens as a new medium for sharing information in a modern office space. We call them Information Radiators since they "radiate" relevant information for the people working in that space, or for those passing by.
Tell us the Screenful story. How and why was this project born?
Screenful was born out of frustration with the current business intelligence tools on the market. In today's fast paced business, tracking your key metrics is essential as it enables you to foresee possible issues so that you can take action proactively, rather than do firefighting later. However, BI projects are notoriously expensive and the results are often poor due to the complexity of integrations and the lack of UX skills in the dashboard design.
We wanted to make life easier for our customers by doing all this work for them and creating set dashboards that are both actionable and beautiful to look at. Since we've automated the whole process of setting up the dashboards, we can have new customers up & running in a matter of days or weeks rather than months as in traditional BI.
How do you see the future of Screenful in 5 years?
Well, that seems like an eternity in the life of a startup where lots of new things are happening every week. I'd expect that in 5 years we've made our name known internationally and we have operations outside Finland. By that time I hope that the hardware has evolved as well, making it possible to realize the whole product vision we have. We believe that in 5 years, large touch screens will be commonplace in offices and Screenful will be the leading vendor providing content to those screens.
Could you share with us how you validated your product?
We followed the lean startup principles, and validated our hypotheses through customer interviews before committing to actually build the product. The learning we got from those interviews led to our first pivot, which wasn't so much about changing the core product offering, but about finding the right target audience. There was no way we could have figured that out without discussing with potential customers early on.
We're still applying these tactics whenever planning new features. We are not ashamed of using "slideware" in our product demonstrations. If it turns out that there's no demand for the shiny new feature that we're about to build, we can just abandon it without much time invested.
What one piece of advice would you like to give to those who want to transform an idea into a business?
Think of ways to do validation early on before committing resources on actual implementation. In most cases the product that you plan to build can be emulated with something much simpler, e.g. using mockups instead of real UI, replacing automation with manual steps etc. Seek for feedback and talk to potential customers. Keep your eyes and ears open, and don't fall in love with your initial ideas.
Screenful was founded in 2013. What are the main challenges faced so far?
When you start a new business you start from zero. You have no team, no product, no customers. Typically, at this stage you have no access to investors' money either. So what you need to do is to acquire a team who's willing to work without salary to get the demo ready, so you can start approaching customers and investors. There's no manual for these very early steps - you just have to be creative and sort it out somehow.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is to stay optimistic even though all odds are against you. It's all about selling your ideas - to your spouse, your team members, your investors, your customers. If you don't believe your ideas yourself, then you can't sell it to others so you first need to sell it yourself!
What are you most excited at the moment?
I'm ultimately a product guy so I'm constantly excited to see our product vision becoming a reality day by day. Also, seeing that our team dynamics work and we're getting things done without glitches makes me believe that we're ready for whatever challenges we might face down the road.
Startup Ecosystem in Helsinki is doing pretty well and it is becoming into a hot spot in Europe Startup Scene. What kind of services are you receiving from them? What do you miss?
We have indeed very active startup ecosystem in Helsinki nowadays. We have some great events, meetups and all sorts of coaching programs for growth startups. It's not always been like that and I recall the times not so many years ago when none of this activity existed.
We're finally even seeing some co-working spaces popping up, which we've lacked so far, as evidenced by the army of people working with their laptops in cafes. I'm looking forward to see those empty office spaces or warehouses converted into modern co-working spaces as they've done London and other major startup capitals.
Accelerators and incubators are an increasingly important and visible part of the startup ecosystem in technology hubs around the world.
These initiatives work on a variety of different models to offer the same basic proposition to entrepreneurs: affordable office space, a support network, and sometimes seed investment to bring together and nurture entrepreneurial teams until they are in a position to scale up and fend for themselves.
An accelerator’s success and reputation are dictated by the success of its startups. This in turn is dependent on the volume and quality of entrepreneurs it can attract and the accelerator’s ability to build and improve its startups’ teams during the period in which they are part of the program. Accelerators and incubators often bring in external mentors and advisors to help this process. They also help startups get access to funding by providing as many funding opportunities and angel networks as possible.
Startup Commons Platform is built with the mindset of improving team-building, tracking progress, and developing startups into viable businesses. Being viable in this sense can mean ‘investment-ready’ for those that will require investment; or simply able to grow sustainably for those that will not.
The core Team Builder module allows an accelerator to assess and evaluate a startup team throughout its program so that it can demonstrate the improvement between beginning and end, according to the accelerator’s own criteria. For instance, an accelerator can develop criteria for investment-readiness so that it can assess a startup idea, the team, and the market against these criteria when the entrepreneurs join the program at the beginning and leave at the end.
The Showcase module gives a central location where an accelerator can illustrate its startups’ successes, and the Startup Tracker module allows them to keep tabs on the progress of startups that may have applied one year and not yet quite been ready.
Through being part of the Startup Commons Platform an accelerator can also be connected with different startups ecosystems enabling its teams to access outside expertise, potential co-founders, mentors, lawyers, advisors, and investors.
Any founder of a startup knows that transforming an idea into a business is a long journey with multiple obstacles that are continuously testing you. But there’s one challenge in particular that will probably make you waste your time and money. We are speaking about your trip mates, those who are going to help you to become your idea into reality,
You see many individuals flocking the ‘startup movement’ as the biggest new craze on Planet Earth. What you also see, is a lot of these individuals jumping ship left and right from one startup to another, only staying in one startup for a limited period of time. How would you feel about a potential partner, that can’t commit to more than a year in a personal relationship?
Alright, the personal relationship is a little bit of a stretch, but I rest my case. If the person applying to work at your startup, has worked at the hottest startups (or why not any other company for that matter) always switching from one to another, what does that say about them? If they’re likely to always look for the sweetest deal for the short term and not make a substantial commitment to any company, would you really want them as part of your team?
Startups are bumpy and people get bruised. Don’t look for those that will bail at the first sight of trouble. Looking out for the biggest personal opportunity I can respect, but at the same time building a successful company takes time and you’ve got to put in the work. If you can’t commit to any company for longer than a year, then it’s worrying, to state the least. Six months is when you get to the real things and even at a year, you’re only getting started. Speaking of that longer term opportunity, the biggest rewards come around only after a while. Don’t expect an upside for free.
Those joining a startup with open eyes have a vast opportunity ahead of them, especially when in the ‘right boat’. Sure, startups aren’t as glorious as the press will lead you to believe, but the amount of experience, contacts, impact and so on you can have is unheard of in other environments, like your average large corporation. But everyone should be very honest about their own agenda for joining a startup. If you’re going to flake out in six months or a years time, make sure to let the startup know, as they will most likely be looking for those that can share their future success.
Building a team in an uncertain environment is a challenge, but in any context it’s the most important thing to get right in a company. It isn’t a walk in the park though and there are no shortcuts, you will have to build it one person at a time. Therefore you need to be extra cautious of warning flags that lay themselves in your hands. If you ignore them in the beginning, you’ll have to deal with them along the way. And most of the time, you need to deal with reality when it’s right in front of you, not in a years time when it blows up in your face.
Why yes, that is my mirrored handwriting.
In the modern, networked society it's nothing short of a miracle that some traditional organizations make ends meet. However, in the longer term every inefficient organization will have to come to grips with the new world and adapt to the surroundings. That or face the consequences.
This post has a personal grounding to our organization at Grow VC. During the 2011 winter holidays we've spent time planning for the longer term and steering the direction of the ship so to speak. I've had an inkling that I wanted to bring forth in our discussion and it's become the topic of a larger discussion since then. This inkling is namely that in roughly a years time, at the end of 2012, the Grow VC team will have grown to over 100 individuals.
Why Not Make It a Thousand?
Delving into this subject of scaling the organization, our CEO retorted with a larger number. Why couldn't we instead be over a thousand in the organization after a year? After the intial shock and a few missed heartbeats, it all made sense. Most, if not all great long term organizations have over 1000 people.
Why did he ask me that? The reasoning is quite simple. If we think we can't – we never will. And if we don't believe it's possible, then we're in the wrong place.
We've gone through the path of scaling the organization and responsibilities, benchmarking and attracting the most brilliant people to our team and we've successfully passed 50 individuals (who we are immensely proud of might I add). How do you grow an organization from the initial team to fifty? Well, just make sure you recruit the best and the rest will follow. At least to a large extent. Fifty is a big number, but it's one that you can still handle by pulling the strings yourself. A thousand (1 0 0 0) on the other hand, you will need a separate recipe for.
No One Has a Clue
Scaling the organization past fifty individuals requires a different approach. I'm confident we as an organization can do it, that's not the issue. We've got heaps and heaps of confidence. How it will look, that's a completely different topic all together. In attempting to create an efficient, purposeful organization also past the first 100 people, we've looked at making it scalable in building value. We as an organization take scaling very seriously.
In developing any organization past a certain number, it becomes clear that no one has a clue. Sure all MBA books are filled ten dollar words on strategic management and how to guide a large organization. But can you really guide an organization of hundreds or over a thousand individuals? Look at how large organizations function, look at how much efficient time individuals have each day. We've approached this dilemma differently. We want to make it work.
Interconnected teams for an efficiently scaled startup. With our global operations on six continents, it's been important for us to have local people. For us this means people with real ownership, incentives and autonomy to make things happen – you know, entrepreneurs. Teams in this context are nothing but a collection of people, with the before mentioned attributes, who have a set goal, ultimately that is to build value in the organization. Teams mean local teams, task specific teams (e.g. development, UX etc) and functional teams (e.g. the dreaded 'management').
These teams are interconnected and they need to communicate amongst themselves, that is the interconnected part. They should be able to function autonomously, but they should also be able to leverage and learn from one another. The primary links should be between the teams themselves and the secondary links are to 'management'. The primary purpose of 'management' itself should be to provide the targets, metrics, priorities and support when needed in achieving the targets. But maybe most importantly, to get out of the way. Easier said than done, but what is the alternative? The pyramid? No thank you.
Guidelines - no Excuses
Brilliant people. Documented and proven processes that are constantly developed. Measured targets. The right culture.
This is more or less our recipe and so far we're sticking to it. With efficiency and purpose always in mind, everyone is required to build tangible value and get things done. If something doesn't work, fix it. If it does, improve it. It's all about purpose in a team like this and if you dont share the purpose, you aren't part of the team.
At the end of the day it's been a delight working with our driven team up to this point and I look forward to all the people that we add on to this journey of globally developing equity crowdfunding. And in our market there are figuratively over 7 billion people and we will find the most brilliant hundred or thousand or whatever may be the number. We've already gone through over 1500 applications and the pace keeps increasing. We will find all the right people, it's just a matter of time.
Clearly we at Grow VC are still the exception in terms of how organizations look and we will continue to push the envelope for a good many years. But how long are you willing to bet that the other approach still works? Or is it just a question of a process that no one has thought to question?
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