What Three Things Determine Startup Success?

Neil Lewis
6 min readJan 20, 2022

Spoiler: they are engagement, engagement and engagement!

Engagement for your users (well, we already know about that), but also, engagement with your top clients (now you can’t take them out for lunch) and, more noticeably, engagement with your team (which used to happen naturally because you were all in the same office… or at least, that was true, once upon a time…)

Yep. With the loss of physical social lives — particularly around work — so, no going to the pub for Friday night drinks — no client meals — nor sharing of food — no water cooler gossips — or any of the natural human stuff we do; we are learning to live with that work-social hole in our lives.

And, let’s be honest here, more group Zoom calls doesn’t quite fill that hole!

Video conference calls are great one to one — they also work well for small groups — although, speaking from recent experience, it only takes one person with a weak connection to ruin the flow for everyone. But they struggle to replace the emotional connectedness of actual work-social moments and events.

Or, worse, if you are speaking to a large group — for group training or team updates — then the speaker faces the dreaded Wall of Mute! I know! I’ve done it!

Digital Work-Social

If we accept that tech or tech enabled workers and startups are not going back to the office — then we need to think about how we do ‘digital work-social’. And the measure of success here, is the ability to create and sustain engagement.

So, are we going back to the office at some point? Well, for tech or leveraged tech workers, no. Here’s why:

Take a look at this story of a famous silicon valley coffee shop where WhatsApp founders (sold for $15bn) got started.

Yes, it is closing. This Silicon Valley coffee shop could not raise $300k from a crowdfunding campaign to keep going — despite the massive financial wealth and (past) benefits that founders and VCs got from ‘serendipitous’ meetings at that place.

Why? Simply — Silicon Valley isn’t going back to physical meet ups — they are NOT going back to the office. And, what happens in Silicon Valley, happens throughout the (tech) world….and these days, the changes only take a few weeks to reach the rest of the world.

So what does ‘digital work-social’ life look like?

The first thing to recognise is that even before coronavirus, many of us — especially if you are on the engineering or digital marketing or data analysis side of things — used to travel into offices from which we then spent 60% to 90% of our time staring into screens.

Why? Because despite the fact that we were physically in the office, we couldn’t efficiently or effectively communicate with the whole team by calling a physical meet up and booking a meeting room.

In other words, our work life (again, given that we are either tech or tech enabled people) was already largely or nearly entirely digital.

Hence, whether we perform our work from a cubicle in a tall city tower or from a back bedroom today — has been irrelevant for a while.

But that doesn’t mean offices haven’t played an important role in the creation and maintenance of startup culture and a place where ideas get sparked. It is just that we never thought about this hidden role of offices before, but now we must.

So, how do we create an engaging digtal work-social life — like the one which we used to spontaneously get in lunch breaks and after work drinks and water cooler moments?

And a digital work social life that establishes work culture and allows ideas to spark between team members?

“How we over come all these issues is all about how we solve the engagement puzzle.”

Many tech companies are turning to data- and are data mining company sharing or messaging platforms to identify who the key influencers are in the company and who is most or who is least engaged.

The old fashioned ‘walk the floor’ approach of older execs is now gone and we are reforming our companies for a digital measure of all things.

And, that approach has been waning for a while as team members spend their time communicating via Teams or Slack or whichever flavour of messaging / shared files you use. This has, for some time, create a dark space into which no manager or exec could either peer or simply hang around the edges and pick up the atmosphere.

So, it’s back to data. Data allows anonymous and not so anonymous reivew of metrics designed to measure a degree of engagement.

Crucially, this means a far more data intrusive look at our teams and their work and, honestly, work-social lives. However, there is a pay off here, it gives them more freedom over where they work (or don’t commute to) but also how they organise their day.

Engaging Customers Too

But of course, the engagement question isn’t just about engaging and fun team conference calls — it is also about how we engage our customers…

…and frankly, whether our customers actually want to be engaged in the first place!

One startup I’m working with is adopting the minimal engagement model — assuming that their users and clients don’t want engagement — they don’t want another social media platform — they want a solution to their problem and then want to get on with life, work etc…

It’s an anti-engagement strategy! But nevertheless, it is built on an understanding of how these users and customers are tiring of digital and virtual social (and work-social) life.

So, the question to ask yourself and your teams is this — what is your engagement strategy? How do you measure its success? And how do you avoid becoming yet another empty social media ‘lite’ platform?

After all, the reason we engage on Facebook is not because we like Mark Zuckerberg, but because everyone else is there! Okay, I’ll admit, I’m also starting to engage on Instagram because lots of people are there too…

Hence, the value of engaging in a busy active platform is so much greater than a ‘new’ platform — the question then, is, how do you get started? Do some users have a burning need to reach out first? And, if they don’t, can you affordably seed a platform sufficiently to make it happen? Or, do you need a different strategy?

New Starters

Of course, so far, I have only spoken about existing staff — switching from an office or part-office based job to entirely remote teams.

The bigger challenge comes with new staff — who you’ve only met on zoom or perhaps a rare face to face meeting in a park.

Okay, it you’ve met each other you are lucky! Most of the other people in your team won’t have made the park meeting — so, they still rely on digital tools to build connection and engagement.

Here we face an issue of ensuring that team knowledge is available in the cloud and where that knowledge is based in individual heads, that new starters get access to that knowledge.

Not only are you attempting to engage with new starters emotionally and socially — but you are also looking to build engagement with the firm’s prebuilt knowledge, experience and culture.

What is certain is that new starters will not be able watch and see — to absorb the company way of doing things or pick things up as they go along.

Hence, new starters need far more structure to enable them to engage well with the company. Part of that is resolved by making sure knowledge, documents and spreadsheets are easily accessed via the cloud. That means; accessible, intuitive layouts and help to find missing pieces.

Growing Startups need to employ digital librarians — a cross between the organisation of traditional librarians with a UI/UX instinct on how people use digital tools — to make knowledge available.

Engagement — with our teams, especially, is a question we will be asking and iterating around look for answers, for a while.

However, whoever solves the engagement question best for their market segment, for their users and their teams — they will be the real post coronavirus winners.

Note, this challenge is not about the best technology — but how you apply the best technology to achieve the greatest levels of engagement!

It’s going to be an exciting time! Game on!

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I’m Neil Lewis and I work alongside founders to build brilliant Startups.