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On the 13th of January, exactly 12 months ago, Algolia acquired MorphL – the AI startup I co-founded with Alexandra Anghel back in 2018. MorphL was my 3rd startup after 15 years of entrepreneurship. I believe three goals drive most entrepreneurs: raising money, getting acquired, and going public. For us, the second goal happened while chasing the first. And, cherry on the top, we were acquired by a company that has the potential to go public in the next few years.
After selling our company, other founders and entrepreneurs asked me: “What’s next?” I looked in their eyes and said: “Learning!” I could feel their cold disappointment, and by the time I mumbled the rest of the words, “I didn’t sell because I wanted to get rid of MorphL and start something else; I did it because I believe in the long-term vision and I wanted to see it grow as part of something bigger and be part of that growth myself”, most of them had already stopped listening.
“Learning – it’s boring, it’s exhausting … it’s not exciting. Where’s the post-exit glamor?” This is what they might have been thinking.
Well, I’m not here to talk about that – I’ll let the media feed you that cliché. Instead, I want to share with you my version of the truth, what I’ve personally experienced and learned during the last 12 months at Algolia, in the hopes that this will add value to other entrepreneurs getting ready to sell and join the acquiring company.
As Morpheus would say: “if you take the blue pill… the story ends”, and you can skip to your happy-verse and “believe whatever you want to believe”. But, “if you take the red pill… you stay in post-exit-land and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
I remember the first All Hands on Zoom with hundreds of people joining from all corners of the world – this was a teaser for what was about to unfold on us. It was quite overwhelming, to say the least, to understand the dynamics of a 350+ person company (continuously growing by nearly doubling in one year, to over 600 by end of 2021), and to effectively navigate it to get things done.
Even if the onboarding process was smooth and informative, the reality is that during the first few months I asked all sorts of stupid questions left and right, annoying the hell out of my new colleagues. I know it wasn’t easy for them, but I knew it was 10 times harder for me and I was (and still am) grateful for their help.
I think the most difficult part was identifying who owns what, who is responsible for what, and who would I need to interact with on a daily basis to get stuff done. At MorphL, I had a complete overview of what was happening all the time – it wasn’t hard, because it was a small startup. After joining Algolia, I wanted to quickly identify where I could add value, but there were so many moving parts that I would go in circles for weeks in a row trying to figure out how the company operated.
The moment I let go of the need to control everything – a residual of my founder’s life – a major shift happened: I began trusting those around me. And guess what? I was more receptive and aware of their own trust even if initially I wrongly assumed that I needed to earn it.
In the The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, absence of trust or unwillingness to be vulnerable within the group is at the bottom of the pyramid. At Algolia, I was impressed to see how grit is a foundational value, followed by humility, care, and candor, which creates a healthy team environment that breeds trust.
As a founder, I was supposed to always have an answer. That’s the norm. I was guilty of inflicting this mentality onto myself and others around me. It was (and still is) so ingrained in my DNA that instead of always parroting answers left and right, to this and that colleague, to this and that customer, I forgot to slow down, to stop this maddening rush and become the one who LISTENS and LEARNS!
I had to admit that I didn’t know everything. I had to ask questions, listen, and not be afraid that my silence would cause people to not like me.
Here’s the reality: people are complex creatures, each with their own internal struggles and aspirations. Myself included. During my 15 years of entrepreneurship, I was never in a situation to ask for permission. Never. Now all of the sudden, I needed to align my way of doing things with the company at large. And it was not just about doing things differently, it was about thinking and documenting them at the same time.
As a founder and CEO of an early stage startup that didn’t have any previous investors other than Techstars, I did not report to anyone. All of a sudden, I had a manager and peers. It was as if I was learning to walk again – but this time, instead of walking, it was more of a dance. I was no longer in a position of power, where I could motivate others to take the leap of faith and do the things that would align with my vision for the company. Instead, I had to pay more attention to the way I would articulate my arguments, back them up with facts and numbers, and objectively arrive at the right conclusions – as a team.
It might sound trivial to some of you, but for me this was not a muscle that I’ve used in the past. And yes, there was a bit of an ego play there, for sure. I knew that most acquisitions fail because this entire process is harder on the acquired side; but I did not expect ego to play such an important role. It was sad to realize, during my conversations with other fellow entrepreneurs who had sold their startups, that their ego prevented them from growing to the next level.
I decided to not become one of them and I remembered reading in Ryan Holiday’s Ego is the Enemy: “Greatness comes from humble beginnings; it comes from grunt work. It means you’re the least important person in the room—until you change that with results.”
If there’s one thing that I could control during this entire process, it was myself, my attitude towards this experience and the people around me. I would either give up and learn nothing, or understand the opportunity in front of me. I learned to have the difficult conversations first (with myself and others), and dedicate myself to listening and learning, and then, and only then, to leading.
In the startup world, you would think of a strategy today and implement it tomorrow. The fail fast mentality, right? Well, that’s not how things are done once you have a mature product and a thriving business. There are a lot of implications, both internal (sales, customer success, marketing, R&D) and external (prospects, customers, partners) that need to be considered before deciding to go ahead with a certain strategy.
I used to act first and think later. Of course, I’m exaggerating a bit, but not a lot. Just consider these book titles: Do More Faster, Fail Fast. Fail Cheap. Fail Happy., The 7 Day Startup. As entrepreneurs, we’re mostly busy doing something, not taking enough time to think deeply about why we’re doing what we’re doing, who it’s for, and what it’s for.
I confused activity with accomplishment and imagined that growth was automatic. As a startup, speed was all we had. It was the name of the game. The game gave me a rush and I loved it.
Eventually, I understood that when you reach the unicorn league, the rules of the game change. There’s a tradeoff between speed and power: what’s lost in speed is gained in power. Yes, it did take time to define the best strategy for the new product, but once that was agreed upon, it took us just 3 months after the acquisition to launch Algolia Recommend in beta. It took a while to fire up the locomotive, but once the train was put in motion, nothing could stand in its way. It was gratifying to see that level of commitment to become a multi-product company.
I learned so much during the first half of the year and not only on building and bringing new products to market as part of a new company, but doing it in a way that implied a lot more following and less “running the show”.
At the end of this period I realized two things: one, I did not know as much as I thought about building companies, products, or teams; two, I would never be the same person again, I would in fact be better – if I could just have the humility to accept this new journey.
Such is the power of listening I talked about earlier! I’m practicing it to understand others – teammate, customer, or even competitor – to learn about them and external things, or even about myself.
It takes patience to listen, but it takes humility to learn, both of which exist in spades at Algolia. Here’s the thing: humbleness was the last thing that crossed my mind when I joined Algolia. What’s the image that we have in our minds when we think about people working for successful companies in general? Go-getters, hunters … going for the kill, right? People that always have an answer, an opinion no matter the topic. Not showing any vulnerability. Especially in Eastern Europe, we celebrate aggressiveness, the iron fist, the stick, and we consider the carrot for weaklings. Mental health is for “spoiled brats” – as I heard an investor say recently. I think that’s hypocritical and toxic.
I used to mistake that for confidence. But confidence is when we have the courage to say: I don’t know. I don’t know the solution to this problem, but I am willing and able to take this challenge and see it through. I may not have all the information today, I may not have all the answers now, but I believe I can do it. I believe my team can do it. And we don’t have to be loud to be confident; in fact, confidence can be quiet sometimes.
I learned that being humble doesn’t mean thinking less about myself – it means thinking about myself less and thinking about others more. How I can have an impact on those around me so that in return they have an impact on others. It’s the #givefirst mentality, or the servant leadership mindset. It means looking at competitors as worthy rivals – people who I can learn from, I can respect, even when I meet them on the battle ground.
It’s impossible for just one person to truly make a difference or have all the answers. Being aware of my strengths and especially recognizing my weaknesses made me understand that I need other people around me.
For a dream to become a reality, it takes good people to come together. After launching Algolia Recommend, I came to the realization that it indeed takes a village to build something meaningful. It’s a team effort.
I believe the environment is key to building a strong team. Even before joining Algolia, I’ve seen people who share the same office and perform individually in spectacular ways. But they didn’t form a team – they competed with each other instead of completing each other. That’s why, through everything I did this past year, my north star was always making sure the team was able and willing to work together and make a difference. And it’s not only the team that joined Algolia. It’s also the new people we’re hiring in our Bucharest office – nowadays, it’s mostly remote, but you get the picture.
As a founder and entrepreneur, I loved being in the limelight, but here’s a difficult reality I had to embrace: a growth environment is a place where others are in the spotlight. They are ahead of me and, as a leader, I’d better understand the value of helping them get even further.
I learned all that by continuously challenging myself and others around me, by accepting challenges (and constructive criticism) from others, by getting frequently out of my comfort zone and joining others in theirs, by regarding failure as not my enemy, and by welcoming and expecting change. Consistently.
Being consistent in what we think, say, and do is probably one of the most boring compliments that we can get: “You’re consistent!”. Wow, thank you!
But I believe that’s the 1% that repeated every day, every week, month over a period of years will create value. I’ve met a lot of entrepreneurs who get involved in multiple projects, just because it’s exciting, but once things get boring, they give up. I have seen that sooo many times. To be honest, I was like that as well, so I know. The reality is that those who succeed, in my opinion, are willing to do boring, un-glamourous things. The willingness to do the boring stuff, the slow stuff, the muddy stuff – responsibilities that others run away from – is what will propel you forward.
When others are taking a step back, I’m not standing still. I’m stepping forward AND taking the team with me. Not because I know exactly what I’m doing, but because I trust them to have my back.
A long time ago, somebody told me that the reason they’re not changing their career track is because they would have to start all over again from a junior position, a major step back from their current title.
I understand that point of view, but it also saddens me. Instead of falling into the same trap of chasing a job title, I choose to look for more responsibility, exercising more influence, and having a bigger impact. I went for the role, not the title.
As Nelson Mandela said in a Long Walk to Freedom: “like the gardener, a leader must take responsibility for what he cultivates; he must mind his work, try to repel enemies, preserve what can be preserved, and eliminate what cannot succeed.”
John Maxwell writes about an important principle in Winning with People: “every person we meet has the potential to teach us something”. Sadly, many entrepreneurs with decent exits under their belt consider that once they reach their destination, it’s the end of the road, and because of their success, they have nowhere else to grow.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about retiring – that’s a personal choice I believe doesn’t need any explanation.
I’m talking about the mindset shift that happens post-exit that prevents founders from challenging themselves: they no longer have to try new things because they’ve achieved some degree of success. Personally, I realized this is a pivotal moment and decided I wanted to spend the next few years learning. Not doing so would have represented, for me, a negation of my personality and values.
By welcoming this rollercoaster of intrapreneurship, I now turn once again to my WHY. I can see the fog lifting and behind it the second mountain rising tall. And I want to lead from and towards that place. Leadership is not about satisfying our ego, it’s not the job title we write on our LinkedIn profile; it’s the respect and influence we have without all of that. It may be harder, of course, but building a team of leaders around us, and empowering them to be brave, confident, and humble, is the foundation that will make any company, big or small, succeed.
In closing, I want to invite you, my fellow entrepreneurs, my comrades, to remind ourselves that entrepreneurship is an infinite game. As Simon Sinek says in The Infinite Game: ”it is important to celebrate our victories, but we cannot linger on them. For the Infinite Game is still going and there is still much work to be done.”