The Human Element: Retaining the best of humanity in the isolation of a pandemic
In the frenetic energy of most start-up environments, it takes a particular strain of courageous, confident leadership to see a team through rapid growth and pandemics without losing that which fuelled the journey in the first place.
In the case of IoT.nxt – that pair of boots belong to our co-founder and CEO, Nico Steyn, and he wears them well.
Despite being on a steep growth trajectory, Nico has managed to keep the passion that was felt in the founding days of IoT.nxt alive and pulsing throughout the entire organisation. Yet, of course, 2020 hasn’t been without its challenges.
As the year comes to a close, we sat down with Nico to push pause for a second, unpack our journey to date and talk about what the future of work looks like for both entrepreneurs and employees, alike.
So, Nico, before we jump straight into the questions – what’s on your mind?
To be honest, there’s a lot of stuff happening. Yet, I wake up every morning, and the first thing that I do is thank my creator for another day, grateful to have a chance at making another day count.
I start my day with that kind of thinking. Early mornings are my best time because nothing has gone wrong. Everything’s perfect in terms of the plan. I think the underlying thought for many people is that it’s been a rough year, but what does amaze me is the resilience that we have as a people generally and how quickly we’ve adapted to things.
In that adaptation kind of thinking, it’s important to look at what we are going to keep. What can we take from this COVID / post-COVID time? I think we’ve realized a whole number of things about how we can do business and how we can do things differently. There’s been a lot of negative, obviously, but there were some small positives that I want to acknowledge.
You mentioned the morning is the best because nothing’s gone wrong, but it’s 2020 and things can and do. So, how do you realign when this happens?
That’s one of the challenges, certainly in a start-up. Most things don’t go according to plan, and sometimes they do and it’s sublime when it happens, but for the most part, there’s always that requirement to be able to move and roll with the punches. But like I often say to the team, I’m coming out swinging this morning. I felt a little bit punch drunk yesterday afternoon, but I’ve had a good rest and I’m coming out swinging this morning.
What’s important is that you can pick yourself up and be assured that you’re never going to work 100% according to plan.
You often talk about the need to be agile and dynamic, which is particularly pertinent in a start-up environment, especially now. So, how do you guide your team through that? How do you encourage or harness being agile when people also just have a job to do?
Look, it’s not always easy. The fact of the matter is, a lot of people – especially talented people – are perfectionists. They want to do things perfectly first time around. That’s a massive challenge. When you’re scaling up and you’re moving around and shifting things the way that we are, it sometimes is a challenge. And from that perspective, you sometimes just need to push through. I think for me, one of the big things is you need to be courageous.
Sometimes that means that you go into territories where you’re not 100% comfortable, but you need to be able to embrace that because you need to be able to move out of your comfort zone.
If you’re not willing to move out of your comfort zone, it’s going to be super challenging and you’re probably going to get into trouble because the business requires that when you’re in this sort of fluid world that we live in right now. We obviously need talented super people that can do the job, fantastic people that can do the job, but you do need to be able to think on your feet.
What has it been like leading through COVID and extreme uncertainty?
Getting through COVID was different but it wasn’t the most difficult thing for us. I’m fortunate that a lot of my management are self-starters, and those are the kind of people that I generally like to work with. People for whom it doesn’t matter where they are, they can adjust and adapt.
As a business a lot of our people are technical, so, for them to make the transition to working from home wasn’t that difficult. Having said that, I can see that this post-COVID or relaxation period will potentially bring about some new challenges because, there was a specific momentum and high-intensity engagement before and through COVID it has been tough to maintain that.
One thing is for sure, we don’t have to be in front of people all of the time anymore, but not being in front of people at all isn’t always ideal, especially when you’re developing new relationships. At the end of the day, we believe in what we’re doing and we just said to the team that if we pick up the intensity, work harder, push harder – that’s how we will get through these things.
Going back to the need for agility in a start-up environment, how do you ensure that nobody loses focus?
That’s an interesting one. I think, initially, it’s easy because everyone’s on the floor and you can make eye contact with them in the morning. Where it becomes tougher is when the organization starts to grow and that’s really where leadership and a sense of ownership is really, really important.
I impress that on my leadership team all the time – we are one business. Whilst you have a responsibility in your vertical, the reality is, we are all part of a team and what we’re trying to do is get the company across the line. I often liken it to a rugby game (which, sometimes, tech people don’t always understand but they do humour me). The fact of the matter is, you need 14 guys to get the 15th guy across the line. In our business, we all need to pull together to get our brand across the line, get the customer happy. You need to look at collective ownership in your management team – that’s how you continue to drive innovation and keep people positive.
How do you see your role changing as the company does? How do you make sure that the passion that founded IoT.nxt all those years ago is pulled through to every employee, at every level?
I think that is the trick, right? That’s one of the biggest challenges that most start-ups and entrepreneurs face – being able to bridge that transition. You begin with the start-up phase (it’s frenetic, it’s high energy, often very low results, lots of missteps, etc) and then you have this migration into an environment where it has to become a little bit more process driven. Now, what you don’t want to do is become lethargic or bloated with a sort of “corporate mentality”. Having said that, you do require processes and process thinking. So, if you’re that kind of person that that doesn’t enjoy that – like me – it’s important that you find the right people and empower them, because one of the biggest issues that we all have as entrepreneurs is releasing what we deem as control.
There are a whole lot of other things operationally where I’ve recognised my weaknesses and I think that is vital in terms of building and allowing the organisation to scale and then getting the right people and empowering them because you need to be able to do what you do. There are certain things that I can do, and that’s where I need to focus and make sure that that’s the value that I bring not only to the customers, but to the business as a whole.
Leading through change and ferocious growth, how did you find balancing employees with scalable budgets and staffing up to deliver services?
It’s ongoing. It’s like a moving target, you know? So, I go back to the vision – what is the budget? What is the plan? You need to have those, and you need to have long range plans, 3-5 year plans, with an overarching vision of where you want to go.
I remember sitting with my development manager early on, Andre Jacobs. He brought up his development plan and strategy, it was only a three-month plan. But, short-sighted as it may sound, he couldn’t plan beyond that because at that point the market for what we were doing was so immature. We really had to manage it in bite sizes, including cash flow and people. These are the major cash burners.
This is the difficulty, because sometimes it’s not just the numbers. You combine it with gut, you combine it with where you’re moving and understand that a lot of the expense you see today, you might only deliver revenue on potentially 12 and 18 months down the line. That makes it very difficult to sit with an investor, or anybody for that matter, looking 12,18, 24 months into the future. So, there’s a lot to juggle and you don’t want to lose momentum in the process, but there’s a lot of start / stop to readjust, realign, recalibrate. Unfortunately, it’s not all just black and white. There’s a whole lot of gut feel that comes with it.
Leaders require big shoulders. Part of the role is to pull magic out of people and sometimes to do that there’s a lot that you have to tuck away. What are your views on how much you share with people about the state of a business?
Look, I think transparency is good and is necessary. Having said that, when you’re in a leadership position, there are days where things aren’t the way that they should be and you’re emotional. So you have to be careful because you go through those troughs.
I think ultimately, it’s belief in the vision and the plan and the people. That is where the strength comes from and then you obviously need to have faith.
I walk a close path with God and when you bring all of that together, that’s really what strengthens you. As a leader and a CEO, part of what you have to deliver is being able to see where you’re at. Sometimes there are big challenges, but you need to be courageous, because it’s not always easy and it’s not always comfortable and it’s not always as we planned. But that’s what you got to do. You’ve got to have some balls!
What measures do you have in place to make sure that you can bring everyone else back? How do you ensure that you’re able to translate the vision?
The fact of the matter is, people, feed off energy. So, you cannot be leading from a position of weakness, you cannot be leading and creating vision if you are unsure – you need to be sure. And if you’re not, you need to find a place where you can strengthen yourself and make sure that you’re aligned because you can’t wobble.
I’ve never wobbled in this business. When I say never, of course, I’ve had moments, but, when I look at the bigger picture in terms of where we’re going, what we’re busy with, it has felt that we’re doing the right thing. I think people respond to that. People feed off of that. You can’t be timid.
I often talk about fear as being an evil thing. Fear is debilitating and unfortunately, fear, I believe, is one of the things that kills most great ideas because people just don’t follow it through to the end. I read once that in a start-up, your success is often determined by the amount of uncertainty you can bear. You need to be able to suck certain things up sometimes and just move on. So, move on, kick some ass, because if you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right. It’s just never as good as you think it’s going to be and it’s certainly never as bad as you think it’s going to be.
As we move beyond COVID, what do you think the future of workplaces will look like? How will culture shift?
I certainly think that real estate and commercial buildings and how they present in the future will be fundamentally different to the way things work right now. We will still need office space, but it needs to look different. The way that we connect and collaborate – these are the two key issues.
From my perspective, I did extensive travelling, and I think we can be a lot more productive than maybe we were before. Yet, then I think about the human element – the connection, the culture, how we collaborate – those are the things that are under threat. It’s fine that we’re working from home, but I think we’ll be reading some research in the next 24 to 36 months about the downsides of it. If people are comfortable working from home, how do we ensure that comfort doesn’t result in complacency?
You lose something special when you remove the human factor. Humans are social, they need to be near other people. You need to be able to sense people, their feelings and emotions, and you don’t always get to do that in a virtual environment. Normally, when you onboard a whole lot of new people into the office it’s a buzz. Now you get onboarded and you go home without really knowing anyone in the business. That’s going to be another challenge moving forward, how do we build?
We need to bring these two worlds together. There’s massive advantages to people working from home, but by the same token, we could lose things. We need to be cognizant and have a program that protects those important human aspects of business.
Parting thoughts for anyone looking at starting a business right now?
There’s never as good a time as now, so go for it. The other thing to understand is that it’s not going to be easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it. You need to understand that you’re going to be required to make sacrifices. You’re going to need to be courageous at times when everyone else is scared and you just need to stick to the vision, remember the vision, remember the plan. The promise – work towards that. Be unwavering in terms of your belief, with regard to what you want to do.
You always will have naysayers, there are always people out there that will have an opinion. So, take advice or rather, listen to people but be mindful of who you listen to. Be intelligent in terms of advice and understand that, again, people will have opinions, but ultimately, you know what you know and that has to be the drive. Not someone else’s opinion.
Often, it’s quite lonely out there. I have great respect for entrepreneurs because I’ve been on both sides – I’ve started up businesses and worked in corporate organisations for a while, and I have a huge amount of respect for people that have to make sure that there’s enough cash in the bank to run payroll. That is something that you can’t really explain to someone if you haven’t had to do that yourself.
I think the big thing is resilience. Stick to the vision, the plan, the promise, and you’ll get through this thing, make a success.
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