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What to do when you hit bumps in the road

When you’re riding a high in business, whether that’s winning a new tender in our case, launching new products, raising funding or taking market share, it can be easy for someone on the outside looking in to assume it’s been plain sailing.

Yet anyone who has ever founded or worked at a startup will know the reality is very different. For all the ups, there are always bumps in the road. Building a business that expands into 11 countries and 70 markets in just three years is never going to be plain sailing and there is no blueprint.

We’re in a position of strength at present with Voi but it hasn’t always been that way and we believe that it’s the way that you handle the challenges, that defines the business.

Keep your feet planted on the ground

Founders have huge self-belief but they need to, at least in part, be realistic.

They need to be clear-eyed about all the multi-faceted ways their particular business can fail, identifying vulnerabilities, and being open and collaborative with investors, board members and employees about these potential pitfalls when forecasting for the future. This could be via a monthly meeting, a collaborative document, or similar.

If you are doing a regular check-in with mentors, investors and advisers, then, as a rule, when things do go wrong, it won’t come as a shock or surprise. Being prepared also means you can put task forces in place when issues arise. Even events that surprise the whole world – like a global pandemic completely shutting down day to day operations  – can be managed.

Turning a negative into a positive 

Staying humble in the face of a challenge also allows you to turn a negative situation into a positive one. Take regulation for instance; in the early days of the sharing e-scooter world, startup micro-mobility companies faced councils and politicians who wanted to use heavy-handed regulation (or bans) to shape this new form of travel. Rather than expend time and energy arguing for liberal markets, we decided to work with cities directly to create the best solutions for riders and for the cities that host e-scooters. What was perceived by some as a challenge, became an asset to us as our instinct was to work with cities to collaborate and problem-solve.

This has now become one of our greatest strengths as a company. At the same time, we have shown the world that regulation can work and regulation itself has been essential in helping to grow our business. Indeed our ability to work within regulated markets means we’ve successfully won more regulated cities than any other e-scooter operator.

Add must-win initiatives

Sometimes you will face the same challenge time and time again. Your competitors face it too. There is no easy solution but we have labelled these challenges ‘must-win initiatives’ and we dedicate a considerable amount of time and key personnel to them.

In the e-scooter industry, parking is something that all operators grapple with across the sector so for us it has become a ‘must-win initiative’. We are tackling it from the point of view of technology, communications, marketing and operational logistics. All parts of the company know that getting our costumes to park better is a priority.

People, people, people

In my previous post on how to make your startup a success, I emphasised the importance of surrounding yourself with people better than you, never getting complacent and building a legacy. If you’ve done this successfully, you and your team will be ready to handle anything thrown at them.

By maintaining an open and realistic dialogue at all times you build trust. And when your team is clear about the shared goal, it’s more likely to pull together. As a founder, especially of a startup that covers so many geographies, you need to be able to put your trust in hundreds of people at any one time, and they need to trust you if you’re all to strive forward. Just as your business’ greatest successes will come from the team you build, so will its ability to survive even the worst failings.

Recruiting a consciously diverse workforce across the markets in which we operate allows Voi to keep moving forward and challenges us to be a better company, inside and out. Countless research has shown that diverse companies are better at pivoting and tackling challenges. They even make more money thanks to the broader experiences and skills of their staff.

Remain true to your values 

If you’ve got a team behind you and your idea, and you’re having regular open and realistic discussions about the future of the business, you’ll be able to identify opportunities as well as challenges. I started this business because I was shocked by the levels of pollution and congestion in Moscow, where I was living.

Voi has moved a long way from Moscow, but that initial motivation is still there in our company mission to shape cities fit for living. As a founder, the path from your initial motivation to the company you are building can be winding. But you should never be afraid to pivot or change your plan, when it can help you achieve your objectives.

This doesn’t mean abandoning your mission or the idea that first got you started. In fact focusing on those core values can help you build new business streams and markets. We started out with e-scooters but we are also passionate about e-bikes and can foresee a point when Voi might supply other vehicles in the electric family for sharing.

There have been setbacks and there will be more, but when you have built a team that believes in your vision, it gives you strength to keep tackling the hurdles.

Fredrik Hjelm
Fredrik Hjelm
Fredrik Hjelm co-founded Voi Technology in 2018 with a vision of improving the way people move around congested urban centres by offering fleets of electric scooters as a cleaner, affordable and exhilarating alternative to cars.

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