Last week, I attended the 2021 Startup Summit from my home office in Des Moines, Iowa.

Perhaps one of the few good things to come out of this pandemic are virtual conferences, which have significantly increased the accessibility of thought leadership in our respective industries. Read about some of the other conferences we’ve attended here and here.

As one of the newest members of our team here at Roboflow, I was eager to learn how we might catapult our venture-backed startup into the global marketplace, while avoiding the kinds of predictable mistakes we’ll only need to rectify (at a much higher cost) later on.

My favorite talks were by Aviad Pinkovezky, Chief Product Officer at Hippo, Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter, and Melissa Alvarado, CMO of Chime.

Build a Scalable Machine

Every aspect of a startup business should:

  1. be easily replicable, and
  2. have low margin for human error.

While some operations will always require a high and human touch - customer support and enterprise sales among them - even those workflows can be architected to scale smoothly with increasing customer demand.  

Human capital is an easy yet expensive solution to problems that can often be resolved with technology, improved documentation, or enhanced design. Aviad Pinkovezky talked about “accumulating customer debt,” which occurs when poor design necessitates changes down the road, after many customers have learned (and struggled) with the existing UI/UX. For example, if you’ve ever used a product like Facebook or Twitter and gotten used to its interface, only to be thrown for a loop when they push a large update - this is kind of like that!

Aviad encouraged startups to be thoughtful about design from day one, to keep accumulated customer debt low and the user experience straightforward.

Be Open-Minded About the Market

Customers don’t always use our products or services in the way we originally intend. Melissa Alvarado encouraged listeners to be “customer obsessed” and remain open to unexpected feedback.

Building solid relationships with strategic partners is an important first step in this process; complimentary products and services can help frame our offering in the existing technology landscape. As we grow, even these affiliate partnerships can evolve in unpredictable ways. Remaining customer-centric throughout each stage of development is the only sure-fire way to find and maintain product-market fit.

The Power of Us

Biz Stone explained an early principle of getting a consumer business up-and-running: “It’s not about the idea,” he said. “It’s about the management team behind the idea.”

This sentiment was echoed by Melissa Alvarado, too, who insisted that new candidates looking to join a high-growth startup shouldn’t undervalue the importance of company culture. Building a startup is hard work! Teams should be fluid, nimble, curious and - perhaps most importantly - they need to trust one another. Finding that right combination of productivity and creativity, openness and structure isn’t easy - but when those elements are in harmony, startups are unstoppable.

(If you think you could add to our own secret sauce here at Roboflow, check out our careers page - we’d love to hear from you!)

Leaders who are focused on cultivating a high-performing culture with tight feedback loops (and no shortage of flexibility and fun) will almost always win the day.

This year’s Startup Summit validated for us (once again) that virtual conferences can pack just as much a punch as their in-person counterparts. While attending a conference - virtually or otherwise - can feel a bit static, like you’re studying in a classroom instead of earning your chops in the field, I’m starting to wonder if that isn’t the whole point. Active listening - to mentors, customers, key partners and industry leaders alike - is key to startup success.