5 lessons we learnt from the oilfield about building a better startup
Saurabh, Aman and I had spent over 20 years cumulatively in the oilfield before taking the plunge towards building Syook. Each of us had worked in multiple countries, interacted closely with different cultures, travelled the world while dealing with high pressure assignments that challenged us to the limit.
While our job related experience was very very different from the typical 9–5 job ( For example, our typical commute to the workplace was by helicopter, how we wish we had this facility in Bengaluru to deal with the traffic) , there are many learnings that are helping us build a better company. Below are the top 5 things we learnt from the oilfield.
Customer Comes First — Maintain Transparency: Sounds cliched right, almost everyone says “Customer comes first” but the oilfield taught us to take the concept of customer satisfaction to the next level. We learnt from day one to think about customer problems and constraints with the attitude that we have to get the job done in a safe and timely manner. Complex logistics, last minute changes in the program, on the job failures both technical and human were a part of the job. What mattered in the end was delighting the customer by maintaining transparency and genuinely having their best interests in mind.
While attempting to do something complex, setbacks do happen. A client might get upset if things are not going as per plan, but keeping the client informed about challenges is better than making up excuses. Once the issues are resolved and things are back on track, the client will always appreciate the transparency that one maintains during a setback. At Syook, we have strived hard to maintain a high level of transparency with our customers, and we have been rewarded with loyalty and respect. This has led to delighted customers who are now actively opening up new avenues for us to collaborate. Bottom line is obsessing about keeping your customer first will definitely reward you.
Change is Constant — Keep Learning and learn fast : Most of us must have heard the proverb that the only constant is change. Our career in the oilfield was one of continuous learning. I was just about getting comfortable in my first assignment in Mumbai when I was transferred to Qatar. Overnight, I went from being one of the most senior engineers to being virtually a trainee. When I moved from Qatar to Texas as a manager, I realised the style of working ,the challenges and even my responsibilities were completely different. On paper, I had over 7 years of work experience at that point in time, but it did not matter. It was roll up your sleeves and start learning.
When we started Syook, we had a tough time finding a tech co- founder. After trying for a few months, we decided either we could give up, or code ourselves. It was another steep learning curve. Today we have our own tech team and are able to engineer better products because we did the initial work ourselves. We strive hard to consciously keep learning, unlearning and re learning. Here’s the link to a post I had written sometime ago about how we started by doing it ourselves.
Focus — Find time to do things uninterrupted
I routinely used to handle over a hundred calls a day while working in Texas. Clients, Sales , Engineers, other managers, suppliers and the list goes on. At the same time, I had to do my own work like making excel sheets, answering emails and address the concerns of the team. There were days when I spent so much time communicating that I hardly got any of my work done. Have you ever looked back and found a series of work days when you spent the entire day doing something that was totally irrelevant the next day ? I used to feel like that on most days. So I started setting aside a little uninterrupted time for myself. Phone diverted, no checking email and absolutely no meetings. This was the time I really got my stuff done.
In today’s hyperconnected world, its almost impossible to focus and basically think. These days, I prepare for the battles of the day in advance. I spend at least a couple of hours early morning doing my work, things that I cannot delegate and requires me to focus uninterrupted, if I still have some time, I think. When the phone starts ringing in the morning, I am ready to deal with whatever comes my way since my focussed work is already done. Amongst the three of us, Aman follows this to the letter, while working, he codes like there is no tomorrow, it is really tough even for me to get him to answer the phone. No messages, and no emails and no phone calls. When Aman goes into the Himalayas on one of his treks, he is totally disconnected ( obviously, our man makes it a point to pick out places with no phone coverage).
Focus on the preparation, it increases the odds of success: Perhaps the most important lesson we learnt in the oilfield was the importance of preparation. We used to work offshore, where the cost of forgetting the right tool could lead to a loss of tens of thousands of dollars if not more. ( This was real money lost, not notional). The key to avoiding these kind of mistakes was mastering the art of planning and visualising where all the moving parts would come together coherently to create the right outcome.
Applying this in a startup can be tricky. When you are building something new, what do you prepare for ? One cannot prepare for every eventuality, since building the product would then take forever. The approach we take is to be prepared for 80 % of whatever could go wrong. The other 20 % will be as it comes. This helps us to maintain agility while creating value.
One last thing
In the oilfield, we were always taught to stand back 5 ft and observe for 5 mins ( not literally 5 mins, but notionally ) before starting any task. This was the time for thinking, seeing what could go wrong and analysing the best way to do something.
While running a startup, its easy to get bogged down without looking at the bigger picture. Once in a while, its good to take a step back, re focus and move on. The time invested in this exercise of disconnecting to look at the bigger picture, returns itself multifold in terms of efficiency.
Anyways, these are some of the lessons we have learnt in the oilfield, which we apply continuously to build a better Syook. As we enter the growth phase, we are confident that we will steer the company in the right direction with the lessons we have learnt working around the world in a very different Industry. Hope you enjoyed reading this. Cheers !!!