Once upon a time, I taught architecture at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden.
In architecture, space and proportion matter a great deal. You can’t discuss it as a flat, one-dimensional concept and hope that it translates to the real world.
I wanted the ability to create visualizations that showed my students the scope and structure of how different pieces of something fit together.
It also mattered to me that discussions about these concepts be fluid and flexible, not confined to a specific order — because people that build things are a very curious group and full of questions.
It was during my struggle to convey architectural designs that the first seedling idea for my company, Prezi, took root, and when I set out to create the Prezi platform, it was not with visions of profits and acquisitions dancing in my head.
I simply needed a better tool than was available so I could present concepts to my students in a way that was creative and clear, without being dull or linear.
It occurred to me shortly thereafter that this need extended well beyond architecture, that finding a way to demonstrate how different ideas could influence each other was a universal challenge.
Then Peter Arvai and Peter Halacsy — the Peters, if you will — came along, bringing all of the business-minded stuff that’s necessary to build a company that works.
It was our earliest conversations that I credit as the foundation for our success, and the funny thing? We didn’t start off talking about how to build a company at all.
1. Always Put People Over Product
When the Peters and I first sat down together, we ended up spending two total days in a cafe, talking about life. Experiences we’d had, hopes and worries — not what the Prezi product needed to look like or how we’d divide our investments down the road.
Soon after, we shifted our focus to how we could best merge our eclectic skill sets and shape a culture that could nourish diverse talents and minds.
We began our journey together with shared values, not a business plan.
Putting plans for your people ahead of your product is crucial. People can choose or not choose to work with you and your plans.
They have their own perceptions and ideas that can influence how things turn out. They are far more likely to put their energies into something they feel passionate about.
These people want to see you being engaged by your mission. They want leaders who are thoughtful and honest.
Most importantly, they want you to listen to what they need and want and think, and absorb it with as little judgment as possible.
Skills can be learned, and products changed — but there is no blanket guarantee that smart, talented and enthusiastic people will want to work for you. You have to work for them, first.
2. Commit to Being - and Staying - Committed
Successful business partnerships are subject to the same rules as any personal relationship. You have to invest yourself in them openly and honestly, communicate frequently, be ready to compromise, and be willing to listen even when things aren’t going so well.
After all, you’re probably going to spend at least a few years in very close contact with the people you start a company with — sometimes many more than a few.
You must understand your partners as individuals and as core pieces of a team; you will undoubtedly go through both good and bad times together, so approach the “getting to know you” stage with care and dedication.
Some of this will happen organically through conversations about the business and beyond, but it’s up to you to pay attention and remember what you notice as your people talk and react.
This will help you identify their strengths and challenges, adapt to them and their work style, and stay aware of how their ambitions and frustrations align — or don’t — with yours.
3. Keep Your Mind (and Heart) Open to Change
All too often, we tend to equate having an idea with owning an idea. We have trouble letting go of our specific visions and ideals, hesitating to trust in others to do them justice.
This can become a big problem in the early days of developing a company, especially if our eyes are so full of the future that we want that we become blind to the future that is possible.
It’s true of every character we play in life: we must accept that our role will probably change as we make space for growth.
There will be small shifts and total renovations to the things we do and how we do them, because human beings are not made to be static.
Generally, companies start out with just a handful of people, and as things expand, you will learn where your needs are — it’s critical that you be willing to meet those needs, even at the expense of your starting title and position.
It’s a natural thing for founders. I knew I wouldn’t be in management forever because it’s not my biggest strength.
Today, I’m an individual contributor. I get to hack, code, draw, get my hands dirty and inspire our team with what we find, which works very well for my skillset.
I get to keep our company vision at the forefront of my work while focusing my attention on attracting smart and wonderful people. That’s how we’ve maintained our success without compromising our beliefs — and why I can suggest from experience the same strategy can work for you.