Entrepreneurship is not an individual sport
Robert Sargéus was peeling off his cycling jacket and helmet when we met, even though his firm GESHDO’s new offices came with executive parking, complete with fast-charging stations.
“I’m thinking full electric for when I get that company car,” he said.
New offices. Electric car. Badges of the successful tech entrepreneur.
“I may have waited too long,” he said as he showed me around.
Of course not. Just look around you! I wanted to say.
There was space for at least fifty people, with plenty to spare for conference rooms and generous common areas. At twenty plus employees, GESHDO had outgrown offices for the third time in four years after its founding and was poised for more growth. Still under forty, Robert was now the co-founder and CEO of one of the hottest software development consultancies in Southern Sweden.
What could possibly make him think he had waited too long?
“Already at age 14, I knew what I wanted in life: A family, to work for myself, and to travel. And from then on, everything I did, I did according to this plan.”
Robert studied Software Engineering because it was the field that gave him the most chances to start a business of his own. Married at 26. Worked in industry and consulting for experience. Started a company. And took the whole family for extended travel in Thailand, while working remotely. Because, why work for yourself if not for the freedom and sharing it with those you love?
“Like I said. I did everything’s according to plan.”
Was software consulting always part of the plan?
“I had two summer jobs. The first one was as a counselor at a summer camp. That was fun, and I enjoyed it very much. For the second one, I fixed phones: Read the report. Open the phone. Run the diagnostics. Fix it. Close it. Repeat. It was super boring. Then I knew, although I love computers and technology, I have to work with people. Software developing consulting delivers on both counts.”
It’s a crowded field. What is GESHDO’s unique selling point?
“Look, we are consultants. It’s all about our clients’ vision, not ours. First thing, we have to let go of our egos, as I learned from two experiences from before I started GESHDO.
“I once had to work through Christmas and New Year’s Eve because the patient management system that this company I used to work for provided to an elderly people’s home crashed. The press was all over the fact that patients were stranded in care homes, unable to spend the holidays with their families. From that experience, I learned to take our duties to our clients very seriously because through them, we can have a material impact in real people’s lives.
“Another time, there was an assignment that didn’t materialize. I was pitching for a project to improve a prospective client’s rather archaic software development processes. The first rounds went well, and gave me lot’s of background data. When we met the decision-maker, I was on fire. I pointed out all the issues I had found, and proposed ambitious and all-encompassing changes. The guy was probably the architect of their existing setup, and balked. He may have felt criticized. I learned to see things from the client’s point of view and understood that change needs to be on their terms.”
How did you get started?
“Like I said, I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. In the beginning, it was just Joel Roos (GESHDO’s COO and co-founder) and I. Two guys doing stuff, getting shit done. That’s how we got the name GESHDO.”
Observing from the sidelines, it’s impressive what you’ve done with GESHDO in four years. Do you see any distinct phases in your journey?
“When Joel and I started, it was the leap of faith phase. Then, the period in which we hit around five employees was our rock band phase. I think we formally entered our start-up phase when we got to 10. And we are starting our scale-up phase, now that we hit 20, and are planning to grow to 50 employees.”
Has the relationship between GESHDO and its employees changed through those stages?
“The firm’s first five employees, we were like a rock band. When people criticized the firm, we’d take it personally. When you are more than ten, people start detaching themselves. A criticism of the firm is just a criticism of their place of employment. And incentives need to change accordingly.”
It seems like your phases mirror every one of your office moves.
“That’s right. Every time we moved, it was a milestone crossed. When we founded GESHDO, we ran it out of Joel’s apartment. As our assignments grew, onboarded new employees. We moved to a co-working space when headcount hit five. Then once again, to a dedicated office, when we hit ten. And finally, we decided we needed to move again when we passed 20.
“At below twenty employees, if stocks run low in the pantry, people bring their own coffee. Now at twenty plus, they expect the office kitchen to be fully stocked with coffee, sodas and snacks. We need to provide additional services and amenities to our employees to keep attracting the talent that is up to our standards. We need new infrastructure to do that, so moving offices is part of that.”
How do you keep your standards as you grow?
“People’s motivations for joining change, but the ability level of our recruits remains the same. At first, we were true believers in this adventure of building something new. While we still have that core, what we offer to employees is evolving into this great place with great people where you can build an awesome career.
“We spend more than most industry peers recruiting and training our developers. Just the other day, we had to decline a developer who tested above 60th percentile in our technical skills test. Perfectly adequate, we could have easily assigned him to a client, but that’s not enough for the brand we want to build.”
People we talk to complain about the shortage of good developers.
“We haven’t really experienced that. Our people will always meet the GESHDO standard, ability-wise. We’ve just had to cast our nets wider. We have a three-pronged recruitment strategy. Firstly, the caliber of our existing developers allows us to recruit straight from school and from unconventional backgrounds, and develop them.
“Secondly, thanks to the quality of life in Southern Sweden, we have been able to attract talent internationally.
“And finally, we realize that the kinds of assignments we get require exceptional focus and dedication. So, when employees make sacrifices, we ensure that it is worth their while, not only for themselves, but also their families. We therefore see our co-workers’ families as an extension of the Geshdo community, and make many employees benefits and perks available for family members too. We are in the people business, after all.”
You mentioned you got into the business because of the people. Has your perspective on people management changed?
“People orientation is a core part of my personality. But as far as building the business is concerned, I think that within the people aspect, I have changed perspectives.
“Initially, Joel and I started this company for the freedom. We wanted to build the company we wanted to work for, so we had to work for ourselves.
“Then it became about working with the best in the business. We pride ourselves in our software craftsmanship and the high standards of our hiring process.
“And now, it is about building a culture, and providing the processes and support systems for our co-coworkers, so that they can thrive and succeed.”
Has your average day changed as the business grew?
“Starting up was simple. Joel and I had our networks and reliable assignments. We’ve always strived to be self-funded, and saw that we could make payroll for up to five employees as long as the two of us were invoicing. That became our first growth target. My focus then was to be good at my individual job as a consultant, and so I was invoicing 100% of my available time.
“Then, as we started expanding our headcount to 10, I had to cut down to invoicing 80% of my time, and manage the business with the other 20%. Revenue grew, but so did overhead, and risk. I couldn’t count only on my ability to keep a customer happy anymore, so I had to invest part of my time in sales. Ensuring that there was a reliable pipeline of assignments to keep our developers busy.
“Now that we plan to grow to 50, we’ve hired a sales director, and I rely more on our management team to take on more management and business development responsibilities. At the start, Geshdo relied on me and my expertise. Now, I rely on that of my teams. I still like doing client work, though. It keeps me in touch with the business, so I and all in our management team invoice about 50% of our available hours.”
How has your leadership style evolved?
“I admire people who make it look easy. When I see a person in a position of leadership who always looks harried, rushing from meeting to meeting, I don’t see an important person anymore. I see a person that is not accessible, and can’t, or won’t focus on his employees. So, I manage my time and energy carefully. I still like to keep busy, but now I am more mindful of the effect that an unfocused leader rushing from place to place has on an organization. That makes for an inaccessible, and ultimately, ineffective leader.
“Also, I started as one of the guys. But as the company grows, I am more mindful of the weight of my words, and make sure I don’t monopolize the conversation.
“But if I do talk, then I want to add value. As I said before, initially, adding value was about my expertise. But now, it is more about creating a sense of wellbeing for our employees. When employees talk about GESHDO at home, I want that to be a positive experience. Families entrust us with their loved ones for about half of their waking hours. We want to make sure we are worthy of that trust.
I notice that you use the words mindful and wellbeing a lot.
“Yes, we take them very seriously. A perk we give our employees is access to both a personal coach and a personal trainer. Healthy minds in healthy bodies keep our performance high, and ensure our co-workers’ wellbeing both in their professional and family lives.”
And on that note, what work and life advice would you give to someone who wants to follow your path?
“First, entrepreneurship is not an individual sport. Without partners that you can trust and complement you, you won’t be as successful as you can. Joel Roos has been that partner for me.
“And second, don’t wait too long.”
Article first published in Medium.