Reflecting on 2021
Every year has its ups and downs and 2021 was no different. We moved, grew, and now we have to move again. We hosted our first internship, scaled up tremendously, invested in our work culture, supported each other through the challenging moments, and celebrated many wins.
We already have a lot of plans lined up for 2022 - but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
From Paarl to Bellville
This year started when we moved our office space from Paarl to Bellville in December of 2020. Increasing our team’s floorspace from 40sqm to 400sqm thinking that this space would house the team for a good while.
We immediately started filling out the additional space by hosting an internship program that focused on getting some of Africa’s top graduates ready to join the tech industry.
Our First Internship
This was the first time our team needed to think about formally teaching what they have learned in their own careers and looking back, we can confidently say it was such an amazing growth opportunity for everyone involved. The internship was a great point of reflection to see how much we learned in the first two years of operation.
The team officially grew by eight people by the time the internship ended (almost doubling the existing team size) and we spent the next couple of months settling into the new growth. A bigger team meant that we needed to scale our processes, we could accommodate more clients and with bigger projects and we needed to find a new normal regarding communication between different teams in the office.
From Startup to Scale-Up
While we were obviously aware of our growth, a salient point in the year was when we received an email from our accountants saying that we are no longer classified as a startup because our turnover grew 400% since we started working with them in 2020. Next level unlocked!
By the end of the first quarter of the year, we had already worked on products in Africa, Australia, Asia, America, and Europe. We could feel the rumble of the rocket ship engine coming to life.
Becoming an Innovation Agency
In March, we rebranded our business from a software development and design agency to an Innovation Agency. Since we already largely offered the services that characterize an Innovation Agency, nothing much changed internally, but the change was symbolic.
As a result of lockdown and Covid-19 restrictions, we did not have as many company events as we would’ve liked to have between March and July. We even needed to delay our annual company getaway by a couple of weeks to adhere to the restrictions. However, we made the most of it by having virtual events (e.g. celebrating World Chocolate Day) and implementing other strategies to stay connected, get to know each other, and build strong relationships even when we were working remotely.
You might have seen some of our #randomcoffeedates posts on our Instagram page!
At the end of July, we took the entire team to Monkey Valley Resort for a three-day getaway to relax, reward everyone for the hard work they have all put in throughout the year, and to strategize what the next six months would look like.
At the getaway, we used the opportunity to share our vision, fully explained and dissected, with everyone in the team and to highlight some opportunities for employees to step up and take on some more responsibility. The outcome of taking the time to do this exceeded expectations.
After the getaway, we formalized our discussions through the creation of a vision and mission statement and by redefining our values to better suit the company we have and the one we are trying to build.
After the getaway, we went into another gear as we upskilled tremendously, built out an advisory board, built management structures, decentralized leadership, built-in OKRs, and got some really experienced people on board to complement our existing team. Our team grew by over 50% and it opened some major plans we have for the future. We signed some of our biggest deals and suddenly it was as if we had raised our first round of growth capital.
During September we started a new venture every week. All five projects had founders find us through a word-of-mouth referral, which meant that the quality of the work we do was building our reputation. Three of the ventures had founders that were serial entrepreneurs who had each raised over ten million rand. Two of the teams came from startups that have been acquired in the last two years, one of them for over one billion rand.
We started proving that our model can attract extremely high-caliber founders that will go on to build the next generation of successful South African Startups.
Our 3rd Birthday
In October, Specno turned three years old. With each birthday it is amazing to reflect on where we started, how we grew, and to look forward to where we are heading.
In 2021 our team grew at a fast pace and in preparation for an even faster growth pace, we signed a new lease in October for much bigger office space located in Century City. Our team will still have the option to work fully remote, but we’ve decided to invest in our office space by tripling our floor space which will include quiet rooms, free breakfast and lunches, an entertainment area with a pool-, foosball-, and a ping pong table, and an auditorium. The new space will also continue to provide our employees with the ability to connect and share knowledge.
Acknowledging the Hardship
While it has been an incredible year, we think it is important to provide a balanced insight into the hardships that come with running a company, which is really difficult at the best of times, and with a team as young as ours, we certainly had to go through some tough moments as we learned on the go.
We started 2021 as quite a junior team. We were onboarding new (young) people to a company with processes that were based on assumptions that we were figuring out on a project-by-project basis. As the team grew, and project management became decentralized, client expectations became harder to manage, and coaching employees became harder to do since, quite suddenly, it wasn't the case that everyone in the team had an intimate understanding of the details of every project anymore.
This ultimately led to the team needing to spend the next couple of months putting in a number of extra hours to get things back on track, which added a lot of pressure and stress to the days of some really fresh employees. It was only in the second half of the year that we were able to look back at those projects and recognize the learnings that had come out of those experiences.
As with every situation we tried to see what we could learn from what we were doing. When we reflected we had realised how much those high-pressure situations accelerated the learnings of those early employees, and how much better prepared our company was for the second wave of projects we took on.
We have always been a company to strive for excellence and what our team learned over the year was what set us up to deliver that excellence. With each new wave of clients our success rate rose, our clients were raising bigger rounds, gaining market share faster, and building better products. We're going to continue improving our processes for as long as we exist, but the ones we've developed are producing results for our clients, and that makes us proud.
Again this post is meant to reveal the hardship behind the year so we wanted to acknowledge the hard work of the team in the chapter below.
The long hours and big opportunities:
This year it became clear that everyone was behind the mission, and was holding true to our values. When big challenges arose the team all banded together to overcome them, sometimes working overtime to get the work done.
While we do really try to live a well-balanced life, our growth comes in waves, and at the peak of those waves, things get stressful. Without asking anyone to do more, the team really took ownership of their areas of growth, sometimes putting in early mornings, late nights, and even some weekends.
With our company growing as fast as it is, new and bigger positions are continually presenting themselves. That means that people can choose to go above and beyond their current role, to prepare to take on a bigger role. One that they aren't currently qualified for. The extra hours are being put in by the team because they want to seize the opportunities to accelerate their career, take on more responsibility, and get the reward that comes with that.
We're realised it is so much better to promote within, and that's why we've fostered a culture that isn't afraid of failure. Rather than let an opportunity pass you by, our team is presented with what they need to do or learn to take hold of those new opportunities, and as long as you are learning, you won't be penalised for your mistakes.
That being said, we try and find mentors, consultants, and advisors to come on and train our people. If you are reading this as someone outside of the company and are capable of offering your time - just know we are willing to pay for mentors to spend time with our people. Training is important to us.
Let's not dwell further on the lessons we learned, rather let's turn our attention to the exciting year ahead.
Preparing for the New Year
While we had already almost tripled in size since the start of this year at this point, we spent November getting ready for the next Industry Readiness program to take place in January 2022. This meant ramping up our recruitment efforts, hosting a lot of office SIM days, and building a pipeline of talent to join this rocketship in the new year. We are so excited for new team members to join us in January!
Cheers to 2021
We concluded this year by watching the sunset and celebrating everything that 2021 held on a 65ft catamaran sailing around Cape Town. As we cruised out of the harbor we were met with terrible wind and cold weather, but as we went around the corner the ocean calmed down with little to no wind and swell. We were met with a pink and orange sunset and the city, with all of its lights, has never looked more beautiful. (More pictures captured here).
We can’t help but see the symbolism of our year-end cruise. You need to leave the safety of your comfort zone (the harbor) to grow; it won’t always be smooth sailing, but you need to go through the tough parts to get to the great parts.
Building a startup isn’t easy and just as you see the light, the sun will set and you will face another challenge, BUT this is a reminder that you will have the city lights and the sun will rise again. Don’t forget to celebrate and take in what you have achieved thus far.
Just like that, we close the page of another chapter and welcome a new one. We are grateful for the highs and lows as this is how we learn and grow.
Here is to the risk-takers, the change-makers, the ones not afraid to fail. The world ignores you because of your risk, we value you because of your potential.
We are ready for you, 2022.