First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Leszek Knoll: Currently, we’re in self-isolation after contacting someone with the virus, but we’re in a good mood. We’ve been trying to use these moments and spend more quality time together as a family, and it’s working really well.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Brainhub.
Leszek Knoll: I wanted to start a career as a financial analyst and applied for jobs at brokerage companies, online payment processing companies, and even the National Bank of Poland. Apparently, I wasn’t a good catch for recruiters and got rejected everywhere. I think they didn’t really see my passion for finances – and, well, they weren’t wrong about that.
The real work began when I finally locked down a job at one of the big four consulting companies. But soon the light side of the force started to call me. I wanted to dive into the tech world and build my own products. So I got together some like-minded friends and decided to answer that call.
We became startuppers: we read Silicon Valley blogs, developed new ideas for apps, and did some side projects, trying to keep afloat. At first, it was a mixed bag of successes and failures. But soon it turned out that we were really good at building products for people who want to change the world – so we decided to take the next step. That’s how Brainhub was created, with me as a CEO. Five years later, Brainhub is one of the fastest-growing companies in Europe. Currently, we have 80 people on board who work for international partners building products we’re all really proud of.
How does Brainhub innovate?
Leszek Knoll: Here at Brainhub, we see innovation not simply as a means to keep things running and stay competitive, but as an inherent element of our vision. I may be a “captain obvious” here, but innovation should always start with company culture. The values that we praise include continuous improvement and full ownership.
Secondly, Brainhub is structured in a way that empowers the team to take action which means a good amount of freedom in decision-making and accountability. It requires trusting the team and giving up control, providing clarity on where we’re going as a company, and constant development of our competencies through workshops, training, and knowledge sharing. And final must have: we also put much effort into recruiting people that fit into our culture.
Most of our offering is mature enough that we can focus on continuous improvement. We take a step-by-step approach to developing our services and refining the process. I love the somewhat provocative statement by Mary and Tom Poppendieck: “results are not the point”. The point here is to have a way of doing things that repeatedly or predictably makes us achieve better results.
Innovating looks a little different in each of Brainhub’s areas. Improvements can happen organically or be achieved through setting and working towards specific objectives. Sometimes however a more structured and scientific approach brings the most benefits, especially when it comes to discovering new opportunities and dealing with uncertainty. For us, that’s the case with choosing a new tech stack or creating marketing tactics, where we explore different solutions and hypotheses and test our assumptions using experiments. This approach is not easy but significantly reduced uncertainty, while keeping us moving forward. Of course, Lean Startup is the inspiration here. To help us align goals across different teams, we recently implemented OKRs. They had a great impact on the organization and quickly became a fundamental tool for catalyzing innovation.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business and how are you coping?
Leszek Knoll: So far, we’re doing good: in 2020, Brainhub grew by 35%, even though business growth is not really our main goal. Putting numbers aside, COVID has gradually made the market more volatile and unpredictable. Forecasting the demand for our services is prone to much error as there are periods when new leads flood our inbox like a tsunami, while other times things significantly slow down for external reasons. In these times of uncertainty, making decisions is much harder. While we continue to watch the market, we take much fewer risks than before the pandemic.
Did you have to make difficult choices and what are the lessons learned?
Leszek Knoll: We always speak our minds and provide our clients with honest feedback. This in itself can often get difficult and uncomfortable – even more so with the pandemic-fueled volatility lurking from behind. But we continued to work as transparently as always, with no sugar coating. The lesson here is that you should always stay true to what you believe in, even when times are tough. At Brainhub, we believe in the success of our products which leads to satisfaction of our clients – not the other way around.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Leszek Knoll: Two things have worked for us:
- Be honest and transparent about where we are; what’s ahead of us; what we fear and how we are going to handle that.
- Trust the team.
That’s more on the leadership side. As for management, what worked for us was the introduction of more regular updates or syncs, specifically one-on-ones. Although at first glance it may seem like an unnecessary evil, it does at least two things. It replaces pre-pandemic, in-office flows of information and dissolves tension that sometimes builds up in text conversations which tend to have simplified messaging and limited context.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Leszek Knoll: Seemingly, we’re competing with software development companies across Europe and South America. However, our actual and future competition is software consulting companies, where the development is just a part of the offering. We intend to help our customers, also the ones in the future, to succeed with their products and eliminate waste of talent and time. That takes more than a smart approach to software development.
Your final thoughts?
Leszek Knoll: The plan is simple and refers to earlier questions: continuously innovate and follow an ambitious vision. So far, it’s been working. If both Deloitte and Financial Times put Brainhub among the fastest-growing companies in Europe, we must be doing something right.