In 2017 Adrien Barthel & his co-founder Julien Labruyere were just setting out on their mission. A mission, beginning in Singapore, that would ultimately see them help 1000’s of entrepreneurs incorporate & operate businesses by enhancing the efficiency, automation & digitisation of the company. They had an idea with great product/market fit, a healthy war chest to exploit a large addressable market & a game plan in place for what would likely be a grueling first 18 months. The potential of the business seemed limitless.
But in order to build a high-velocity growth model, they knew they couldn’t go it alone. They needed a high-performing team around them that was able to take Sleek to market quickly & at scale. A team with the skills to build a platform, market the benefits, recruit customers & elevate the experience.
Today, Sleek has grown to be a leading SAAS platform providing a back-end operating system for start-ups and SMEs- a simple, single platform to manage all back-office operations in a seamless manner, and seek expert advisory from qualified professionals. Sleek manages a growing portfolio of over 5,000 companies, who collectively generate about $700M of revenue and processed over 1.4M bookkeeping transactions in 2020. Since its inception, Sleek has expanded offices beyond Singapore to Hong Kong, Australia, the UK, and the Philippines.
So how did they do it?
‘When you outsource, communication can be painful. What looks like a Red Rectangle to you can be a Blue Circle to someone else’
Before kicking off the hiring process Adrien & Julien faced a choice. Stick with a small team & outsource specialist tasks, or build a ‘team of all the talents’ with capabilities embedded in the business. There is no doubt that outsourcing has its benefits — it ensures investment flexibility & affords you access to an almost limitless global talent pool — but Adrien had had his fingers burnt before. In a previous company, he had seen both timelines & quality compromised due to poor communication with partners. So he & Julien opted to in-house as much as possible, thereby creating a fully committed team that moved fast & always hard pulled in the same direction.
So where to start? Like many founders Adrien & Julien looked first at what they couldn’t do — in their case, it was the tech. They were launching a tech company but they were certainly not tech guys. So, like many early-stage SaaS companies, the hiring of a top-quality product development team was a priority. Next up were sales & operations. These were the people able to define efficient workflows & repeatable sales processes. The like-minded, self-motivated individuals who would help Adrien & Julien hit ambitious expansion goals set for them in the first 18 months.
Building a team is not like building a car. Teams, especially in a startup environment, are organic, living, volatile entities. The hours are long & the pressure is intense. Compared to the world of big business the highs are higher & the lows are lower. In that environment, attitude is every bit as important as skill. Regardless of their role, every individual must be positive, flexible, resilient & tenacious. One bad hire can have a fatal impact on team morale & business momentum.
Critically, Adrien & Julien were competing for the most desirable talent in the industry with one hand tied behind their backs. Adrien is the first to admit that incorporation, accounting, taxes, visas & regulatory compliance don’t get the pulse racing. It is not the sexy side of SaaS. So he needed people he describes as ‘crazy enough’ to see the vast potential buried in the bookkeeping & often these were people who themselves had been through the pain of setting up their own business.
‘We were looking for people who were crazy enough to join a very unsexy accounting start up’
Sleek began life in Singapore, a crucial testing ground where the team was able to experiment & refine the experience. But it was soon time to expand & support fledgling businesses in other markets. The natural choice was Hong Kong — a global hot spot for start-up investment & a market where founders embraced digital services.
But for Adrien twice the markets meant twice the challenges & knowing where to focus his efforts was not an exact science. He likened it to having two children. Both needed love & attention — to feel special — but there were always only so many hours in the day. He couldn’t be everywhere. He had to calibrate his time, pick his battles & delegate tasks effectively to ensure both rapid growth in Hong Kong & continued success in Singapore. Teams in both markets had to feel valued & motivated, but the resources needed to be focused where it mattered most at any one time.
As the business grew & the team expanded, it became clear that Adrien had to evolve his role. To step back from day-to-day operations & transition from all-action founder to visionary CEO. He didn’t find the process easy. Alongside Julien, he had been co-parenting Sleek since its birth — designing every aspect of the experience, nurturing every lead & making hundreds of operational decisions each day. But that was unsustainable.
Adrien had to step back, revisit the mission of the company & focus on crafting a strategy for continued growth. It was always going to be hard not to dive straight back into client conversations but he had to place his trust in his team & grant them plenty of autonomy. This required him to instill in each employee the same drive & determination he had always felt — to become what he terms ‘Accountable Hustlers’. Dedicated team players who were heads down in the numbers but also had their eyes open for every opportunity.
So, like any founding team, Adrien & Julien sometimes struggled to manage the balance between hands-on & hands-off as the company grows. Between managing & leading. With this challenge in mind Adrien spoke about a pivotal moment in his journey when he was advised that, in order to see the company thrive, he must ‘share his Lego’. He had to put his faith in the team & nurture a culture where everyone could contribute to building a bigger, better business.