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Startup success lies in the willingness to challenge convention.
Date Published:
Ryan McMillan from Atlas Digital
Ryan McMillan

Read: Sonya Williams - Startup Mythbusting

Our conversation with Sonya on The Raise this week got us thinking about what assumptions are made while building startups. Her experiences illuminate the nuances of every founder's journey. She unpacks some commonly held beliefs within the startup world. Sonya talks about getting started, forming a team, collaborating with your competition, and getting investors who back your mission.

Date Published:
Ryan McMillan from Atlas Digital
Ryan McMillan

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Myth #1 - Launch an MVP as fast as possible

Almost every startup guide says that speed is everything. When your competitors are biting at your heels and your funds are burning down there’s no doubt that’s true, but at the very early stages, it's essential to take the time to get intimate with your user and their problems. Desktop research alone won’t cut it. Founders have to get out there and talk to people. For founders who don’t have a product or user research background, they need to get over any social anxiety that comes with interviewing your family, friends and random strangers. 

“The real joy in getting to build something from scratch was that early set-up work that you can put into it. We did six months of customer research after having the initial idea for Sharesies, and a big part of that was just going out and talking to people about how they felt about money, how they felt about investing, and the stuff you don't really get to talk to about people very often. And hopefully there's not as much stigma now about talking about money.” 

For Sonya and her team, dedicating six months to connecting with everyday people about money highlighted the zeitgeist around wealth. Fast forward to now and their solution has undeniably disrupted social norms and attitudes about money and wealth creation.

“The barriers identified were that people were branded out, jargoned out, and priced out. So our solution was countering the barriers that were stopping people who wanted to invest, to invest. People really cared about getting ahead with their money and feeling like they were being really savvy.” 

“We just started writing content around problems or opportunities around money. We managed to get 6000 people signed up to a waitlist, which was huge.” 

The takeaway? There’s no time like the present but don’t skimp on dedicating time to your problem at the very early stages.

Myth #2 - Working out your team values is a corporate exercise 

The startup spirit has always sought to free itself of corporate-isms. When it came to setting the tone of their founding team, Sonya looks back on the time they dedicated to articulating their values.

“Immediately before we started working together, we set our values as a company. We did that by getting together and talking about what type of company we were trying to build. We said, these are the types of things we loved about places we worked, these are the things we'd want to avoid in building a business that we're a part of, and we grouped them.There was three kinds of values that rose to the top, which were about chasing remarkable, being in it together. And always caring. And those values still are the values we use today from a team of six of us to a team of 150.” 

Having six co-founders meant Sonya and her team quickly got comfortable with putting everything on the table. They have stuck together through a huge amount of growth. 

“It's never been kind of about one person's idea being you know, like, it's not about my idea, or your idea, it's like, you have to convince so many people from the get go, the best idea is going to be the best idea. We've always operated without that ego. We work hard at it and stay aligned. I think all of us are mission-first. And then just have such a huge respect for each other in what we do and what we bring to the table.”

Our previous guests Chris Heaslip and Jo Blundell have stressed the importance of bringing company values to life. At Sharesies, their company values are incorporated during onboarding, plus they reward people who emanate their company values throughout the year. 

“When new people start, and we really talk through the history of our values, what we were meaning when we put them together, we ask people to share examples of when they've seen that being brought to life. We do ‘values-champions’. So every month people can submit, people nominate someone who they've seen bringing our values to life during that time, and then we have a monthly winner. And we also do that annually now as well.”

“So that's just been a way of going like, actually, let's spot the behaviour and reward and recognise the behaviour we want to see where people have really brought those to life.”

“I always love it when, you know, people come up and say that they really do see the values playing out at Sharesies and that's so meaningful this far into a company.” 

The takeaway? If you’re part of a founding team and haven’t already got to work on articulating your values, do it now. Start by asking two simple questions of each other: 

  • What things did we love about places we have worked?
  • What do we want to avoid in building our business?

Myth #3 - Be wary of your competition 

Startups often have a black box mentality when it comes to socialising with competition. Sonya challenges this idea, saying startups should never assume who their competitors are. 

“We work with partners along the way, as well as other providers. And I think people can kind of have a bit of a funny attitude around, like, what's competition? And what's not competition?”

“Most of the time people are better off working together about something, especially if your missions align.”

That’s not a blanket rule and pragmatism matters especially when keeping their products at an affordable price point for their users. 

“There is a lot that we've done ourselves, because that makes sense. And that means that we can deliver this product to market at a price point where people can afford and allow us to do it.” 

The takeaway? Don’t be afraid to approach companies you might think are competitors. You could gain more through collaboration. 

Myth #4 Mission-driven companies aren’t as commercial  

Building startups requires laser focus. Successful founders are clear on what they won’t do. For mission-driven startups, tackling territories with greater risk from a business perspective could raise flags but when viewed from a mission perspective, not tackling them could be worse. That means analysing the cost of what they don’t do.

Sonya says if Sharesies had stuck with its initial business model and didn’t evolve their offerings, they may not have taken on as much risk. However, if her company hadn’t developed new offerings like Kiwisaver, could they really say they were delivering on their mission of financial empowerment for everyone? 

“We could have been a great business on just the ‘invest’ side, but our customer and our mission is so much bigger than that, that we did need to take these leaps into new product lines. So we've got our Save offering, launching a KiwiSaver, which is another regulated industry and a long licensing period for us. We decided to do quite a unique offering, like one that hadn't been done before, where you can actually select portions of your portfolio. So you can actually pick your own KiwiSaver.”  

“There's times where it would just be easier if we just offered what was out there. But often the challenge is, actually, people are quite apathetic when it comes to their KiwiSaver. Because they're not really getting to see and make it theirs. And so we thought that actually, that's compelling enough to us, for us to put the work in to be able to make it so we can offer that.”

The takeaway? Mission-driven startups seek innovations that their competitors fail to imagine possible. 

Myth #5 There’s a blueprint for raising capital

Your capital raise experience will be just as unique as your business. Knowing why you are raising in the first place is critical. Get clear on how different types of investors can contribute to the strategic vision of your company. For Sonya, they identified early on that they needed investors who were in it for the long haul. 

“For us, our mission was so ambitious, it meant that we needed shareholders that were in it for the long haul, could really see the potential and that big idea. So in our investment rounds, and the people who have backed us over the years, they really bought into the overall strategic vision.” 

Having investors with strong networks who are willing to open doors goes a long way. Sonya describes their ideal investors at Sharesies as those who are equally as committed to the relationship. 

“There are people that pitch in and can share their insights or their connections. And I think that really helps.” 

No matter what the state of the economy, there’s no such thing as an easy time to raise money. What’s important is finding your tribe. 

“There's money around for great ideas that people can really get behind and understand. So I think a lot of it is just like finding your people and also bringing what's great about your business or your idea, making sure that that's front and centre and that you've thought about all the things you need to think about.” 

The investor community is broad and well connected, so founders need to leverage that. If you’re told “no,” then ask for introductions with those who can help. While traditional venture capital funds are what many in the tech world consider as investors, Sonya’s highlights the opportunity to bring industry players into your round. They might be the key to unlocking a fast track to scale. 

“The other one is strategic. Look for other companies in your space that may want to put a bit of their money aside. Is there a collaboration opportunity in the future that they might see?” 

The takeaway? Capital raising is as much about people, relationships, and shared values as it is about what’s in your pitch deck and your financial model.  

Sonya’s journey illustrates the power of starting out by anchoring your team, your strategy, and who you collaborate with, to a bigger-than-you mission. People and relationships have been at the heart of Sonya’s success. Startup success lies in the willingness to challenge conventions, the courage to deeply understand and solve real-world problems, and the commitment to build a team that shares a unified vision. Sharesies is proof that the myth of having too many co-founders is well and truly busted. 

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