Scaleup Diaries: Alicia Navarro
Alicia Navarro founded Skimlinks in 2007- the leading content-to-content monetisation platform for publishers globally. After being acquired by Connexity in 2020, Alicia has gone on to qualify as an executive coach to advise and consult for startups.
Her next adventure lies with FLOWN, a startup she founded in 2020 with a clear mission: to bring deep work principles into our everyday lives.
Having been a founder of a startup herself, Alicia is well-placed to offer unique insights and solutions to the struggles many startup founders and teams face.
We were excited at the chance to have Alicia speak on our Scaleup Diaries podcast alongside our Director Alan Furley. Having been a regular attendee to the FLOWN deep work sessions, Alan was interested to find out more about deep work and its practical use to the startup world.
To listen to the podcast in full click here.
Here are our takeaways:
Deep work: how and why it works
So, what is deep work, and how can FLOWN help you?
Deep work, or focus states, are sessions where you produce your most valuable work. FLOWN is a deep work toolkit that hosts live sessions where you work in silence alongside professionals from all over the world.
Sounds odd right?
But research has shown that this way of working is incredibly effective. Each person joins a Flock (what FLOWN call their sessions) with a task in mind that they hope to achieve- whether that task is to write a new piece of code or simply to think through an idea. You then all simultaneously work alongside each other to complete your task.
Being accountable for your work is a powerful motivator, and by creating rituals of accountability (i.e. every Wednesday morning you will lay out your intentions and enter a deep work state to meet your goals), you will see higher productivity and output levels. It has also been shown to help regulate emotions and improve social interactions.
Why is it effective for your startup team?
One of the consequences of Covid is that many of us are now working alone. This can not only take a hit on individual productivity levels, but also on your team as a whole. As founders will know, it is incredibly hard to build a team who feel connected when they work apart.
Deep work sessions provide a controlled environment to meet new people and work alongside them. Alicia puts it best ‘we are social creatures, and we are now suddenly thrust into this situation where we are alone. And that can have a real impact on our mood.’
Whilst your team may be made up of a diverse group of people, they all share one flaw- they are all only human. We produce our best work when we are happy.
Alicia noted; ‘you need new experiences to create new neural pathways. If we are in the same house all day doing the same things there is a very subtle but present impact to our sense of buoyancy and creativity.’
Having even a minor difference to our day allows us to exercise different parts of our mind and will lead to increased productivity.
Of course, whilst productivity is the most visible benefit to a founder, Alicia points out that ‘as a leader you should be concerned not only about work-output of your team, but their sense of feeling that their day matters.’
The alignment of these values and the feeling that each day matters is perhaps more important that you realise in maintaining a happy and productive team.
The importance of upskilling and hiring with diversity in mind
This shift to remote work has coincided with a change in the market. With the increase in companies choosing to go fully remote, you might assume that the candidate pool has increased alongside it.
But the search for talent with relevant experience has only gotten harder. The demand for senior-level roles has largely made the market inaccessible for junior staff and grads.
At Skimworks, Alicia made a conscious effort to hire grads and equip them with the relevant skills to go into the workforce.
At the startup stage you may not have the money to hire senior-level talent. Hiring graduates and junior talent will help you put your money into other areas of building your business.
Of course, upskilling is ‘only productive and beneficial if you consciously work to make sure they are exposed to areas of the business and are actively mentored.’
If you are a leader planning to hire in that space, you need to honour your commitment to teach and understand that it is an investment into your future workforce.
The startup environment attracts young people with passion and energy to make a positive change. You can offer a unique opportunity to a junior market and if you address bias in your hiring process, you can open the door to a diverse group of people.
FLOWN is a small company with only 11 people- 3 of whom were hired as juniors. Alicia ensures her hiring process doesn’t rely on the CV, and instead uses video interviews as a much better indicator who will work well.
Involving different members of your team in the process is key to ensuring you aren’t hiring for the wrong reasons. Many make the mistake of hiring on upbringing or shared likes/dislikes.
Don’t hire for cultural fit, hire for cultural add. A team with a diverse group of minds will build stronger foundations than a team who all look at challenges in the same way.
‘The number one thing we look for in younger talent is coachability. Are they hungry and open and eager to being developed?’
At FLOWN, candidates are given a task to prepare before or during the interview. Alicia and her team then give them feedback to see how they respond. This gives a better insight into how they will respond to coaching further down the line.
Hiring talent who show promise in their ability to approach problems and grow from feedback is much less risky than hiring someone based off a CV
If someone has the passion to succeed, all you need to do is provide them with the tools to do so.
How to establish good culture and clear values in the startup stage
Good culture and clear values are going to be key as you scaleup.
It starts before your first hire. Alicia highlighted the importance of establishing clear values.
‘We very consciously said ‘right, what do we want our culture to be?
I thought about and designed the values for the company before I even started the company.
I thought very deliberately about how we wanted to make decisions, who we wanted to hire and how we wanted to hire.’
Employer branding is more important than ever- especially at the startup stage. You don’t need to offer competitive salary and a huge benefits package to have a happy team. If you can create a culture where tight friendships form, that is an incredible way to attract new talent- and retain the talent you have!
Startups offer the unique opportunity to come into a company and be close to the decision-making hub. You experience what it is to- quite literally- startup a company.
But a startup is only as successful as its employees. The team working to bring a vision to life all needs to be working towards the same goals and share the same values.
As Alicia regularly tells her team, ‘The messages we put out into the world become the blueprint for our culture for the next decade.’
Ensuring these values are aligned doesn’t start when you have 11 people, it starts before you have one.
How to maintain good culture and adjust your values as you scaleup.
Don’t assume your culture will stay the same as you scaleup. A team of 5 works very differently to a team of 15. ‘Culture is not a static thing; it is always evolving. It needs to be very thoughtfully managed.
If you want your culture to change, change how you are seen to behave and seen to make decisions.’
Creating and maintaining good culture for a team who see each other in the office every day is one thing, establishing this culture for a remote/hybrid team is another.
FLOWN is a remote team with employees across the world, so Alicia knows first-hand the struggle remote work poses to an overall sense of togetherness.
Her advice: Communication is incredibly important. Her team uses Notion to ensure everything is well- documented. Tools like this are essential if you want to maintain good culture as you scale.
Likewise, she places an emphasis on celebrating outcome over effort. When you can no longer see your remote team working, you need to pay attention to outcome.
Depending on where your team are dialling in from and your budget restraints, meeting in person may not always be feasible. But if you can arrange a day where everyone gets together then this will be a great motivator and a chance to realign your values with your current team.
If the last couple of years taught us anything, it is the importance of a working environment. And perhaps the realisation that this isn’t always the same place, i.e., the office.
If your workspace doesn’t allow you the opportunity for deep work, then something is wrong.
And if it only allows you the opportunity for deep work, then something is wrong.
All the peripheral parts of life that allow work to be a fulfilling experience are needed. You need to intersperse work with play and exploration and prioritise exercising your body and mind.
Create ‘rituals of accountability that add meaning and structure to your day. If you can weave all of those ingredients into your work and life, work is a joy.’
As a leader, you need to make decisions that are in the best interests of the wider team. Sometimes that means making decisions that hurt people. But championing culture and deep work will strengthen your team as you scale.
‘People like to work for winning companies.’ Make yours one of them.
If you want to listen to the podcast in full then click here.
If you are interested in learning more about the principles of deep work, check out ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport or head over to FLOWN to become part of the flock.
If you are a startup founder and have insight to share, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Our Director Alan Furley for the chance to be part of our Scaleup Diaries series.