Nobl9 Launching a Startup Amid a Global Pandemic

A Year in the Life of Nobl9: Launching a Startup Amid a Global Pandemic

Some people say we should just write off 2020, the year when the global COVID-19 pandemic threw life as we know it off the rails and laughed at our carefully laid plans. Having launched a business mere months before the world unraveled, I can understand that sentiment. But I believe that in spite of the loss and hardships of this year, the experience has forced us to learn and grow quickly. As Laura Ingalls Wilder said, “There is no great loss without some small gain.”

Marcin Kurc Kit Merker nobl9
Our SVP Kit Merker (left) with our CEO Marcin Kurc (right), in Poznan, Poland

Our Pre-COVID-19 Plan

We launched Nobl9 in October 2019 (back then, we called it Meshmark), two months before word first started trickling out of Wuhan about a SARS-like affliction. We knew our fundamental premise—simplify the process of creating and managing SLOs that are meaningful to the end user experience—had tremendous promise. Our key goals for the 2020 were: 

  1. Hire the core team. 
  2. Find a diverse group of customers for private beta.
  3. Build a brand and a community around SLO.
  4. Get our product, team, and operations in position to launch and raise a round to move to the next phase.

We hit the ground running in January, building a great team from all over the world—Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle and Poland. We created a unique product and raised our first round of funding.

Then, everything changed, seemingly overnight. By late January, concern was rising, and economic forecasts became more and more uncertain, partly driven by election year uncertainty in the U.S., but also because of the virus, which we knew little about. By early March, venture capital markets that had been healthy just months before had become cautious. 

A New Kind of March Madness

The impact on business operations really hit in March as work-from-home protocols took effect. Like most businesses, our staff productivity took a hit in March and April as we adjusted to working strictly from home and struggled to keep teams functioning at high levels. Our executive team focused on helping our team adapt psychologically to this change. Most importantly, we let everyone know that we were going to move forward as originally planned and that we would not be downsizing. 

We also put in place several new ways of taking care of each other, such as sharing a weekly meal together by Zoom across global time zones—some of us have breakfast, some have lunch and some have dinner. The menu and time of day doesn’t matter. Rather, the act of “breaking bread” together and connecting on a personal level has been invaluable to our connectivity and culture.

One of the biggest adjustments we’ve had to make is in how we recruited for our beta. For a couple of months, our potential beta customers were scrambling to conduct internal best-case-worst-case budget analyses, so we experienced a bit of a delay in getting some of our beta customers on board. As it turned out, this gave us more time to focus on product development. Also, we quickly learned how to better “triage” for potential beta customers by considering which prospects would likely revert to survival spending versus which would actually benefit most from pandemic business conditions.

Brian Singer SLOs
Our Co-founder and CPO Brian Singer designing SLOs

The moratorium on travel has been one of the most challenging aspects of the pandemic. The loss of in-person events has changed how we connect with others in the community. The virtual events we have participated in have not delivered the same level of exposure or leads that in-person events typically deliver. 

The recruiting process is hampered by the inability to travel, too. There simply is no substitute for sitting together in a room, building trust, and getting to know people face to face. It’s nearly impossible to replicate that virtually. Likewise, when interacting with your team from afar, it’s difficult to completely account for cultural differences and have impactful or inspired ad hoc conversations with individual team members when you can only connect by Zoom. Under normal conditions, a member of our executive team would be visiting our team members in all locations on a monthly if not weekly basis. I regret that those human connections have been hampered. Of course, there’s a bright side to this: We’ve been able to re-allocate travel budget to other areas of the business.

Happy Anniversary, Nobl9

Like so many other individuals and institutions around the world, our incredible Nobl9 team has adapted and persevered. I am proud to say that despite the pandemic we are generally where we hoped we would be when we mapped out our plans a year ago.

  1. A great team: I couldn’t be more pleased with the team we’re assembling. It’s world-class. Alex Hidalgo is our most recent addition, and we’re still hiring (so ping me if you’re interested!).
  2. Beta customers: We have cultivated an impressive set of early adopters, and we’re quite happy with what we’ve been able to accomplish, despite the complications.
  3. Establishing the Nobl9 brand: We’ve made a solid start on building a brand around our SLO expertise. Our SLO resource library is an outstanding repository of educational resources for SLO beginners and advanced SRE practitioners alike. We’ve also created  SRE Meetups, held SLO bootcamps, and launched a website, YouTube channel, and Twitter page with over 700 followers.
  4. Positioning Nobl9 for What’s Next: We’ve made tremendous progress in preparing for product GA and raising the next funding round. Both can be directly attributed to our success with building a great team. Our culture is the most important ingredient for our success. And, while developing a strong culture is arduous in the midst of a pandemic, the challenges of COVID-19 have honed our focus on finding the right people, the ones that really fit in with who we are and what we’re all about. Our team has performed incredibly well in the face of unprecedented conditions.
  5. Great Timing: The market we’re addressing is maturing and growing. Prospects are reaching out to us, and the momentum is real. Smart organizations are saying things that tell us we’re in the right place at the right time, and if success is the intersection of preparation and timing, then we’re right where we need to be.
Alex Hidalgo SLOs book
“Implementing SLOs” by our SRE, Alex Hidalgo

What We’ve Learned from ‘The Longest Year’

When it became obvious that COVID-19 was going to upend everything, we were like everyone else: unsure about what would change, when, and how. It’s funny, however, what changes a crisis can accelerate. For instance, people have been talking about digital transformation for a decade now, but COVID-19 has ‘transformed’ digital transformation from a buzz phrase into something real. Businesses have come to understand the importance of their digital business, and this, in turn, has created a great tailwind for understanding how important service reliability is. That is an unexpected driver that’s giving energy to our go-to-market planning.

When all is said and done, this crazy year has just underscored what it takes to build a successful business—it’s all about solving problems on a daily basis. Rather than backing off and taking a cautious posture, the Nobl9 team sought solutions and made adjustments to keep our goals pretty much on track. We’ve thought about how to gain opportunity from adversity, driven by a strong culture that has proven to be resilient in the face of uncertainty. 

From that perspective, strange as it is to say it out loud, we’ve discovered that 2020 has been a good year. Not the one we expected, of course, but one that’s moving us closer to delivering on our mission. 

Happy Anniversary, Nobl9!

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