5 Tips for Cultivating Collaboration at a SaaS Startup

A collaborative team is the secret sauce in any successful startup

Whiteboard Diagram and Photo by Johnny Dobbins via Canva.com.


Five years ago I joined a SaaS startup that had an idea to use natural language generation (NLG) to describe data. It was a no code environment at the time where only a viable idea was in place with a few development spikes already in the trash bin.

Whiteboard Equation Builder Diagram and Photo by Johnny Dobbins.

Through the course of interviewing our pilot client, I uncovered that the true value we could provide was actually in an intuitive web based analysis and insight creator that was shaped for the subject matter expert, not the data scientist.

Bringing this idea back to my CEO and my mate on the engineering team at the time, we white boarded, argued, dreamed and then decided. We needed to be more than we had set out to be if we were to fit in the market as it was in 2016.

The Journey

Going from no code to a product that clients are licensing and benefiting from is an extraordinary journey. As I grew and built out the needed engineering organziation, it quickly became apparent that our early process on ideation and exploration was just the beginning.

Whiteboard Insight Builder Diagram and Photo by Johnny Dobbins.

We developed a pattern that evolved into a proper process around collaboration on “what our product is”. This cross functional group, including product design, commercial and engineering met and talked daily to evolve and align our teams.

We still do this today.

How we collaborated better

As with any young team, we learned a lot through failure. But with each leader in our company committed to a culture of collaboration, we rose out of each failure more mature and determined to succeed.

Looking back, I identified five important learnings that the team adopted as part of this process:

  1. Understand that tools and fancy applications cannot solve any process issue. No matter how many zoom meetings or slack channels you create, if your organization’s culture does not foster “process driven” automation, the fancy tool you want to use will not help. Collaboration is not about the tool choice, it is about the process.
  2. Break down information silos; they exist in every organization. Learn to identify them and then deconstruct them, educating the team along the way.
  3. Dispersed teams mean dispersed ideas; ivory tower “HQ” top down “ideation” is as lethal to the product as it is to the team (and it always has been).
  4. Create and allow space for self forming and self managing focus teams to thrive; if someone can convince others to join them in solving a problem, it is likely a worthy problem to solve.
  5. Listen. Seriously. Developing a collaborative culture depends deeply on our ability to just stop talking and listen when others are sharing. Don’t cut off, speak over, talk past or even play solitaire when others are sharing with you. Stop and listen. It is contagious and as soon as you start, others will follow.

Wrapping up

Collaboration is the secret sauce to any success startup. Your journey will be different from my own; I am certain, though, that your team will benefit from the five tips I have shared.

I have spent much of my professional engineering career developing applications that help people get more value out of their data and content.

This experience ranges from building “hurricane proof” newsroom applications for TBO.com in Florida to “photo contest” applications for National Geographic and, now, these past five years, creating tools that allow operators to improve performance and impact availability of assets in the energy sector.

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5 Tips for Cultivating Collaboration at a SaaS Startup was originally published in The Startup on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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