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Yun Hi Chala Chal – 5 lessons from 5 years of WinnerBrands

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It has been 5 years since we started WinnerBrands. During this period, we have seen both ups and downs- that include growing revenue and burning money every month, temporarily pausing our operations, pivoting to a different business model and finally building a profitable business that counts some of the largest and fastest-growing organizations among its clients.

In this article we reflect on 5 key learnings from our journey so far, each expressed through a favourite quote of ours. So here you go:

1. Sometimes out of crisis emerges clarity

WinnerBrands started as a guided marketplace offering branding solutions to small and medium businesses (SMBs). The idea was to curate a platform that’s more involved than freelance marketplaces but less operationally intensive than a full-fledged marketing agency. 3 years down the line we realized that while the market potential was real, this was a low-margin, high CAC and operationally heavy business. Hence, while our revenues were growing, so were our costs.

That’s when the pandemic struck- severely impacting small and medium businesses. Most of our projects were deferred or cancelled and business almost came to standstill. Constrained by circumstances, we went back to the drawing board to find ways to revive our venture. We started with what we already had in hand- a good pool of marketing talent who were with us. If we could become a bridge between this talent and organizations that are looking for quality marketing professionals, we had a chance of survival.

This realization of strengths and synergies led to a fundamental shift- from offering marketing services we pivoted to offering talent solutions in the marketing domain, and hence expanded our scope from catering to SMBs to bigger enterprises. Today, 2 years down the line, the new avatar of WinnerBrands has fewer operational hassles, runs with one-third of the original number of employees, has 3x revenue, healthy margins, zero CAC and is growing profitably month on month!

In retrospect, we wonder why we had to wait for a crisis to pivot to this model.

Probably it was commitment bias and to some extent, even our bias for action. We were so busy on the treadmill of day-to-day operations, constant fire-fighting, and hoping for things to turn around that we never thought of taking a bold call of making radical changes. Once the pandemic pushed us into a corner, we were forced to pause and that let us see an opportunity clearly. As they say, not all storms come to disrupt your life, some come to clear your path.

2. You build people – and then people build the business

Our hiring philosophy has always been about onboarding people who do not come with preconceived notions or set perspectives. Sincerity and openness to learning are the only two non-negotiable traits we use to filter those applying to work with WinnerBrands and this has kept us in good stead. Being self-funded, we knew we cannot be the best paymaster out there, but we could definitely try our best to make this a great place to work.

From the early days of WinnerBrands, we have been deliberate about fostering a culture of trust and transparency. We empowered our employees to boldly experiment and gave them the leeway to fail, without micromanaging them. This has helped us cultivate a culture of openness and ownership where hierarchies are non-existent, feedback flows both ways and voice at every level carries equal weightage.

This early focus on getting the culture right worked especially well for us post-pandemic when remote working became the norm. WinnerBrands seamlessly adapted to the new normal and we in-fact saw an upswing in productivity and commitment from our employees!

Currently, we work with a 100% remote working model with just one catch-up meeting in a day. We religiously share monthly business performance with the entire team and have a flexible leave policy- rather than a pre-defined quota, employees can take an off when they need it- no applications, permissions or rationing. Now that we have hit profitability, we also put in place a plan to share profits with each and every employee.

3. Revenue is vanity, profit is sanity, but cash is king

One thing that we have learnt the hard way and has now become a cardinal guiding principle for WinnerBrands is that we would never compromise bottom-line margins over topline growth. Of course, we do understand that sometimes upfront investments are important to drive long-term results- but every such investment decision is weighed carefully on its ROI potential and approved only after careful, collective deliberation.

Our unwavering focus on cashflows has served us in multiple ways.

Beyond our employees, we manage a large base of freelancers who look for predictable earnings and payouts. Cash flow being a key metric for us, we make sure that we are able to meet their need in a timely manner. This also instils discipline in collections, thereby giving us an adequate working capital cushion- which has kept us safe even in lean periods or unexpected events.

Finally, a focus on cash flow has made us think about how can we make money work harder for everyone in the business. It has kept our fixed costs in check and also made us realize that we can use remote working as a way to help our employees make the most out of their remuneration.

Counterintuitive it may seem, but this has even been a key factor in motivating us to think long-term. We have invested upfront in tools and technologies that can bring long-term efficiencies rather than relying on brute-force tactics like over-hiring and regretting.

We now truly understand why they say that ‘Cash is King’.

4. Fix the Inputs and the Outputs will fix themselves

We have realized the hard way that building a profitable business is very similar to building healthy habits. The outcomes can be a north star metric that you can refer to once in a while but the true guiding light are your everyday actions, or inputs, that you invest in your business. Hence this quote from James Clear: “fix your Inputs and the Outputs will fix themselves ”- is equally applicable to both our personal and professional lives.

Hence, while we agree on broad goals for the quarter, on a daily basis our focus is on actions that can help us achieve these goals. For instance, if increasing the number of inbound leads is our goal, creating the right awareness among relevant organizations becomes a critical action. So, sending out 4 well-researched emails weekly introducing WinnerBrands to potential clients is a key input that we track and measure. If there is enough proof that this input not yielding results, we discuss and agree on an alternative input.

This focus on inputs rather than outputs ensures that there is a spirit of collaboration rather than competition within the team and that knowledge sharing happens on a daily basis.

There is a misconception that tracking and planning is more relevant for larger organizations but what we have learnt here at WinnerBrands is that disciplined planning and tracking of inputs is equally critical, if not more, for smaller organizations. Good habits are best inculcated in childhood, you cannot discipline a grown-up.

5. Alone, we can do so little; together, we can do so much

“By the marketers, for the marketers” is the founding principle of WinnerBrands and today marketers operate in an extremely challenging and dynamic landscape. They deal with demanding consumers with limited attention spans. Media is getting fragmented; the concept of appointment viewing is becoming extinct and ‘tent-pole’ properties either don’t exist or are prohibitively costly.

In such a scenario, it is critical for marketing professionals to be on a continuous learning curve. Plugging into the right professional networks and crowdsourcing knowledge & opportunities from fellow marketers is the best way to thrive.

Hence, almost since our inception, we have envisioned nurturing a “WinnerBrands Community” where talent affiliated with us gets an opportunity to learn and grow from a carefully curated community of top marketers. We have taken a few small steps in this direction. We have curated courses and workshops with contemporary case studies that help marketers understand the fundamentals of brand building. We have also started Freeflowing (yes, this very newsletter that you are reading) where we distil the learnings and principles from real-world marketing for the benefit of marketers. We are already planning real-world meetups, guest lectures and masterclasses where accomplished members of our community can openly share their knowledge with the larger marketing fraternity.

However, we very well understand that we haven’t even scratched the surface and there is so much more to do.

We realize that our mission of “Curating a community of top marketing talent” is nothing short of a moonshot- and this is exactly what keeps us both humble and hungry.

(This article is co-authored by Asher Ali, Gurudev Prasad and Suharsh Dixit)

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