This post is by Chris Taggart, OpenCorporates’ CEO and Co-Founder
2019 was a momentous year for OpenCorporates. We achieved much: reached 180 million companies in our database, including the extremely complex jurisdiction of Germany, launched our new Corporate Events feature, took the Quebec company register to court and won, and saw our data used in many cool ways to make a difference in the world.
It was also a year of significant change, not all of it easy.
The first six months of 2019 were, frankly, challenging. At the beginning of the year, despite our reputation and important work, we were still in many ways an under-resourced startup, lacking infrastructure and support, and with limited depth in management (essentially myself and Commercial Director Sarah Arana-Morton). We’d done a lot, made a significant difference in the world, but frankly we were running on fumes, and the strain was showing – on the team, and on me as the CEO and Co-Founder.
And it didn’t look like things were going to get any easier.
While we had just celebrated another year of making a real difference in the world, had created an innovative new structure that would protect OpenCorporates’ mission in the long term, and had achieved significant organic growth, as we entered 2019, the next six months looked tough.
Sarah – effectively my number two – was going to go on maternity leave in a few months; I was close to burnout having co-founded and run the company for 9 years; we were due to move into a new, bigger office in February, with all the disruption that implied; we had found an amazing person to be our first Chief Data Officer, Rebecca Lee, but she was working a long notice period; and despite six months of searching, we still hadn’t found a CTO with the vision and skills to tackle some of the big hairy tech problems that the world needed us to.
It was not an easy time, and we didn’t make it easier by making some hires in haste that were a poor fit, and hence ended up taking a fragile, stressed team and making things a lot worse. (Lesson learned: cultural fit is the one thing you should never sideline when hiring.)
So what happened?
Well, we found our CTO in Alan Buxton, who within weeks of joining was improving our ability to actually ship stuff, and also strengthened the tech team both for experience and potential.
We made the decision to hire a Head of People, Kate Pierre, despite initially not knowing how we’d pay for them, and she too made an immediate difference, with a series of workshops to create a set of values for the organisation, and helping us apply these when recruiting (avoiding some bad hiring decisions).
Rebecca, our Chief Data Officer, thanks to a grant from the Mohn Westlake Foundation, more or less doubled the size of the data team, recruiting a superb set of analysts, and oversaw a review of all our data processes, bringing in new systems, policies and procedures.
With the help of the trustees, we found an experienced consultant, Duncan Sperry, to help with our management structure and add additional short-term capacity in our support areas (finance, office management etc).
And Jade Croucher, who’d joined us as Client Manager a year earlier, stepped up in Sarah’s absence, and did a superb job overseeing the commercial team (so much that we have just promoted her to Head of Commercial).
And of course Sarah came back from maternity leave with tons of energy and passion and ideas, and is now driving the organisational change and effectiveness, particularly making sure that use of our data – public benefit and commercial – is maximised, and implementing the 4DX operating model (we’ll be reporting more on this in the future). As a consequence we’ve promoted her to Chief Operating Officer.
We’ve also made numerous other hires, including a CFO, office manager and our first marketing person.
Most importantly, we now have a set of team values that we’re really proud of – and values the team is actually living – with really great results.
Finally, the senior leadership team is working really effectively together, running the day to day operations. And this has allowed me to focus on being CEO (rather than having to be the line manager for over a dozen different people), driving the vision and longer-term strategy, rather than dealing with the day-to-day running of the company. This is important both for the growth of the company, and for me personally – knowing that things can manage without you is very liberating, and makes me proud of the organisation we’ve built.
A measure of the success of this was that at the back end of last year I could go on a 2-week US/Canada work trip, and back at the office not only were there no problems, but they achieved several significant internal milestones. This year I’ll be doing a lot more such trips – possibly as many as one a month – confident that the team are doing the real work back here. I’m even planning on taking my full allocation of holiday days, for the first time ever (and so finally get my Day Skipper certification)!
Of course, we still have some way to go. We’re conducting a compensation and benefits review – figuring out how to attract and keep the best people when our public-benefit structure makes an exit (and thus traditional share options) impossible. We’re continuing to grow, and still have some key roles that we’re recruiting for. And of course, culture is not something that you can just decide on – it’s what happens when no-one’s paying attention – and we’re continuing to proactively work to strengthen a positive, inclusive culture.
But at our final regular anonymous staff sentiment survey of the year, we scored 8.36 out of 10 for the question “How likely is it that you would recommend OpenCorporates as a great place to work to a friend or family member?”, and that’s a pretty good way to end 2019, and start 2020.