How we scaled our startup to 87 people of 20 nationalities in three years

Tugce Bulut, August 24, 2018 7 min read

“If they’re breathing the right culture, they’ll make the right decisions”; company culture is the most important thing to get right in your business, according to Tugce Bulut, Co-founder and CEO of Streetbees.

She’s shared with us her scaling journey and insights, including how she believes your brand should be built from within your company rather than outsourced, how diverse teams have helped Streetbees to excel when it comes to understanding human behaviour, and how making the most of startup networks has helped their business level up.

Streetbees took part in our scaling programme for mid-stage companies. Find out about our Upscale programme.

The story of Streetbees

Streetbees connects companies that need consumer data with real people through our app. Rather than relying on market research companies or agencies, consumers can share moments from their lives via text, image or video, and our software uses natural language processing (NLP) to help us understand what they’re saying and collect the data in a usable format.

These real moments shared from people’s lives help us uncover human needs and desires. Companies can then base their strategy on real data, that can be collected quickly whenever they need it.

Dissatisfied with the status quo

In the past, I was on the buyer side of research. I was a strategy consultant working with consumer companies, and I couldn’t find a company that could deliver the insights we needed. It was affecting my work.

We were constantly buying market research from traditional providers. It costs you a lot of money and it’s super slow. The biggest problem was that we would always end up with information and data that wasn’t useful – and we would never hear anything we didn’t already know.

At that time, there wasn’t an alternative to traditional methods of market research, which is a $44 billion global industry.

The Streetbees team at work

Disrupting market research

I started consulting with a tea company. They asked me to tell them about growth strategies for the top ten international markets, to gain an insight into the people already drinking tea in countries like Russia, India, Azerbaijan, and so on.

They wanted to have videos of real moments of people actually making tea – which were impossible to get! I thought this was absurd.

The technology we have today means it should actually be very easy to collect videos of real people. We have smartphones with high-quality cameras that can record images and videos, and upload them to the internet.

People are already making the media we need and uploading them to social media. We just had to create the platform that could collect the data in a form that could be used for research.

How that works is our users answer short survey questions in our app, and send short videos or images of the products they’re buying. We use artificial intelligence (AI) to elicit more information about their purchases. Once we have the data, natural language processing (NLP) transforms that data into insights on a large scale.

Now, companies can literally get consumers to photograph themselves making tea at home, and ask for more information about products they’ve chosen and why. In return, survey participants are sometimes paid small fees for their time.

Streetbees talent

Hacking the talent pipeline

Of course, this innovative approach to consumer research means we need a special kind of team. Our biggest challenge is hiring, which we have to do while continuing to grow.

We realised we were struggling to hire from the traditional industry, because most people already come in with a lot of old assumptions and hypotheses. In contrast, the way we do things is very different. People tend not to want to try new methods.

The speed you want to go at means you need to be constantly hiring – but you don’t want to lower your standards. In response to this challenge, we have built rock-solid training programmes.

So that means rather than hire someone from market research, we hire someone with the right attitude and a technological mindset. We train them in terms of how to approach market research.

This view doesn’t apply to everyone, as we’ve found some true gems from the industry.

Communicating at scale

In the future as we get bigger, it only gets more challenging to scale the team, and our communication channels are changing.

When you’re a team of fifty people, everyone knows each other by name. You turn around and you communicate. In contrast, when you become a much larger organisation, you need to create institutional channels to communicate your information to more people.

For example, let’s say the company has made a strategy decision. How do you communicate that to every person in the company? It requires a lot of thinking behind it. It’s not like you can call an all-hands meeting.

We actually need some dedicated channels to be able to communicate all our information effectively. So we’re working to make our internal communications more effective.

Leapfrogging common mistakes

Bringing everyone together is the philosophy behind Streetbees. This approach informs how we do business.

Startups benefit from being part of networks like Tech Nation – it’s incredibly important, and sometimes overlooked. You learn a lot from other businesses, whether that takes the form of advice, knowledge or contacts.

One of my board members is the COO of Citymapper, Omid Ashtari. One of my advisors and shareholders is the founder of TransferWise, Taavet Hinrikus. Their help and wisdom is invaluable.

So many other people in the tech ecosystem have been incredibly helpful. They have allowed us to almost leapfrog some of the common mistakes. Since they have been there and done it, you can turn to them to ask how they dealt with a particular problem. We can rely on their experiences, rather than reinventing the wheel.

It would be so much harder to meet these people without the network we’ve built through programmes run by Tech Nation.

The buzz at Streetbees

Branding inside out

We’re dealing with branding at the moment. We are going through standardising our communications as we are expanding, and we need to have a coherent tone as a business. In the past, people would get a branding agency to come in and do that for them, but that approach is really expensive. It’s also time-consuming.

When I was speaking to Taavet and asking him about his branding experience with TransferWise, he mentioned that your brand has to be created internally. He saved us a lot of time and money with this insight, because we understood that our brand is something we have to handle ourselves. It cannot be outsourced.

You can spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on agencies, but they will never be able to capture the essence of the business. People make the mistake of thinking that things like logos define your brand – but it’s actually the value proposition that you communicate.

The Streetbees bee

At the vanguard of diversity

Our brand is defined by our culture. The culture part of your company is incredibly important – it’s more important than your unit economics, your growth model, or anything else. Every employee has to make a large number of decisions day in, day out. If they’re breathing in the right culture, they’ll make the right decisions.

A big part of our culture is diversity. We’re one of very few tech companies with a 50/50 balance of gender in the business – this is amazing. We have the same ratio in the leadership team as well, which is even more rare.

We have 20 different nationalities amongst an 87-person team and they speak 25 languages fluently. 30% of our workforce is BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic), so that kind of diversity is very unusual. My machine learning team is made up of US, British, Italian, Iranian and Nigerian employees.

Related: What % of people working in tech are from BAME backgrounds? >

It makes a really big difference to our operations. We have become so good at understanding human behaviour thanks to the diversity we have internally.

Diversity is very much in the DNA of our business because we work in 87 markets, and we represent all of these different countries. You wouldn’t be able to understand the drivers of human behaviour if you didn’t have that diversity reflected in your own business. It would never work.

Achieving diversity is not an active effort of ours, but we basically just don’t discriminate. It’s really easy to do. If you simply hire the best, they will come from all kinds of backgrounds.

The only active effort we’ve made is to train all the interviewers so they can be completely culture-blind in the interviews, and just focus on the topic that’s being discussed. When we are interviewing, we just look at the attitudes and the skillset, and nothing else matters.

Streetbees values

The hard thing about hard things

We’ve come a long way since 2015. Streetbees started as a small company in a little bedroom, and has gotten to the stage where super experienced and senior people are owning that dream. They’re taking it to new heights that we didn’t imagine when we started.

The best thing about being an entrepreneur is seeing your dream come true, being adopted and actually evolved by other people. It’s the most inspiring thing in the world.

The hardest part is constantly dealing with negative things – it comes with the territory. The Hard Thing About Hard Things (a business book by Ben Horowitz) is that twenty different things will go wrong in a given day. You have to deal with it because that’s the nature of it.

You have to be psychologically prepared not to get down because of the hard things, and appreciate that it’s part of the story. It helps if you surround yourself with positive people, because the last thing you want is a whole bunch of people around – whether that’s backers, investors, advisors – who are just focusing on the negatives.

We try to surround ourselves with people who can provide an injection of positive energy and help lead us on to the next great thing.

Connecting the world with data

Right now, our team is busy disrupting the $44 billion market research business. In two years’ time, when someone needs some consumer insights or information, Streetbees will be the first place they come to. We already work with market-leading companies like Pepsico, BBC and Unilever.

We do the research, we present the results for them, and this all happens in the space of 24 hours. The whole reason I started this business is because I believe more information at an affordable price creates more international business – and that’s good for the economy. It’s good for growth in general.

If we can make data faster and more affordable, the whole world will come closer with a boost to international trade. This is what we’d like to see in two years’ time.

Streetbees took part in our scaling programme for mid-stage companies. Find out about our Upscale programme.

Company culture, diversity, Startup stories, London, Data Analytics & Cyber security, Upscale 3.0, Mid Stage