If given a choice between building a startup during a bull vs. bear market, most founder’s natural inclination would be to say bull market. But Robbie Ferguson, Cofounder and President of Immutable, has a contrarian view: bear markets are a better testing ground for your idea and product.
“Every time you get a bear market, the signal-to-noise ratio becomes far more efficient. A bear market is the best time to build real product-market fit rather than have it smoothed over by artificial demand. It’s incredibly good discipline for building a company,” he says.
Robbie’s company-building experience began as a teenager when he started a platform enabling betting on online game League of Legends with his brother, James. The two brothers have been in crypto since 2014, and the experience of weathering four bear markets since then has only strengthened their long-term conviction in the space. And it’s paid off: since founding Immutable together in 2018, the company has become one of the fastest Australian startup to reach the unicorn milestone.
At 25 years old, Robbie has traversed the learning curve of becoming a founder faster than most. More notably, it’s his awareness that his role is forever changing as a founder, and embracing that change is what drives a team, product, and company forward. In this interview, Robbie shares how he’s scaled himself as a founder while scaling the business.
Write yourself a scorecard
Reflecting on navigating the shift from individual contributor to people manager and now company leader, the most challenging adjustments for Robbie all come back to how he spends his time.
“There is a sheer difference in what is good value for your time as your role changes, and adjusting to that is hard. There are things that I used to do as an individual contributor in a team of 15 that, if I did now, would be a complete waste of time,” he says.
“6 months ago, I was doing a lot of business development work. Now, if I jump into a new deal and try to iterate on its structure, it’s not helpful. What is helpful, though, is me trying to hire a SVP of Commercial who can run that part of the business better than I could.
“Every time I have a new role in the business I write myself a scorecard of what I'll work on and what the KPIs are. When you’re working in a space as noisy as crypto, you feel like you have to do every amazing thing that comes your way. A scorecard helps you evaluate whether you’re spraying and praying and being ineffective.”
To help fight shiny object syndrome and losing focus, Robbie recommends the book Radical Focus by Christina Wodtke. “It’s about setting 3 goals per week and that’s it. Everything else is golden apples.”
Hire the smartest people you know
From day one, hiring has been a top priority for Immutable, and is set to shift up another gear as they plan to hire 150 people over the next 10 months. With the advantage of hindsight, Robbie’s confident this next cohort of hires will continue to level up the business.
“I wish I could export the knowledge I have now around hiring back to my early days,” he says.
“We made some awesome hires, but we didn’t always get it right because we didn’t realise the standard that was necessary for success.
“We started by hiring the smartest people we knew. I met Alex Connolly [Cofounder and CTO of Immutable] at uni and brought him on as a cofounder a month into the business. I would say if you don’t know at least a few brilliant people you can pull into your startup at the beginning, don’t start one.”
Hiring execs who will scale the business has been Robbie’s primary focus for the past 6 months. When juggling the trade-off between domain expertise and functional expertise, Robbie’s always favoured functional expertise.
“James, Alex and I are deep in the technical expertise side of the business, but lighter on the ‘have built a massive business before’ expertise. You can see in our exec hires that’s the gap we’ve looked to fill. We’ve got people like Gill, our COO, who has grown a startup [SafetyCulture] of considerable size in Australia,” he explains.
“The main characteristic I look for in execs is they know what to do. They should be able to come to us and say ‘This is how I’m going to do everything better than what you’ve come up with.’
“We have a framework of clarity, conviction and content. Content is the least important. If they don’t have the conviction and clarity to say ‘This is the structure of my approach and this is why I think it's the right approach’, it doesn’t matter if they’re the best domain expert in the world, they’re not right for the job.”
Rather than build up a diversity debt, Robbie and the team have been actively targeting a gender-diverse future, by incorporating the methodology of Project F and supporting initiatives like Men Championing Change.
“Diversity is incredibly important. James, Alex and I all think similarly. We’re all optimistic and confident about what we’re going to be able to achieve, and having someone with a different mindset come in, challenge us, and say ‘Actually, this is terrible and we need to fix this’ is really useful.
“The female market in gaming is massively underserved right now. To solve that, you need diverse perspectives to give you better insights into serving those audiences because at the end of the day, product strategy is about understanding your audience.”
Build a critical mass of good people
Culture is often an afterthought for startups to the detriment of everything else, but it’s been a focus right from the start for Immutable.
“Our culture is one of the things I'm most proud of. Generally, culture dilutes over time, but ours has improved.
“By virtue of hiring a critical mass of good people, we’ve created a psychologically safe environment that is honest, with strong but compassionate feedback. I think that’s the backbone to any successful organization.”
Like all first time managers, Robbie spent time figuring out how to give and receive feedback effectively.
“When you become a new manager, you want to be clear about standards and expectations. It took me a little while to learn how important positive feedback was – you forget that the vast majority of human behaviour is driven by positive reinforcement.
“The important things to remember with feedback are that it’s clear, you put yourself in their shoes and you care about how they’re going to respond.”
The Immutable team also works hard at driving a culture of ownership so that people genuinely feel empowered to do things, move quickly and then move on.
“Enjoying your work and being comfortable with making mistakes is important to ownership. If you want people to work fast, you have to let them make mistakes. We’re happy to have stuff-ups of a certain size, so long as you learn from them.”
Stop talking about the bike shed
If you’ve ever lived the adage in a meeting of “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”, Robbie recommends reading The Great CEO Within by Matt Mochary. Robbie follows the Issues and Proposed Solutions framework to generate productive discussions and quicker decision-making in exec meetings.
“As a leader, you’re not there to solve issues superficially. The actual work of a meeting is to establish the root cause of an issue,” he says.
“I love the concept of the bike shed; the famous example where a company is supposed to be discussing a multi-million dollar upgrade of a nuclear power plant, but in the exec meeting no-one talks about it because they don't understand the topic in the first place. They spend much more time talking about the upgrade of a bike shed because the topic is accessible; everyone has an opinion on it.
“In the end, you need to focus on what matters, even if it’s much more complex.”