Evan Griffin, black and white business Headshot taken by Marlboro Wang for Focal bookfocal.com

How working for a startup was invaluable to my education: The top 5 things I've learned working at Focal

Like many University students, I finished my schooling for the year in April and was eagerly hunting for a summer Co-op.  I hunted and hunted for Co-ops but everything that interested me was either too far away or required more education than I had at the time.  I felt like I had exhausted all options and by the time I was wrapping up my final exams, I was incredibly stressed as I still hadn’t found a summer job.  Just as I was considering moving back home and re-applying for one of my previous jobs.  I received an email advertising a summer position with Focal.  At the time I couldn’t find much about the company but it sounded like the perfect position for me as I’d always wanted to work for a startup and photography is something I’m passionate about!  I ended up enjoying the role so much that I was faced with an extremely tough decision in August.  To go back to school or take a year off and take a chance on a very new startup.  I was worried about leaving the safety of school, being a year behind all my peers and working at a company where my paycheque could quickly vanish if we didn’t perform.  Ultimately I felt that growing with Focal was invaluable to my education and even if the company went broke it would be a valuable lesson.  Luckily, this wasn’t the case and almost a year later I’m still working at Focal.  In this time I’ve learned a ton and so I have decided to share the top 5 things I've learned from working at Focal.

1. An Entrepreneurial Spirit is key 

Before joining Focal I had never worked at a start-up.  When I was hired the product looked very different from how it does today.  Something I was taught early on was the importance of bootstrapping our business and figuring out what works on the fly.  It was pretty common for me to get into the office in the morning, only to hear that we needed a new blog post, or that we were going to sponsor an event - and suddenly I was in charge of it. Because of this, I had to learn how to utilize a plethora of free tools to get things done. I remember one morning finding out that we were going to sponsor a student group at UVIC called Young Women in Business by offering deeply discounted business headshots and I was in charge of putting the event together with a limited budget.  For this event, I was tasked with setting up a page on our site where students easily could pick their preferred time slot and pay instantly.  At the time our site hadn’t done an event with this many sessions scheduled after one another.  Fortunately, I was able to set it up so students could book in just a few clicks.  From here I met with the YWIB team to discuss how to best market the event to students and together we drafted several social media campaigns to promote it.  Once the event rolled around I went along with our photographer and made sure each student got their desired headshot.  Each day I had something new thrown my way and together with the Focal team, we were able to make things work without having to solve our problems with money.     

2. Profit doesn’t Measure Success  

An important lesson I learned early on is that profit doesn’t measure success. and in fact, some of the shoots where we donated our time ended up being the most successful.  In all my previous positions a good day was based on how much I had sold or if the store had been busy.  But after overseeing some of our more expensive shoots I learned that these weren’t always the most impactful for our company.  We were fortunate enough to be able to offer several local charities our photography service.  This included covering the Shelbourne Community Kitchen’s AGM along with one of their cooking lessons.  This coverage helped them submit photos with their grant applications which helped strengthen these applications as they were able to properly show off all the great work they do.  Another example is the coverage we provided Our Place’s brand new facility opening in View Royal.  The lasting relationships our team took away from these shoots significantly helped grow our brand within the local community.

3. Reach out to peers in your industry.

During my time at Focal, we came across issues nobody on our team was familiar with, such as how to improve our site’s SEO, whether we should try and raise money from investors and if we should outsource or hire a development team when scaling our site.  Thanks to the help of our advisors we were able to connect with local experts in the Victoria Tech community.  Without their help, we wouldn’t have the platform we have today.  If you’re ever in a similar situation don’t be afraid to reach out to those around you and ask for help. You’d be surprised how often extremely experienced executives at companies are willing to lend a couple hours of their time, but it’s because they been through it and they truly want to help. Even if you’re just bouncing ideas off someone who’s gone through a similar journey to you, a different way of looking at the problem can help make all the difference for your company.    

4. Don’t be afraid to pivot 

 When I first joined Focal the marketplace looked very different from how it does today you can read more about that here.  Something we learned was that the way we had previously been running our site was confusing for both our customers and photographers.  As customers were unclear if they were booking with Focal or a particular photographer, and photographers were dissatisfied as they didn’t get to highlight their own brand when shooting as a Focal Photographer.  After receiving this feedback we decided to pivot away from where we were planning on taking the site and chose to interview dozens of local photographers and customers in order to completely redesign our marketplace.  Using their feedback as the major influence for which features were to be built into the new platform.  That is why when you first come on to the Focal marketplace our Photographers’ names and logos are front and center.

This is something that can be frustrating about working at a startup as there isn’t a clear map on how to get from point A to B.  However, if you’re open to change and design with your customers in mind, pivoting doesn’t need to be a bad thing and is usually all part of the start-up process.   

5.  Your Role will constantly change

Lastly, something I really enjoyed while working at Focal was that my role was constantly changing.  I was hired as a marketing assistant to help grow the brand within Victoria but like many startups, the role I was hired for constantly changed and evolved.  Since we had a relatively small team I was able to take on lots of tasks that would typically be outside my job description.  The mindset of “that’s not my job” doesn’t exist when working for a startup.  I was hired as a marketing assistant but my job included organizing shoots with clients and brands,  editing videos and even assisting with payroll for our photographers.  If you get the chance to work at a start-up you’ll be hired for one role but will have to take on several others as there simply aren’t enough people to cover everything that needs to get done.  If you’re like me this is something that keeps work interesting and makes coming into work every morning really exciting!  

So far my time at Focal has been wonderful and I hope to learn a lot more while our company grows.  I’m very happy that the email advertising the position at Focal found its way into my inbox and that our company has morphed into what it is today.  Have a look at the brand new Focal Marketplace to see the results of everything our team has learned so far!

See Marketplace

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