How to build a unicorn in 4 years: 7 key lessons from Hristo Borisov
Published on: May 2, 2022

Entrepreneurship is often glorified. The media loves to talk about the few success stories, and it creates the illusion that it’s not that hard to build a successful business. The reality is much different. In fact, only 1 out of 10 startups manage to survive (according to Startup Genome). And the chance for a company to become a unicorn is merely .00006%, (according to Republic). That is 3 out of every 5,000,000 companies! And if we add the specifics of the region: in the eastern part of the Balkans, the odds probably decrease even more.

We couldn’t be more proud by the team of Payhawk. With tremendous commitment, consistency and tenacity and in only 4 years, they have managed to defy the odds and build the first company in Bulgaria with a $1 billion valuation. Well done, guys, and keep up the great work! 🙏

To extract all the learnings and lessons, we invited the co-founder & CEO Hristo Borisov on Productivity Mastery Podcast! Founded in 2018, Payhawk’s mission is to become the world’s biggest bank without holding a single dollar. It was a truly insightful and honest episode, and we couldn’t help ourselves, but extract the 7 key lessons. Enjoy reading and make sure to listen to the full episode!

1. Start with a “whiteboard mentality”

According to Hristo, the first 3-4 months are most crucial for a startup. This is the time when you should be most open-minded and critical. Look for new angles, brainstorm ideas, and conduct massive research. Speed matters. You can easily start over on the whiteboard, but after these 4 months, such changes can cost you an arm and a leg. So, adopt the whiteboard mentality and go through all the possibilities while you still have time to experiment in the early stages. Don’t be afraid to try things out and make mistakes. It will all help you find your focus and build a great product later.

2. Aim to create a “painkiller”, not “vitamins” 

Regarding your product, you need to aim high. Be real. You initially design a product because you want to solve a problem, a big pain for your potential customers. Don’t fool around in creating something that only seemingly will help, or is just a nice-to-have. Be ambitious enough to think of something that will totally eliminate a problem. How your product will change your customers’ lives – that should be your focus and anchor from the get-go.

3. Act as a professional team, not as a family

Hristo emphasizes on the importance of surrounding yourself with the right allies – co-founders and the core team. You need to find people who are on the very same page, people you can trust, but also people who are equally invested in the startup as you are. Further, you need to set clear expectations from the beginning. Hristo recommends setting up a vesting schedule very early on, so that everyone is clear what happens if they decide to leave within 3-4 years, for example. Make sure everyone understands their role, what’s expected from them and all details surrounding this professional relationship.
No matter how much we trust each other, we need to act as a professional team, and not as a family.
It is a business after all, and we need to have the right structure so that we operate effectively it in.

4. Your title is Customer Success, and…

At Payhawk they joke that everybody has two (job) titles: Customer Success and [their position].
You have to put your customer first and make sure you enable them to be successful with your product, and that the mindset to support the customer has to be applied by anyone within the company. During the podcast, Hristo shared, “There’s only one anchor for your focus: The customer”. Take the time to understand your market. Talk to your customers, and find out what their struggles are. Do as many tests and experiments as needed on the product, the features and the pricing and define what really makes sense. Payhawk for example did 25 iterations on their pricing before finally hitting the right spot.

5. Never hire the “brilliant jerk”

Payhawk is always aiming at attracting the top 1% talent. Talent is what can define whether a company will succeed or fail. Hristo reminded us though of a concept he learned about from the Reed Hastings’ book: “No Rules Rules: Netflix and the culture of reinvention”. And it’s the idea to never hire “the brilliant jerk”. Sometimes we are tempted to hire the person who’s a great performer and has a strong CV. However, if that person also has a strong ego, can not work well in a team or overall might have a negative impact on the culture, it’s never a good idea to hire them. Make sure the people you bring on board are also kind and fit the culture on top of being great at what they do.

6. Get ready for a ride

The real journey is a rollercoaster.” That’s how Hristo describes what being an entrepreneur feels like. In the first few years, Hristo was working very hard and coming home at 9 or 10 pm almost every day. And while taking a shower, he would think: “I can not crack this. It is so hard. I am working as hard as possible. I feel like every bone in my body is doing as much as possible… and we can not crack it“.
At the same time, everyone around would tell him: “You can not do that. It’s too hard. Why don’t you give up and move on“. Hristo recalls he would keep getting rejections and after 50-60 of them you really start to question yourself. And this is where having great co-founders and team around becomes so important. Together, it’s easier to go through the struggles and stay motivated despite the difficulties on the road.

7. Master time management 

Time management is an essential skill for any entrepreneur. Hristo is very strategic about how he manages his time and energy. During the podcast, he shared how he structures his week to maximize it, having in mind his current goals and priorities. To achieve productivity, he tries to “bundle things together”. For example, on Friday, he would try to not schedule meetings. But instead, keep the day to get things done himself: doing strategy, replying to emails and check off things that came throughout the week. Hristo likes to do his weekly reflection and planning on Monday morning, before the meeting with his team. He shared a number of questions he likes to ask himself to help him start the week strong.

Check out the whole episode with invaluable and honest advice by someone who’s lived what he preaches: Hristo Borisov, the co-founder and CEO of the first Bulgarian unicorn, Payhawk.

Let us know what you think, and make sure to subscribe to Productivity Mastery for tips & inspiration by some of the most successful and caring leaders on the planet.


Stay strong and #KeepPERFORMing
Stoyan Yankov

Published by: Stoyan Yankov

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