Interview: In 3 years, we’ve grown from 2 to 120 people

It sounds like a miracle – in a startup world, definitely. At the beginning, there were two enthusiasts and today they have more than a hundred employees and clients like Volkswagen, Škoda Auto, Česká spořitelna, Raiffeisen Bank, CEMEX and KLM. The story of tesena is inspiring in many ways. However, we were mainly interested to know how they handled skyrocketing growth, attracted talented people, and what problems they struggled with along the road. "If someone told me in the beginning that we would be 50 or 100, I would probably think that I would go crazy," laughs co-founder and CEO Marcel Veselka.

How were tesena’s beginnings?

For the first two years, we were two people working from as if from a garage. We had a problem of fast growth and we were especially afraid of it. We came up with an idea to hire freelancers but cooperation with them did not work out. It happened quite often that we agreed with a client on a new project and by the time we contacted freelancers, they were already working on something else. Gradually, we switched to another model.

Marcel Veselka, CEO tesena

What was the other model like?

We started building our own team, but it was not easy either. We had trouble finding good people. Companies think that everyone can become a tester, and that's why they treat testers how they do. They hire them, they do not develop their skills and when these people have fours years of experience, they call them senior testers. But these people often only understand their areas and even if they do them well, they do not have a universal overview. That's why we decided to train them.

How did it go?

At the beginning, we set up a very complicated process in which we invited people to a written test, an interview, a four-day training session, and another interview to complete the process. The goal was to choose the best of the best, but the whole process took two to four weeks and out of 40 people we picked only two and the rest were hired by our competitors. We changed the whole process and started training our people once they are recruited.

Are you happy with the results of your trainings?

Yes, it has turned out that a tester trained for one year is better than a senior tester whose skills remain undeveloped. The disadvantage is that it increases turnover. It can happen that testers realize they want to work in another area of IT and they leave after a year. But we try to work on this. Another thing that we are dealing with is salary expectations. People who could hardly find a job because they did not have relevant skills suddenly have high salary demands after our training. We also got a big slap in the face from the market. In a headhunter war, we are weaker than Microsoft or Avast, who, in times of crisis, can reduce the loss of interest in testing by raising salaries via revenue from product sales, which we cannot do.

How did you manage to grow from 2 to 120 employees?

We have gone through mass recruitment. We hired a lot of juniors and attracted seniors through trainings and an international test conference we hosted. We have also tried to establish ourselves as professionals in our industry and work hard on our brand. I believe that the people who really want to practice and develop in testing join us.

How did you set up the organizational structure?

Honestly, at first it was a chaos. Being two owners, it happened that sometimes a person spoke to me one day and I told them, “Go right,” and the next day Phil would tell them, “Go left.” What helped us a lot is when Phil and I divided people into halves and one half reported to him and the other one to me. We're still fine-tuning it because what you set up for five people does not work for twenty, and so on. The organizational structure still troubles us today, but if we did not have the successes we have, it would have killed us.

Have you introduced middle management?

You could call it that. We have six teams (finance, recruitment, training and marketing, sales, office management, and delivery), with delivery making up ninety per cent of people. I'm taking care of these six teams and Phil is in charge of the whole delivery (seven team leaders) who look after an average of seven people themselves. We're trying to tailor the structure to each customer’s account because we used to have a problem if one day a customer told us they did not need our people for two months. Previously, we used to put these people to different teams with Phil, but now these customer account-cluster managers look after this.

Marcel Veselka and Phil Royston

How did the staff get used to it?

When we first blazed the trail, it was a problem. In this double-headed structure, an employee was reporting to me, and after the introduction of management level, that person shifted into another person’s care, so they were suddenly on a third level. Some people felt they were not important because the boss suddenly communicated with them over two levels. This was the case with people who have been here since the beginning. Gradually it has stabilized, but sometimes I feel like people think I'm the boss, and they cannot just come and talk to me. When we were five, we were a good crew, but now relationships are hard to build.

Has your role changed somewhat?

Totally. Unfortunately, this rapid growth has broken my relationship with both clients and employees. Clients were used to communicating with me, and they could not understand when I told them that from a certain point in time forward I would no longer be able to take care of them and that specialists would replace my role. It was the same with employees. When we were just a few people, I knew everyone, but now I only meet the closest people from management, sometimes with team leaders, and when there is a trouble, I meet an employee, but keeping a relationship with 120 people is impossible. Whereas earlier I could pass on company values ​​and culture during a coffee conversation, with this number it is no longer possible.

How did you react to this change?

During one point of time I used to delegate things so that it would not be a "one-man show," but then I realized that if you do not explain things – like company values ​​and culture – well, they do not make sense. Following the lead of Zappos, I want to start sending a regular email about what's going on in the company. We plan to meet with each team and go through values ​​and important things. We are thinking about how team leaders could better communicate values ​​to their people. I want people to understand that we are focusing on them and the successful company is a byproduct.

We have been talking about the company’s success all this time. To whom do you credit this success?

We were very lucky. We bet on young, talented, but inexperienced people who were enthusiastic and wanted to do something in their life – and it worked. We trained them, gave them confidence and they turned out to be stars. We said to our customers, "We have a top man for you. Take them for free for a month and if you think it will not work, I'll take them back." Our people stayed with them and our customers wanted more. Going through talents is hard, because it is necessary to invest in them, but it ultimately pays off.

What helped you to manage this difficult-to-manage growth?

We started planning at least three years ahead and introduced basic metrics. We measure, for example, the workload of our employees. When we see that they are fully engaged in some projects, we try to move them elsewhere or at least train the skills that they need. For someone, metrics may be useless and demotivating, but it's like a "control light" in a car. I also need to know when I need fuel.

Is there anything you would do differently next time?

There are two things. First of all, we still risk very little and sometimes our employees and further growth suffer from this. Secondly, many things would be much more professional if we did not do them ourselves but found pros. At first glance, it seems expensive to hire professionals, but in the end, you will save yourself time. You can say that it's good to learn something about marketing and financial planning when you are a tester by profession, but it's better to pick up people who get you in shape faster. We're still learning that.

Can you summarize what you have learned from doing business? This is your third project.

It was something different in every project, but I keep on realizing one thing repeatedly. It is important to be able to decide what to focus on, focus on it and be able to reject other things. This is also related to the need to fully dedicate yourself to something. When I decide to do something, I should do it at maximum capability and then say, "Done, I'm going to do something else."

Marcel Veselka is CEO of tesena, which he founded five years ago with his former colleague Phil Royston. In the past, he worked in testing at different positions for financial institutions. He has long been supporting and promoting testing as a profession. He founded [pro]Test!,  a tester’s community, actively participated in the organization of the CzechTest International Testing Conference, was a Vice-President of the nonprofit which represents ISTQB in the Czech Republic and Slovakia (promotion of testing and certification for testers) and is also an accredited software testing instructor. He is currently working to make tesena the market leader in testing for both customers and professionals who are serious about their testing career.