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From Start-up to Scale-up – How my role as CEO changed

A lot can happen in 10 years: We started out as a team of three developers and one hotelier. By now, we are a highly specialized team of 100 and our start-up has evolved into an established tech company attracting clients all over the world. In this article, Marius Donhauser explains how his role as CEO has changed along with the company.

This year, we look back on 10 years of hotelkit. During this decade, we went through different development stages. And as the business grew, my role as CEO also changed accordingly. As CEO, you grow along with your company, are often required to change focus, reflect and reinterpret your own position within the company. An acquaintance once told me that, as CEO, you first work in the company and it’s only later that you start working on the company. In my opinion, this hits the nail on the head. In the following, I want to briefly portray how I perceived the shift in my role as a CEO during our development from start-up to scale-up:

Founding phase – CEO, Product Developer, Sales and Marketing Manager

In a company that is entirely self-financed, a CEO is often forced in the beginning to manage many departments himself/herself as they do not want to exceed the budget. During the founding phase, the areas of responsibility were clearly distributed: As I founded the company together with three developers, it was obvious that they would take care of the technical side of things, and I would in turn take care of the business-commercial side. Except for my long-term hotel employee Gera Bachner who assisted us in the Customer Service department, there were no other team members (yet). This means that from Sales to Product development to Marketing, I was active in all of these departments.

In sales, I benefited from the fact that I have a background in hospitality and am therefore still well connected in the industry. On the other hand, the idea for the product was my own, which is the most authentic and credible way to present a product. During the founding phase, it was also me who prompted the important impulses in product development. At that time, we did not yet have a Product development department. Being a hotelier myself, I knew what the platform should be able to do and which tasks it should facilitate. Moreover, during my studies, I had already tried to establish my own ideas on the software market, albeit unsuccessfully. The experiences I gained during these attempts, however, helped me to create the concept for the software and prompted the development of new features. In marketing, I took care of the branding, defined the corporate identity and incorporated my ideas into the design of the advertising materials. All in all, during this early phase, I acquired essential skills in every area of the company and became an allrounder. To this day, I still benefit from these skills, especially when it comes to advising my team members in the various departments.

Start-up phase – CEO, All-rounder and Supporter

Our client base kept on growing and it became very clear that with hotelkit we had struck a nerve in the hospitality industry. Through the success of our company, we then also had the resources at hand to enlarge our team. The focus was, above all, on client acquisition and client support: Fairly soon, we employed 25 team members in the Sales and Customer Success Management departments. This enlargement also indicated a shift in my role as CEO. Our main focus was to further establish the product on the market, so I supported the new team members in the Sales department as much as I could by passing on the knowledge that I had collected over the years. Furthermore, I continued to close sales myself, was involved in product development and kept an eye on the finances of our company.

Operationally, I was still challenged on all fronts. It became evident though that our new team did not only consist of Sales & Customer Success Management talents. Little by little and on their own initiative, the team members got involved in other domains as well. There were, for example, colleagues in Sales who, next to their actual function, also demonstrated skills in Marketing. And as a result, took on a new role within the company. This also led to the formation of new departments: Marketing, Product development and Tutorial.

Scale-up phase – CEO and Sparring partner

The development of hotelkit from start-up to scale-up was on the one hand almost gradual, but at the same time, it happened quite rapidly. The year 2019 was marked by significant growth: We had our hands full with organizing the onboarding of new clients and were meanwhile a team of 50. The pandemic in 2020 put a damper on things. Putting on the brakes hurt, a lot. At the same time, it gave us a breather that we used to prepare ourselves towards taking the next step.

One thing was clear: We were no longer a small start-up, but a tech company that had established itself on the market. Therefore, we decided to implement an adequate organizational structure into our company and opted for the Holacracy model. In the framework of this model, we created a second executive level. This means that every department got their own team lead that takes care of all the strategic and organizational matters.

Sounds like a radical change, but was it? I would answer this question with yes and no. On the one hand, yes, because as CEO I now finally have the possibility to withdraw myself from operating the business and the departments. I am now able to put my entire focus on the further development of the company. On the other hand, no, as I am still in the picture regarding which projects are being worked on and I still give impulses for new projects. I consider myself a sparring partner for the team leads with whom I cultivate an efficient meeting culture and which often leads to interesting ideas. Integrative decision-making within the team is, however, not new for us because that is the way we have always done things at hotelkit. Holacracy only put a name to it. And the power of innovation within the company is bigger than ever before: In 2021, we doubled our team with an increase from 50 to 100 team members. Over the years, our team has grown from three developers and one hotelier to a highly specialized team ranging from experts in online marketing, to content managers to product owners.

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