Since joining Cyclica nearly two years ago, I’ve conducted several R&D projects investigating and...
Part II - Facing Failure Head On: What Our Startup Learned From One of Our Biggest Mistakes - Branding
Originally posted on LinkedIn: https://bit.ly/3CubQtp
I am not sure where I heard it first - I believe at SXSW in 2014 - but a speaker once cogently stated that “your brand is the sum of all experiences a person has with your company”. That stuck. I still remember what room, in what hotel, and in what chair I was sitting in when I heard that. Fast forward 5 and a half years, and that statement is now inculcated in the psyche of everyone at Cyclica and has become one of our guiding principles. A person for us is defined as any member of the Cyclica team, a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry who is benefiting from our drug discovery platform, a business development manager with whom we have structured (or are structuring) a deal, an existing or prospective investor, or the general marketplace including patients.
When I look back to April 2016 when I took over as CEO our brand was not in a good place. For a long time, we spoke too much, sometimes about the wrong things, and didn’t back it up with action. We were “all sizzle, and no steak”. I see this with many companies, especially with first time entrepreneurs. Too often I see it in the “AI for Drug Discovery” space with companies making audacious statements about curing patients at a click of a button. I understand the temptation that exists to sell a good story (the “sizzle), and then to figure out how to put that story together after the fact (the “steak”). We succumbed to that temptation as we attempted to placate every person in the industry. In doing so, we let down every person (maybe not every person, but it sure felt that way). I already spoke at length about how we failed from a people’s perspective (article here), and we hurt our brand there, but looking externally, we weren’t known broadly nor were we respected for a long time, especially outside of Toronto where we are based. I considered this a failure. There are always conflicting tensions from investors and the scientific community: one wants to see demonstrable evidence of traction and a clear path to growth, the other wants to see continuous scientific validation. It is certainly possible to achieve both simultaneously, but I quickly learned that expectations need to be clearly communicated through a thoughtful strategic plan, and managed accordingly.
I remember a decision we made in May-June of 2016 soon after I was appointed as CEO. The entire company sat around a table, and dissected our gaps. Branding came up as a key concern, not surprisingly. At that meeting, we essentially re-iterated the following words that I was taught from a young age “work, no words.” We went back to the fundamentals. We defined and agreed on our vision and winning aspiration as a company, we solidified our short term strategy, and structured our long term path forward. From there we sought the capital required to hire the resources to execute. The investment community backed us. Supported by the StartUp Health 90 day mentality, we started to hit our scientific, technical, and business milestones while aiming for our "moonshot". Win by win, we began to gain momentum. We started to then look beyond to Mars, and as cheesy as it may sound, we have set our sights on the stars. We’ve remained focused, while also being visionary. The two are not mutually exclusive, but can only be achieved with the right people, plan, and strategy.
I wrote this article to show, and not tell, why failure is important. As we continue to highlight our successes as a company, understanding the points in our journey where we could have done better is equally, if not more, important. While our wins may make the headlines, our losses got us there. And as one of the world’s top 20 AI drug companies, we too have failed, but it didn’t stop us.
Ps. Thanks to my incredible team. I'm nothing without all of you. Onwards and upwards.
Naheed Kurji is the Co-Founder, President and CEO of Cyclica. Naheed is passionate about building AI-augmented technologies that enable researchers to make more strategic and informed decisions in Healthcare and the life sciences. He spends the majority of his time obsessing over Cyclica’s culture, defining its strategy to best effect change in the pharma industry to achieve the company’s vision, and exploring opportunities for continued innovation.