People who follow the trajectory of successful startups often look at first employees in the company with as much fascination at the founder or co-founders. We expect founders to pursue their vision with wild abandon and passion yet somehow maintaining a laser focus. And yet, for first employees, that same dedication and drive is often needed to keep the pace in the early days of a new company.
In many ways, the first employee/s are taking as much of a leap of faith as the founders themselves. These early joiners are often stepping in and definitely stepping up before there is even a minimum viable product (MVP), customer or solid business plan.
So it takes a certain kind of individual make such a leap.
Enter Dan Knott, FloodMapp’s Technical Lead - Flood Engineering and Development and Employee #1 in the company. This month, we celebrate Dan’s 4th anniversary and caught up for a chat on what its like to see FloodMapp grow from idea to where it is today.
Dan starts by talking about his background and career; recalling a Bachelor of Civil Engineering, where he took a keen interest in modelling and environmental processes. His final year thesis was around coastal engineering which is how he was invited to speak at the Queensland Water Symposium.
Obviously he made an impression as he was picked up in the room by a multinational flood modelling company which is where he learnt to put his theoretical degree into practice. And his first time producing flood maps.
It was also here that Dan’s curiosity and eagerness to learn picked up skills in software development to manage data and get better flood results.
“There’s a big difference between learning theory in a classroom and putting it into practice,” says Dan. “In many ways, my degree felt like the beginning of the journey. Since then, I’ve been on the job learning by doing.
“When you work in a big company you get to see the scale of big projects, but sometimes it’s easier to go with the flow than to look at the systems and structures underneath it all and work out a better way of doing things.”
It’s this mentality which led Dan to start working with startups. He followed a mentor from the multinational firm to start a new flood modelling company (again, as first employee) which went from 3 to 15 people quickly. It was another opportunity to watch and learn, and to hone his software development skills.
“After that, I met Juliette and Ryan (FloodMapp’s co-founders) when they had just received some funding and were moving back to Brisbane (from Sydney). They were looking for a flood engineer and software engineer, so I thought I’d see if I fit the bill.
“Hearing their passion for what could be done in the industry and seeing them describe the odd juxtaposition that you can see your Uber Eats order tracking in real time but can’t see the same for a flood, really got to me. I was in! This was a company I wanted to work for, and one that could make a difference in a field I’d been working in,” says Dan.
“In those early days, and still now actually, we always asked ourselves: will this scale? We knew we had a great concept but it would only be truly groundbreaking if it wasn’t limited. It was a steep learning curve but I have found myself now quite agile in my thinking.
“One thing we learnt early, and keep doing: making sure that whatever we are working gets feedback early. We are building something new, there’s no existing checkbox so we have to constantly check in and make sure we are aligned and on the right track.”
Four years is a long time in a startup where time seems to move faster than in regular companies. One of the big changes Dan has noticed is how the influx of new people to the team has opened up amazing and diverse backgrounds, and new ways of thinking.
“There’s definitely a mentality here of people learning from each other. You can be an expert but it doesn’t mean you are the only expert, or that your way of thinking is always going to be the best! The great thing about the growing team is getting those different voices and points of view around the table.
“A standout moment for me was when Bruce Grady joined our team. This is a man with some serious life experience in emergency management. Having him come on board really felt like a big win because in his previous roles, he would be our end user. It felt like a huge validation of our work to have someone like Bruce take a leap from government to startup!”
Of course building and scaling technology isn’t always easy, especially in engineering fields where practitioners are used to relying on physical tools rather than computational science.
“Think of it like driving: some people will always want to drive a manual (gear shift) car because it feels more real. An automatic transmission seems like you aren’t doing the real work of driving…let alone an electric car with sensors and cruise control! But in reality, we are all standing on the shoulders of the original engineers who put the engine together in the first place.
“I see the role of tech as the latest tool in our belts when it comes to flood modelling. We don’t eliminate the original way of doing things, we just are using new tools to take the next leap forward,” says Dan.
“I’m excited for what’s next too! Right now I’m learning more about API frameworks and shifting my thinking to how I can learn to think more about the approach holistically rather than patch fixes later in the process.
“Outside of work, I’m expanding my brain by trying to hand draw maps. My day-to-day is all about precision. This is the opposite, it’s more by feel,” says Dan.
As for taking the plunge out of big companies into startups, Dan says it’s not as risky as you think.
“As long as you are passionate about what you do, and are good at what you do, taking on opportunities like a startup is a journey, not a risk. Some people get scared that companies will “fail”. They might! But if that happens, remember that it’s the company, not you. As long as you’re learning and enjoying the journey, go for it.
To me, the greater risk is stagnation and staying in the safe lane because you’re comfortable. I never end my days thinking: that was boring. Usually I am too excited to even notice the working day has ended!”