As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Klemen Zupancic, PhD.
Klemen Zupancic, PhD Biomedicine, is a CEO of SciNote LLC, a company behind the top-rated electronic lab notebook platform for laboratories on their way to digital transformation, and a co-founder of BioSistemika LLC, a life-science software development company. Alongside his business career, he has been focused on developing methods for diagnosing and treating cancer.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Before I became a scientist, I had a very optimistic idea about how science is being done. For me, science was about doing all sorts of funky, outstanding experiments. Once I got into University and started a job as a PhD student, reality hit me in the face. I bet all of you PhDs reading this, can relate.
My work was a part of a project involving 5 different institutes, in 2 different countries. I joined the project about half way through. I was working in the field of cancer research so I needed to consolidate the work between molecular biologists, physicists, medical doctors, bioinformaticians etc. I remember feeling helpless during the first project meetings, thinking how am I going to wrap my head around all the work being done. My main source of information was a paper lab notebook from a colleague, with the worst hand-writing, whose work I was supposed to continue. Chasing him down, making sense of his data and his logic of organizing files was a challenge in itself.
On the other hand, I’d write changes or deviations related to my research data in my paper lab notebook and take them into account when doing data analysis. However, if someone, who wanted to learn from my work or reproduce my experiments after I left the lab, accessed the raw files without the context of the notebook, they’d inevitably get wrong results. They would also need to invest quite some time to find all my data. The integrity of my own findings depended upon the way I kept track of my data. And now, as the CEO of a software development company, I see that my work could have been done in a much more efficient way.
Working habits differ greatly in laboratories and there is still no standardized approach to how we organize and manage research data. The situation truly is a survival mission, because the scientific community is so stretched between different rigorous work obligations, there is barely time to think, let alone to make sure that every note, comment, document, printout or idea is neatly and systematically organized. We might say that the practice is good enough as it is. It might not seem like such a big deal and that a couple of fixes might solve most of today’s issues. But when you add them together, they have a cumulative effect which, at best, can be seen as expensive time wasted on mundane tasks that could be automated and, at worst, could be responsible for the reproducibility crisis in science.
Today, I am proud of my PhD and my discovery. It is a small contribution to the global pool of science, but it gives me a warm feeling when I see that my work is cited by someone else. However, there is also a bitter taste I discovered in those early years which shaped the future of my career: The scientific process could have been done in a MUCH more efficient way. It led me to ask myself: “In what way could I contribute to science the most?” I found the answer in digital transformation. It is a transformative change that starts with the paper notebook, the core tool every scientist uses. The tool that cannot cope with today’s growing amount of digital data. This led me to start SciNote, an electronic lab notebook company.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take always’ you learned from that?
There were many funny moments, and our team still likes to meet outside working hours to share a drink and have a laugh as some of those older stories come up. One important lesson that is not the funniest, but it is the best, is the following:
Before we launched SciNote, we had another product on the market, which didn’t sell well. We made the “classic” mistake of engineers-entrepreneurs, which is that we developed the product before testing the idea on the market.
We learned a lot from that mistake.
When we were developing SciNote, we decided to do the right thing and extensively analyze the market. Being scientists, we approached the market research challenge in a scientific way, which resulted in an actual scientific publication.
Together with University of Southampton (LINK to the study), we conducted the largest study on electronic lab notebook software (ELN) adoption so far. The published study provides information on the direction in which the ELN market is moving and insight on why the ELN adoption has been so slow.
I think this was one of the most important factors that steered SciNote’s success in the right direction. We understood the market very well before we wrote the first line of code. We understood what our new clients needed, which are their main concerns and what they are willing to invest in.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It became evident very soon that I won’t be able to do anything significant by myself. Business for me has been about meaningful relationships with my team, co-founders and investors. We are like a family and investing in personal relationships have almost always paid dividends.
One of such people, who impacted SciNote’s success the most, is our CTO Matt Hren.
Do you remember the colleague of mine with the worst hand-writing I mentioned earlier? Well, that is Matt. A fellow co-founder, visionary and an indispensable team leader, with the most mind-blowingly unexpected humor, and business ideas behind our core products on the market. It was probably his handwriting above all else that inspired the creation of SciNote.
We are very different characters and probably would not have been friends, if we didn’t start this journey together. Today, our values are perfectly aligned, and he has been my counterbalance over the years. The most important thing for me has been that I can blindly trust him and I know he will deliver on the agreed goals we set, no matter what.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I realized that the greatest challenges the world is facing today can only be solved by the best minds among us working together with one main focus — reproducible science. This concept allows scientists to build on each other’s findings and work towards the common goals and tackle the global issues. Whether we are talking about the environment, disease, food, population growth etc.
Our mission today is to help humanity benefit the most from science and to preserve research data for future generations. In this way, we can contribute the most to the greatest challenges scientists are working to solve.
Every time a scientist compliments our software, we know we played our small part in the global challenge she/he is addressing.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
This year’s crisis has been a personal challenge for our team. We are scientists, and we work with 70k+ scientists in more than 100 countries. Besides inspiring and engaging our team, the question for us was, how to empower our clients:
1. Boosting ingenuity instead of risk-aversion
We put full focus on three goals and encouraged employees to bring all possible ideas to the table. Open communication is key.
2. Crisis scenarios became main driving force
We defined three business continuity scenarios, each of them prioritized that no one loses their job. Teams saw the direct impact of their work on every scenario as it was unfolding. We held regular online meetings and gave full support on personal and job-related issues to employees.
3. CEO’s Virtual Tour to empower the clients
I personally “went” on a virtual tour and held online meetings with various customers from academic and industry labs to tackle the crisis.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
On a company level that thought has never come to me, although we went through some rough patches. We did feel significant effects of COVID on our sales this year, but we are a part of the solution for scientists who are addressing global challenges, and the pandemic, so we never felt more determination that we are doing the right thing.
On a personal level I do sometimes feel like giving up, especially when I am tired. What keeps me going is my curiosity, my love for science and the need to make it better. The other thing that keeps me motivated is the incredibly talented team we have built and their dedication to the cause. Seeing a coworker dedicated to the company goals is very humbling and inspiring — if they can keep it going, so can I.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
To remain calm and focus on finding solutions proactively. In the times of crisis people turn to leaders more than ever. Our attitude will be more strongly reflected and mirrored by employees in such times so focusing on solutions and opportunities rather than problems and obstacles goes a long way. Always remember to lead by example.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I believe the most important thing for everyone to hear in the times of uncertainty is that they are not alone. We clearly stated that our priority as a company is to get through this without anybody losing their jobs. Perhaps it is an obvious goal for the company, but such a statement puts everyone in the same boat. This does two things: no one is alone and everyone is motivated to look for solutions that will keep the boat afloat.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Depends on the situation, but I would say the best way is to pull the bandage off quickly. Be direct and honest. It’s ok to stumble a bit, we find ourselves in situations that no business school would have prepared us for. Lastly, I found it very important to show compassion and understanding; if we truly feel it, our body language will show it.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
By making multiple scenarios and having a strategy for each one of them. We also put milestones in place so that anyone in the company knows at all times which scenario we are following and what to look out for that will shift our strategy from one scenario to the other.
As an example, we have several revenue scenarios for the company. The more we sell, the more we can invest into new features, new employees, more projects, … Each month we see if we are selling enough for what we are burning. If we go below a certain threshold, everyone knows what they need to change and which costs to cut.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Yes, be honest and transparent. If something doesn’t work, say so. If you are afraid, say so. If you think we should be doing something different, say so. Mistakes are ok, but hiding them is unacceptable.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Perhaps the biggest mistake I have seen is businesses being reactive rather than proactive. If your only solution is to cut budgets, you will not see the opportunities a crisis represents. Every crisis will leave the world a different place and it is important for businesses to address that. If you are waiting for the crisis to pass, you need to take into account that companies that were proactive will have a head start.
Other mistakes I have seen is that the management was not available or transparent enough to provide information and support their employees, because they were uncertain about the future. This creates a sense of panic among employees and works against the “one boat” philosophy.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
We are a SaaS business so for us the most important thing was to keep all existing customers. I had a plan for 2020 to visit the most important customers in person, so I took this opportunity and arranged a virtual customer tour, which worked GREAT! None of the customers I met with will churn, plus I got a ton of feedback on our software and learned how they have been impacted by COVID, which led to launching two new plans.
It also gave our customers a piece of mind that we are up and running and willing to help them in the difficult times.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
I would like to explain my 5 main points on the COVID example, as it is a challenge, we are all still dealing with and it might give the readers some useful ideas to build upon:
- Remain calm: in the case of COVID there was a lot of uncertainty. Nobody really knew how this would impact the market and the most important thing was to keep the cool head, analyze the situation and come up with solutions.
- Care: it is very important for the employees to see that you care. They are smart and will see through you if you are not honest, so you really do have to care for their wellbeing. We based our company on this value and it was important to consider everyone’s wellbeing and understood that everyone is experiencing the pandemics differently. People with kids at home found it very difficult to be productive, while people that were home alone found it difficult to stay motivated. We talked to everyone to understand what they are going through and were looking for ways to make the situation better for them.
- Communicate: we had a meeting with the whole company each week, where we talked about the current situation of COVID pandemics globally, how it impacts our business, what are our decisions and preventative measures. They saw that their voices are being heard and action is being taken.
- Get closer to customers: if life is changing for you, chances are your customers are going through similar changes. It is therefore important to talk to them in order to get a fresh perspective. We realized that about one third of our customers were still working in the labs, but their work was very different, so we adjusted our development pipeline to bring out features faster that help the new workflow. For the other two thirds that stayed at home, we got a sense of what they are doing in the meantime and how they are planning to go back to the new normal. That helped us plan out the year much more accurately. Additionally, customers that we talked to were really happy to hear from us and receive the direct acknowledgement and support.
- Find opportunities: every crisis is good for reevaluating if what we are doing is still relevant. We took this opportunity of a few slow months to optimize our internal processes and to plan out product expansion that we talked about for a long time, but never really took time to do it. Companies that find opportunities in such times are much more likely to survive long-term after the crisis is over.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have a few, but I picked two that are particularly relevant at the times of crisis:
- “Hope is not a strategy” (original author unknown): although it is very important to stay optimistic and hope things will get better, it is absolutely important to plan for the worst. If the worst reality happens, you will wish you had a plan.
- “The best bad news is the one you hear immediately” (I heard this first from my co-founder Matt I mentioned earlier): It is important that we share bad news with others quickly and in full, even though it hurts. It will hurt far more if people learn about the truth the hard way.
How can our readers further follow your work?