Leading a team is hard, but leading a startup team is even harder, considering all the challenges and unknowns that a young team has to face. Fortunately, there are tools available today that can provide leaders with knowledge and insights to help them keep their teams satisfied and well-functioning. We spoke with Martin Rajasalu (CEO) and Pille Parind-Nisula (Customer & Growth Executive) from Moticheck, a partner of EIA Porto 2023, to learn how their AI-driven leadership support system can assist young startup teams and less experienced leaders.

Martin Rajasalu & Pille Parind-Nisula from Moticheck
Martin Rajasalu & Pille Parind-Nisula from Moticheck

Could you please tell us more about what Moticheck is and who it is meant for?

Martin: Moticheck is an AI-driven leadership support system that uses daily monitoring of employee experiences. It helps reveal leadership blind spots, enhance leadership quality, improve employee engagement and retention, and foster innovation. 

Pille: Our software was created to embody the values of compassionate leadership, prioritizing the success and performance of employees as critical factors for overall business success, rather than just paying lip service to these ideals in company slogans.

From your perspective, what are the main challenges in teamwork and leadership among early-stage startup teams?

Pille: Many young entrepreneurs lack experience in managing larger teams of people, and they may not even enjoy it. While having specific skills or a great idea is enough to start a business, working with people and teams requires focus and knowledge at some point. This is where Moticheck can help out: it can be used as a tool to coach young leaders by highlighting their personal areas for development, or as a monitoring substitute for hiring HR managers.

Martin: You also have to keep in mind that startups are constantly short of resources, which means people often operate at their maximum capacity, leading to burnout. Preventing burnout is much more cost-effective than replacing an employee. Co-founders need to be aware of this for themselves as well. Imagine if a co-founder experiences burnout! It could be the end of the startup. Leaders often put too much pressure on themselves and are reluctant to ask for help. One tip would be to learn to ask for help and keep reaching out for it.

But attention is also needed when things develop nicely. The growth phase usually involves hiring lots of new employees. Guess what? Their drive and ambition may not be in the same ballpark as that of the founders’ team. Internal communication and mastering the leadership game become very important in managing this change, even though it is a positive change. As startups mature, it becomes increasingly important to focus on meeting the diverse expectations of employees, and once again, this is where Moticheck can help.

For an early-stage startup founder, what are the red flags they should look for in their team?

Martin: Managing expectations is crucial. Sometimes you cannot meet your own expectations or the expectations placed on you. Talk about it. You may have unjustified expectations. Ignoring continuous dissatisfaction with performance results in toxic relationships and burnout.

As a founder of an early-stage startup, how do you keep your team motivated through rapid product changes, team growth, and inevitable failures?

Pille: Having a strong belief in your product or idea is crucial in maintaining hope that it can be monetized, even if some attempts have been unsuccessful. It’s important to keep trying and searching for solutions. Hearing stories from other founders about the challenges they faced on their path to success can provide comfort during difficult times.

Martin: We believe that the main challenge for startups is mastering the investment phase—how much to invest in the product, team, sales, and marketing, etc. There needs to be a balance. You lose your balance if you put one leg too far in front of the other, right? This requires setting clear priorities for ourselves and the team, not losing focus, and spending resources wisely.

As a startup founder yourself, is there anything you wish you had done differently in terms of team leadership in your early years?

Pille: Moticheck is at the forefront of time and leadership development as of now. Our focus is on creating innovative reporting and well-being practices. At this stage, there is no clear right or wrong approach, so we need to experiment to determine what works and what doesn’t. 

Martin: What we have clearly learned is that we spent too much time building relationships with potential investors too early. It is true that VCs invest once they feel they know you, and it can take months. At least for us, it would have been wiser to invest that time and effort into sales and marketing.

How did you approach the development of the AI mentor Aidan? When should a leader rely on AI and when should they rely on their personal experience and instinct?

Pille: It’s important to trust our instincts more often and not overthink simple obstacles. Engaging in conversations with AI can be helpful in getting us back on track quickly. The AI systematizes all available data to provide clear steps to solve the problem at hand without the need for overthinking or excessive planning.

Martin: Aidan is a natural progression from previous developments, but we were fortunate to gain access to external expertise. Aidan is based on the thesis conducted at TalTech, the Tallinn Technical University. The AI-powered leadership mentor was initially just an idea to play with, but we immediately involved our internal development resources once we saw how quickly the idea turned into a usable feature. Now it serves our customers as a leadership mentor.