Goodbye Lingvist, HelloFresh
After six happy years at one of the planet's most forward-thinking language learning startups, I have taken my talents to Berlin and joined a world-leading tech company experiencing hyper-growth. One month in, here are some learnings and cathartic rants.
It was a brisk morning, typical of Estonia in late October and the kick from my first coffee was coaxing me awake. As I settled down for my flight from Tallinn to Berlin there was a certain wisp of novelty. It was my first flight since the pandemic hit and all the precautions being taken were new (and welcome). Yet there was also a sense of déjà vu to the butterflies making themselves known to my stomach.
In Berlin, I was travelling to a city I knew little about to start a challenging new role at HelloFresh. Six years earlier, almost to the day and under similar circumstances, I boarded an early morning flight from Gatwick to Tallinn to start a new adventure at Lingvist.
I had been craving the opportunity to join an exciting, early-stage startup as a product designer, and with Lingvist, I found it, joining as employee number 6 shortly after they emerged top of their TechStars cohort. Over the next few years, the team grew tenfold: I went from the sole designer; to building and leading the design team; and ultimately becoming an executive team member as the company's head of product and design.
The need for a new challenge
Leaving Lingvist was hands-down the hardest decisions I have had to make in my career so far. My time at the company was more than twice the span of my previous longest tenure, the team are like family, and Tallinn had become a fantastic home for my wife and me after moving over from London two years prior.
My name became synonymous with the company, often being referred to simply as 'Lingvist Jonn'.
I was presented with plenty of opportunities to grow in recent years. I increasingly left the world of tactical design behind, delving deeper into strategic thinking and process creation. Startup land is an optimal proving, giving me room to experiment, succeed, and fail in fast, iterative cycles that demanded I educate myself quickly. I have read more books in the last two years than I had in the previous ten. Ultimately though, I felt I had reached my ceiling and yearned to see how all that I had learned worked at scale.
Go big or stay home
I have long admired HelloFresh, so a position with them was hard to ignore. I recall when they opened their London office just around the corner from Lingvist's UK pied-à-terre (a part of my soul will forever reside at Bonhill Street) and thinking 'that looks like a great place to work'.
The role I have been given also feels tailor-made for me, having been asked to be a strategy and process-focused design lead on the team that handles user activation, early retention, and positive habit building — precisely the goal-oriented areas that I have gravitated to in recent years (and hope to write more about in the future).
Processes at scale are what I wanted to experience and I got it. HelloFresh is Big.
HelloFresh employees number in the thousands and are spread in all 4 corners of the globe. Having never had more than 60 colleagues up until this point, getting to know everyone's name will prove a challenge
As I was being introduced to the design chapter on my first day, I realised that there were 49 designers on the call. That's significantly larger than the team of five creatives I was leaving behind at Lingvist. Mind blown.
Lesson I: It pays to be organised
I am not ashamed to say that my first two weeks at HelloFresh were overwhelming. Every company has its own procedural and structural quirks no matter what size they are, and whilst the onboarding was thorough and intense (and, let's not forget, remote), it became evident that there would be no substitute for time when it came to getting fully engrained into the ways of the organisation.
Knowing that things were going to be rather hectic, I preempted the chaos by promising myself I would get organised and stay that way, something I'm not traditionally known for but have become decent (dare I say, good) at in recent years.
The Lingvist algorithm drilled into me that learning happens through repetition, which is much easier to do when the material you need is tidy and easy to find. Four weeks on, I may still be very much a noob, but things feel under control.
Lesson II: Autonomy is the greatest gift you can get
The culture I have encountered at HelloFresh has been extremely welcoming. My new colleagues have given me the space I need to settle in whilst making themselves readily available to answer the many questions I have. My manager, Jake, made it clear from the outset that he trusted me, will leave me to my own devices, and has since avoided mollycoddling me the way so many managers (myself included) can easily treat new recruits.
Whilst daunting at first, it made me rely on experience and existing knowledge to start building relationships with my reports and peers whilst getting increasingly acquainted with projects and processes. I have started to identify the areas I can help with the most, and these have been met with nods of approval when I have reported them up. The resulting confidence boost has been substantial and whilst the method may not be obvious, it works. Any budding managers out there, take note.
Lesson III: You can't always make your own luck
An aspect I totally underestimated was the impact the tangible product (meal kits) HelloFresh provides has on pretty much everything. Since my previous experience mainly encompassed purely digital products,
I was very naive about the epic logistical ballet that goes into creating new recipes, bringing the ingredients together, and delivering the kits to over 5 million active customers.
In a stroke of good fortune, I have ended up flat-sharing and becoming fast friends with a fellow HelloFresher who works as a Product Owner within the Supply Chain Management team. Our long conversations have only helped to increase my appreciation for the product.
This made me all the more appreciative when I became an active HelloFresh customer myself, something I could not do in Estonia — yet. I could then connect the consumer-facing digital side I actively work on to the process that translates those digital interactions to a box of food of my choosing delivered to my door at a specified time.
Progress during a Pandemic
Let's face it, starting a new role in a new city during a pandemic has been a challenge. Berlin is an awesome city but I can't say I have experienced it fully since my arrival coincided with the lockdown 'lite' kicking off.
Whilst the office was open during November, most of my new colleagues rightly played it safe and worked from home. I am a social creature by my nature, and building new relationships through virtual means has been tricky at times. That said, I can only be thankful for finding an awesome opportunity in a great city during such testing times.
A month into my new role, the sensation of being overwhelmed has abated significantly and I'm starting to feel more like a contributor. There is still a lot to learn and digest but it feels increasingly like any remaining unknowns are visible and conquerable.
What is perhaps most telling of all — and this is a credit to the recruiting process that got me here — is that this is the first role I have taken on that hasn't resulted in any dissonance or feeling of initial disappointment. We all tend to build up new opportunities in our heads to a level beyond reality but this role is exactly what I was told it would be and I remain excited. I'll consider that a good sign.