Uku Püttsepp, CEO of Degritter: “The unknown gives me the drive to carry on”
Uku Püttsepp is the CEO of Degritter. They have been in .Cocoon Program for many years, and it has been a journey. In this interview, we talked with Uku about their business, how he sees his personal growth and what he has learned - both about himself and leading a business.
How is the business going at the moment?
Business is going well. We sell this machine to over 100 stores worldwide, and our end customer is the record collector in the US, East Asia, and Europe. The quarterly revenues are still growing and last quarter was a new record for us with over €800 000. By the way, today is an important day because we raised our prices by 10%. We have never done it before! It is the first time.
I know a little bit about your revenue numbers, and I was curious - how did they feel when you first hit €100 000 quarterly revenue? How did it feel compared to the next €500k and €800k?
I would compare the feeling to opening Christmas presents. And so far, it has not been only socks under the tree but rather cool toys.
When we started, we were operating on a weekly basis. Can we pay all the vendors and cover salaries? We admired successful technology companies in Estonia, and now we're doing twice as well as they.
Since the revenue growth has been very fast, the excitement is still there. Our goal is to hit 1 million per quarter. Let's get there first and then see what happens.
A few years ago, I interviewed your co-founder Taniel, and he told the story of how you sent out your first 10 Degritters, and then you had to call them back because of the faulty temperature sensor. Taniel said that it was a massive hit to the company morale. As a company leader, how do you approach that type of situation when you see that your whole team is feeling down?
I remember that stressful situation, but it was also a trigger point for action. Back then, we decided to take action and be fast and aggressive. We called all the machines back, fixed the problem and sent them back to the customers and they were happy.
In one of .Cocoon Training Days, all the teams needed to build machines, but all the resources were limited. The principle I learned from there was that these stressful situations make you think of new ideas. Also, stress helps to make decisions. If you don't make decisions, life will make these for you.
I try to engineer these moments into the workflow to have pressure points in our timeline. For example, next week, we will fly to Munich to attend the biggest world's biggest HiFi (equipment for the reproduction of sound with high fidelity) show, and we want to present a new product there. The question is how to set the next deadline for the summer or the autumn because there is no world's biggest Hifi show every quarter. That's a task for me to create the framework of constructive pressure. I believe it delivers.
After stressful situations, do you take a moment to look at the learnings? And I mean, besides like the obvious one to fix the temperature sensor, do you go deeper into that type of lesson?
I'm trying to be honest here - not always. But as time goes on, I'm growing and learning personally more and more. Although I'm still fighting the old self, and it's easy to get carried away in stressful moments, taking a step back and detaching from the moment helps a lot. I do learn, but I think I could be more systematic to do it better.
I think it's important to detach and take time to step out from the noise. Close the laptop, and shut down the phone. Just focus on what you are feeling and write it out. It takes work and .Cocoon is an excellent place to learn how to understand what you actually feel.
In .Cocoon, one of the big things we've learned together with all the Degritter founders is seeing our positions not from a founders’ perspective but a functions’ perspective. We were four friends that got together and started building this thing. We had trouble letting go of these positions, so we became inhibitors to our growth because we were afraid of the unknown. .Cocoon helped us see each position's function and whether the current person should actually do it.
I also use breathing techniques regularly. For example, breathe in for four heartbeats, hold for four, and breathe out for six. It helps me to detach in situations where fast action is required. This way, I can eliminate emotional responses.
In .Cocoon team, we see the leader as someone who is far from helpless - they are the person who is mapping out the unknown. And I imagined when building a product that doesn't exist or shipping it across the globe - you have to deal quite a lot with the unknown. But how do you keep this helplessness out of the picture?
The helplessness is definitely in me. It's the victim mentality that somebody is to blame for my stressful situation. The unknown gives me the drive to carry on, but I still struggle with it.
I need to focus on small, steady actions that guide me through the stress and helplessness. If I don't take action, the helplessness will follow me like a shadow. Like Mount Everest is claimed - per base camp. You start climbing to base camp one, then take a moment to reflect. If you feel good, then you go to base camp two. Maybe you don't feel so good and have a little altitude sickness. Then you need to take action, go back, and then try again.
If your company's purpose should be aligned with your personal purpose - how do you see Degritters' purpose? And how do you see it connected with your purpose? Or do they need to be in sync?
It's a work in progress, and they are in sync because otherwise, it would not work. The cohesion is not 100%, but it is also not 180 degrees different from my path. There are many paths to choose from. So, what is the meaning of my life? That's a hard one.
I don't have an answer yet, but I have a feeling about it. I know there's lots of love involved in the sense of giving. For example, in my position as the CEO, I need to give myself to the team to serve them. I like doing that.
Also, Degritter is involved with music. There was a big decision for me to either learn drums or study physics back in the day. I went with physics, but I also played the drums a lot. Now I'm taking that up again.
When I looked at previous interviews with the Degritter team, a lot of these ended with a future question. But I was wondering how you are today. What is your biggest challenge at the moment? And how are you approaching this?
Our biggest challenge at the moment is making decisions, especially the difficult ones. For example, about team structure, founders' dreams, and let go of fear to welcome the unknown.
How much do you see .Cocoon has affected the way you work or your company?
I see how I have changed, taken more responsibility for my actions, and have a greater capacity for detaching. I wasn't doing breathing exercises, but my mentor Aleksander Tõnnisson taught me the first breathing technique.
Detaching has helped me avoid emotional responses and bring me closer to my actual feelings, which has helped me see what is happening. It has also helped me get rid of some blocks in my life - I started crying again, which was a significant milestone that gave me the capacity to trust my feelings. Then claiming my wins and leadership has personally been an issue for me in my previous ventures. So, I claimed the CEO position, and something clicked for the whole company. This definitely brought in a new vibe for the company. So, hell, yes!