3 Tips for Not Stumbling When Your Startup Is Poised to Scale
Entrepreneurs dream of that moment when everything clicks, the product finds its market and the startup is poised to scale. But what got you to that moment is not necessarily what will get you to the next level. The systems, processes and culture that worked for a company of 10 may not work for a company of 100, let alone a company of 1,000 or more.
Here are three things you should focus on when scaling up your company:
1. Vision and strategy must be clear and compelling
It seems obvious that everyone on your team should be working toward the same goals, but it's surprising how often people operate in different directions, not out of malice but due to a lack of clarity and communication.
I was collecting data recently for a senior leadership team focusing on its development. I interviewed everyone individually, asking them to tell me the team's strategy and how their work related to it. It quickly became clear that they weren't aligned. There was no common language. Their understanding of the team's direction varied wildly. They were all doing important work, or rather work that seemed important in their functions, but it wasn't supporting a common vision.
Think of an orchestra: everyone may be on the same stage, but without a score to guide them and a conductor to establish a tempo, a symphony can quickly devolve into a cacophony. Take the time to craft a clear, compelling vision and strategy. Use plain language that engages people emotionally as well as intellectually. To make it memorable, keep it brief. People can't execute what they can't remember.
2. Notice what you and your leaders are modeling
It's not enough for leaders to be functional experts -- that's the price of entry. Leaders set the tone for the culture you want to create. As the organization grows, the impact of leaders' behavior is exponential. Employees determine how fully to invest themselves, in part, by the behaviors they see exemplified.
Case in point: I am working with a company whose leaders say the project we are working on is priority one. They have communicated this fact widely so that people will prioritize the work. However, in the last two months, four key meetings have been postponed. In two other meetings, the main sponsors did not show up. What do you think this says to the organization? How do you think others will choose to engage?
Yes, functional expertise is important but it's even more important, as your company grows, that your leaders model behavior consistent with the culture you want to create. Make sure you have a senior team that knows how to be intentional in their leadership.
3. A structure built to scale
Often, startups are so busy doing the work that they don't pause to think about how the work is getting done. But for growing organizations, ad hoc approaches can quickly become costly as lack of coordination results in redundancy, inefficiency and missed opportunities.
Are processes structured optimally? Do people have the right capabilities? Are employees empowered to make decisions at the right levels?
When considering structure, leaders often want to begin with an organization chart, building an organization based on the people they already have. Resist the temptation. Start with your processes and capabilities. Define what success looks like for your organization and what capabilities are needed to achieve it, then determine the structure that will bring it to life. From there come your people decisions: who is the right fit for the job versus who has the most tenure.
Look for ways to improve, remembering that what worked for you yesterday may not work today. Involve the people closest to the work. They know the work best and will nurture what they help create.
It's important to note, too, that not everything needs to change as you grow. There are certainly elements of what made your company successful that you'll want to retain. The trick lies in knowing when to hold on, when to let go and how to evolve your traditions to new ways of working.