How to Build a Business that Will Survive Long After You're Gone
Do your job right, and your business will outlive your usefulness.
Earlier this year, I announced that I was stepping down as CEO of Nav, a company I co-founded in 2012. I love Nav passionately, and it wasn’t an easy decision, but I knew it was the best thing for both me and the company.
Under the leadership of its new CEO, Greg Ott, Nav moved forward without missing a beat. Watching it happen, I felt a peculiar feeling.
On the one hand, I was proud to have built a business strong enough to weather any change. On the other, I wondered how I would feel as the days passed and it became more and more obvious that Nav was flourishing without me.
I’m proud to report that my pride only grew. Unlike a toxic parent whose ego suffers at the sight of his offspring’s independence, I was thrilled to see a business I’d helped create come into its own.
Strong companies are built on strong foundations. If you want your business to thrive in the spotlight when you have exited the stage, focus on what I call the Three Ps:
Businesses are only as durable as the people who run them. Your people will carry on your values, mission, and vision. Having the right people in the right capacities is of monumental importance.
To accomplish this, build a people machine. The job of a people machine is to perpetually recruit new talent as your company grows or needs to replace employees.
The machine should run smoothly and automatically. This will help you create an enduring employment brand that people will want to be associated with. Its top priority should be finding talent that will support your business as it matures.
Some companies hire an outside recruiter to do this. At Nav, we have a people machine built right in. Led by our VP of People and Culture, it’s filled with folks whose constant recruitment efforts mean there’s always a deep pool of talented people interested in working for us.
Back in 2014, I interviewed a product marketer who impressed me. Nav wasn’t big enough to need her services at the time, and I reluctantly told her as much and forgot about the exchange.
Fast forward to last year, when one of my colleagues hit me up and said, “Hey, what do you know about this person? She said she’d spoken with you before.”
I remembered her immediately and regretted that I’d left it to a recruiter to find her instead of referring her myself.
I’d have done so if we’d had a people machine in place in 2014. I’d have used a tool like BambooHR to put her on a shortlist along with the role she was interested in, and her name would have popped up automatically when that role opened up.
All’s well that ends well, and we hired her in spite of the imperfection of the process. She’s one of the reasons Nav continued to prosper after I stepped down.
Process deals with matters of strategy and execution. It determines how you measure progress and defines your key goals and the mechanisms for delivering on them and holding people accountable.
My successor at Nav is already doing better than I did at baking accountability into the company. I made the mistake of having too many goals and projects, and people would complain about it.
I used to wonder how five or six goals was too much when we had 100 people on the payroll. Then Ott took over, and the ink was hardly dry on the contract before he’d boiled Nav’s priorities down to a single goal and had the entire company marching in a unified direction.
Follow Ott's lead. Pick a goal that will have big results for your business and have everyone focus on it and everything support it. You’ll remove all mystery and confusion about who is working on what, accountability will be easier to measure, and you’ll put your company on a trajectory toward profitability much sooner than if you remain a jack of all trades and master of none.
Policy has to do with rules of engagement. What are the boundaries for people and processes? What are the ethics of your business, not just as they relate to legal and regulatory questions, but also in regards to interpersonal relationships and how you treat your coworkers, customers, and partners?
You don’t want to create so much policy that it stifles people, but too little policy will put your colleagues at risk of crossing lines that shouldn’t be crossed and create an atmosphere of discord and uncertainty.
Early on at Nav, for example, we didn’t have a policy about working from home. Everyone was expected to work in the office because that was my personal preference.
As Nav grew, we updated the policy to say that managers could make exceptions as they saw fit, but lack of uniformity soon became a problem. We realized we had to have a system in place that would keep one manager of a cross-functional team from inadvertently messing up the rhythm of another.
Even something as simple as a remote work policy can change a dozen times over the span of a single decade. The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the importance of flexibility in these areas, and flexibility only comes with steady, patient practice.
Be thoughtful and systematic about policies dealing with sensitive issues like inclusion, language, and appearance. Your personal preferences will likely play a part when your company is young, but as it matures it will become a unique organism with unique needs.
Your preferences will become less and less important until the question of what’s best for the company becomes the only one worth asking. Your business will leave the nest, so to speak, and as any good parent will tell you, such partings are bittersweet.
Take it from me, though -- firmly establishing the Three Ps in your company’s infancy will set it up for successful adulthood. When that day comes, all that you’ll taste is sweet.
Levi King is CEO and co-founder of Nav.