Prepare to scale: My top 6 learnings to prepare Founders for the scaling stage
Updated: Oct 15, 2021
Let’s be honest, growing a business is hard, thrilling, rewarding and everything in between.
As part of the management team in a start-up, I have felt the satisfaction of scaling a business and creating more than 300 jobs across 6 different international locations. Is it hard work? Yes! But I also found it incredibly rewarding seeing the impact our business could make in creating jobs and career opportunities.
My experience has fueled my passion for supporting Founders to scale up their business and make a positive impact in the world.
The climb to the summit is an adventure and I share these tips with the Scalare Founder Community to make sure they are well-equipped for what’s to come.
But first, let’s explore the difference between growing and scaling.
Growing vs Scaling
When you’re growing, you’re usually adding resources in a linear fashion to the extra revenue you are generating, i.e. to help build your revenue you need to increase investment in your team and spend in a number of areas.
Once you’ve established your core team, firmed up your business model and demonstrated a steady revenue stream, you’re ready to scale.
When scaling, you must be able to increase your repeatable revenue without adding significant additional overheads. This is done by optimising, replicating, and automating processes that add to your bottom line.
In my experience, I have found the scaling stage to be relatively harder compared to the initial growth phase as you need to get more efficient at most things, but it is also more rewarding and with the opportunity for exponential growth.
Top learnings for Founders looking to scale
1. The Mindset of a Scaling Founder
Scaling requires a new level of sophistication, and it requires the right mindset. Most Founders start out with a strong vision for their business and brand. At the scaling stage, you may feel challenged to hang on to that vision as many decisions need to be made quickly which, if you are not mindful, can derail your long-term goals.
You need to balance your long-term goal with your short-term goals.
For instance, a new potential client may request a new product feature. You want to win the client but will you have to change direction on your product roadmap? This is where it pays to take a step back, reflect and consider whether a short-term goal (get the new client) will compromise your long-term vision for the product roadmap. It’s a balancing act and there may be no correct answer, but it pays to be mindful.
2. Scaling will expose the weaknesses in your business – do it anyway!
Scaling is challenging. You’re testing your product, your team, your client service, the processes you’ve established, and sometimes what worked 12 months ago may no longer work when you double in size or enter a new market. Inevitably, this will expose some gaps and force a shift in the way you approach things.
Half the battle for a founder is to simply understand that these things can and will happen. Prepare yourself mentally by acknowledging that things do “break” when you push hard enough but if you can redirect your energy towards the solution and not fixate on the problem, then you’ll avoid a lot of disappointment and frustration down the track.
3. Maintain hiring standards and company culture
Your team needs to grow and adapt to the business or progress will become hard. When going through a very fast growth period, you will be required to make quick and difficult decisions.
My advice is to stand firm on your hiring standards, maintain a careful selection process and never get so busy you can’t nurture and engage with new employees.
Hiring is only the first step of bringing on an important new addition to the team. Consider the whole employment journey, from onboarding to individual and team development and a transparent feedback loop. Also, make sure you as the founder are demonstrating the values you want your teams to reflect.
As you scale, your team will change and it will become bigger, more complex and diversified. Investing in the culture and business values should not be an afterthought, it’s a cornerstone of success.
4. Letting go of responsibilities
In a startup environment, as a founder, you are used to doing a lot of the tasks yourself – that’s probably how you got things off the ground! When scaling, this is not sustainable and won’t benefit the business. At some point, you need to let people who are good at what they do own an area of responsibility. As the business matures, keep this goal in mind and start removing yourself as a key dependency in some business areas.
I’ve put together a team of more than 200 people over 6 countries and I learnt it was essential to build specialised teams who you trust will do the job and fully own their part of the business, from setting up their own procedures and guidelines to benchmarking goals and KPIs within their unit.
The transition from founder to leader is an important one. As a leader, your role is to empower your direct reports and support them and their teams in solving challenges.
Through regular check-ins, you’ll still have visibility and the opportunity to discuss progress, metrics, challenges, and results and can provide guidance as required. I encourage founders not to dive in too deep where they don’t need to.
5. Talk less, listen more
Most founders I know are incredibly passionate and they love talking about their business and solution. It’s your product and you know it better than anybody else, from its strengths and weaknesses to its potential, so it’s natural to want to share and, odds are, you’re doing most of the talking.
What you probably haven't done enough of is listening and it’s such a powerful tool. I encourage founders to take the time to listen to the clients, to the competition and the market forces. For example, you want to get your product development team to join some of your customer meetings so they can listen to the frontline feedback.
This extends to your internal stakeholders as well. A truly impactful leader knows that it requires more than IQ when engaging with the team. It requires EQ as well and the ability to hear.
Hearing is also slightly different to listening. When you hear, you seek to understand from someone else’s viewpoint and find a point of connection. I urge founders who want to become impactful leaders to really hone the art of hearing.
If you can successfully build a culture of trust, listening and hearing the ROI will become evident.
6. Watch out for burnout
While a short burst of stress can help push through an obstacle, we all know sustained periods of stress is unhealthy and can lead to burnout.
If I am feeling stressed, I like to start by acknowledging that the reason I am stressed is because something is important to me. This helps me turn the energy around because I’m understanding why I am stressed and now I can redirect my energy to focus on that thing that matters to me the most.
Also, don’t forget that you are your own greatest asset so while it can be tempting to continuously push your capacity, accept that there’s always more to do, so pace yourself. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon and a fun one at that.
About the author
Jenny Li, Partner at Scalare Partners is a finance and operations specialist with experience in successfully scaling startups internationally. Jenny advises high-potential startups undertaking rapid change and growth.
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