Scaling up a business is what every aspiring leader aims for, it is what motivates them at every turn. Yet, in truth, scaling heady heights is so much more than expanding towards greater opportunities. Scaling up successfully is all about never losing sight of who we once were and taking everyone on the journey with us. It is about adding layers to our corporate story as we evolve and unfold as a dynamic team.
My advice to any SME who is rapidly expanding is to define just how fundamental their existing work culture is. If the answer is ‘very’ then set aside time to nurture it as it is definitely worthwhile.
All too often, start-ups lack the required framework for transitioning to their next size up. That shift requires more structure and more processes. As we continue to grow we all have to learn to adapt to new approaches to how we work as a team. This is not a negative situation but it is a change that needs to be adopted as well as adapted to.
There is no doubt that founders have to tread a fine line between keeping some of the original structures and ushering in new processes, some of which can feel like bureaucratic threats to entrepreneurial souls. There is also the concern about losing speed, control, and team intimacy. Yet if a start-up eschews order and discipline they pay a steep price: chaotic operations and unpredictable performance.
What I have come to realise as I scale up my own organisation is that this does not mean we need to disavow our start-up identities and embrace large company dogma. Those prepared to manage growth and to learn new ways of operating and behaving stand a much better chance of making it in the long term.
One key thing I rapidly realised is that a start-up culture is first and foremost a mindset. Many of our original team are still with us to this day and have grown into their roles. The new team members have been central to bringing in fresh perspectives which we have all appreciated, and, so far, the culture we built in those early days lives on. All the more reason to define what the secret sauce is to keeping a fresh and vibrant culture as we continue to expand.
Here are some my key suggestions:
Define specialised roles
When we started we typically all pitched in and did a bit of everything, whatever it took to get the business off the ground. This “all hands on deck” approach worked well in the beginning, when adrenaline was high and the company was small. But as we expanded, we faced new levels of complexity that required us to define and assign tasks more formally. As a consequence we found ourselves hiring specialists and more roles were pulled together according to individual passions and job requirements.
Likewise we identified the need to safeguard the tacit understanding of our company’s mission and culture. This was very important to us and something we felt was worth focusing on as we grew.
Elevate the hiring process
One lesson I learnt very early on is to never totally let go of hiring. Regardless of the size of your organisation always keep an eye on hiring, this is invaluable and has nothing to do with being a control freak! Forget the conventional wisdom around scaling that suggests you trade intimacy for efficiency, you don’t have to and in fact you should make a point of never doing so.
Even during a hyper-growth phase I always take the time to ensure the prospective new employee will fit in with the people they will be working with on a daily basis. By ensuring either my co-founder or I do a final ‘culture-fit’ check we not only maintain a better overview of the team as a whole, we also get to cultivate a personal relationship with each person once they join.
This is a vital part of the hiring process, as original founding members we feel we are the very DNA of the company. As such our aim is to create a work environment we would have loved to have worked in when we were younger. Our aim is to mesh excitement, variety, fun and innovation whilst making good money.
Our values have been the building blocks of our organisation and we always make a point of keeping them front and centre during interviews so that the candidate can make a clear decision around whether we are the right fit for them too. In fact many of my interview questions are based on the company’s values.
Keep things that work
Replicating our start-up culture on a larger scale has meant maintaining our original traditions. I could see how these would so easily slip off our agenda if we let them, taking with them the very heart of who we once were.
As a consequence, I ensure we recognise birthdays, anniversaries and significant milestones in my team members’ lives. Now that there are almost 30 of us this takes considerably more time and effort but it is definitely worth it.
Small and often rather than big and once a year
I also make it a practice to do small things on a more regular basis rather than big rewards. I feel the team need regular recognition, we go through some very intense patches together and they certainly deserve to feel appreciated more than once a year at the Christmas party!
Our team outings are always diverse and great fun, and we have become adept at letting off steam over a competitive game of table tennis or during our weekly personal trainer sessions. We have also visited escape rooms and joined karaoke sessions for the more extroverted through to organised picnics, sports evenings and pub nights out. This last quarter has been particularly hectic so we have arranged for everyone to have a free weekly massage!
Keep the door open
Another insidious way to lose the tight-knit feel of a small team is to stop getting feedback from employees. I maintain an open-door policy and believe that goes a long way towards keeping the company grounded.
However, I like to go beyond the open-door policy too. We have regular ‘coffee catchups’ and going out as a team for a walk is a refreshing way of having informal chats. It is often during these times that we come up with some of our best ideas as we bounce suggestions around and build on everyone’s enthusiasm.
We are only ever as good as our team is and therefore nurturing talent is key. We like to spot what people are truly good at or want to learn. We are very keen to help people shape their roles to enable them to deliver the very best of themselves.
From my perspective, taking your prized start-up culture with you makes the journey truly worthwhile. This means acknowledging those who were part of the original team, remembering everything that made us who we were then and replicating it as we embrace the new.