The Dos and Dont’s of Scaling up

Getting from A – the start-up phase – through to B – the growth stage – may sound like a problem that is either too far in the distance to worry about or conversely something that will be a natural evolution and also something not worth worrying about.

On both counts, a start-up or entrepreneur would be wrong. The point about scaling up is that you are building a sustainable proposition and hence, first, it should be in your mind from day one as ot how the company will grow, and second, it should be understood that nothing comes easy to a new business no matter what stage it is at.

A recent blog from First Round (http://firstround.com/review/give-away-your-legos-and-other-commandments-for-scaling-startups/) makes the point that even the biggest of the tech giants faced issues when it came to moving from early-stage to some form of maturity. Talking to Molly Graham, the chief operating office at start-up productivity tool Quip and who was previously an early employee at Google and Facebook, the article in question finds that scaling up brings its own form of chaos.

“If you’ve ever watched an extremely high performer go from killing it one year to struggling the next, you know what I’m talking about,” she tells First Round. “There’s a unique feeling of ambiguity, chaos and stress that comes with doubling or tripling your team every six months. If you don’t manage scaling proactively, you can end up in trouble.”

She goes on to point out that talking about the issues, the stresses and the strains is the best idea as it will help people understand that these are often common experiences. The metaphor she reaches for involves everyone’s favourite building toy, Lego.

“The best metaphor I have for scaling is building one of those huge, complex towers out of Lego,” she says. “At first, everyone’s excited. Scaling a team is a privilege. Being inside a company that’s a rocket ship is really cool. You could build anything. At the beginning, as you start to scale, everyone has so many Legos to choose from — they’re doing 10 jobs — and they’re all part of building something important.”

But at this stage – when you need to hire more people – the original Lego builders get nervous. Graham tells the blog:  “As you add people, you go through this roller coaster of, ‘Wait, is that new person taking my job? What if they don’t do it the right way? What if they’re better than me at it? What do I do now?’” says Graham. “These are some strong emotions, and even if they're predictable, they can be unnerving.” In order to get to a really high-functioning, larger team, you have to help everyone get through this roller coaster. If you don’t, you can end up with a real mess.”

Graham’s point is to say that the art of sharing tasks – and truly building a sustainable business – is about giving away control. In other words, the art of delegation. “Almost everything about scaling is counterintuitive,” Graham tells First Round. “And one of the foremost examples is that reacting to the emotions you’re having as your team adds more people is usually a bad idea. Everyone’s first instinct is to grab back the Lego that the new kid took — to fight them for that part of the tower or to micro-manage the way they’re building the tower. But the best way to manage scaling (and one of the secrets to succeeding in a rapidly growing company) is to ignore those instincts, and go find a bigger and better Lego tower to build. Chances are if you pick your head up and look around, there’s a brand new exciting pile of Lego sitting right next to you.”

The lesson is that the most successful fast-growing business not only adapt to the chaos that can often surround their development, but thrive as the original people go off and find newer, better products that go on to drive the business forward even further. Emotions are an obvious factor to overcome – but communication and a genuine vision for where the company is heading and where each person involved has their place in that vision, will help companies overcome all these growing pains.

One issue that Graham talks about that should have real resonance with companies at various stages of development tis that something about the company, what it is and what it is hoping to achieve, should be written down and not simply exist as a thought in the founder’s head.

“Who we are and how we do things — write that down as fast as you can before you hit rapid growth (ideally),” says Graham. “Yes, that might seem like a nuts thing to do at 25 people when you have so many competing priorities, but it's beyond worth it. At 750 people, you can tell the difference between the companies who did take the time to be thoughtful and record these things and those who didn’t.”

The Molly Graham checklist:
•Make a list of the qualities you want your company to embody. Who do you want to be? How do you want it to feel to work there?
•Make a list of the qualities you want your company to embody. Who do you want to be? How do you want it to feel to work there?
•Write down what you’re doing in the world. What’s your vision for the change you want to make?
•Communicate these things again and again and again. Through all the channels. All the time. You can’t overcommunicate these ideas.
•Focus on hiring quality people rather than speed. Don’t lower your bar because you need to grow faster. It will come back to bite you.
•Fire people. Just do it!
•Hire amazing leaders as early as you can and help them grow their capabilities as the company grows.
•Prioritize principles over process.
•Keep giving away your Legos! And tell everyone around you to do the same. It’s going to be okay.

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