Tech startups are often taught to “move fast and break things”. But as a business expands it will inevitably face growing pains.
Chat ops app Slack has been on an incredible growth trajectory. In just two years it has hit 2.3 million daily active users (20% joined in the last two months), and over 675,000 of them are paid users.
To support that growth, its headcount grew from 80 to 385 employees in 14 months. It’s an expansion rate that has CEO Stewart Butterfield worried. Especially with the number of cautionary tales floating around the Valley at the moment.
Rapid growth without the infrastructure in place to deal with the impact on compliance, human resources and the financial sides of the organization, can break a company.
Before leading Xero in the US, I was running my own media agency. There was a point in time where we transitioned from handling a dozen smaller accounts to several accounts worth more than our entire client list combined.
We had to aggressively scale the infrastructure to deal with these bigger clients. This involved streamlining and automating where we could, adding headcount and implementing administrative processes so the higher expectations of these clients could be realistically met.
Growing operational models and having to adapt to those changes in real time are not only growing pains, they’re death shots to an organization and if not handled correctly, they can actually sink you.
No matter your business size, every company goes through these stages. These pressures usually rear up just when you find yourself in way over your head, needing to execute.
One of the big differences is how various sized companies deal with growing pains like staffing, scaling up, team alignment and product development.
Small companies often don’t have the resources to throw at these issues. However, when it comes to dealing with them, one common thread is that management needs to find the time to work on the business, not just in it.
Here are a few ways I’ve learned to deal with growing pains so my team doesn’t get hamstrung by process, or lack of it.
1. Over communicate.
As companies grow, hierarchies can weasel their way into the ranks. And while this is often necessary for efficiency, it can block messages. One way to overcome this is to over communicate. There are a bunch of collaboration and communication tools — like Atlassian’s Hipchat or Slack — out there which can help you do this. Holding regular “All In” company meetings and making your leadership team available for “ask me anything” sessions can also help communicate your message and flag any internal issues.
2. Data can show you where your next opportunity is.
Take the time to figure out where your most valuable customers are coming from and set a bunch of metrics or indicators so you can measure how well your company is tracking against your goals. The trick here is to use these insights to guide your decisions and figure out where you should focus. But be careful, spending too much time in the data can spark a nasty case of analysis paralysis which doesn’t help anyone.
3. Culture should always come first.
As a business grows, its culture will naturally shift and evolve. However, the essence of what made the company great in the first place should be tightly held at the business’ core. One way to ensure your business continues to align with its mission and beliefs is to establish a set of values that every decision can be linked back to. Educating your team on these values and how they relate to the business can develop a framework for how your business operates no matter how large it becomes.
4. Learn to plan ahead but get comfortable with not sticking to it.
As a business grows, plan A can quickly get thrown out the door in favor of plan B, C, or a hybrid version of all three. However, by documenting your plan, and communicating it with your team, you can flag the resources you might need ahead of time and determine if you have the cash flow to pay for them. Learning to iterate on-the-fly can also help your business move forward at pace.
5. Sit in the trenches.
Venturing out of your office and sitting with your employees can often give you a completely different view of what’s actually happening in your business. After a while, your employees will forget you’re there and it can be a great way to figure out if there are any bottlenecks or cultural issues in your organization.
Dealing with growing pains is a natural part of growing and scaling a business. And as you add more customers, employees or regions, they will inevitably arise. However, by upping how often you communicate and getting down and dirty in the business, you can start to work on your business, get the troops aligned and start hitting your growth goals.