Your business is growing well, and you believe that it can shift gears to scale and systematically accelerate to the next level. Do you know if the engines are ready with enough fuel to provide the right amount of thrust? We all know that scaling the business is not the same as growing the business. Scaling is to get more output — to support propelled growth — for little to no incremental cost for sustained growth.
If you look at the journeys of startups, they all have to reinvent themselves multiple times. I am not talking about pivoting in the early stages to hone in on the right business model. This is about reinventing the culture, people, processes and operations when going from a team of 100 to 500 or going from a revenue of $50 to $250 million. Why? Because the company needs to operate very differently at each level. Think of startups as children going through different learning experiences from preschool (the seed stage) to elementary school (the early stage) to middle school (the middle stage) to high school (the late stage).
The list below focuses on technology and operations in an organization going from 100 to 500 (elementary to middle school). In reality, these foundational elements apply at any stage, with varying degrees of importance.
• Stay focused on speed: Don’t confuse “speed” with “run fast and faster,” especially without good control on direction and purpose. Focus on speed does not mean that people have to work harder or work longer, as they are already stretched by now. As from U.S. Navy Seals, “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.” I am not asking you to be slow, but don’t be reckless. Scale well but not quickly, or burn into ashes.
• Increase automation: Automation is one single area that can grow the output exponentially for the same inputs. Look at automating all aspects from testing, regression runs, code deployment, customer onboarding, mundane or repeatable business processes, and more. You will be surprised that the ROI for most automation efforts is no more than a quarter or two. While automation improves productivity and speed, it also improves the quality of deliverables, therefore reducing risks.
• Incorporate higher configurability: Companies should seriously think about adding configurability into their systems and business applications to allow for business changes such as adding new customers, launching new products or modifying existing features without having to go through lengthy release cycles. This gives businesses more speed to deploy changes in a matter of hours or days with minimal dependency on the engineering staff.
• Break projects into bite-size pieces, and be nimble: Gone are the days when technology initiatives could run into several years. Today, we expect to see results in a matter of days and weeks. Break your large projects into bite-size, value-based deliverables, and be nimble in your approach. Every software development life cycle, be it Agile, Scrum, Kanban or Spotify, can be tailored to best suit the organization’s culture. Don’t let perfection become the enemy of good.
• Increase self-service: Customer self-service is very important for any company to scale. This applies to both your internal customers using technology services — to install software, change access, generate a report, provide data or generate metrics — and your external B2B or B2C customers who want to engage in a more meaningful way. Intelligent automation, chatbots and self-service portals are the way to go.
• Optimize and document processes: Trying to optimize is quite tricky because it’s both an art and science to have the right level of processes to help companies move faster and further. Don’t try to adjust to the processes; rather, have processes adapt to the changing business needs, and only do what is actually needed. Once optimized, make sure that all key processes and controls are documented. You don’t want people dependency or process ambiguity to run day-to-day operations. Well-documented processes help produce the same outcome, irrespective of who, when and where.
• Implement KPIs and metrics: Go with the principle that what gets measured gets managed. Define those key measurements that will give you the confidence (without the subjectivity) that progress is in the right direction and producing measurable outcomes. Keep everyone on the team aligned on such measurements, and make data-driven decisions.
• Ensure that your platform is stable: Look at all your business applications as mission-critical, and make sure that they meet the rigor of availability, reliability and performance. See how your systems will behave with 10 times the load and how your applications will scale with 30 times the growth. Hopefully, with cloud infrastructure and scalable architecture, this should not be a problem. You still need to run annual failover tests for high availability and DR, in addition to performance and load tests numerous times in a year.
All of the above can operationally enable you to scale your business 10 to 20 times without having to go crazy with your headcount or substantially increase the cost. While this playbook is exciting, it goes without saying that none of the above will work without the right team and culture. You will have to advance the growth culture, but with a different narrative. In my next article, I will share my thoughts on what companies can do to adjust the team-based culture to be successful at a different level of scale.