The company building aspect of the start-up journey, how to build a business that’s ready for real scale as it’s going through rapid growth is critical to success. We call this the grow up phase, and themes of building a business for scale don’t change, even though the context of course does.
This article is a summary of a recent conversation with technology executive Carmen Carey, which you can listen to in full here.
The first step is to recognise the stage you are at and to accept as a leadership team that you are going to go through a transformation because of the success you’ve had. The signs are everywhere if you are prepared to look for them and you need to decide collectively as a team how we are going to change and succeed, but also what that means to the people across the company.
What are the tell-tale signs a company needs to ‘grow up’?
Manual processes that are inhibiting scale, using people not systems and tech is the biggest tell, for example, how do we acquire, onboard, delight and expand customers. If these processes are manual, unrepeatable and hard to scale, then that’s a problem.
Then just take a hard look at every aspect of the business: people processes, product processes, sales and quote to cash processes.
When you see people doing too many things manually in unrepeatable non-scalable ways then typically there is a lack of the enterprise architecture and automation that can make things run smoothly.
What’s needed is an internal technology strategy that complements the sales and product strategies, this is the glue that makes things work.
Separate yourself from the business and look down on it from a height.
When a business has grown rapidly people can quickly end in different silos, but customers just don’t care, they just expect things to work. They want to understand how their business is operating within the context of their supplier – what does their usage look like and what are the implications for billing, is there a backlog of requests? These are just a few of the things that the customer of any fast growth SaaS business will demand.
Every part of the business needs to be seamless in the way you delight our customers.
When you look at engineering led businesses, they may not understand the needs of systems and process for themselves but also the knowledge workers.
Another thing you see is a lack of governance and metrics across the business. As a business passes 100 people, there is a profound need for the ability to manage performance across the company in a way that makes sense to people in the business, the board and current and future investors and to see how are we leveraging information to drive continuous improvement.
Pricing for example. When there were 4-5 sales people they can sit around the table and agree pricing to suit different customers, and that is fine. But as the company grows, you need to think about how pricing influences strategy and supports and enables a large and distributed salesforce around the world. Effectively you are moving from a position of using person-specific intuition to enabling a much larger group of people to contribute more and therefore need a common understanding.
Build a people architecture and look for your pillar people
When you go from 10 people to hundreds, your people will start to wobble; how do we onboard and enable people, how are they managed, how are they developed and allowed to grow are all important questions to ask. The concept of a people architecture that understands roles, job levels, professional development and compensation strategies sounds pretty dull, but it’s incredibly important if you are to attract and retain people from some of the best companies in the world. This then creates a platform to scale your people, but sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes you just need people with repeat experience, so how you identify the gaps is vital. I call these pillar people.
You need to identify critical skills gaps and bring in your pillar people.
These pillar people have a massive impact on the business, they lift everyone up.
Clarity of communication and alignment is incredibly impactful – on a macro and micro basis – That gets a lot harder, but more important, as the company grows.
What does the first time CEO need to look for, what do they need to learn and how do they need to feel?
The first thing is the CEO needs the self-awareness to recognise they can’t do it on their own, that they have gaps they need to fill – with those pillar people we mentioned – but also skills they will need to develop.
What you want to see is an authentic and open CEO, who is willing to say “I want to team with a group of people who will make this business better and make me a better leader.
Take a trip into self-awareness.
The second thing is to understand what kind of CEO and leader you want to be and being super clear about what your strengths are and then be super clear with the business about your priorities. Some CEOs may really take to the operational side of the business, while others may want to be more technical or a sales-led visionary, constantly selling internally and externally.
The third is the realisation that delegation sets you free. If you build a team you trust and can break through the barrier of accepting you need their support as a CEO, enabling this team to do their magic will be transformational in terms of execution and alignment across the business.
Empowerment and delegation are a force multiplier for any leader, but especially the CEO.
The last is the need to be all over the big opportunities and challenges facing the company, marrying your know-how with data so that you can help the business to take new directions and overcome obstacles effectively.
Building trust across teams is critical to success.
There are no shortcuts here. You need to make time for each other and invest in your relationships show your vulnerabilities and ask for and offer help from and to your team. You need to know you’ve got each other’s backs, in a sincere and heartfelt way that comes when you are all brought into the vision of the business and bought into each other.
You need to spend time together as a team in a way that is purposeful, even if you don’t have an agenda.
Like any relationship you need to find common ground, understand your differences and figure out how best to work together.
For me as an executive, one of the biggest realisations for me was when, as part of a 360 review, I realised that people felt I could be quite aloof. It was a shock to me that people saw me as distant, remote, untouchable. And that realisation was incredibly powerful.
Don’t be afraid to see yourself as others see you.
Translating strategy into go to market is critical in this grow up phrase.
Translating the value proposition into an actionable plan to attract, win and delight customers is a tough growing pain. This has to translate across the entire business in terms of markets, verticals, segments through to what does the service experience look like, high touch or low touch, what does the product life cycle look like and how does this all tie into the go to market and people strategies and every function across the business.
It’s too easy to assume how strategy to translates into action, and you need to take steps to keep everyone in step:
- Clear go to market, cascaded across the business
- Measures in place to track performance in a way people understand
- Constant communication and adjustments where needed
The next step is to then really to focus in on what the data, customers and team are telling us about what’s working and what’s not. The high-level metrics of course but also at the detailed level across the business, customers and partners where relevant.
Capable, present and inspiring leadership and a people plan.
Not everyone needs to be an out there visionary leader, but we all do need to allow people to derive inspiration from what we do by being present and taking the time and care to engage and communicate. If you have leaders who are committed to leading and communicating, you will find your way through the bumps in the road on the growth stage. The team will be right there with you if they understand the path we are taking together.
An internal technical strategy.
You need to invest in business enabling tech to create frictionless ways of working and make it easy for people to find the information they need and to do their work. Tech companies have incredible people and they need to do ‘the tools’ and integrated processes to fulfil their potential. Sometimes tech-driven companies are the worst at this as they are so focused on the product side that they overlook this step which is key to enable scale and consistency.
How do you make the SaaS machine work efficiently, and then how do you make it better and better?
Look for constant improvement. When companies enter the adolescent growth phase there is a realisation that they need to accelerate progress on multiple fronts: people, process, technology, quality delivery and consistent, predictable sales results. The philosophy of constant improvement is simple; you are never done. Every 10m of revenue adds more challenges that can be exponentially difficult.
So you have to be constantly aware of:
- where you are now,
- how you can evolve,
- how you can become more efficient,
- while delivering on the business priorities and
- leaving capacity for the next phase.
Establish your leadership stance on customer centricity.
The grow up phase is a critical time to focus in on your commitment to your customers. That means being focused on the right customers for whom you can deliver tangible value and not qualifying in customers you cannot serve well.
When we engage with customers, we must be sure we are able to solve their problems.
With this in mind, you need to put the data in place to demonstrate we are delighting our customers with happy people who are part of that journey. There are a lot of things that relate to what customers mean to your business, especially in B2B SaaS, as losing a customer at this stage is like losing an arm!
In B2B SaaS losing an ideal customer is like losing an arm!
How to you massively increasing team size, while maintaining or improving productivity?
The key to this in the first instance, is to see the wave coming before it smacks you on the head. You can look into the funnel and execution and your growth strategy and objectives and see the nature and shape of your business and what that means in terms of volume and scale requirements.
Because when the wave hits, it’s hard to swim against the current. Sometimes People Ops is an afterthought. You need to think about your people architecture and working practice early on.
- See the wave
- Invest early in people operations
- Bring in your pillar people
- Ensure you have continuous internal and external strategies for people acquisition that align with company needs and culture
- And how do you onboard so people can be effective.
Then you have to gauge your capacity to bring in people. It doesn’t matter how many – if its 20, you need to be able to do that without churning 10! Or 100 without churning 50.
Carmen’s top priorities for the grow up phase:
- Put in place the ability to understand and support your people to excel today and in the future.
- Move from manual to automated processes.
These two things are game changers for any business.