Doing Things That Don’t Scale vs. Things That Do
The importance of doing both as your business grows.
What’s your favourite term in the world of startup jargon?
A favourite of mine that I see popping up often is scaling.
The word is short and sweet, but unleashes a barrage of ideas and further questions to be answered.
“Is it reasonable to assume we can achieve 10x growth with this strategy?” “What’s the most important priority over the next three months?” “Who do we need to bring onboard to get this done?” “How will our servers hold up as usage increases?”
In other words: scaling a business is mighty fun (and stressful).
As a company moves from early-stage venture to a growth company, things become . . . different.
A team, product and mission may have all remained the same, but certain tactics will no longer apply. For example, it may no longer be possible to collect customer feedback by phoning each customer individually. Or, marketing may need to target more than just specific niche groups.
A company will reach a ‘tipping point’ of growing a business. Many current processes won’t be scalable and will be need to be rapidly replaced with processes that are.
Out with the old and in with the new, right?
In an ideal world, simply swapping out old for new would do the trick. Today’s innovative companies realize that’s not the case, taking a more nuanced approach to building a business and attracting customers as they grow. This approach requires a careful balance of non-scalable and scalable mechanisms that promote the internal maturation of a organization.
The Importance of Doing Things That DON’T Scale
There’s tremendous value in being able to successfully respond to challenges with ad-hoc solutions. Many of these fixes will be temporary and provide little incentive to be deployed on a wider scale. Their importance lies in the learning experience and the building of a framework for adequate responses in the future.
Learn to fail fast. Early-stage, bootstrapped company’s are quite literally strapped to their deathbeds. There’s no point in a long, drawn-out death. If you’re going to fail, it’s better to make it quick and minimize the damage. Responding individually to customer questions on using a product is simply not scalable. Sudden failure will make this blindingly obvious. Establish a solution, work with it until it breaks and start anew. This is how creative destruction blossoms.
Discovering what ‘wows’ your customers. Doing the little things really, really well can set a company apart in a crowded industry. Knowing what it takes to ‘wow’ customers is integral to turning early adopters into lifelong customers and advocates. Sending personalized cards or building client-specific features may not be possible at scale, but it builds a picture of how to emotionally satisfy users. This knowledge gained from going the extra mile for early customers is a powerful tool.
Identifying shortcomings in a product’s build and user experience. Just like an injury left untreated, a product issue left unresolved will only become more painful to address as time passes. When resources don’t allow for exhaustive testing and applying different uses cases, turn your customers into your research team. Release an unfinished product into the wild. While it may seem foolhardy, giving a product the opportunity to either fail or succeed is the only way to make it better. Allowing users to find shortcomings can advance a product faster than any roadmap can.
The Importance of Doing Things That DO Scale
At scale comes change. Lots of it. Employees become specialized. Leadership is further removed from daily operations. Expectations on performance are heightened. A company that was formerly barrelling ahead now starts to tread more cautiously. Purpose becomes the name of the game as a company escapes a certain death and can see the outlines of a promising future.
Focusing only on essential metrics. Metrics do matter, but only if they demonstrate that the foundational aspects of a business are healthy. Vanity metrics are aplenty and serve only to provide ‘positive feelings’ to its subscribers. That’s why being honest from the outset helps to cut through the noise and set a focus on what’s important. As org charts expand and layers of management are added, leaders should remain aware of how departmental goals align with maintaining a viable business.
Learning how to manage experiments and risk. No venture is without it’s risky bets; the difference is in the amount of risk seen as being tolerable. Being able to balance current objectives with the need to innovate is pivotal as the number of stakeholders increases. Designing protocol for experimentation should have two main tenets then: how much risk and resource allocation is acceptable. Two factors that affect all companies big and small.
Delegating responsibility. No one man or woman can do it all. Scaling a company requires dedication to building a particular business component and then trusting it to perform without continual involvement. Successful entrepreneurs know this and use it to their advantage to build hyper-growth companies. A empowered employee is a powerful one; one that takes ownership over their work to propel the business forward. As an entrepreneur, learning when to delegate is an effective tool in accomplishing more with less.
Scaling a company can be a double-edged sword.
A ocean of opportunity awaits for those willing to take advantage. This often requires letting go of many factors that have been instrumental in a company’s success up until that point. Some times, an unwillingness to let go, to change, is what holds us back the most.
If there’s one lesson that we should reflect upon from time to time, it’s this: always remain attached to the mission. Focusing on the mission will help to clarify the ‘why’ of everyday decisions. If it aligns with a company’s purpose, whether scalable or not, continue to push it forward.