There is a large difference between start up and scale up. The organisations will have very different characteristics. Moving from one to another won’t happen overnight, sometimes you only realise you have transitioned when you are well into the change. Here’s some things to look out for.
What are the characteristics of a start-up?
Drive, ambition. Edgy, rough, focussed. Start-ups don’t have the time, security or customer base to play safe. There may not be the incentive for super-experienced, highly-skilled team-members who are willing to take a risk on the unknown, so those with less experience, less-honed skills, maybe even some thrill-seekers are often the first in, possibly attracted by a charismatic, visionary leader. Everything is green field and new. Choices in tech and product direction are made and set here that can affect the company for years to come. A culture is set. Everyone pitches in. Long days, late nights and (inevitably) pizza are the way it is. Everyone learns, value is delivered. Strong bonds are made.
What are the characteristics of a scale-up?
Great question. And it depends if the organisation has put thought in to scaling up, or if it has just ended up being bigger. Let’s first just imagine an organisation that’s just grown organically, due to their success – the un-planned scale-up.
The un-planned scale-up
There are a number of patterns seen time and again with successful start-ups that are now really growth companies, when thought on how to scale hasn’t been considered or enacted well.
The first give away is the number of people who insist they are still a start-up, without any of the characteristics seen above being demonstrable anymore. Also look out for a vision that’s no longer as clear as it once was, senior leaders who don’t have the experience of running larger teams, long laborious meetings and politics, lots of politics. Process pain points are replaced by ineffective documented processes and decisions are rarely made without the need for some kind of committee meeting, usually involving some of the original team from the start-up era being involved. Line management feels draconian, as if it’s from the industrial age of steam powered weaving looms. There is also likely to be a culture of people saying “it’s not as good as it used to be”, whilst actively being a part of the problem they are complaining about.
The un-planned scale-up can work, but can often get crushed under the weight of its own bureaucracy and perceived constraints.
The planned scale-up
A start-up with a glowing future is a start-up with a scaling plan from day one. This would be characterised by:
- A visionary leader
- A consistently clear and well communicated vision
- Empowered owners of tech product operations
- Clear business outcomes, communicated openly and regularly
- Distributed decision making, focussed on the clear business outcomes
- The ability to have direct, meaningful conversations
- A robust, yet supportive culture
- A sense of urgency
- Tech technical ability to rapidly build, test, deliver and get feedback
- “Go ugly early” – the desire to get product delivered to customers
- An attitude of dogged persistence
- Putting people first, shaping and building an evolving culture
It’s all about people
The reality about scaling is that it’s all about people. Whilst you need to look after the original start-up core team, those who took a punt on you when there was little more than a dream, you also need to accept that there may be new blood, with more experience, that can come in to the business to replace them. This requires a huge amount of care an empathy. Loyalty deserves reward in many instances.
Be careful with job titles, make them meaningful. Don’t just ordain folk with grandiose titles for no reason, it can inflate ego and make many new entrants wonder what’s going on with so many senior staff.
Create clear career paths. People need to know where they’re going, they need hope and inspiration. What are you offering them? Think about what it looks like to be at the bottom rung of the ladder in the company and look up. What do those people see? Are you offering them the training and mechanisms they need to succeed?
Having a high benchmark of quality with everything – new entrants, culture, product, process, even meetings. As the saying goes, the quality of the culture you have will be set at the lowest level of behaviour you will tolerate.
Beware splitting the organisation down between departments. Remember Conway’s Law which states that organisations mirror their communication structure. Your organisation needs to live and breathe its product (or service) and not become a personality cult. Remember, your customers buy your product (or service) and not the internal politics of your company, so focus your effort on what you sell first.
You’re not the first people to scale up. It’s a tricky phase that can be difficult to navigate. There are some people who have done it before and can tell you what to look out for. Remember, though, no-one has all the answers. If someone is telling you they know how to solve all your scale up problems, don’t believe them. Find someone you can partner with instead to help take you on the journey to the next stage of the business.
Want to keep reading?
- Check out other Frequent Product Questions just like this
- Want a better team? Take a look at our Frequent Agile Questions
- Sign up for free training with our FAQs LIVE
- Download our useful factsheets on all things agile