Growing up is hard for a startup that is scaling. Growth mode brings in its own set of challenges to address. A couple of years ago when the task of scaling Codifyd India began, we wanted to approach this much as any startup would. That’s the vibe, the passion, and the agility that, we felt, best represented us.
So, what were the lessons that I learned on the way to scaling this “startup”?
Growth takes patience
Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, says that a startup is essentially a company that is designed for growth. No surprises there. However, in our rush to grow we often forget that there are ups and down to this growth as well.
There will be a period of extremely slow growth or even absolutely no growth. You will encounter a period of rapid growth. The rate of growth will also slow down as your startup matures into an established software company.
It is essential to stay grounded during all these phases. So, if you are in a phase of slow growth, don’t push the panic button.
When you want to achieve growth, you obviously need to be scalable. But what is scalability? Is it just increasing the volume of production or the number of people? Scalability is essentially the ‘characteristic of a system, model or function that describes its capability to cope and perform under an increased or expanding workload”. This means having the ability to grow without being impacted by the number of available resources, the structure or the push for increased production.
So, when we talk about scaling a startup, it is essentially about having the systems and processes in place and having the capability to use the available resources in a manner that yields predictable and measurable results.
In my journey, I realized that scaling does not always equal the use of extra resources or actions. It doesn’t always need herculean effort. What it certainly needs is the correct utilization of existing resources and identifying ‘how’ you want to scale – vertically (by taking a deeper dive into a niche market) or horizontally (by venturing into new business avenues or geographical areas).
Ask tough questions
Once you’ve got things rolling it is time to ask some tough questions. No one is challenging the need for the product/service you are bringing to the market, but you need to ask yourself before you scale, “how much demand will be there for this product/service”? Overestimation can spell the death of a startup and many go hopelessly wrong here.
My experience when scaling Codifyd was also quite similar. The temptation to overestimate demand was always there, because, let’s face it, a part of you just ‘wants’ that. Now the only way to stay grounded here was by evaluating:
- The actual, quantified size of the potential market
- Assessing competition – their products, services and market share
- Identifying the parts of the business model that could be improved
- How will customer expectation evolve and how prepared are you to accommodate these changes rapidly
Being data-driven, objective, asking hard questions (is there really an opportunity here or should we shift focus, etc.), and implementing change proactively worked for us at Codifyd.
Understanding the customer
While we all claim to be customer-centric, are we so?
Asking yourself this question is essential at all times when your company is in the growth mode. You need to be able to convincingly answer if you have accounted for all the different needs of your target buyers.
In the Codifyed context, we realized that different people will access product content differently. We need to account for and accommodate that. As product evolution becomes the new normal, how can we ensure that updating product content is not a massive effort? Were we taking into account the product content needs of distributors? What should be the analytics at play and many such questions?
It was only when we had mapped these could we say that we were truly customer-centric and had accounted for all the needs of the customer.
Build an empathetic workplace
Any company in a growth stage creates a higher-than-normal-stress environment for their employees. It is easy to play the ‘one man has to do multiple things’ card. While this is true, no one is stopping you from building an empathetic workplace.
‘Empathy’ can be a powerful motivator. It helps you build teams that bond. It helps you build collaboration. Most importantly, it shows that you care. When your employees feel you care for them they reward you as well – with their loyalty and their willingness to push the envelope further. It’s a win-win for both.
The team is everything
The right team can make or break a growing organization. However, hiring comes with its own challenges especially when budgets are tight and resources have to be stretched.
When scaling Codifyd I realized that especially in the case of hiring, ‘quality trumps quantity’. 20 average resources at a low cost or 5 highly skilled ones at a slightly higher cost? Guess which I chose? Yes, the latter.
We looked at programmers and team members who were bright and were team players. The lone-wolves are the ones who get frustrated easily and crash under pressure. And frustration and high-pressure are the hallmarks of any growing startup. We invested in people who were ‘thinkers’, highly accountable and could see the company vision and visualize how they would contribute to completing the big picture.
Those who did not fit the bill were not a part of this picture. Yes, sometimes you have to make some uncomfortable decisions.
Accountability v/s ownership
Everyone is harping on the ‘ownership’ model. However, ownership is not something that you can demand of your employees.
Expect accountability from your teams. Ownership is too lofty a goal.
Instead, focus heavily on building teams with high levels of accountability. You can do so by building accountability actions into their daily schedule – proactive feedback, measured progress, well-defined goals (both short and long-term) play well here.
By giving people autonomy of choice over their work, using data to base all your decisions, helping them become problem-solvers, and ensuring a heavy focus on timelines and timeliness, you create highly accountable teams. And highly accountable teams are motivated teams. And motivated team members are more willing to assume ownership.
Lastly, I cannot over-emphasize the importance of being frugal. Being frugal does not mean that you have to be cheap. It is to evaluate objectively where you should be directing your human and financial capital to get the maximum returns and eliminating waste (financial or human) and direct all resources where they will deliver a tangible impact.
I’m aware that this is far from being a primer on how to scale a “startup-like” India center. And that’s intentional. There are many scholarly tomes out there that offer that. This is a personal account of what I learned on this journey so far. I hope it helps someone similarly placed!