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Company Culture

Startup Operations: Get Through the Grind and into Growth

By: Ed Borromeo

Whether you’re creating a new company from nothing, or spinning out from another enterprise, the ultimate goal is to realize the vision of your startup and give it real legs. As you know, actually doing so requires a lot of hard work, sacrifice, and struggle.  In the early stages of executing your vision, you may experience things like these:

  • The lack of hours in the day to complete everything that needs to be done. Planning, if at all, is usually quick and dirty.
  • The requirement to wear many hats - from coding to customer service to marketing. This requires flexibility and being comfortable with the unpredictable.
  • A shoestring budget, of course. Every dime matters.  You amass and have to manage a collection of free services, low cost subscriptions, open source resources, and sub-contractors.
  • A daunting road ahead and sometimes fatigue (but you grit your teeth and carry on).

There’s no prescription to get through this reality (although unwavering persistence is arguably an absolute requirement in all cases).  But there are some things to keep in mind and some actions to take that may be useful in getting through the early ramp, into momentum, and to confident growth. Some of these are broad and strategic, while some are specific and tactical. Nonetheless, they can be helpful in maintaining sanity and keeping on the path.

Perspective

Don't ever lose sight of your ultimate goal. Talk about this goal openly and often, with a realistic and critical perspective and with awareness of where the company is along the trajectory. Recalling the overall goal and maintaining perspective is essential for anyone operating in the business, especially during chaotic periods. This should be ingrained in the company culture and top of mind for everyone. Don’t forget to celebrate wins regularly, big and small, along the way.

Surround yourself with great people.

It's always about the people - both inside and outside the business. In this case, I'm talking about the people inside your business. When you consider your next team members, do so beyond the required skills and factor in candidates’ character, goals, and their understanding of the environment they’ll be stepping into. They must clearly understand that they are being hired to build the business and will play a crucial part in the success of the company. I've also found that successful teams maintain a spirit of partnership no matter the circumstances; there is no "us and them" dynamic. Teams that operate like this tend to be high-performing and self-regulating. While you always hope that you hire the right people, sometimes you won’t. When someone isn’t performing to the necessary standards, despite efforts to bring them along quickly...be prepared to make a tough decision and make a change. This is especially important for small teams - as every person needs to pull their weight. A culture of openness and transparency makes attracting the right people (and transitioning others better suited for different environments) easier.

Focus

No matter how early or small the startup, determining objectives and strategies for the future is always a great idea. This exercise should not be exhaustive. Just take a few hours with the team to create a list of the 3-5 most important things for the business within the next 90 days. Thereafter, every activity must contribute to at least one of these objectives. If an activity isn’t contributing, consider it noise and stop.  The key is to stay focused and to execute on the things that count. Despite a sexy story, a fascinating solution, or even great sales… if the team can’t execute, the business will fall. Revisit your objectives quarterly, and adjust as necessary.

Measure

Get in the habit of measuring the 3-5 things that indicate real progress towards the 3-5 objectives mentioned earlier.  Do this on a weekly basis. If certain activities aren’t showing progress, intervene immediately, get specific on the cause, and problem solve fast. It’s impossible to manage thoughtfully and improve without measuring current efforts and activities.

Stay Organized and Document

Record what you do and how you do it. Recording this information and knowledge is crucial and invaluable. Use flowcharts, checklists, and knowledge bases, which can serve as orientation materials to quickly on-board future employees, and serve as way-of-working templates that can be improved upon. Build these in real-time, as you execute - that’s the only way it will happen. They don't have to be pretty, they just need to exist. This practice ensures you get the critical information out of the heads of those with institutional knowledge for others to benefit from readily...in case, you know, of the proverbial bus or the lottery. And to that end, keep all this stuff organized in a central place.

Contracts are Key

Please, for your own sake, don't issue crappy agreements and contracts that don't properly articulate the allocations of risk. Don't ever accept them either - even if they're dubbed as "standard" and come in two-column, small print, on glossy paper. Most agreements/contracts are table stakes, boiler plate types, so once you spend the energy getting them right the first time, you won’t have to touch them much again. When things go wrong (and they inevitably will), you'll be glad you used something that properly protects you, or at least guides you to a satisfactory resolution.

Systems Thinking

What are the systems that your business requires to grow? Today and tomorrow? Think about these across all aspects of the business, and endeavor to build them.  Systems are foundational to scalability and growth. Maybe your systems and solutions aren’t scalable today, and that’s okay, but know that and work to define trigger points in your strategic plan. This will allow you to make key changes as the company grows. You don't want your business' knees to buckle under its sales, marketing, and brand successes because you didn’t put the appropriate systems into place that allow you to execute. A system needs to be able to respond to changes in the business and deliver, but it can’t do that if you never build it or build it too late.

Organizational Structure

If you're doing things right in the marketplace and inside the four walls of your venture, the company will likely be growing - which often means more members on the team. No matter what organizational structure you choose (flat, matrix, traditional, etc.), it must be evaluated and confirmed to be working at each stage of growth. Business operations with 10 people is markedly different from business operations with 20 people, and a night and day difference from operations with 40, and so on. The team must be prepared to evolve the structure as the company grows. This evolution may require specialization of specific employees and roles, which will require a different structure than is required in a non-specialized organization. Not having a keen pulse on this leads to obstacles, like communication breakdowns, slowed production, professional development roadblocks among team members, and ultimately a clunky operation at risk. Look at the organizational structure no less frequent than every 6 months.

Written by Ed Borromeo

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