5 Tips for Scaling Your Fast-Growing Startup

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By Mohit Garg

Fast-growing companies have an enviable problem. They’re growing headcount, with many of them hiring as fast as they can. And while this sounds like a nice issue to have, it’s actually a very serious challenge. Once that initial traction kicks in, how these companies hire and develop their talent often makes or breaks their future success.

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For all those fast-growing businesses out there heading into 2015 with this quandary, here are five critical things you should be discussing at your next team meeting:

Attracting Top-Notch Talent

It’s no secret that startups today face a chicken-and-egg problem, the same one that entry-level candidates face as they look for their first break. Often a candidate’s dream position requires a couple of years of relevant experience, which they can’t get until someone hires them. For startups, if you don’t hire the best talent, you can’t grow quickly—but if you don’t grow quickly and become a hot startup, you might not appeal to the best talent.

With large funding rounds from venture capital and private equity funds becoming fairly common, fast-growing companies can increasingly afford to pay top dollar for the right candidates—and contrary to what you might think, well-funded hot startups can be more enticing for the best candidates compared to larger, established companies.

Despite that funding, startups don’t have time or resources to create sophisticated benefits packages and campus infrastructure like an Apple or Google. Still, there are numerous ways to create unique branding that doesn’t drain your bottom-line. Think “bring your dog to work” policies versus instituting an in-house childcare program. The key is to be creative.

While fast-growing companies may have an edge in terms of the overall wealth-creation opportunities on offer, they also face cutthroat competition from other, equally hungry startups. This is where employer branding becomes essential. The job of the founders and their PR engine is to sell the company to prospective employees, and not just to customers and investors.

Baggage Carried Forward From Big Employers

As many startups grow, they inevitably bump into a very specific problem around company culture, one that could kill the entire team’s “get it done” spirit. Here’s how it plays out.

You’ve been wooing a rock star candidate from a large, established competitor for the past six months. She finally says yes and climbs on board. But within the first couple weeks, you notice something seems a bit off. She is used to having an admin to do certain tasks. She seems mired in three layers of reporting and insists on a “proper” communication channel. She comes with the baggage of working for a large company. If not checked quickly, you may be headed toward a culture of mistrust and territorial rivalry.

This is where setting expectations during the hiring process is crucial. It’s critical that the interview process includes exercises, situations and role-play that helps the candidate understand “the way things work around here.”

The CEO and founders need to exemplify that culture so that everybody else follows suit. Ultimately, even big company hires will adapt when they see the leaders walking the talk. But it’s so much easier to have that framework in place proactively, than to have to play defense over and over again as you grow.

Onboarding on a Budget

Say you’ve hired your dream team. What happens next is not an organic process. Very few employees instantly plug into your team and run in harmony with its philosophy, processes and goals. This is where implementing a solid onboarding program is key.

Consider the fact that a typical startup hires supporting functions such as HR, finance and learning and development more slowly than it does road warriors and product builders. On top of that, most startups have a flat hierarchy, and it’s not uncommon for early employees to wear multiple hats. In absence of the traditional reporting manager, who is responsible for ensuring that the new hires are ramped effectively?

Now add to that the reality of fast-growing startups opening multiple locations and hiring key individuals not just around the country, but often around the world. The old-school approach of flying everyone down to HQ is a short-term fix at best. As your team continues to grow, it becomes non-scalable.

Since technology has enabled the complexity of dispersed teams without a traditional org chart, it only makes sense that it fixes it, too. And it can. The cloud, mobile and social have created perfect solutions that let startups institute a highly scalable onboarding process. Just Google “Best practices in new hire orientation” and you’ll see what I mean. Again, here, the key is to be creative in your approach.

Your onboarding process should reflect the DNA of your team and its values. If you value creativity and out-of-the-box thinking, you could set up a reward and recognition system that promotes those behaviors. If you are more concerned with your team’s speed at getting the product to market, you could offer spot rewards such as game tickets or electronic gadgets. You’d be surprised how little investments such as these can make team members feel valued and appreciated.

Global Expansion

Most fast-growing companies hack their way to global expansion. What do I mean by hack? There is rarely a proven formula for driving such an expansion; startups often book a flight and do whatever it takes to get the growth initiatives off the ground.

Certainly hacking is good for creating the initial traction in new markets. It reduces the chance of failure from a cookie-cutter approach. Plus, being lean and scrappy helps in the early entry: You can learn from mistakes and bad hires, and you can adapt swiftly.

But hacking breaks down with scale—and can be expensive in the long run. Startups need to strategically evaluate centralization versus a distributed model for decision-making. A distributed model involves hiring local country managers who understand the local business context and culture, whereas a centralized model requires internal veterans to be pollinated across different locations to seed the headquarters’ culture across locations.

While the answer may be different for other types of businesses, for most product companies looking to expand into new markets, a centrally coordinated model makes more sense. Let’s take the sales team, for example. As opposed to creating independent vice president of sales positions for each geography, most Silicon Valley startups choose to hire a vice president of global sales at the HQ level. He or she can drive the strategy and execution in close alignment to the overall company objectives. This is even more applicable to companies with a dominant online or inside sales model.

Keeping Your Team Happy in the Homestretch

Let’s imagine for a moment that you’ve recruited your team, set the right expectations and onboarded them flawlessly. Perhaps you’re now expanding globally. You might have even done all this at the business unit level, still functioning without much support staff by using the technologies we discussed as a framework.

How are you handling talent management? This is an area that tends to get attention only once a breakdown in the process becomes evident. How do team members stay up to date on milestones and achievements? How are they notified about changes to company strategy and priorities? How does each team member measure his or her own success if he or she doesn’t understand how it contributes to the overarching company goals?

Communication both at manager-to-reportee level and leadership-to-all company level is key. Don’t assume your staff will read an all-hands email you send or that remote locations will dial-in in the middle of the night to attend a webinar. They’re unlikely to dig through the intranet for the video recording of the quarterly staff meeting or know where to go on the server to find the latest product-release notes.

Use as many collaboration and communication tools as possible. Enterprise social networks such as Yammer or Jive and video portals (think closed group Enterprise YouTube) are a great place to start. Remember that the volume of social activity or responses you see isn’t indicative of whether the tool is being used. Most people do skim through and read what’s posted. In this case, lurkers are not a bad thing.

Having a scalable system in place for the long term is an investment in your growth. And it’s not about creating production-quality executive briefings. The regularity and sincerity of the message counts a lot more. It’s how you will reinforce and communicate your vision, culture and philosophy for the next five years—until you’re that big, established company from which scrappy startups are striving to poach hot talent.

Mohit Garg, co-founder and chief customer officer of MindTickle, has diverse work experience spanning across 14 years and four continents. Prior to co-founding MindTickle, he was a director of PwC’s management consulting practice in New York City.

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