How startup entrepreneurs cope with fast-growing teams

Having the opportunity to rapidly build a team is a dream for many startup founders. Finally, they can bring in the specialist expertise and support needed to realise their vision.

Hiring provides opportunities for the business, but doing it quickly creates pressure. Each inflection point in a company’s growth impacts culture, communication and the way staff behave.

You’re going to have to work hard to get it right. To make sure staff are on-boarded properly and the founding team’s vision continues to shape the organisation. And, your role is going to change too.

We spoke to entrepreneurs that have been through the process to get the best advice on dealing with rapid growth.

Great startup culture doesn’t come easy

Equity crowdfunding platform Crowdcube has grown from two to 70 people in five years. The biggest growth spurt took place after it raised investment in 2014; the next year its ranks swelled from 30 to 80 employees as it invested in business development and tech, and opened new offices.

Keeping culture on track wasn’t easy or obvious, says CMO and co-founder Luke Lang.

“Darren [my co-founder] and I were a little blindsided when members of the team came to us and said they don’t know what the vision or mission is. We thought the company was still like it was when we had 20 people. We underestimated the need for a wider communication to the team about mission and culture, and they were really craving it,” explains Lang.

Codifying a company’s culture is difficult. Crowdcube’s management team and staff experimented for nearly a year to get right.

In the end, they realised their mission to democratise investment hadn’t changed. The light-bulb moment was to anchor the values in the successes that helped them on their way to achieving that goal. This approach not only made them highly relevant, but easy to communicate and justify, making them all the more powerful.

“Take ‘Be brave and tenacious; never give up in what you believe in’,” explains Lang. “When we look back at the early days and one of the reasons Crowdcube is where it is today is that we had the courage to do something different when everyone was telling us it’s a daft idea.”

The crucial role of onboarding

The onboarding process is essential to ensuring new staff understand a business’ culture, processes and expectations. This helps reduce the amount of time it takes for them to make an impact.

Onboarding becomes even more important when you’re hiring multiple staff members and, if you’re scaling quickly, you’re going to have to formalise the process. You need to transfer knowledge that used to be derived from sitting and working directly with the whole team, and set up a system to coach people for specialist roles.

There are a number of things to consider:

  1. Onboarding should start before the new employees arrive. Make sure relevant staff are aware of their job role and background, prepare all the equipment they need and communicate with them regularly before they start
  2. The length of the process should reflect the size of your business. The larger the business the more careful you need to be about giving them space to express any issues – include a review process
  3. The regular check-ups that form part of the onboarding should evolve naturally into regular one-to-one sessions. The employee and business will evolve quickly, and it’s crucial you don’t let any issues fester

Oppo Ice Cream co-founder Harry Thuillier started the business to offer ice cream that married health and indulgence. The startup tries to convey its philosophy in their conversations with new employees.

“We start every meeting with a new employee by discussing why it is we’re doing what we’re doing and what our purpose is. Broadly speaking, we’re all about enjoying today without suffering any consequences tomorrow,” says Thuillier.

He adds that talking about Oppo’s ‘why’ in the Simon Sinek sense of the word is more engaging than the ‘how’ or ‘what’ of a business.

Give ground grudgingly

 Startups can move incredibly fast. Anyone who’s started a business after working in a large corporate will know the rush of watching the boundaries and bureaucracy disappear. And, because everyone’s normally sat in the same room, there’s no issue with communication. No 800-word emails or dull, company-wide conference calls.

When Crowdcube nearly tripled in size its structure was a key growing pain. Not only were they bringing on new staff, but they were adding middle management. That introduces complexity, particularly around communication and common knowledge.

“When you’re agile and early stage, when you’re disruptive and building stuff all the time you don’t need to document stuff all the way down to how you submit an expense claim. But you should document key processes, so that when you’re onboarding people they get a good induction with clear instructions. It helps in getting them effective at their roles.” Lang advises.

The documentation will help maintain quality control and ensure customer service stays the same despite an injection of new people.

The tension between building a business and preserving the great stuff about being a startup is a difficult one. Investor Ben Horowitz borrowed from an explanation of an offensive lineman’s job in American football to explain the problem with the phrase “give ground grudgingly”.

You need to bring in structure and process, but that reduces the quality of communication a startup has by default. The trick is to lose these qualities as slowly as possible. To balance introducing structure with the need to fend off chaos. Don’t let the quarterback run past you because you won’t take a step back, but give ground grudgingly.

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Chris Goodfellow
Chris is founder and CEO of Inkwell, the company that runs The Pitch. He’s a journalist and editor by trade, and his work has been featured by everyone from The Guardian and The Financial Times to Vice magazine.

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