How to Think about Building Out A Start-Up

There is a quote someplace about “don’t sweat the details.”

When it comes to company building, though, sweating the details is what separates those that thrive – and survive– from start-up road kill. It’s exactly doing those (thoughtful) details that break or make a new company, not only the big picture stuff that might have sparked the launch.

That point was driven home working with a client this past week: successful over their first few years of existence the firm is at a point where they’re past start-up “survival mode” and focused on the things that will sustain them for years to come.

From a start-up with a handful of people almost four years ago, the firm has sized up to approximately 90% of its anticipated headcount and in doing so had reached the first of what may be a series of tipping points.

Say what Malcolm Gladwell?

A tipping point: they’d reached a certain threshold – in their case a certain number of employees – where doing things exactly as they’d done them before didn’t work so well, and they’d need to figure out some other ways for working as an organization if they wanted to continue to be successful.

You see this sort of stuff all the time in early stage organizations: the group of five that worked so well has become the organization of 25 that bumps along. While the people have changed (more folks added), the little back of the envelope ways that worked when you could have a 30 second huddle with everyone haven’t transitioned to ways of efficiently and effectively doing similar types of things with a bigger group.

So blow things up and completely start over? Or just keep on doing things as always and just work lots harder?

No on both counts, at least for this practitioner. And here’s one example of a way to think about building out a start-up.

The trick is to figure out a way to leverage what the firm had done well so that it forms a more solid foundation moving forward. Keep what works where and when it works but also figure out some natural options when changes are needed. And while moving forward, anticipate some of the changes they’ll need to make along the normal new company maturation curve.

So what’s an example – how does that work?

From earlier work with the firm’s leadership team, some key areas of strength (business model, market position including things like customer relationship, people resources, ways of operating, etc.) had been identified that had made the firm successful. Some obstacles –areas that are bumpy or are likely to be bumpy – had been identified as well. The work for the firm for the firm was to identify times or area when the old ways still work well and also identify when new ways of working will need to be introduced.

One easy example is the area of who does what. In the old early days, everyone knew what everyone else did. Backing up folks was easy, and organizational communication moved at short hand speed. In the new “bigger” organization, folks outside senior leadership sometimes know what everyone else did, and organizational communication at times was like the flight of bumblebee – lots of starts and stops. And while the firm had not had anyone terminate, they were at a size where life events – marriages, family moves, and departures – were likely to happen.

The solution was for this one little area was three-fold. First, build into a one of the processes (a weekly all hands update call) a short 5 minute show and tell by alternating staff talking about what their primary role was, key deliverables for which they were responsible, key processes they owned, and who provided back-up in case they were unavailable. A brief (less than 1 page, no small fonts) document also served as a Wiki summary that was posted online alongside their name and contact details. Last, as new hires were added their “role summary bio” accompanied their introduction and picture – a simple way to keep folks updated in a simple, easy to replicate fashion.

In this case the solution to one part of the challenge – how to keep people connected regarding who does what – was to use an existing process (weekly update call) and add one element to it. Along with a technology addition, it makes for attending to a small detail that will pay significant benefits.

Company building is not so different from designing a house. A little forethought goes a long ways. And while you can always remodel, life’s a lot easier if your first design made downstream changes easy and effective.