There’s a reason that agility has become a popular buzzword. The power to both think and act quickly is a defining factor in any startup’s success. Those that get hung up on outdated processes risk failing due to their own sluggishness.
Some startups try to anticipate how their staffing needs will shift as they grow, which Ben Horowitz calls “the scale anticipation fallacy.” You can’t know in advance whether one team member will be capable of scaling with the company. And if you judge someone as incapable of scaling at the outset, you won’t give him or her support to grow with the business, according to Horowitz.
Instead, you need to stay agile — and beware the boogeymen of bloat and bureaucracy. Use the following tips to stay sharp as you grow:
1. Make sure visions align. One of the most critical problems startups face is a breakdown in the shared vision. As the CEO of a growing company, your most important role is maintaining collective focus.
Place your vision at the center of everything you do. Hire based on that ideal, and train people around the company’s core values. Build your vision into the startup’s DNA to prevent your team from drifting off course.
2. Avoid overspecialization and silos. The bigger your business grows, the more you’ll need to split up teams and assign staff members to increasingly specific tasks. Be careful not to divide responsibilities to the point where the work your team members are doing becomes divorced from its greater meaning.
If you have an engineer who builds your widgets, don’t segment her job so much that she’s only making one small component of the widget and loses interest in output as a whole. Your team members will be much more engaged if they can see the value that their work provided to the final product and even the world.
3. Don’t build skyscrapers. Many startups establish traditional hierarchies as they grow, which creates divisions and lapses in communication among different departments. At Coplex, my team and I decided to keep our organization relatively flat, creating cross-disciplinary teams instead of departments.
Those teams can manage projects on their own, from start to finish, without too much outside input. We also host regular lunches, happy hours, and other events where all of the teams have an opportunity to connect with one another.
4. Put the right people in the right seats. You need a different mindset to take a company from zero to 10 than to take it from 10 to 100. Encourage your employees to learn the new skills that will help them adapt as the company grows, but don’t be afraid to let go of dead weight. The harsh reality is that you sometimes have to let go of people who lack the agility to develop those new skills fast enough.
At the same time, you want to be mindful of your culture. Someone who hasn’t quite gotten himself up to speed might still be a valuable asset — especially if he embodies your company’s values. Those attributes might be worth the trade-off in lesser skills.
5. Maintain communication. Evolve your meeting strategies as the team expands. Rather than insist everyone meet up all the time, use tools such as Slack, Facebook Groups, and Google Drive to collaborate and share resources. If you want to really develop a strict and efficient meeting framework, check out the Modern Meeting Standard.
6. Hire a CFO. Cash planning is crucial to your startup’s success. Partner with a good fractional CFO, or recruit a full-time one if you can justify it. Things such as GAAP accounting, financing, mergers and acquisitions, and strategic financial planning will become important.
Leading a startup is a game of speed chess. You and your team must be able to respond quickly to challenges and evolve with the company — while holding true to your vision.
Zach Ferres is the CEO of Coplex, a Los Angeles- and Phoenix-based startup studio focused on truly collaborative design and development. Coplex builds startups and digital products using lean and agile techniques. Follow the company on Twitter.