One of the most common questions entrepreneurs and startup teams ask when scaling is “How can we maintain company culture?” There’s a contagious fear that when scaling, the company will lose some of what makes it so special. However, I’ve thought this fear is unwarranted. The goal shouldn’t be to remain unchanged, but to scale the business while evolving the culture into one that everyone — old employees and new — can grow into together.
In that sense, when we think about best practices for scaling a business, we should consider how what we gain improves the company rather than focusing on what we’re losing. Here are a few rules I’ve found for scaling successfully, without letting negative thoughts or nostalgia drive your decision making.
Designate an Owner of Company Culture
This doesn’t need to be formal or rigidly defined as long as there’s participation. This person’s job — in addition to their day-to-day duties — is not to make sure that your quirky company culture stays the same, but to create a welcoming, inclusive environment that makes it easy and fun for new employees to jive with older ones. The company culture you adore will continue to happen and evolve as a result, with no awkward bonding trips or mandatory happy hours required.
For example, our chief strategy officer at AirPR wears this hat naturally. We never had to assign her this role because she’s always embodied what we’ve been about. This has helped us enormously as we’ve rapidly scaled the business. My advice: Figure out who is organically inclined to the role when it comes to building and overseeing culture, and let them own it.
Make an Effort to Purposefully Connect
When we were a team of four, we didn’t need to schedule time to catch up. We all carpooled into the office together, and that’s when we talked about what we did over the weekend, what we were excited about and what we were struggling with. Nowadays, there are so many different meetings at any given time that it’s nearly impossible to fit in that time together. But this is okay. It just means that we have to be more intentional in terms of connecting with one another and make it a top priority.
Having sat on the VC side of the table in addition to being an entrepreneur, I’ve noticed that the least successful entrepreneurs are the ones who refuse to delegate. Those who scale successfully hire people who are better than themselves at specialized tasks. Hire a sales director who is better than you at selling your products. Hire a head of communications who will correct you when you slip during an interview. If you do this right, you will successfully fire yourself out of every job you do at a sub-par level, handing the reigns over to those who do it better. You will always benefit from hiring someone who is better than you are at something.
Automate the Essentials
When you first start as an entrepreneur, you’re not spending much money. But as you scale, invest in automation to make adding someone to payroll easy, and make onboarding people and explaining their benefits in a systematic way easy as well. Essentially, make up-to-date technology a priority. In the long run, saving five minutes an hour of an engineer’s time is worth the cost — which will also help with one of your new responsibilities as a scaling business: retention.
Make Sure You’re Growing in the Right Direction
The best companies are good at saying “no” to opportunities that aren’t the right fit. Growth is not always a good thing if it takes you in a direction that isn’t in your company’s best interest. Whether it’s saying “no” to building a product that isn’t critical or saying “no” to verticals that you’re not best suited to serve, sometimes waiting for the right type of growth is the best decision, even if it means turning down short-term revenue growth.
This one may seem obvious, but on the investor side, I hear “if I only had one more month” too often. Don’t assume everything will go perfectly and that you’ll always have a large amount of funding available. Understand what got you to where you are and the underlying assumptions of why you’re scaling. There’s a time for conservative growth and a time for aggressive growth, and you have to know the difference.
Can you give someone a dollar and have them return five? That’s how your investors are thinking.
Don’t Get Overconfident
When businesses scale, entrepreneurs can start to get overconfident. Not only is it easy to burn bridges this way, but it can cause others to root for your demise. The most impressive, successful people are the ones who are humble. Being humble is more difficult than being cocky, but worth it. As you scale, keep in mind that there are always people out there who are more successful. Remain humble and remember what got you to where you are today.
My last piece of advice is to just hang on. You will experience massive priority shifts as you scale, and you can bid adieu to long vacations. But like I said — don’t focus on what you’re losing. Scaling is all about what there is to gain.