Three Steps to Grow Up a Startup
August 25, 2014

Three Steps to Grow Up a Startup

by Brian de Haaff

Joining a startup is like being a kid all over again. And it’s probably why so many people want to be part of one. You’re free. Innovation and risk-taking is encouraged, you get a basic allowance, and you get to work with your brothers and sisters—because startups are like family. There is joy and dysfunction.

But at some point, startups have to grow up to be successful. Just like kids heading off to school or learning how to ride a bike, there’s a time in a company’s life-cycle when the training wheels must come off or progress stops.

The challenge is it’s easy to resist growing up. There is always the next task to get to and not enough people to do the work. It’s tough to prioritize anything that does not seem directly related to closing the next deal or making payroll.

We know that growing up is hard to do because we have been founders or early employees of six software companies. And over the last year at Aha! we have spoken with hundreds of startup founders. We have learned that teams have a hard time knowing when to sprint ahead and when to slow down to make informed decisions and put process in place to intelligently scale the business.

Growing up a startup requires founders to know where they are going and how long it’s going to take to get there. If you are dealing with this yourself, start with the basics. Assuming you are solving an important problem and customers are rewarding you with their time and money, it’s time to start to think about growing up.

The following are three steps to take.

A clear vision

Rapidly growing products (and companies) typically know what works for their customers and have codified the insights company-wide. Often though, it’s just shared like tribal knowledge.And those insights are the cornerstone of a clear vision. The key is to write down your vision so everyone can understand it. It should describe the customer pain and the unique value proposition that your product delivers to the customer. It captures the essence of what you want to achieve and how customers should be treated–the critical information your team must understand to continue to deliver a lovable customer experience.

A few processes

Many start-ups avoid process because they are just too busy. That makes total sense when you first get rolling. But, as you grow, process helps the team create the appropriate level of structure while providing a necessary decision making framework. The easiest way to capture and share process is through an internal knowledge base. The obvious benefit of writing your processes down is that the team maintains efficiency as it scales and more people are involved. The extra advantage is that it gives you a chance to further instill what makes the company unique and provide a framework for employee success. Start small by documenting the most repetitive of tasks and see if others in the organization can follow along and perform the activities without assistance.

A small set of communications tools

These days many startups are working in a distributed way—across physical locations and time zones. When that is the case, investing in a basic set of communication tools is critical to getting the job done. You need basic tools to shorten the distance between your customers and your team and between employees themselves. A basic set of tools provides a means to increase responsiveness while providing visibility and data to the team to quickly make decisions and trade-offs. We see too many teams over invest in tools rather than focusing on a few that help the team stay in sync and respond to customers quickly. Just invest in a few tools for communication.

Building a company that’s grounded in a vision with the processes and tools in place to respond quickly puts the team in a position to succeed.

Just like when you were a kid, growing up can be painful at times. But, if you are able to start with a the basics like focusing on vision and strategy, a few key process and tools, you’ll be on your way to exceeding your customer’s expectation while achieving your business objectives. And you will be in a position to scale.

Are you going through growing pains? Leave a vote or comment on Hacker News.

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Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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