The Founder’s Paradox: How Do You Grow Really Fast Without Losing Your Soul
It was our third Aha! onsite. Twice a year our entire remote team gets together in a destination location. This onsite was in Park City, Utah. After a week of meaningful sessions, many great meals, and even some bobsledding, everyone lingered to chat on the final night. As I looked at the talented folks on the team who were excited to be doing something different and great together, I could not help but feel a bit wistful.
I did not want any of the remarkable team spirit that we had achieved to change. But I wondered if it would.
There were about 30 people in the company at that time. It was a wonderful size. And yet I knew we would keep growing. And we would change. But how? Would it be for the best?
By the next onsite six months later, the team had nearly doubled. We reached many big milestones, including being named one of the fastest-growing software companies in the U.S. by Inc. magazine. Our software serves 250,000 users and more than 5,000 customers — we continue to launch new functionality each week and maintain a global first-response time of less than 2 hours for customer support.
It is a paradox every company founder wants to have — growing super fast without losing who you are and what makes the team special.
Now, I am fortunate that my co-founder Dr. Chris Waters and I have been clear and perfectly in sync on what we want to achieve, how we want to achieve it, and what we do not want to do. And we have built Aha! the way we want to with no outside funding, no office, and no sales team.
We know that company culture is built over many years but can be destroyed in weeks. We are immune to many negative forces but obviously do not operate in isolation. The threats to our team and just about all others come from outside but they also come from within:
Bad decisions happen — you are not immune to choosing the wrong path or pursuing areas of investment that will ultimately dead end.
Big customers may want to give you lots of money with specific requirements. But indulging them may fundamentally change what you are offering to serve one customer better.
Founders often need to make broad comments and aggressive financial models to raise capital.
You might think your company is the best, but not every person is a great fit and many would be happier working elsewhere.
It is easy to let the little things go as your company expands. You cannot pay attention to everything, but every little break has the risk to crack what you consider essential.
You do not want to become paranoid or overly cautious. And you also want to keep yourself open to new ways and new ideas — all in order to grow fast and evolve. But you want to preserve what is special and do your best to avoid the threats above. So, what do you do?
Write it down
The best place to start is to document what the company values and how it works. These values should be an actionable framework for the team to follow. For us, it is The Responsive Method (TRM). Reflect on yours and write it down.
You have to bake those values into every interaction. This is especially valuable for training new teammates and guiding existing ones — from onboarding to growing leaders.
Your values should not be malleable. For example, if transparency is important to you then you should not hide disappointing news from the team (where if it was exciting information you would share it).
You cannot avoid making mistakes. But you can choose how you react. Vigilance and feedback are important, including self-reflection — because your mistakes have the largest impact on the team.
Refine over time
To grow your culture, you will need to update that value system over time to better serve the vision you are working towards. TRM has grown as Aha! has grown — we started with five principles and have expanded to eight.
One of those threats I wrote about earlier was culture fit. It is true that not everyone will be a fit and that some people will leave the company. Sometimes the decision will be mutual and sometimes not. And people may say harsh things. Do your best to let go.
You will never be exactly who you were. We are not the same company at nearly 100 people that we were at 30.
But we are darn close and I actually think we are better. Our principles are better defined. We know who we are and make decisions every day to reinforce that.
It is your core that matters. Your values. Your aspirations. And how you go about pursuing them. If you are a fortunate founder, you will find yourself stretched and pulled in directions you did not think possible. The key is to know what you value, embed your values into everything you do, and hold yourself and others accountable to being your best.
Read more of The Founder’s Paradox.