Growing Pains: How To Transition From Startup To Scaleup

By Gibson - Jan 26, 2018 6:30:00 AM

Today we’re sharing insight from guest blogger Tiffany Sauder, President of Element Three. We hope you enjoy Tiffany’s wisdom and perspective.

E3 startup to scaleup - Blog.jpgNow that 2018 is upon us, it’s hard not to reflect on the lessons we learned in 2017.

The truth is, 2017 was good for us. We grew at a faster pace than we had in the last four years—something that’s harder to do as you get bigger. And while becoming the largest agency in Indianapolis wasn’t necessarily our goal, it happened.

But just because a lot of things went our way doesn’t mean we didn’t struggle at times. Here’s what 2017 taught us about transitioning from a startup organization to a scaleup organization, and where we’re headed in 2018. While I’ll draw from our own experiences, if you work at or lead an organization experiencing high growth, I’m confident many of these lessons will feel extremely applicable.

What We Learned in 2017

Growth Is a Known Pain

In 2017, we added 21 new employees to the E3 team. Twenty-one. For a company that now sits at 70 full-time employees (and counting), that’s a big number. But as a high-growth business, we planned on solving the challenges growth carries.

From an organizational standpoint, we dedicated a lot of time to process. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: formalizing processes alone doesn’t work. People won’t adopt them. We thought that just because we created the process documents and outlined a plan, that would prompt people to buy in. Turns out, old habits are hard to break.

Instead, we learned that you impact change by the questions you ask—not the processes you develop.

Send out a mass email with attached process documentation and no one will read it. Ask a person whether they followed the right procedure every time they have to do that procedure and suddenly habits begin to form. That person—because they want to excel at their job—starts to create checklists so they don’t forget anything. Guess what they’re voluntarily making? Processes.

Going forward, all of this doesn’t mean processes won’t be developed. But we’re not culturally going to change as a company until we start asking the right questions, and asking them often.

New Roles Take Time

We often assume that when someone steps into a new role or you hire someone to join your leadership team, they’re immediately going to make an impact. It’s not true. Last year more than ever, we became more patient and aware of how long it actually takes for new leaders to acclimate, excel, and then really start making a huge impact.

For us, it’s about a year. Even if that person has been promoted internally, they don’t completely understand their role and carry that swagger and confidence with them until much later. After seeing this happen again and again, it’s really not the person’s ability—it just simply takes time.

Data Measurement Is a Lot of Work

It’s easy to talk about wanting to measure all your data. It’s another thing entirely to do the hard work to make it a reality for your organization. There are so many posers and lazy people who think you flip one switch and out comes clean data.

Last year, we learned that you can’t just spend money on the systems—you have to dedicate the time to integrate them, do the work to encourage and enforce compliance and company buy-in, and then have the discipline to actually manage and make decisions based on what your new data is telling you. Everyone wants clean data. Not everyone is willing to put in the time and money it takes to get there.

What We Need to Do to Stay on the Winning Trajectory

Fighting Growing Pains

We know growth is a pain. When there are no lulls in the action, people get weary of the pace of growth. We have to figure out how to fight this feeling and keep people from getting tired in times of rapid change.

I don’t have a big solve for this (nor do I think one exists), but I think it’s going to be more like 37 micro-decisions that help alleviate the pain. Giving everyone Fridays off won’t magically fix things. But a combination of winning on the business side and investing in our employer brand and culture will get us heading in the right direction.

From Startup to Scaleup

When we were a 20-person agency, we all had to wear multiple hats—it wasn’t realistic to have someone that just did one thing. But as we go from startup to scaleup mode, we need to have the discipline not to ask people to extend outside of their role. Not because they can’t or aren’t capable. But rather so they can focus on being excellent at what they were hired to do. Having people straddle roles is neither sustainable nor scalable, which means we need to break the habit of asking others to do things that aren’t really part of their job.

Culturally, this helps people feel like they’re accomplishing bigger, better things as well. As high achievers, people start to feel like their chance of high-level success gets marginalized when they’re being asked to do 43 things, which can be demotivating. Giving them clear priorities can offset this.

On the leadership side of things, directors and executives need to be given time to actually do what their title suggests—management. When small discrepancies go undetected, they often turn into major problems. So as we scale, it’s management’s job to observe and fix smaller issues before they become a real threat to the business.

And finally, as we continue to hire new talent it’s critical that we understand the importance of a focused plan and delivering on our commitment and priorities every day. Success in business is never random, and we will fail if people continue to straddle roles and responsibilities. What worked for a small agency cannot continue to occur as we grow in numbers, services, and internal complexities.

What’s the Risk?

Prosperity is a terrible teacher. When everything is working, it can be easy to get caught up in the success, lose your edge, and grow complacent. But that’s not how you become great.

I truly believe companies that are able to stay hungry and focused in an environment where they’re winning more than they’re losing will rise to the top. It’s about bringing it every single day, staying your own biggest critic, and simultaneously celebrating the wins you have as a company and as a brand. The moment you start seeing everything as good is the day you start to plateau. Don’t let that happen.

In 2018, we’re focusing on staying hungry. We hope you do the same.


This content was written and shared by guest blogger Tiffany Sauder. 

TiffanySauder_439x439.jpgTiffany Sauder is the President of Element Three, a full-service marketing agency that works across channels to solve real business problems for market-leading organizations. When the former financial analyst took the helm in 2006, she was 24. Twelve years later, she’s catapulted annual revenues by over 1000%, placing the agency on the Inc. 5000 list consecutively for the past four years. From coaching executives through the brand considerations of an acquisition to helping them use marketing and sales technology to track marketing performance, Sauder understands that success results from an integrated approach to business, brand, and creativity.

Connect with Tiffany on LinkedIn and Twitter


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