From Start-up to Scale-up

#operating model Jun 28, 2022

One of the joys of being a leadership coach is that you can work with companies at all stages of their evolution.  Lately I’ve been working with several leaders who are moving from start up to scale up.  I’ve seen entrepreneurs shiver at the word “corporate”.  For them it means all of the things that drove them to be entrepreneurs in the first place. Long decision-making cycles, the terror of committees, of slowness, of ancient processes, of employees with little to do but wait for the pension.  What they want is agility, the ability to transform, to take risks, to try things to see what works.  In the very early days of a company this is exactly what is needed, you can work that way, adapt very fast, trial things, fail and move on.  It’s exciting, it drives creativity, it can excite angel investors. That feeling that “we’re just making it up as we go along” is very seductive.  In the early days of the internet, we would send out engineers to do installations where everything was so last minute that they were reading the installation instructions in the taxi on the way to the customer.

What we discovered, very painfully, is that the customers were less excited than we were about this brave new world.  They did not want to be eternal beta triallists, they wanted equipment that worked straight away and continued to work, and something that did all of the things that we had enthusiastically promised.  Chaos unfortunately does not scale.  What is needed is process, decisions that are thought through, people who manage projects not incidents.  So for all start-ups there comes a moment when they have to make the move away from the behaviours that got them to the point of establishing a great company to the point where that company must start to scale.  But this means that there has to be a shift in culture, and this is a point where so many companies falter.  The shift needs to be positive and positively managed. It must keep the excitement, the agility and the risk taking that got you to this point but framed within a different operating model.  An operating model that moves away from chaos, that delivers structure and processes that allow for thoughtful decision making.  This is a step along a road.  All developments of operating models should take you down a path where you continuously adapt to the changing circumstances of growth.  This is a company lifetime journey and like all lifetimes has many stages, each one requiring a different approach.