Building a high-growth scale up - What we learned from Upscale 4.0
Having recently graduated from this programme I wanted to share some of my key learnings from it.
The reassurance of 30 businesses all in a similar stage of scale up
It might sound a bit cliché, but to know that there are a number of other founders all going through very similar challenges is really incredibly reassuring. I don’t think its lonely being a founder, its often so busy there’s little time to feel lonely, but in those moments of absolute stress or decision making, it can feel like there aren’t (m)any places to turn.
We didn’t know each other back in January, and we don’t really know each other 6 months later, but we have shared a lot in an open and honest way, that means there’s some things we do know from the past 6 months that its likely very few others know. A few focused sessions of genuine vulnerability, honesty and discussion is as useful for the mind as it is for the lessons learned that we can take back to our respective businesses.
Focus: the golf swing analogy!
I adopted the golf swing metaphor at some time over the past few months as an emergent (and still emerging) thought came more and more in to focus. If you play golf, or have tried to play golf, you can probably empathise with this analogy. When you are first learning to play golf, it is incredibly frustrating. You want to hit the ball as hard and far as possible and swing at it with all you can muster. You can probably recall the early lessons and people telling you to slow down your swing, yet no matter how much you think you are slowing it down, when you watch it back on video afterwards, you realise you are still swinging really fast at the ball. Watch a pro and you realise that their swing is much more controlled, natural and they have absolute focus on one thing and one thing only, the ball.
Most start-ups that grow quickly and move to scale, get to that point by a lot of hard work, blood, sweat and tears. We are doing well, and our businesses are growing, rapidly. But I think we can all benefit from the following:
- Step back from time to time and observe the business – like watching your golf swing on a video, taking this step back can be hugely valuable and allow you to see the areas for improvement across different parts of the business.
- We may think that we are more structured and more controlled than when we were little start-ups, but we are still swinging the club too fast and need to slow down our swing even more, find that control and absolute focus. Often, these scale up businesses have got to the stage they have through the sheer determination of the core team involved, but that doesn’t scale, and people can’t be expected to work at that pace, with that passion, forever.
- Focus is key. Golf is beautifully simple. Get the ball from a-b in as few shots as possible. Our businesses are rarely that simple and we have built in complexity through agile methods, market testing, lack of process, natural tendency of the personality types of most founders, etc. A lot of it is held together by legacy knowledge and adaptable people. As you scale, focus is critical and we are starting to ask questions to try and simplify things as much as possible internally and externally.
People – focus on talent, new ways of recruiting, how to assess candidates, and, how to keep them
How to find, hire, onboard, train, develop and retain talent is a challenge for all businesses. As a start-up you tend to hire on a mix of interview and instinct. We have always had a process of hiring for ability and investing in our teams to grow them from within. However, as you emerge from early stage, where you can really draw on the start-up story and ethos, hiring for the next stage of growth is a different challenge. You need different people, they need different things, the business also needs new structures to support it in this phase of growth. This stage can hit you quite quickly, you raise a Series A and are ready to surge forward, but without the right things in place that can be really tough.
- A few things we did following our Series A to try and manage for the scale challenge around team and people (most of which I can directly attribute to things discussed on the programme):
- Invest in training and development for your managers
- Invest in a good applicant tracking system (ATS)
- Think hard about employer brand (we loved these employer brand videos by Wonderbly & Tableau)
- Where possible hire without recruiters
- Standardise how you are assessing people through the interview process: one of the companies on the programme shared their standard approach for assessing people on a democratised way across the whole business, which we have adopted at Wazoku. A simple 1-3 blind scoring on three attributes of Intelligence (are they smart enough for the role you need them to do), Attitude (do they seem to have the right attitude for the role, your company and culture) and Skill (do they have the relevant and right level of experience and skill to do the job you are recruiting for), anyone scoring a 1 by anyone in the team, on any of these criteria, and they will not be considered for the role (thanks to one of the Upscale companies for this one!).
- Onboarding of new talent takes time, is often overlooked (or done very superficially) and is probably the most important piece of the puzzle.
At a certain stage of your business, probably around 30+ people, you need to really invest in more robust processes and policies for developing talent within the business. As you move from a ‘all hands on deck’ approach to the business, typical in the early days, to more a more functional (in all senses of the word) business model, getting in place frameworks for competency and behaviour management, and personal development, as well as setting clear goals and objectives, all become critical enablers of that next stage of growth and success. These people and the future hires are the ones who will build the future business, and what got you here, won’t get you there!
Look after yourself, look after your teams
We did a really great session on Founder Health and most of that will forever remain confidential, but the concept is worth raising. It takes a lot out of you being a founder and founding team. Mental health is a real issue across businesses and needs to be taken seriously by founders, for their teams but also for themselves. This was one of the most valuable sessions we ran.
In terms of taking this seriously. I need to do more to carve out time and space for myself. Balancing the stress of scale up and family life doesn’t leave a lot of time for anything else, but I need to get better at that.
I am taking this seriously however and we have recently introduced a service at Wazoku as part of a private beta with a company called InsideOut. Mental health is the leading cause of absenteeism and presenteeism, costing UK companies £40bn per annum, and at Wazoku we have decided to put this front and centre as an issue we take seriously and have invested in for our employees.
The UK is building a really great ecosystem and creating the foundations for long-term scale-up success
This point doesn’t need any more input. I’m proud to have been sat alongside a really impressive group of scale up businesses. I am proud to be an alumni of Upscale, alongside some of the biggest and best high growth businesses in the UK and I hope I can continue to learn, share, help and be helped, by the amazing network of incredible businesses and the teams within them, that we met over the past 6 months.
Now back to the day job of growing Wazoku and helping to ‘Change the world, one idea at a time!’