Archive for May, 2010

Growing pains

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

We always knew it would happen. The day after we closed our last funding round, I sat with my team, there were 9 of us, and we said “You know things are going to change from now on?” We knew it, that hiring more people and growing quickly was going to be fabulous but also incredibly challenging. Growing in size quickly whilst running and trying to keep the culture that defined and envigorated us all, would no doubt be hard. But we thought it would be fine.

Fast forward 4 months later… and it is fine. We now have a team of 24 full-time plus 3 part-time team members, we are bursting at the seams, and things are going great! But it hasn’t been without its growing pains.

On a personal level, the biggest challenge for me is looking at the way I lead, and evolving certain aspects of it, without losing the drive and instinct I have, and that I think has done my company well so far. Especially bringing in fantastic senior experienced people, who have a different approach to projects and decision-making to you.

The first thing we did, and I’m so glad we did, is bring in an amazing leadership training lady, Julie Harrison, who I *heartily* recommend. Think of it as group psychotherapy for a company. I took the 8 members of the management team away to a country estate and we planned our future and delved into the kinds of people we are and the ways we communicate to each other. Its been a very humbling and self-assessing time, for me and I think the whole team, as we look into ourselves and define how we want to grow as colleagues.

Here are some of the things I have learnt, and to be honest, am still learning:

1. People don’t read my mind. Really, this has come as a complete surprise to me. Until now I worked with a small team of people who knew me so well that I didn’t have to explain things, or even make explicit efforts to ‘communicate’. I shared things, and the team understood me, and me them. But this isn’t very scalable, and almost tripling in size with people that haven’t known you as long, means you do have to explicitly do things like: share your vision, explain your decisions, talk through why you want something to be done differently. The language I use as well has to change – again, I can’t expect new people to know that when I’m brusque and decisive, that I don’t mean to undermine or be rude, and I have to be mindful of the words and the way I say things.

2. My job is changing. I now have enough people in the company that I really can delegate, and actually, I really should. Its hard as I’ve been a very hands-on CEO for 3 years, and now its not only not scalable, but it doesn’t convey the confidence I have in my team if I get too involved in the details. This is really hard for me, I’m a product CEO, so I am used to being involved in every aspect of the business, and I still want to be sure that the output of what we do as a company is to the level that I think will help us achieve our business goals. What I am striving to do is give clear description of my goals and vision, empower my amazing team to deliver, and if I think there needs to be further enhancements, to communicate my reasoning for why I think there needs to be enhancements, rather than just do the enhancements myself.

3. Find the balance between my instinctive gut decisions, and a more cerebral analytical approach to decisions. This is a tricky one to communicate without sounding like I’m a new-age odd person. But the way I innovate, make decisions, and devise a vision, is not in a linear analytical path. It used to be, but as I’ve grown, and as I’ve been running this company, I have come to accept and revel in this ability of mine to just ‘see’ the right way to go. Its the reason I was able to pivot to Skimlinks from Skimbit, its the reason I have hired certain key people, its the reason behind much of our core strategy. And it has worked – we have a successful company with happy clients and happy employees building innovative technologies and creating a name for ourselves in the industry, we are doing something right. And I think as the leader of a startup in a race to become an established company, you can’t always take your time and analyse every decision thoroughly. Sometimes you get a moment of opportunity and you have to take it, and sometimes speed to market makes the world of difference. I really believe this. But I don’t dispute that there is value in having this balanced with another way of thinking that is more analytical and measured. What I would like to do is still be able to act swiftly and decisively, but working closely with my management team who bring so many different facets and perspectives and insight into the mix.

Many startups stumble at this phase – growing so quickly can lead to huge amounts of time being spent for the first time on processes, meetings, preparation, communication, talking things through, and while I know a degree of all these things is essential for the functioning of a big team, I will not let my company become swamped in inefficient tasks, and hope that we can quickly become the kind of symbiotic telepathic team it was easy to be when we were smaller. I like the analogy of a rowing team – that to win there needs to be a mind-sharing unity to what we do, everyone has to be bought into the vision and direction of the team, and this comes about as a result of a hell of a lot of training, hard work, and passion. Well, this is something we certainly do!

The secret to getting over growing pains, well, I’ll tell you once we are through them, but my guess is that the secret will turn out to be a genuine willingness on the part of all parties to grow and evolve together, and to be honest and open throughout the process. Sounds cheesy, but its perhaps like a new relationship, as you get used to the other person’s quirks, you over time develop a language and habits that make you closer, make you a partnership. I like the idea of that.