From startup to scale-up and beyond– how to shake off those growth pains

From startup to scale-up and beyond– how to shake off those growth pains

Rema Chandran

Rema Chandran
19th March 2019

We already know that startups in London are growing at an incredible rate. More interesting perhaps though, is how quickly a startup decides to scale these days, with many doubling their workforce within the space of a few months.

But in the excitement of bigger teams in shinier, larger work spaces – as with every human being who goes through growth – startups also experience growth pains. And, like humans, they too need to be treated with a little bit of tender loving care when approaching these crucial stages.

Evolutionary psychology professor Robin Dunbar of Oxford University theorised that humans can only really maintain personalised relationships with 150 people. At a startup, it’s believed that once the payroll exceeds 150, workers no longer remain as that one, close entity – all bound together within one culture, established in the early days. New specialisms have been brought in, mini teams have been created, new floors have emerged, new locations announced.

So, has your startup officially hit the Dunbar stage? And if so, what do you do about it? Well, whether you’re at 50 or reaching the magic number of 150, we have some practical tips to help you to start thinking about how to ensure you avoid the growth pains by instilling these small but vital steps that make up a strong and united band of employees.

EQ + IQ = wholesome team members

Hard skills alone are not enough to succeed. It’s a misconception to say that we should keep emotions out of the workplace. Our emotions impact all of our problem-solving decisions. And the emotional brain is just as highly active at work as it is anywhere else. Instead of sticking a plaster over them, it’s important you give your employees the space to understand and manage their emotions – whether positive or negative.

And this must always start from the top. Culture, in any organisation, is a top down message where the CEO’s level of emotional healing and awareness trickles down. The level of organisation or disorganisation in a business is a direct reflection of the leader’s level of emotional healing.

Alongside running sessions on data analysis and other hard skills, introduce emotional intelligence sessions that focus on building intrapersonal skills (self-awareness, self-regulation) and interpersonal skills (social skills, empathy).

Instil mindfulness classes for stress reduction

Mindfulness teaches the art of being more present, being a better listener and being more kind to each other. Engage your People Team to kickstart Mindfulness sessions into the weekly routines of every team member in the organisation. Not only can mindfulness help with reducing general stress and teaching collaboration skills, it also helps with a lot of the items identified in the previous step – such as teaching self-care, self-awareness, self-regulation and respect amongst teams.

Teamwork trumps silos

Talking of teams… the irony of some startups is that, as they grow and bring in more specialisms and create teams within teams, they start to adopt a silo mentality, often operating as mini entrepreneurial startups. The one team effect of everyone working towards the same goal starts to feel endangered when individuals and sub-teams start to create their own goals – sometimes conflicting with the overall one.

Team building and cultural exercises and events are vital. The ethos that was put in place by the founders needs to be preserved and taught to everyone who joins the organisation – and refreshed along their journey. Ultimately everyone needs to know what they’re working towards – what’s the bigger picture?

Communication, communication, communication

Your team knowing the big picture is a matter of ensuring your communication is top notch as you mature. It’s more imperative than ever that as the leader of your organisation, you’re communicating on a regular basis about where you’re heading, what you’re doing and what you’re not doing.

Communication is where a lot of managers seem to fall down, according to a study by Comparably, with 50% of respondents indicating that communication was the one thing they wanted to change about their boss, more than other weaknesses.

If you’re the CEO/founder of your startup and you’re finding yourself no longer being able to have a full team meeting without having to increase the volume of your voice by a significant amount, then know that you’re at a stage where you need to identify different ways of communicating with your team. Ensure that your direct reports are having regular 1-2-1s with their individual team members, as well as regular written updates. And most of all, make sure your communication is transparent, regular and consistent.

Startups have one very crucial advantage over other companies and that is that change is part of their DNA. Building iterative products to serve customers is core to how the startups work. Use this mindset when making the iterative changes to business products and internal tools that’ll help to support a better cultural environment as you grow and develop. Because these will be products that serve customers too – these customers just happen to be the employees of your organisation.