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The 5 Keys To Scale and Grow Successfully
Guest Author: Alison Grippo
I’ve spent the last 20 years in the agency space — both traditional and digital — learning everything about helping companies grow and scale.
I’ve participated in the successes (and failures) of some of the biggest agencies in the world. As a result, I now consult with agencies looking to transition from small to bigger than small. It’s this wealth of experience that has shown me there are pretty much five very critical (yet less examined) lessons to kick off a solid growth strategy.
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Here’s the common scenario…
Your agency/studio/firm started small with a few key partners who joined together to build something great. After a few years, you hit a milestone (::throws confetti::) and now find yourself employing between 25–80 people profitably, and you’re starting to suspect/hope/freak out that you have the potential to explode. You and your partners decided you want to invest your energy over the next phase towards growing your agency: expanded revenue, more hires, more offices, more offerings. Seem familiar? Right.
The next question is where to start.
1. Choose a leader.
You might be thinking “no shit, Sherlock”, but this is likely the hardest question any small business has to answer when they commit to growth. If you’re part of a partnership, you must identify who in the partnership is going to be the CEO, the Managing Partner, or whatever you want to call the person in charge. If you started this company alone take stock and ask yourself if you want to be the CEO in this capacity. I see many groups founded by multiple partners start the growth process without identifying a leader. That’s not a good note to step forward on.
In most agencies, when I’ve seen this happen, one person typically rises to be a leader at the expense (and feelings) of the other partners. Eventually, the partnership sours and starts to corrode, because everyone is trying to lead. If your partners aren’t aligned with one designated leader, growth will come to a grinding halt as everyone argues over who is really in charge. At some point in this scenario, partnerships will break because of a lack of clarity, and that has a serious downstream impact on the company and its growth plan.
Here’s a hard, cold fact: Not everyone is meant to be a CEO.
That’s okay. Not everyone is meant to be NASCAR driver either. We have an easier time accepting we won’t win the INDY 500 because we can look at ourselves and say “I’ve never raced a car”. If you have never been a CEO it’s perfectly fine to ask yourself if you were meant to be a CEO to begin with. If you have been a CEO, then ask yourself now: “Was I a good CEO?”
One of the greatest barriers to growth is leadership.
The best creative and strategy in the world will not grow an agency with poor leadership. You and your partners owe it to your collective vision to choose who will lead the march.
Put your ego aside right now. Being CEO doesn’t mean you “won”; and doesn’t mean that any other role is less critical. CEO means you are comfortable being the one who will make sure the business follows the growth strategy and is ultimately accountable to that strategy. The CEO will be unwavering in their mission to grow. You may need to hire a CEO, or hire new leadership positions to support your weak spots; you won’t know until you take a good look at yourself, and if applicable, your partners.
Be very honest with yourself and your partners. Talk about what is required to get the company to the next stage and work with your partners to decide who’s going to drive the ship. You need a captain. You can strive to be a flat org with Holacracy as your guiding principle when you have hit scale. For now, you need one clear and effective leader. Since you are the current leadership, you owe it to your employees and your agency to self-assess honestly. Great leadership creates great attitudes and ultimately great growth.
2. Too many balloons? Cut some loose.
Second, to determine leadership, the next hard task is evaluating the team. There is a reason you’ve decided this is the time for growth; now you’ll need to look very hard at the people on your team who can support the growth you’re moving toward. Change is hard, and for those who have been personally involved in the company hustle since the beginning, change can be devastating. During this period of evaluation, you need to know who on your team will be able to change the status quo and who on your team needs the status quo to exist in their role.
Prepare to let people go. Even if they’ve been with you since Day One.
It’s an ugly fact that you have to address immediately; some people are at their best when they can be a jack of all trades, master of none. Growth means you need masters. Not that you should be firing the ten people who started the company with you. No. Don’t do that, but you do need to evaluate which of those people are going to grow with you — or hold the company back.
Again, it’s horrible to have to look at your team and say “we’re no longer a fit”. It’s painful and uncomfortable even, but it’s an absolute requirement. Most companies know who the people are that “have been there since the beginning and are really great to work with, but…” As you’re planning this next move remember, it’s neither fair to the company, nor fair to the employee you’re trying to protect, to try to fit a circle into a square. Be fair and kind to the people who helped get things to where they are now; but don’t set the standard that kindness and fairness mean unconditional employment.
Identify the people you know will need help and offer it. Give a generous severance if you can. Offer three months to look for a new role with your help. Repay that person for their contribution by helping them get to the next level of their career in an environment they can thrive. If this wonderful person will likely not see their potential in your new company vision and you don’t address it, resentment will breed and toxicity in your culture will grow. Newer hires will feel like older team members are protected, older team members will feel like they have to start taking direction from “new people” who don’t know how “the company really works.” Toxicity and resentment breed much faster than the passing happiness of a new business win.
3. Define your culture before you start worrying about it. .
On far too many occasions, I see leadership cling to a “company culture” concept that represents the company when it started. When you are smaller your culture will have more camaraderie, more foxhole experiences, and it’s likely your teams always feel they are a “part of something bigger.”
Nothing wrong with that. But now that you want to grow, here’s a challenge: Define the culture you want to grow into rather than the culture you’re currently in. Your company can still foster camaraderie and collaboration regardless of size, you simply need define what that means for your new larger environment.
You will not avoid growing pains. You will go through a period of transition that will generate both excitement and fear in your company and employees. Be honest with yourself, your partners and your employees about this because you can absolutely expect and should prepare for a growth lead culture change. The key to managing change is making sure everyone is working towards the same goal.
If you believe yours is a culture of openness and transparency, pay attention to how you’ll translate that when you’re 300, 500, or 1000 people.
What is openness and transparency now vs what will it be in five years? When you can’t easily hold weekly town halls to get feedback and share information? Or when you can’t have weekly outings anymore because you’re five hundred people deep? Are your current managers and directors prepared to take on being a voice for the company? Now with your focus on leadership and growth you might no longer have the time you used to manage and watch the culture. When growing, the concept of open and transparent means different things to different people; just like all your other cultural values — identify those values and figure out how you’re going to manifest them in your new larger company before you get too large.
Write them down. Memorialize what the cultural end goal is for your company to consider this growth phase successful. Check in regularly with your company and your leadership team to make sure those values are being upheld; and that they are still in line with where things are headed. Most critically, take stock of how the culture changes as the business expands, and prepare to say stop when you’ve gotten big enough. Culture will suffer when it can no longer be attended and cultivated, the bigger you get the more challenging tending the culture becomes. Give definition and direction so you can trust, as you grow, that everyone is working towards the same cultural values regardless of size.
4. REVENUE IS NOT ALL THAT MATTERS
ALL CAPS BECAUSE THIS IS IMPORTANT. A major mistake I see leadership make is focusing entirely on revenue. Seems logical, if you get the revenue you can grow the business.
Revenue is essential to growth, but it’s not the wonder cure.
When you focus on revenue first you start a culture of chasing revenue to support size; your “growth” will be 100% bound to the business you can win. So? Isn’t that the point of growth, more revenue? Not exactly.
What happens when you run dry for a quarter and the only business you can win goes 100% against your core agency values? Or that piece of business has your company in an uproar because no one wants to work on it? Suddenly you have incredible revenue numbers but the internal team is quitting; you don’t have process to support the requirements needed to manage giant pieces of work, and the team you have is complaining that all the company cares about is money. This is not what you wanted when you decided to grow. How you decide to start your growth plan will ultimately lead to what sort of a company you will grow to become.
Let me be clear, you will need to bring in more revenue — but you cannot lose sight of “why” you chose to grow. Just because Dr. Evil has a $15 million gig that will let you hire 30 more people as long as you’re willing to advertise puppy mills, that doesn’t mean the price tag is worth it. Revenue and growth can be addictive, there is an absolute adrenaline rush to “winning” and “exploding”; but adrenaline fades when the marathon of having to maintain the business sets in. Focus on the marathon.
5. Last but not least — process — define it.
If you’re lucky you started getting your operations and processes in place from the get go. Reality is you’re likely still piecing things together because the focus was the work, not the steps that get it done.
Process scares everyone, including founders. When people hear “process” a vision of Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL often rears its head.
The fear that process will kill all creativity and innovation is false.
Process is not a totalitarian state maker — it’s a set of guidelines that empower anyone in your organization with minimal oversight to do great work without losing their minds, life, or creative energy.
Process enables your business to scale by creating repeatable steps that drive great output. The larger you grow the less you will be able to micro manage how the work gets done. One of the largest mistakes I see are companies who de-prioritize operations and process because “we’re not big enough to need it yet.” Yes, yes you are; and yes, yes you will be.
Growth comes when you enable your company to function without friction. Give your team the ability to follow a path so they can function semi-autonomously as the company expands. The faster you give your teams the tools to do great work and empower them to manage the work, the more you can focus on the mission of growing the business.
Process can mean anything from how you pitch, to how you onboard a new hire. Find the right toolsets, the right people, and the right methods to deliver on the growth strategy. Resource management will be something that you will want to pay close attention to; are you prepared for that or are you still using a whiteboard to see when everyone is going on vacation? Have you centralized your pipeline and integrated it with your planning and tracking tools? Get on that because when you win the $15 million account you best be prepared to staff it. Do your project and product managers know how to handle change management and SOW creation so the company can deliver it’s best work without senior leadership intervention? Heck, does everyone know where their files go when they are done?
It’s the little things that drag your growth speed. Address them now. Process and revenue go hand in hand: bottom line, you can win $100 million in work but if you can’t deliver what you promised to your clients that revenue will not last and neither will the business. Like culture, take a hard look at process needs now and grow into what you want to be. Do not skimp here, do not think it’s going to be fine to get away without HR or Project Management until “we get big enough”.
Waiting till it’s too late will only make it harder to implement. It’s easier to change directions in a small speedboat than it is on the Titanic.
Addressing these issues now will save you a good deal of pain in the future. While you’re growing you will have enough on your plate to focus on. Clear up these five areas first to pave the way for a successful growth explosion.
Hello! I am Alison Grippo , a 20-year agency veteran who has helped with process and operations for scaling and growing agencies. I have worked with HUGE, Razorfish, Conde Nast, HAVAS and many others. Most recently I co-founded Glass Factory (www.glassfactory.io) — the core operational platform to support growth and scale for service businesses. If you’re looking to grow or simply improve your current offering and process I would love to chat: firstname.lastname@example.org. A special thanks to Kendra Jones the bad ass writer and creative talent maven who gave her wisdom to this piece.
Culture of Engineering is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.