How to avoid scaling up killing your company culture

How to avoid scaling up killing your company culture

The moment your very success is the very thing that threatens to kill your business comes as quite a surprise. For me the moment, in my last business, hit me like a slap in the face with a wet fish. Not something you forget! 

I co-founded a renewable technology installation/EPC company back in 2007, pre-FIT and when most people laughed at you when you mentioned solar panels. The first two years were a struggle of course, but the team was small, we all grafted hard, we all knew everything that was going on in the business, and we all knew every customer. We lived and breathed the business and saw more of each other than our wives and families. If you’ve founded or worked in a start-up that will no doubt be familiar. This went on a couple of years, and then, boom! The UK solar industry took off, and we were one of a very small number of companies established and accredited. 

For us the growth catalyst was the introduction of ‘Feed in Tariff’s for solar and small wind. Whatever the catalyst for you, whether policy, technology or business model innovation, when you go from sweating every penny or cent in to and out of your business, to fast growth, it’s quite a journey.

All that shines isn’t always Gold!

We went from five employees to fifty in a very short space of time, and from a few hundred grand turnover to over £6million. We had to scale everything, from sales, to finance, from operations and project management to project delivery. You don’t have time to think, everyone is working so hard in the business you don’t have time to work on the business, you try to, you set time aside to, but boy is it hard. Customers are knocking at your door with money to spend. You’ve to juggle the money to fund the growth. After 2 years of hand to mouth living, personally and as a company, you think you’ve reached the promised land, and the future is golden.

Houston we have a problem! 

That wet fish moment is embedded into my memory. We’d just moved office, for the third time in 18 months, I was walking into the kitchen for a coffee, and there were four individuals in the kitchen, and I had no idea who they were or what they did. You might say no big deal, they didn’t report directly, or indirectly to me. As a company owner I should know their names and be able to great them personally, but so much was going on, no big deal right? Wrong. That was the moment I knew the very culture, values and ethos of the business I had co-created, the ones that had made us so successful, the ones that made us stand out from the ever-increasing competition were hugely under threat. What made us great had been lost in a sea of frantic effort, we’d been so busy delivering projects, winning awards and feeling good about ourselves, we lost site of what was important. Hubris and busyness had hijacked our culture. We worked hard to fix it, and to an extent we did. But this is what I learned…..

Your people, your values and your culture are your crown jewels

Now, I’d spent over 15 years in international headhunting before setting up that business, so I thought I knew about people. Indeed, I understood people very well, what motivated them to move company, what motivated them to stay, how to reward them, how to manage them, how to communicate with all personality types. All very useful, in fact invaluable. But I’d been working for international and corporate clients. Companies with big HR teams, induction programmes, management structures, organigrams and job descriptions. None of that is bad of course, all very good, oh to have ‘Chief People Officer’ and team! But it certainly wasn’t start-up.

When you go into scale-up from start-up the game changes, and you have to change, but one thing is constant, your people are everything. Who you recruit is only one vital ingredient of success, but how you recruit them, how you on-board them, and how you manage them is critical to the success of your business.

What the best start-ups I work with do to maintain culture

Challenging as it is, putting people AND culture first is critical to success. It can be a distraction, it can be frustrating when you’re juggling dozens of balls, it’s easy to pass the buck to another person in the founding team, or as is often the case, an office or admin manager. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve worked with great people in those roles, but it is unfair and a huge mistake to leave mission critical issues to them. If you are a founder or early stage employee you are ALL responsible for getting recruitment right.

It’s tempting of course, when you are tired, stressed and stretched to just get a ‘bum on a seat’. Can they walk, talk and do X activity, get them in, one less problem, right? No, a whole world of pain is waiting for those with that mentality. Whether you’ve just recruited the wrong person for your culture, a poor performer or a great candidate that you have on-boarded badly doesn’t much matter, if they leave, or you need to fire them half way into a project or process they are involved in. The buck you passed just came back with interest.

Top Tips

Each of course is worthy of it’s own post, but here is what the best companies do, from my experience.

So yes you are busy, and yes you have a million things to do, all of them important, and yes, it would be great if someone takes the pain away (we can take the recruitment process pain away), but it is your responsibility and your time. To me it makes much more sense to take a little more time and effort to do things right, than to cut corners and do it twice, or three times, or more.

Poor company culture kills companies. Poorly motivated staff kill companies. Poorly equipped or skilled staff can kill companies. High staff attrition can kill companies.

When you are scaling up, I would argue, your hiring of people is the most important thing, more important than even fundraising, because you’re going to burn and waste an awful lot of that money if your people aren’t the right people, doing the right things, at the right time, in the right way, and being treated right. 

If you want to talk recruitment, talent acquisition and retention or scaling cleantech businesses, I’m very happy to do so.