Seven questions for startup founders
Good ideas are the easy part of entrepreneurship. Nearly anyone can come up with a business idea, but it takes a lot more than wishful thinking to turn an idea into a company. It takes even more to turn an idea into a company that can grow and thrive, even after the original team moves on.
To do that requires founders who look at their hard-earned creation, their venture built on long hours and deep risks, and say, “This is not mine.” That’s anathema to most entrepreneurs, but it’s a necessary step to creating an entity that is bigger than one or two people’s ability to develop it into a long-lasting business.
Once you start to view your startup as something that is not yours alone, you can begin putting in place the elements required for long-term scalability. Below are seven questions to ask yourself to determine whether you’re building a company that can scale beyond your ability to manage every detail:
1. Have we documented the basics, down to the tiniest detail, including the software and product design, and all trademark and patent applications?
When you’re in rapid ramp-up mode, meticulous documentation might be the last thing on your mind, but it should be one of the first.
If someone else eventually steps into the leadership role, that person will need to know all of these details that went into the foundation of the company and its product. If that information only exists in the brains of the founding team, you’ve limited the company’s future.
2. Are we using technology to create an atmosphere of transparency and clarity around critical decisions related to product design, business development, marketing strategy and more?
You can’t ensure a successful future without a solid understanding of the past. That’s a hard truth for businesses that store their institutional memories in the brains of their founders.
Technological tools can hold all of those details better than individual memories, and they’re easier to hand over to new executives who might come on board later.
3. Are we recording customer interactions in a way that will deliver insight to future iterations of the team? If the sales department turned over, would its new leaders be able to maintain key relationships?
The happiest customers often feel that they have a personal connection to someone inside the company. That’s a good thing, but you need a process in place to protect that connection if the employee leaves.
Beyond those single one-on-one relationships, protecting customer loyalty requires solid relationship management systems and processes.
4. Have we created systems that stakeholders (investors, large customers, strategic partners) could tap into for insights into the business?
How do you share information with these groups? Is there a communication mechanism to ensure that they stay up to date on your new initiatives, products and milestones?
Newsletters, quarterly or annual reports, or in-person events can be instrumental in keeping stakeholders engaged.
5. Is our culture one in which all employees are empowered to take decisive action, or one in which only the founders can drive advancement?
At the end of your next 15-hour day, ask yourself whether you could have delegated any of the tasks that kept you running from sunup to beyond sun down. Be honest with yourself. If you can’t assign out any of your responsibilities, your company won’t be able to grow.
6. Are we building on employee strengths as we grow our team? Are new hires complementary extensions of the existing staff?
For startups, every hire counts, not only in terms of bringing on the best talent, but also when it comes to filling in gaps in skillsets. A cohesive team is key to growth.
7. Have we created a network of partners, technology providers, installers and others who can become part of our growth framework?
What happens inside the walls of your organization is important, but third-party players matter, too. When you’re bringing on partners, ask yourself whether they’ll be strategic assets for you in the present and the future.
Even as you’re building a business with the idea that it is not yours, or not completely yours forever, you need to stay vigilant. Building for scale is not about letting go of the reigns prematurely.
In the early years of a company, founders should monitor every product decision and every customer support issue. A well-defined reporting structure is a safety net for a young startup – one that can ensure smooth operations, loyal customers and scalability in both the short and long term.