From Startup to Grownup: 5 Challenges Agencies Face as They Mature

I've often equated growing a business to raising a kid (much to my staff's chagrin). At first, she needs your utmost attention -- feed her, nurture her, coddle her. Pookie can't survive without you. Your influence will help shape what she will become.

At every stage of development, the relationship you have with your child changes, your role changes and his/her needs change, too. I'm happy to say that I've got two relatively happy (hey, they're teenagers), healthy, productive kids. I also have a relatively happy healthy, productive company (it's also a teenager). Having given birth to CBX with my co-parents, uh, co-founders just over ten years ago, I feel qualified to share some of our parenting experiences.

All companies face significant challenges as they go from startup to grown-up. Most of them are not unique, but they are unique to you -- especially when you are a first-time parent (I still have nightmares about the period right after my daughter was born). Success is not without its pitfalls and roadblocks, but the companies that succeed are the ones that have the wherewithal to be open-minded, introspective, and have the resolve to push through the hard times and, importantly, learn from these experiences.

Five things to consider in raising a company:

Stay True to Your Culture.

Your child has innate traits and will also be influenced by her environment. I can't tell you how many times our clients have said to me, "You know why we keep coming back to you guys? Yes, it's the work -- but it's also the people."

And those people were all asked to join our team because they fit into a particular culture we try to cultivate here -- one built on the philosophy of "dirty hands, creative minds, straight talk, and good manners." (I'm quoting our web site, where we call out "Culture" as its own category).

Sure, it's important that they fit the job description, but it's almost more important that we understand how they conduct themselves as human beings. We are definitely not looking to create the Stepford Company at CBX -- we are the proverbial melting pot of approaches and experiences. But we've definitely made the mistake in the past of hiring disruptors -- people who wowed us with their resumes and accomplishments, but not, once they actually worked here, with their personalities.

Plan to Grow, and Shrink, and Grown Again.

Every kid goes through growing pains. Some even discover beer. From physical space to managing people, it's always crucial to plan for growth, whether that means having enough space for the staff (real estate commitment is a Top 5 "watch out" for businesses) to providing training for staff (at some point osmosis doesn't quite cut it).

Infrastructure changes by the numbers: five is different than 15, than 25, than 50 than 100, and so on. Putting the right structure in place for your business and modifying the rules of engagement in digestible doses makes all the difference. Businesses that evolve with purpose tend to adapt to a future state more comfortably and sustainably than those that wretch forward and use a lot of duct tape to keep things together.

And while you're planning for the good, don't forget to plan for the bad. Clients and customers are fickle and the market changes. Yes, you could have a bad year. Think about what you'll do now, should that happen -- hopefully, you won't go down that road. But if and when you do, it won't be a shock and you'll better prepared to deal with it and move forward.

Strike a Balance Between Fluid and Structured.

Kids ride their scooters at breakneck speeds and snowboard down mountains with abandon. They're not scared to take risks, even if it means getting lots of bruises in the process. Of course, good parents make sure the kid has a helmet on and some pads.

With growth comes complexity. Fifteen people? You're in each other's business, so rules need not apply. Twenty-five or more? Process and protocols are in your future, but how do you maintain the entrepreneurial spirit while establishing the structure that allows things to run smoothly?

Here's a clue: the truth is usually in the middle. I'm usually interested in the results over the process, and to empower your staff, they need to be able to create their own navigation. That said, we try a codified approach with the caveat that it's a guideline more than a rule, and we want people to be able to get where they're going through their own style (as long as the expected results are there).

Be Able to Let Go and Trust Your People

Yeah, I cried watching Finding Nemo, too. The whole idea of a parent trusting their child really got me choked up. It sort of reminds me of that classic corporate retreat game where you close your eyes, fall backwards and hope that your co-workers will catch you. I basically play that game every day because I have to trust the people we've hired to be responsible for the business I helped found. It's one of the reasons why we lean so much on culture -- mutual respect over a period of time leads to trust, and with trust you can do great things.

President Reagan had a phrase that we put to use at our agency as well: "Trust, but verify."

While we preach individual empowerment and responsibility, we also build in a system of checks and balances to protect each other.

Keep Things Sexy (So to Speak).

Enough with the kids already. Any marriage therapist will advise her patients to "keep things sexy," and the same holds true for a business. The early days of a start-up, like a relationship, are energized, vibrant and unpredictable. It's all passion, all the time. Everybody's in it together.

But as time goes by, things become a little more -- let's face it -- ho-hum and expected. The excitement is gone, replaced by the day-to-day reality... or as some call it, the "rude awakening." The real challenge is to shake things up every once in a while, keep things sexy, and your employees on their toes. Present a challenge to the staff. Throw a party. Change the seating arrangements (we're actually doing this right now). Whatever it takes to get people engaged and excited to come to work each day.

So now that CBX is ten years old, do I consider it a fully functioning "grownup," as the title of this piece would imply? Well, no, not exactly. I suppose I would say we are entering into those awkward tween years, where we know in our heart what we do best, but are still pushing the boundaries to be as good as we can be. Personally, I'm excited for the uncertainty that lies ahead, and plan to use the top five lessons above to guide me through the next ten years.