Scaling A Startup? Steer Clear Of 4 Common Pitfalls

When a company makes the jump from one round of funding to another, a huge celebration is usually in order. Your pitch has paid off, you've got new partners on board, and the race is on to use your newfound and hard-earned resources to hire up and scale the business.
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When a company makes the jump from one round of funding to another, a huge celebration is usually in order. Your pitch has paid off, you've got new partners on board, and the race is on to use your newfound and hard-earned resources to hire up and scale the business.

As CEO and co-founder of a company that more than doubled in size twice over the span of just a few months, I found the need to hire great people and meet new customer demands both thrilling and all-consuming. As any start-up shifts from fundraising to team building, it can be easy to miss major side effects of growth. Here are four common pitfalls you can avoid with a heavy dose of planning, strategy, and compassion.


1. Don't ignore losses that come with gains

Growth and change shouldn't be surprising to anyone -- growth potential is probably what attracted your employees in the first place -- but the excitement of new funding can mask a loss that people often feel during transitions.

Our scrappy early team of six was used to hustling in a small open office, with shared desk and meeting space both a blessing and a curse. We sat elbow to elbow, every conversation was shared, and every microwaved lunch wafted through the air. When our Series A funding arrived, we were all excited to get more space and share that larger space with new team members. The optimism was real, but so was the loss of that intimate environment. It was no longer possible to overhear every conversation, email traffic suddenly tripled, new management structures formed, and it wasn't feasible for the entire team to spontaneously go out for lunch together. These were all signs of necessary growth, but also markers of loss as relationships shifted.

Change is hard when something new replaces something familiar and valued, and you need to listen to your teams and recognize losses they might be feeling, whether they know it or not. To mediate, we talked about what was changing and what we might be inadvertently losing, we scheduled weekly team lunches to keep people connected, we planned regular field trips to explore new places together, and we tried out a few different feedback loops (open invitations to meet, anonymous feedback tools) to stay more connected. These efforts didn't slow change, but they helped us articulate what was important about our core team so that we could preserve those intangibles.

2. Don't hire solely on skills

Deadlines and performance metrics may seduce you into thinking that you need to hire people who can get the work done quickly. This is a trap. Instead of looking for people with a prescriptive set of skills or job titles, structure hiring so that you are attracting candidates who believe in the company mission and the values and the team.

If your company has a shot at serious growth, it's probably because you are taking on a problem or an industry in a new way. You'll need employees who can find solutions that don't exist yet and work in roles without precursors and precedents. Candidates with classic paths in marketing or sales might be attractive because they know how to operate in familiar environments, but if your business is new and evolving, you'll need so much more from them. You'll need to trust them to cultivate your ideas because they love the work and the mission, and you'll need to rely on them to work together when you're out fundraising. If you hire people who are fascinated by the industry you're in, have a personal connection to the work you're doing, and bring a sense of joy to working with others, you can train and mentor them on specific skill sets.

In our hiring push, we asked candidates to tell us about their non-work interests and projects. As we came across candidates with intriguing backgrounds and experiences, we created trial roles to get them onboard quickly and then we adjusted their responsibilities after a few months. This helped us attract early believers and it was an opportunity for a number of new employees to jump in on immediate needs that then grew into more strategic long-term roles. Now, we have a mix of people who are hugely invested in finding the right ways to contribute as the work evolves and the team grows.

3. Don't hire without an escape hatch

You will make hiring mistakes. Build in time to evaluate and adjust with a 90-day review plan. As you welcome new employees, set the clear expectation that everyone goes through a review at the three-month mark. It's an opportunity for managers and employees to reflect and refine and to openly discuss role requirements and performance. This isn't just a management checkbox, it's a way to be kind to yourself and your employee if things aren't clicking. Working in a start-up environment is amazing and terrifying for so many reasons, and if a new hire isn't feeling excited or fulfilled by the work, this check-in can serve as an escape hatch for both of you.

Ask whether the requirements of the job are clear and whether training has been adequate. Ask whether the position still satisfies the employee's personal and professional goals. Ask whether there is any coaching or support the employee needs and whether there are aspects of the business the employee wants to be more involved in. This dialogue will help you reconnect with your new hire and move forward on the right track for everyone.

4. Don't underestimate the time you'll need to plan

Spend as much time planning for concrete growth needs as you did on your business plan. With every round of funding and hiring comes a new set of questions about work space and team needs. It is so easy to underestimate these needs. Your team will need more space and new collaboration options. Your team members will have new and different job demands that require more or less time on the phone or more or less quiet time. You will suddenly need private meeting space and also space to bring the whole team together regularly. And when you think you have the facilities needs figured out, the move itself will upend team time for hours or days.

My team prides itself on being scrappy, but we needed someone to plan and sequence the reconfiguration, the wiring set-up, the internet service calls, and the equipment orders. Listen to your team as they figure out what they need and support them as they find solutions: Sound-proofing? A dedicated phone room? Lighting? We were committed to managing costs in a lean environment, so we grabbed new rooms as they opened up and gave our teams a small budget to buy things that would help them work more productively. We thought hard about who needed to be where and tried to balance group needs against individual needs. This is an ongoing battle that will take up your time and energy -- plan for it.

Jean is the co-founder and CEO of Sweeten, the renovation matchmaker that connects homeowners with major renovation projects to a curated network of screened design and construction experts.

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