Can You Scale Your Company Without Losing Your Identity?

This is Part 17/18 in the series “How to Build an Innovative New Product or Company” on the topic of how to scale up a product and company that is working for its early customers

Scaling has many challenges, but they are ones you might call “champagne challenges”. Not dissimilar from diamond earrings scratching your new iPhone, scale challenges are the function of some success.

Humans do a particularly terrible job scaling things that work in small quantities. We took strawberries, tomatoes, and wheat, for example, and created harsher versions of them because we prioritized the ability of crops to withstand transport to the grocery store and create a profit above all else.

So how do you take something that works well and grow it so it will work well for many more customers, with much less human intervention, without diluting your product and service?

Scaling is the process of taking what you do today—both what (1) humans and (2) machines do—and simplifying, modularizing, documenting, and replicating so that it can be done for more customers with less effort.

On the machine front, I’ve spent a lot of my career building analytics prototypes that power the first couple of customers. Then we bring on engineers to figure out how to rebuild it for real. Platforms like Airbnb’s open source AirFlow exist to help scale and automate data flow processes.

The people front is harder. How do you figure out the exact steps, business logic, decisions, and judgment that employees make on a daily basis which result in iconic customer care—and grow it when those employees are no longer able to do the role at scale? Done poorly, bureaucracy and red tape creep in, slowing down activities and extinguishing any remaining lifeforce from your company.

The values that incur costs are the ones that will outlast you

I’ll spend an upcoming article on this thought, but the message is simple: if the founding team has values, they represent and stand up for those values, then others who join will become disciples. One test to see the values that the founding team promoted is to look at what the average employee values when you have fifty or hundred people in the company. The values that emerge can just as easily be destructive as constructive if they are not thoughtfully put in place. The values that demonstrate costs are the ones that define you. When a company is willing to part ways with a superstar but culturally offensive sales leader, every employee notices.

A checklist for spotting bureaucracy

An early Amazon employee, John Rossman, wrote a checklist in his book The Amazon Way about the keen eye Amazon users in spotting and avoiding bureaucracy—as it has scaled:

You know that bureaucracy has crept into your business processes when …

  • The rules can’t be explained;
  • They don’t favor the customer;
  • You can’t get redress from a higher authority [or said another way: if the rules set up an unfair or sub-optimal situation and there isn’t a simple process to correct and set it right from an authority with a global perspective];
  • You can’t get an answer to a reasonable question;
  • There is no service level agreement or guaranteed response time built into the process;
  • When the rules simply don’t make sense

. . .

All books and other resources referenced in this article