If you want to grow fast, sometimes the thing to do is slow down. Especially when it comes to hiring.
If you’ve envisioned and launched a start-up that survives past the early days, congratulations. If you’ve brought the company to a place where it actually feels poised for growth, you deserve all the kudos, my friend.
But, at this critical stage, the best way to scale is not a hiring frenzy. Too many team members too quickly have been the death knell of more than one promising enterprise. If you crowd out your precious margin with ultimately unnecessary human resources, that celebratory mood will fade quickly.
So, if your business is ready to scale, how should that happen, if not through hiring?
Truthfully, there are several approaches to smart scaling that don’t involve adding team members. And it’s imperative to consider these strategies before hiring.
How to scale: a quick overview
How does a company scale? Hiring might be the most obvious answer, but there are definitely other options. To put it very simply, the most common roads to growth are through people (yes, hiring), solutions, and tools.
People: hiring full or part-time team members; hiring freelancers on a per-project basis; recruiting interns
Solutions: adding products or services that drive higher sales
Tools: purchasing equipment to improve productivity; harnessing technology to better organize processes like workflows
Those are the most common routes to scaling, in broad strokes. Within these general areas, there are a few approaches that, in my opinion, are under-utilized.
Especially by businesses that are high on their first experiences of success. We’ll explore those in a moment.
Overall, the mindset of scaling should be one of careful observation and measured action. Sometimes to speed up, you really have to first slow down.
I like the way Bob Sutton, Stanford School of Engineering organizational behavior expert, puts it: “The hallmark of successful scaling is knowing when to hit the brakes so you can scale faster later. And if anyone ever tells you they have solved all your scaling problems, they are lying to you, and you need to send them out the door immediately.”
Strategies for scaling before hiring
Before you go on a hiring frenzy, what are the steps you can take to scale smart? How can you ensure that you’ve done everything you can to grow before burdening your profit margin and making payroll a bigger stressor?
Here are some creative, effective, and intelligent options that reflect Sutton’s approach of “hitting the breaks to scale faster later.”
Pull back temporarily on marketing and sales to figure out trouble spots
I know this might seem counter-intuitive, but sometimes you have to turn down the tap to better manage the flow. It will enable you to figure out how to do what you’re already doing a whole lot better. While you get a better handle on servicing demand, look for the trouble spots, the bottlenecks, the productivity leaks. For example, do your current staff spend too much time on customer care because there are solvable problems impacting customer experience?
Take a hard look at systems and procedures
Before you hire extra staff to service growing need, have you really examined your systems and procedures to see where improvements can be made? Are you certain that you’re fully utilizing your current resources to operate with excellence and efficiency?
For example, how does your current team communicate? Do you have insane email threads going that exhaust your current team’s capacity for focus, information retention, and just plain caring? Do clients, project details, deadlines, et cetera, fall through the cracks because all of this team communication just isn’t particularly well organized? You’d be amazed at how much more easily you’ll scale once issues like these are addressed!
Knowing when it’s the right time to hire
So, “more people” doesn’t always solve the problem of how to scale. But sometimes it is the right move. How do you know when that is?
Well, say you’ve identified and fixed operational trouble spots. Say you’ve improved systems and procedures so that your current resources (including human ones) are being fully utilized. If you’re still experiencing the problems below, it might be time:
You, as the boss, never stop working
Day, night, office, home, work, vacation…whatever. You always have the same punishing load. And it’s not because you’re addicted to being busy or you have a micro-manager's mentality
Customer service is suffering
As I’ve discussed, systems and procedures are often key to solving customer service problems. But, in this instance, you’ve honestly reworked things to operate with the utmost excellence and efficiency, and customers are still not getting all that they need.
Your current staff are suffering
If your staff members are shouldering too much cognitive load, it shows. Things start falling apart. Now, once again, this is often a problem that better systems, procedures, and tools can fix. But not always.
If the above applies to you, and you’ve done all that you can in terms of fixing problems and improving systems, then yes, you may need to hire to grow. But just remember: this doesn’t always need to mean hiring full-time. Part-time staff, interns, and freelancers are also excellent options for plugging in the gaps.
Scale—but always scale agile
Scaling is the joy of successful entrepreneurship. It’s an incredible experience to actually grow a company that could have easily faltered in its early days. Being in the position to grow a company is a rare honor; pat yourself on the back big time for having arrived at this place!
But in all the excitement and pride of this phase, don’t forget that scaling smart is how any start-up becomes a sustainable success. Instead of pulling that hiring trigger too quickly, spend some time soberly examining what you already do. Try to gain some growth without losing ground on the profit front!
As a systems strategist, I’m always game to talk to you about how you could do that. We could fix a few leaks, and streamline what you have going on. Then, all of a sudden, you’re in a position to do more with less. Slow down now so you can really speed up later.