How can your business grow without loosing that great start-up energy?

That’s a question I Net-Mapped with a friend yesterday, whose consultancy business grew from 3 to 25 people in the last 5 years (congrats!). He still remembers how it felt in the beginning when there was that strong shared feeling of “We’re in this together!”, “We will succeed against all odds!” and “We will give our whole hearts to get there.” He was able to maintain a lot of this spirit over the years and keep this feeling of community or even family alive… But… what was a spontaneous feeling that just reproduced itself because of the situation they were in, more and more turns into a company spirit that needs to be nurtured and created and he spends a lot of time being the company gardener, interacting with everyone to get a feeling for what’s happening, if they are still on board, how he can help them maintain the spirit.

He feels that it is worth it because his staff are exceptionally motivated and loyal in a fast moving field and he enjoys knowing what’s going one and nurturing his staff not only in strictly work-task oriented ways (e.g. looking at long term development). But what’s going to happen if he keeps being successful? How is he going to expand this management style to a staff of 50, 100 or 200?

When we drew his Net-Map we saw that they had done a rather good job at distributing the authority over project reporting. So this formal management workload was shared by a number of people, a model that would grow (either add more levels or more sub-units on the same level) as the organization grows. But the gardening or mentoring links were mainly a hub and spokes network, my friend being the hub and everyone, down to the maintenance guy being directly linked to him, getting face-to-face interaction and encouragement every once in a while.

I have written about this before and I will write about it again, because it is one structural issue that I see in so many exciting young projects and companies: Hub and spoke networks are a great way to get things started, you are the mover and shaker and assemble everyone you around you, turn them from a crowd into an organization/movement. But if you don’t want that exhaustion heart-attack and burn-out or if you want that your idea/company/movement survives even after you leave, there is a time when you have to let go and foster that your spokes develop inter-connections, nurture some of your trusted colleagues to become sub-centers, develop what is called redundant links (so if one link fails another one can hold) and anchor your movement in a bigger community. If not, you are preparing your company to be one of these endeavors that as soon as the founder leaves crumble to dust or your development project will be one of the many that ceases to have any impact as soon as the funding runs out. The important thing to realize is: What worked for you in the past (start-up phase) will not work equally well in the future (consolidation).

One colleague of mine in Ghana was really passionate about starting things from scratch and getting them going. He worked for the government and, knowing what made him tick, he once said to me: “When this multi-stakeholder board is up and running I will help them find a good manager, train him or her and leave for the next new project. Managing existing structures is too boring for me.” That really impressed me, to have such an understanding of who you are and what you are good at that you shape your work life in a way that you can do exactly that without risking long term sustainability. It helped that his underlying motivation was leaving a legacy / changing the world to become a better place irrespective of whether his name (or bank account) was connected to his achievements.

But if you are that manager of a former start-up and you don’t want to sell it and start another one, how do you move forward? I think one important thing is to realize that most people can only strongly relate to a rather small group of people. So as soon as you grow beyond a certain number, it will cost you a lot of extra energy to maintain a personal feeling in everyone in your organization towards everybody else of “We are in this boat together.” And the question is: “Is this personal connection to everyone really necessary for people to be extremely hard working and loyal and happy at their work place?” I would say that maybe it’s enough to have this strong emotional bond to a smaller group of co-workers in the same division or field. That feeling of “I don’t want to let my guys down” can develop out of the work process without a lot of extra energy poured in from a gardener/mentor/leader. What he could focus on more is developing and maintaining the bigger ideas, visions and codes of conduct that his staff can relate to and feel proud of. So in a way my recommendation would be to think bigger and smaller at the same time: Think bigger: Instead of relating to a group of individuals try uniting everyone under a common vision. And think smaller: Foster the development of local villages within your organization in which people relate to and feel loyalty for their neighbors.

And then, as a cherry on the top, continue going to your maintenance guy or junior programmer every once in a while to connect and see how the company is doing from the inside. But don’t feel pressured to continue with full energy using a strategy that was great for 12 staff members once you hit 100. And yes, some of the start-up energy will go. It’s because you are not a start-up any more, there is a reason why we called this energy “start-up energy”. But even at a bigger size you can have a company with a great spirit and loyal, hard working staff.

4 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by comunidades. comunidades said: How can your business grow without loosing that great start-up energy?: That’s a question I Net-Mapped with a fr… […]

  2. I think great entrepreneurs/leaders are such as they manage to create a culture people like to be part of. I guess the foremost example of this phenomenon is Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs, who was able to create an almost religious attachement to its cause, not just for internals, but even for customers. Much of it is certainly hardcore management, but this is common to many companies. What makes Apple so special is the storytelling “magic” that Steve Jobs manages to put in each communication he does, be it internal or external, the vision of a better world that you can contribute to create and to be part of by complying with his “advice”. That I think is what I call charisma. Some are naturals, some can develop it.
    I agree that the think bigger and smaller strategy you describe is a promising one to achieve this.

    • I agree, Paolo, storytelling is an extremely strong force. One of my all time favorite websites in this context is the one of a company that focuses on the use of storytelling as a tool for business success. You’ll find a lot of interesting reading material around this there. I’m curious how thinking bigger/smaller will work for my friend.

  3. How do startups navigate the transition from a small, lean team to a larger, more structured organization?…

    I would recommend mapping out your internal network as it is at the moment, not just the formal organigram but also some informal links, e.g. who is friends outside of work or who exchanges a lot of information. Then I would use this as a base of discu…

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