I started out working for Imbull almost four years ago. Two 28-year old founders, a friend they hired to come work for them fulltime and one intern in a nice but small office in Amsterdam.
Now four years later ‘our’ office is situated in a monumental church, probably the coolest office in Amsterdam, employing a staff of sixty people from seventeen different nationalities. Our moneysaving portal Flipit.com has been launched in twenty-two different countries, including Singapore, and I am managing a team of eight people.
Being part of an ambitious fast-growing business is pretty awesome, but it is not something that comes without dangers.
These five tips are what I have learned in the last few years:
1. Plan for growth.
Growth hacking was the buzzword of 2013 and has been widely overused. Online marketeers that know tricks to expand the user base of start-ups, usually on a relatively small budget. Growth hacking is however essential in the current online landscape. Automating processes with APIs, creating a large e-mail subscriber base, SEO and viral strategies are of course extremely valuable to any start-up. But how do you ‘growth hack’ people? Having a business with four people working for you is easy to oversee. But if you need sixty people you could spend three months of your time just doing the job interviews, not being able to focus on your core business. Your business could go bankrupt without you even knowing it, because you are only busy with hiring new people. You probably need a HR-manager by this time. The silliest things can become big things if you do not plan them correctly, stuff such as having enough toilets, parking spaces, desks. If you set growth goals for your company, don’t forget to realize that you actually might reach these goals. Consider carefully what this growth means for all aspects of your company and plan ahead.
2. Don’t be afraid of growth, just start lean.
The Lean start-up model is not only very useful when starting your business; it is something you want to embrace in every step of growth. Build-Measure-Learn. If you are working with a team of six people to run your online business and want to expand to a new country, approach that as a new start-up. Find out how ‘light’ you can start your business model. Find a way that one native speaker with correct guidance can start out running all aspects of the business for that country. Find out what works and doesn’t before hiring a new group of six people going in guns blazing. Of course there are examples of large international success backed by big venture capital firms starting out with a full crew of seniors and breaking into the market, but most of us will not have that luxury (or desire).
3. Make it attractive for temporary personal to become permanent employees.
It’s not that the policy is to never do so, but we don’t really hire any seniors at our company. If you already have a group of people working at your company as a side job, they obtain a lot of business knowledge without even being aware of it. Why not give them the chance to grow alongside with your company? Hiring experienced seniors will probably get you to your short term goals faster, but on the long run you are creating ceilings for people in starter positions, which can be a big de-motivator. Having motivated employees is key.
4. Don’t sacrifice quality for quantity.
Expanding your online business into another country will often mean you will need to start offering content in a different language. I don’t think I have to tell you that Google Translate is probably not the best idea. However, it is very tempting to use the content that you have and have this translated through online freelancers. This might work in a lot of cases. In our case it definitely does not. We have chosen to only work with native speakers and have them come work at our office. The advantages of having somebody that knows the cultural and lingual subtleties can make all the difference when deciding which PR strategy or which approach might work or not work. This is where our way of starting lean really paid off. We tried the ‘easy way’ with online freelancers and it just didn’t work out, there was not enough ‘connection’. We then hired native speakers from three different countries to come and work from our office and were able to scale that out after we saw the many advantages this had on the quality and growth of our business.
5. Involve your employees and focus on their strengths.
As you get bigger it is almost inevitable to have at least some forms of KPIs in Excel sheets to be able to keep track of progress. Avoid falling into the pitfalls of corporate culture where Excel sheets are the end-stop of what is going on in your company. Walk around the office, ask people what they are doing and how it is going. A big mistake I often make is to tell people what they should do and only afterwards ask if they think it was a good idea. In the end this will take more time and be less effective than to make time to involve everybody in the first step of setting out a strategy and discuss what needs to be done. Involvement is key in al phases. Also, don’t force people to do things the way you would do it. Not all people will do things like you would do them, and forcing them to do will only make them less productive and unhappy. Everybody loses this way. Find out what people like to do, what they are good at and find a way to focus that towards a goal that is beneficial for the company.