A Year To Scale: What I Learnt

Laying the foundations for fast-growth isn't as exciting as it is completely necessary.

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Share this article

Laying the foundations for fast-growth isn't as exciting as it is completely necessary.


A Year To Scale: What I Learnt

Laying the foundations for fast-growth isn't as exciting as it is completely necessary.

Share this article

I’m going to look back at 2018 and put it down as a tough year. A blip. The KPIs are not exciting nor reflect the team’s effort: low double-digit growth, margin that’s failed to break new ground. Frustrating. Unacceptable.

But if I’m honest, it’s actually a huge relief. We took one of the biggest decisions in our company history last year and that was to scale.

We decided to take a year off from running the company and consider every aspect that needed to be refined, reprogrammed or rebuilt so we didn’t just grow but we scaled. It made the pit of my stomach turn with apprehension and gave me goose bumps with excitement at the same time.

We started out by giving the business a ‘full medical’ and found that our process and technology were in good shape but that the resilience and aptitude of the team, myself included, wasn’t where is needed to be. I knew from everything I read that you can’t scale if you don’t have this. What’s more it doesn’t make for a happy place to work.

So there were three things we did to rectify the situation:

Advisory board and an expert team

I mentioned aptitude and though the management team had achieved sustained growth, a quick gap analysis showed that we didn’t have the complete skill set to shift up to high double digital growth.

When we unpicked the business and looked at what was holding us back from scaling there were things on the list we just hadn’t tackled before (perhaps even avoided). A few items blew my mind. It was clear we needed help from people who had done it before.

So our first step was to appoint an advisory team and find experts who could execute the strategy.

I was lucky in that we were introduced to a superb business coach following participation in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 small business programme. She is now the lynchpin in our advisory board and really tests our thinking and stretches us.

Without a doubt the Goldman Sach’s programme was the most intensive and draining experiences of my working life. But at the end of it I had made connections with some brilliant business minds, found inspiration from their challenges and successes, and met with people who had done what I was about to do. It helped shape the plan we are about to embark on and lead us to make some critical appointments to the management team.

Execution is all about people

When you set out to scale, there’s the temptation to get involved in the day to day because you know you can fix things quicker, make a decision sooner. We learnt that getting sucked in is a killer and soon turned attention to ensuring we had a team we could trust to get on and keep the plates spinning.

We found that we did to a certain extent. But when we tested our assumptions for scaling, we found the team wasn’t perfectly placed to spin more plates and at a faster rate in two to three years’ time. We had to fix it as a priority.

I’m a believer that you should share with your team where you are going and how you will get there. It gives clarity and builds trust. Little did I know how important that would be in this process.

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Early on some people put their hands up and said they wanted to get off the bus, or move seats. They could see that their future needed to be different. That was a big help. We lost some talented people but in the long-run it was right for everyone. You have to be happy.

That said there were some we asked to get off the bus. This is complex, and needs to be managed properly. It’s also easy to underestimate how much risk there is in this process. We learnt that you can’t do it at full speed or you let customers down and/or lose people you don’t want to.

Instead you need to slow the bus down. I admit it feels very scary to slow the sales channel down but it became obvious that we needed to have happy existing customers, than worry about attracting new ones.

The net result is that our largest department has been transformed for the better. We now have people who aren’t just great at their job, but have skills that our business will depend on in the future such as critical thinking and empathy. The more technology we employ the more we will rely on these traits, as will our clients. It will be our differentiator.

You need fresh blood

The flip side of this process was that it emphasised the gaps in the team and the need for senior skill, so we embarked on a director-level recruitment process.

I’ve learnt the hard way that you have to ‘date’ anyone you will work with at this level – you need to know the chemistry is right and you have implicit trust. So we decided to get recruitment specialists in place, and I’d say it is just as important to date them too. Make sure they really understand your business, your drivers and your plan or you simply won’t get the right candidates.

I also took matters into my own hands and wrote a job description for LinkedIn. It reflected our company style and values and wasn’t your typical request for CVs. It felt brave to be sharing our plan in this way but happily it paid off and the feedback and connections I made were invaluable.

Stop doing what you’re not good at

We are accountants. We are not SEO specialists or branding experts. We had been doing them out of necessity – saving money – and it soon dawns on you that if you are serious about scaling then you have to ditch the things you are not great at.

For us it meant we had to scale down the existing team, which is never nice even if it is the right thing to do, and switch to specialist agencies and freelancers, whom have abundant skill and fresh ideas.

What has surprised me the most is how much enthusiasm and energy the department now has as a result.

It’s infectious, other departments are benefitting and it’s certainly helped to kick start year two of the plan.

Taking a year out like this isn’t easy nor pretty. But I have learnt that you will never break the cycle of ‘ok’ growth and give yourself the chance to achieve scale if you don’t.

James Poyser  is CEO inniAccounts.

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A Year To Scale: What I Learnt

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