How To Make A Grown-Up Out Of Your Start-Up

Like kids, businesses have to be treated differently as they grow from start-ups to mature multi-nationals.

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Like kids, businesses have to be treated differently as they grow from start-ups to mature multi-nationals.


How To Make A Grown-Up Out Of Your Start-Up

Like kids, businesses have to be treated differently as they grow from start-ups to mature multi-nationals.

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Businesses can be like children. They have growth stages and just when you’ve got the hang of one, the next, entirely different one, comes along. There’s the cute, but exhausting baby & toddler stage, when they grow rapidly and learn something new every day.

As the business progresses through childhood, they still need a lot of investment and external supervision, but they’ve learnt basic skills. In business terms; they’re viable, the concept is proven and they’ve started to scale.

Then, just when you think you’ve got it sorted, the teenage phase arrives. The awkward years of business puberty. At this point the business can be prone to mood swings and need massive injections of cash. This is a tricky period for those in the company to navigate.

Eventually, you reach early adulthood, where the business is profitable and establishing assets. All set for solid, sustainable growth, whilst being wary of disruption.

There’s plenty of advice on how to start a business, but the difficult teenage years tend to get missed, because they’re hard. In humans, puberty is an awkward time, flipping between being a child and adult. You are always changing shape and your relationship and communication with others is confusing.

This describes the last few years at Spreadshirt, an on-person, self-expression platform. We’ve transitioned from being a start-up to becoming a €100m grown-up, profitable business. Becoming consistently profitable is hard work and it’s not always straight forward.

Like most teenagers, we did not necessarily recognise the symptoms of puberty at the time. We can look back on it with fondness now, but it wasn’t easy. We changed culture, communication and management styles. Along the way this produced a few teenage strops too.

So, how did we turn our start-up into a grown-up? What did we learn as we progressed through the awkward growth years?

You don’t know much.

Teenagers think they know everything… but don’t. As a growing business, you may find that market changes, management concepts or big operational problems catch you by surprise.

Don’t panic; this is normal. As with all teenagers, recognising this and asking for help is the first step. Don’t be afraid to tap into the knowledge and contacts of your shareholders. Find adult companies that have dealt with similar problems and ask them to share their wisdom.

You may need to bring some of these greybeards into the business at this point. In a start-up the founder is king. Things can change quickly because everything is new and the team is small and nimble. A scaled business is very different.

We have 750 people across 6 venues, scattered across 2 continents and with 15 years of doing things in certain ways. This is a very different business that requires very different communication practices. It can only be agile if you empower all the different parts.

This means the job of the CEO changes. It’s now more important to focus on empowering people and keep them heading in the same direction.

Good communication can be hard.

Teenagers can find it hard to talk to adults. They think they are being judged and in truth they are being judged. Growing businesses need to acknowledge this and be a bit less defensive. You are no longer cute enough to get away with miscommunication.

Investors and customers can stop seeing you as a loveable new arrival and start expecting you to behave like a grown-up. We found that practice makes perfect.  During Spreadshirt’s puberty phase we kept working on how we sounded and adapted it as often as necessary.

Now we sound more credible, even though the same underlying idea is there from years ago.

The founding team may rebel.

People don’t always like change. Emotions can run high during the major changes you’ll face when moving from start-up to grown-up. In most cases there is an underlying cause that the person is not expressing. You need to get to the bottom of it.

They may be feeling insecure about their job, the company set-up, or their capabilities. Once you know the cause you can usually sort it out. Disgruntlement (and managing it) is all part of growing-up.

At Spreadshirt this was the moment we recruited a Feel Good Manager to keep the good vibes flowing and because we needed to hold-on to our talent. Building a talented team and letting them get on with it is key to successful growth.

You’ll try to do too much.

Growing companies often have too many things running simultaneously. Teenagers want to do lots of things. The world is an exciting place and they want to try everything! Awkward growth phase companies are often in the same position.

At Spreadshirt, we offered too much and tried to integrate a new business before we were ready. We over-stretched ourselves with too many special shops or fulfillment deals (including a doll!).

Whilst all businesses should allow for some experimentation, as we grew we realised it’s more important to have the satisfaction (and profit!) of doing a few things really well. Profitability and a well-structured business can also help you ride out the arrival of disruptors.

Becoming a grown-up can be as challenging as starting the business in the first place. It’s hard work, and like real teenagers, the world cuts you less slack than your cuter younger siblings. In the end, for people and businesses, growing up is a culture change.

When you transitioned from a child to an adult, you moved from one culture to another. Your business is doing the same thing, and your job as founder or CEO is to get your start-up through the awkward growth phase to grown-up.

Philip Rooke is CEO of Spreadshirt. Find him on Linked In.

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How To Make A Grown-Up Out Of Your Start-Up

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