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Lessons of a CEO #7 :Scaling Up

By Alex, Last updated: 2022-03-17 (originally published on 2016-11-18)

15th November – Scaling Up

scaling up

Regular readers of my blog musings will no doubt be disappointed to hear that this week I’m not intellectualising on the subjects of startup fashion or Southeast Asian beach holidays. This week I’m tackling the hardback-worthy subject of scaling up.

Many people ask me what the difference is between a startup and a small business. After having met a law firm that told me it was a startup, these days I normally answer “absolutely nothing”. But of course that’s not the truth. And because I’m a lawyer, I like definitions.

I particularly like this one, courtesy of Paul Graham of the Y Combinator Accelerator:

A startup is a company designed to scale very quickly. It is this focus on growth unconstrained by geography which differentiates startups from small businesses. A restaurant in one town is not a startup, nor is a franchise a startup. 

I think this definition (coupled with the useful restaurant example) is a good one, because it highlights by proxy the key differences between the challenges a ‘small business’ owner and a ‘startup founder’ face. The former has concerns about ability to get to profitability within a sustainable time period. The latter wants to build something once (and may or may not immediately generate profit from doing that) and then work out how to do the same thing in as many markets as it can, as quickly as it can.

You should read that last sentence again.

If you don’t believe that it’s possible, or you don’t want to build a business that way, or you do you but you can’t achieve one or the other of either (1) being a market leader or (2) entering new markets quickly, then you will have problems. Or maybe you’re not a ‘startup’ and that’s quite okay. Because you know what? Running a business is far cooler than talking about a startup you once founded….

So what learnings can we lovely folks at Zegal impart on the subject of scaling? Many things it turns out! And of course it’s the internet, so we must have a list. Why we didn’t name this blog posts “8 ways to super scale your startup” I’ll never know. Perhaps it is because I don’t dig clickbait.

8 Ways to Super Scale Your Startup

1) Cloud, cloud, cloud. Look, it’s designed out of the box to be scaleable. Build your technology fully on the cloud and benefit from a provider who thinks big so you don’t have to. We use AWS because it’s the biggest (and best).

2) More cloud – SaaS services are designed to be inexpensive as you start out. They grow with you as you do. We use ZenDesk and Intercom amongst a whole bunch of others!

Related reading: Lessons of a CEO #3: Productivity Tools

3) Encourage everyone at your startup to think SCALE. For example our lead engineer writes management scripts which allows us to setup any projects generically, and recently we added a script that customises some configs we use for deployment. This is scalable because it is only written once, but use in every project we deploy.

4) Systems, systems, systems. Processing a payment? Several steps to go through and several people in the chain involved? Spend the first 50 times you arrange it, designing the process. You’ll be doing THIS ad infinitum if your startup works out. Make it slick. Now.

5) Collaboration tools. Things change quickly at a startup. This is a clear understatement. You can be sure half your team didn’t read the email memo on your CEOs new ‘amazing’ idea. However you do it (and there are a million tools out there asking for your money to help you do it better) – you must. Because a ship sailing in two directions at once is a slow and complex beast to manoeuver.

6) Focus on scale even when it seems kind of scary/dumb/unpleasant/short term painful. Repeat your Startup mantra. “I am not a small business. I will not chase this deal. It will distract me from opening that 18th country.”

7) Training, training and more training. Did I mention we spend a lot of time training? What do we do? Not paying attention hey. Back to Scale Training Class for you. You cannot POSSIBLY expect something to work in Alaska if your Singapore team has never picked up the phone and spent time sharing learnings.

8) The most important one of all. Capture your knowledge. Sounds obvious? Sounds easy? It’s neither. You do this from Day One (don’t worry if you’re at Day Two, you can catch up). Any later than this and you are doomed (perhaps read my blog on Southeast Asian Beach Holidays to lower your blood pressure).

Happy Scaling Folks!

Daniel Walker

Read the series:

Lessons of a CEO #6: A Room With A View
Lessons of a CEO #5: Screen Time
Lessons of a CEO #4: Sit down next to me
Lessons of a CEO #3: A Brief History of Thyme
Lessons of a CEO #2: Fashion Foreword
Lessons of a CEO #1: Lessons I’ve learned

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