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Scaling Up: 6 Tips to Avoid Growing Pains
 

When your company growth doubles every week, there's plenty of room for error. CloudFlare co-founder Michelle Zatlyn explains how to survive it.

One of Michelle Zatlyn's key strategies at Cloudflare? Post-its--lots of Post-its.

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CloudFlare, a service that protects websites from security threats and speeds up online performance, has been growing at lightning-speed since its creation in 2009. The company saw more than 720 million unique IP addresses and an estimated 100 billion page views in the last year alone. That's like going from zero to, well, 100 billion in only four years. When you're growing that fast, there are plenty of ways to screw up. 

Co-founder Michelle Zatlyn took the stage at Women 2.0's "The Next Billion" conference on Valentine's Day to explain how her company survived the fast growth. Here are six crucial pieces of advice from her presentation.

Eliminate friction.

Whether you manufacture toasters or provide social media consulting to other companies, your business's No. 1 goal should be eliminating the friction between your clients and whatever product or service you offer, says Zatlyn. What does it mean to eliminate the friction? Something about your business should fundamentally make things easier for the consumer, she explains.

In the case of CloudFlare, this means cutting down the amount of time between when a client registers for the service and when that client sees real-time results. CloudFlare allows clients to sign up in less than five minutes; the closest competitor’s registration process takes closer to two weeks. In other words, CloudFlare eliminates a roadblock that once stood in the consumer’s way. Ta-dah! It’s tough for anyone to dislike services that make life easier.

Choose your partner(s) wisely.

According to Zatlyn, the most important thing to consider when selecting a partner--both at home and in the office--is balance. There should never be a question regarding who will complete a specific task in the early stages of your company, she says. Your founding team members should each fill a specific--and separate--need.

“You want to cover as much surface area as possible with your co-founders,” says Zatlyn, whose skill set differs greatly from those of her CloudFlare co-founders, former law student Matthew Prince and software engineer Lee Holloway.

The key to a successful partnership, she says, is to embrace collaborators who are “as different as possible” from you in expertise, yet share your vision for the company and its mission.

Hold your team responsible.

There are probably plenty of high-tech ways to track task completion and employee engagement. (Surely there's an app--or 10--for that.)

But Zatlyn does it with Post-it notes.

At CloudFlare, employees write benchmark tasks for any given week on colorful notes, and stick them to a central whiteboard in the start-up's office. When a task gets completed, down comes the note.

This simple tracking system helps to foster employee accountability, and identifies bottlenecks within the company, says Zatlyn. Besides, she adds, it's pretty satisfying for employees and founders alike to survey a totally clean whiteboard by the end of the week.

Get your own office.

Sure, there's something fun and homegrown about running your business out of a founder's living room. But your office is "not a dorm room--and it's not a frat house," Zatlyn warns. The first step in getting investors and potential clients to take you seriously is to take yourself seriously, she says. Having a legitimate office space doesn’t turn you into a corporate drone; it makes you look professional.

The "take yourself seriously" bit goes for security and Web presence, as well. Don’t wait until your company "really takes off" to purchase a domain name, Zatlyn says. She hesitated somewhat in securing the domain www.michellezatlyn.com and that address is now run by a fan club celebrating the CloudFlare co-founder's work. While it's very flattering, she concedes, it's also misleading to potential clients.

Build a voice--and use it.

"Unlike the CEO of a public company, you can have a personality--use it!" Zatlyn declares. She also notes the importance of recognizing your own expertise. Everyone is an expert of something, she says.

"No one knows your business or your vision as much as you do," she says. "If you see a problem that you care a lot about and you think that you can fix it, you should."

When it comes to the sticky subject of qualifications--as in, do you have enough--Zatlyn believes that a degree and formal training only go so far. (Easy for a woman with an MBA from Harvard Business School to say.) No, really--being self-motivated and curious can actually help you overcome a lot of obstacles along the way, Zatlyn says.

That Harvard Business degree probably doesn’t hurt, though.

Keep a scrapbook!

Zatlyn says her No. 1 regret in growing CloudFlare was not taking enough photos. Start-ups change so swiftly (literally rocketing from teams of 40 to 400 in a matter of months) and so dramatically, that you can miss many of your brainchild's landmark "firsts" if you're not careful. Don't be embarrassed to photograph and document your growing company's changes and success, says Zatlyn. Those images of growth might just come in handy when you're asked to bestow company-scaling advice of your own some day.

IMAGE: Courtesy of 100 Days of Summer
Last updated: Feb 15, 2013

FRANCESCA FENZI reports on entrepreneurship, technology and small business news from San Francisco. Her work has previously appeared in TIME, USA Today, Pop City and The Northside Chronicle.
@FrancescaFenzi




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