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ACHIEVING SCALE

From Startup Founder to Leader

Making the leap isn't easy. Here's how to manage by report and not by sight.
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Lately, it seems like a golden age for startups. Apple bought Topsy, a social search engine. SnapChat turned down a multi-billion dollar deal. And Spotify is seeing explosive growth. Here in Chicago, GrubHub and Trunk Club are just two more of examples of startups with lots of potential.

The leaders of those companies are likely wondering how to maintain their entrepreneurial spirit as the organization grows--something many startup founders face when they want to take their businesses to the next level.

When I was working out of a borrowed office space with the other co-founders of a small online payroll service 13 years ago, we made decisions quickly and changed course without hesitation. But as the leader of a much larger organization--today, SurePayroll employs more than 200 people--my approach has evolved. 

The founder of a startup is personally driving action, working with customers, hiring employees, and sometimes even handling HR and payroll. It’s an intense juggling act, and one that gives you a lot of control. 

But to make the transition from founder to leader, you can’t manage by sight anymore. You have to trust others to lead and give up control. 

In the old days, if we didn't like something, we shouted across the room. But now there's a process. I speak with the manager, get their assessment, then have them go to their team. I don’t just walk into meetings. 

Running a larger organization requires consistency, too. In some cases, you may let some things slide. Not every report will do what you'd do. But this doesn't mean you can't have a personal touch. It's just about knowing how to motivate without doing everything yourself.

Speaking of a personal touch, I can’t wish every employee happy birthday, but I do write handwritten notes. And while I can’t personally congratulate each employee on a job well done, I send a company-wide email recognizing those who excelled. 

When your organization grows, you’re not just running it. You’re representing it. You’re no longer directly providing the service, you’re the one who's delivering the message, be it to clients, investors, partners or the media.

Put another way, I used to work through lunch. But these days, I take people to lunch. 

Last updated: Dec 4, 2013

MICHAEL ALTER | Columnist | President of SurePayroll

Michael Alter is president of SurePayroll, America?s leading online payroll service. He received an MBA from the Harvard Business School and holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Northwestern University.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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