Startups rise on the backs of individual heroes. The power of a startup is the incredible focus and determination from a small group of motivated individuals working toward a common goal. At the earliest stages, startup success requires personal sacrifice and individuals going above and beyond -- whether that's a developer pulling an all-nighter or a marketer stepping way out of her comfort zone to take on something new. The higher the startup rises, the more glory that goes to the individual contributors.
For example, when your biggest customer calls you at 5 p.m. and says they need their product to arrive by the end of the next day, your company has no option but to drop everything and fulfill that order. You immediately turn to your most reliable players to make it happen. This cycle becomes the norm, and over time it prevents scaling. I call it the hero trap.
Startups plateau because they rely on individual heroes. After enough all-nighters, that developer gets sick or burns out. Your marketer doesn't have the experience required to pull off the project at the level required, gets frustrated, and then leaves the company. Individual heroes don't scale and make a company overly dependent on a single person, creating unnecessary risk.
To grow your company, you need to create repeatable systems that aren't dependent on institutional knowledge. Repeatable systems work because you take the hard-won lessons and make sure no one else makes the same mistakes. As employees inevitably come and go from the company or the role, there's less to on-board. And there's less human error. So you'll move faster and make fewer mistakes.
To break out of the hero trap, you need to transform three operational pillars:
Document your processes.
When the number of steps or people required to complete a project you execute regularly increases to beyond a few, you need to document the steps. Using a project management tool like Asana or Jira can be incredibly helpful. The exact moment we did this for my team at Yext was when we expanded internationally and we were losing days going back and forth with process questions because of the time difference. As soon as we documented the steps, it reduced miscommunication and actually allowed us to focus on optimizing the work rather than simply completing the project.
Invest in cloud technology.
In the early days, it can be easy to do things in spreadsheets or use personal accounts to create profiles. It's important to invest in technology that makes it easy to transfer information from one person to the next. For example, we struggled to get access to a YouTube account because the employee who created it had left the company.
Hire experienced specialists.
If you really want to accelerate your learning, hire someone who has seen it before. You aren't the first person or first company to deal with just about any issue, so bring on some professionals in key areas of leadership. Be sure to balance the level of experience with someone who wants to roll up their sleeves -- it's one thing to have seen the movie, it's another to be able to direct it.
With any significant change, there will be downsides. The former heroes might not like working in this type of setting. They have found success in doing it all, rather than being very good at a specialty. It can be painful for the heroes and the people who feel they built the company. The heroes need to remember that startups win together and lose together. Collective glory is much more important, bigger, and longer lasting than individual glory. My advice to heroes is to stick it out -- it's worth putting your ego aside.
Moving from relying on individuals to putting repeatable systems in place is the moment you take your organization from being a startup to a growth company. Embrace the growing pains--they mean you're transforming.