From the outside, it might look like building a company is a series of moonshot experiments with no time for planning and even less for reflection. But this couldn't be further from the truth.
Companies might fail for any number of reasons, but I guarantee plenty of them moved too fast and broke too many things while trying to grow too quickly.
In the classic sci-fi film Them!, common ants are turned into giants creatures by exposure to atomic energy. If you're not smart about it, trying to grow your business can lead to the same results. All of the energy you pour into growing your business can amplify today's minor challenges into tomorrow's monster problems.
It's no wonder that the first question you'll hear from a VC is, "Does this scale?"
Exponential Growth vs. Existential Threat
Here's a good thought experiment: Multiply everything in your company by 10. The number of desks, the number of emails sent and received, the time you spend on decision-making, the revenue, the credit card balance, your server space, the amount of coffee. Now multiply by a hundred. Now a thousand.
Which areas look good? If revenue and profits look good at 10x or 100x, that's a promising start.
What parts are worrisome? If server downtime, high-touch customer service, or bookkeeping come out to more hours than there are in the day, then moving forward might create a start-up zombie apocalypse. Take a step back and reevaluate.
Consider changing your underlying architecture to make it more scalable. Realizing this and planning for growth will make everyone happier -- including you.
Chart Your Course, With Room to Maneuver
The key to effective scaling is balancing focus with flexibility.
You need to make sure your rocket is aimed in the right direction before you launch -- but you also need to allow for some course corrections during the trip. Aim wrong, and you'll never be able to get back on course. But spend too much time trying to calculate the precise trajectory and you might never launch at all.
You want to find the sweet spot of high-level goals, values, and vision that won't change, while allowing for tactics on the ground to adapt as necessary. This is where your MVP (minimum viable product) comes in. Create the leanest product that solves your customer's problem, building in elasticity and room to grow later.
If you're trying to cram everything in, you might never finish. And even if you do, you'll often find that the market has shifted. You may end up building the perfect solution to last year's problem. With so much invested already, you'll have limited ability to adapt to changing customer needs and feedback.
Spending years creating your version 1.0 masterpiece will demoralize your team and put you out of business. Steve Jobs said, "Real artists ship" -- and he was right.
Know Your Strengths, Outsource Your Weaknesses
Decide what you're the best at (hint: it's not everything). Try to handle as much of the stuff that's in your wheelhouse as possible, and hand off the rest.
What areas can you off-load or outsource? HR and payroll? Server administration? Marketing? In addition to hiring full-time employees, the global on-demand workforce can help you scale up while allowing you to stay focused on your core competencies.
As a general rule, you should consider outsourcing tasks that can be compartmentalized or only need to be done infrequently. If you find that you have a lot of need in one area, or that area requires creative leadership, then you might want to consider a permanent hire.
Find a balance between the 4-Hour Workweek "outsource everything" gospel and the age-old maxim "if you want something done right, do it yourself."
Scale Smarter, Not Harder
Just like in surfing or jiu-jitsu, scaling is about working with the momentum coming toward you, rather than against it. That means putting your team in a kind of flow state, where their effort is optimized around the work and where that work is continuously re-energizing. It should feel less like an uphill slog and more like the endorphin-fueled runner's high of a marathon.
Don't be afraid to take your business to the next level when you feel the time is right. Move quickly when it makes sense, but step back to reflect along the way. Give yourself permission to break some things -- some of the time -- while you reimagine your company. Staying focused on both your end goals and your customers' needs can help you decide when to stop for a breath and when to push ahead.