We have all been there. A group of friends wants to get together over dinner to catch up. As more people are invited, the challenge of setting a time and place gets exponentially more difficult. One person is vegan. Another has a serious wheat allergy. Four can meet on Friday, but two can only make weekends. Even once a date is on the calendar, half the group doesn't show up because of an emergency or a conflicting commitment.

Growing a company from 40 to 400 or 1,000 employees can involve some of the same decision-making challenges as organizing a group of diners. What was easy when it was just me and my two friends brainstorming an idea in a coffee shop, is now a process. That is where true leadership is required. From the beginning, I have focused on balancing cost and revenue to aim for sustainable profitability. When measuring a choice against the impact on both of those things, the decision becomes easier to make. Let me explain.

Managing the Bill

At Credit Karma, we pride ourselves on attracting some of the best talent in the space, but we are thoughtful about how we do it. We didn't just throw a menu of random benefits at employees. We were realistic about what we could afford and added what we could along the way, parental leave and wellness benefits, for example. The worst thing would be to start out with a five-star banquet of amenities and then take those away as the company, and costs, grew. We tried to be realistic and knew that our mission and our collaborative culture would appeal almost as much as a free fresh sushi bar.

More than Ambiance

In a fast-growth company, culture is something that has to be proactively, not reactively, managed. Organizational effectiveness can go wrong quickly. Like the friendly dinner party, even though you have a common interest, enjoying a nice meal, you may not be able to make everyone happy. When you are growing an organization to scale, you have to consider the guard rails that will guide your decision-making. Is it pure performance, mission, something else? What are you willing to give up as you grow and what has to stay at any cost? You have to settle those things in your mind.

Proportional Sizing

When a company reaches a certain size, some things are easier because you have more brand recognition. People take you more seriously and you can get the meetings you need to continue growing. The downside to being part of the elite group of billion-dollar valuation "unicorns," as we have been labeled, is that people, including the media, are watching every move closely and that can be a distraction. Flying under the radar has its benefits and we did that for a long time.Even at the size we are today, the same focus on the mission guides every decision.

Strategic Ordering

Not all revenue is equal. We launched with a plan to build revenue as we grew instead of waiting until we reached a certain point to start thinking about profitability.

When it comes to evaluating a new direction, I always look at all of the actual costs of an idea, like examining the menu to consider all the variables: price, calories and pairing with the wine. Opportunity costs are just as important as hard costs. You have to consider, what are the things you won't build if you go in this direction?

The alignment with the brand equity and vision is also essential. A lot of things might create revenue and have great ROI and may even be cheaper to do that what we are doing now, but it might not be a fit with our brand. We have more than 50 million members and selling them refrigerators may be lucrative in the short-term, but that is not who we are. It doesn't advance our goal of empowering people to take control of their financial lives so that is not a good strategic use of our resources.

Sweet Profitability

Whether booking a table for two or renting out a movie theater and providing popcorn for a CEO talk (something we actually did to get all of our growing company in one space), a leader has to balance lots of factors to ensure the best experience possible. Making decisions around managing costs and revenue opportunities is how we deliver a sustainable bottom line. That is the approach we have taken to building a platform we believe will have long-term value for members.

Published on: May 2, 2016