Imagine you single-handedly run a lemonade stand.
You get 20 customers each day and have just the right amount of ingredients for a day’s commerce. Then, out of the blue, you get coverage from the New York Times.
Suddenly, there are customers queuing down the block. You run out of sugar within an hour and have to shut down, losing out on money. That happened because the lemonade stand wasn’t equipped to scale. There was no process for hiring, onboarding new lemonade makers, or projecting the amounts of sugar and lemons you’ll need. In short, there were no processes. And no processes = no scalability.
When you’re just getting started, you have the room to do things that don’t scale. These things act as the spark to ignite the rocket fuel that launches your business, but you can’t do them forever.
For example, Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham recounts how John and Patrick Collison got Stripe off the ground by doing things that they wouldn’t be able to keep doing when they got bigger.
“Founders ask “Will you try our beta?” and if the answer is yes, they say “Great, we’ll send you a link.” But the Collison brothers weren’t going to wait. When anyone agreed to try Stripe they’d say “Right then, give me your laptop” and set them up on the spot.”
Obviously, Stripe employees aren’t still acquiring users by turning up in person to install Stripe on laptops. Over time, they built scalable systems; systems that made the founders the world’s youngest self-made billionaires.
In this article, I’m going to go through advice on scaling your business which will help you keep increase revenue without letting your company go off the rails.
If you’ve ever had to scrape around the depths of a filing cabinet for a document, lost a client’s details, or found yourself being bombarded with questions on how exactly to do a task, then you know the pains of a business that isn’t equipped to scale.
A good friend of mine who works in real estate was telling me about how their database for new properties is a literal whiteboard that gets wiped off regularly (and if the agents don’t remember all the details, that’s their fault). When I worked in the same sort of job, my CRM was a mix between tattered post-it notes and a huge disorganized Excel sheet that my boss needed me to email whenever there were updates.
With these kinds of ‘systems’ are in place, it’s no wonder businesses have trouble scaling. If, like a worrying percentage of businesses) you’re running your business mostly over email or relying on paper and your flawed memory, it’s time to stop and seriously think about scalability.
Why you need to focus on scalability now
After the initial buzz, the first 100 customers, and launch press coverage, every company hits its “hot coals”. How companies choose to navigate these treacherous times decide whether or not they’ll end up in the C part of the below graph:
Extract from the cover of Predictable Revenue
The secret to surviving the hot coals? Scalability.
A scalable business is one equipped to deal with increased demand. No matter how many sales you make or employees you hire, if your business is scalable it will be able to handle it without falling apart.
A business that isn’t equipped to scale will find it difficult to recruit new hires, onboard effectively, and manage core business processes. A staggering 100m businesses are launched annually, and 90m of them fail.
To avoid being one of those fated companies, you need to work on getting your business into a scalable shape as quickly as possible.
Here’s what that can involve:
#1: Create a wiki for your employees
“What’s our embed code for videos for our site?”
“What’s the BuzzSumo password?”
There are some little bits of information that no one seems to remember, and they’re often scattered all over the place: Slack, Google Docs, Trello, inside random out of date processes…
Instead of starring the message in Slack and then forgetting about it, why not just get that information centralized, accessible, and easily searchable? It’s not just something that big, unwieldy companies need. Even our content team with just a few members use a shared document to store a few vital links and code snippets.
A wiki built in Tettra
Pusher set out to create a wiki from scratch , and have listed out the questions they asked themselves to write it:
- Who are the people?
- Are there different teams? Different departments?
- How does the company make money?
- What kind of customers do we have?
- How does management work? What kind of hierarchy exists?
- How is work defined and prioritized?
- What are the major projects?
- What internal services are available?
- What rituals does the company have?
- How are strategic priorities set?
- How do people communicate?
- What admin stuff exists (holidays, expenses etc)?
- What kind of processes does the company use?
- How do different teams do things differently?
- Who should you ask if you get stuck?
- What software tools are used by the company?
Wikis work well inside Slack; you can use a tool like Niles to add a bot to Slack you can ask questions. Alternatively, you can create a wiki that doesn’t live in Slack. MediaWiki is free, open-source, and commonly used.
#2: Automate as much work as possible
Automation — which has made most forms of data entry obsolete — is something you should focus on as early as you can because it’s not something you need to hire to do, and could even save you making hires in the first place. As your business scales, automation is always reliable and consistent.
It’s not expensive, either. The automation platform we use at Process Street, Zapier, has premium packages starting from $20/month.
With that, you can set up code-free links between your apps, including your emails, Slack, Microsoft Excel, Google Drive, and more. For example:
For more information, check out our huge ebook on business process automation which will explain everything from the very basics to advanced techniques.
#3: Hire an assistant early
The last thing you want to be spending time on is tasks like updating your calendar, doing data entry, and managing databases. The quicker you get those tasks out of the way, the better you can focus your energy on scaling your business.
Here’s a process you can use to help you onboard a virtual assistant more thoroughly:
#4: Focus on turning early hires into leaders and creating a formal management structure
When the company is small and high-energy, employees are usually juggling many different functions at once. As you scale, you’ll be looking to focus down and turn that “all hands on deck” structure into something more formal.
Harvard Business Review looked at 75 years worth of data on organizations and identified “defining specialized roles” and “adding management structure” as two out of the four most important things that lasting companies do when scaling.
If all goes well, your early hires will go on to lead their teams and departments. By the time they’re promoted, they should have the most experience and competence in the job function. Writing for Forbes, The Muse recommends you set up early hires for leadership by gradually giving them more and more responsibility, and mentoring them one-on-one about work-in-progress projects and general management skills.
Alternatively, you can bring in senior hires who have successfully scaled companies in the past, as recommended by venture capitalist Ben Horowitz.
While many founders don’t want to act like corporations in the early days, organizational structure with strong leadership is key to turning your scrappy startup into a real operational business. And, one thing that’s vital to a well-developed management structure is an organizational chart. We’ve written a guide on how to create one of those here.
#5: Switch from email to instant messaging and cloud collaboration apps
As we’re all subscribe to more email newsletters and subscribing to apps that send regular emails, our inboxes become less and less useful. Imagine using a version of Facebook Messenger that notified you about everything under the sun just as frequently as your emails do. Work can easily get lost, overlooked, and buried in the constant flow of trash. In short, it’s silly to let important emails from co-workers share equal space with newsletters and automated update emails.
Teams using the instant messaging platform Slack to cut down on internal email regularly report that it better helps them to centralize information and stay on top of tasks. Instant messaging saves time, is more immediate, and is something we’re all getting used to more in the age of widespread Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp usage.
As for cloud collaboration apps, they help you share and centralize information. The alternative is forwarding emails and again adding to the pile of messages for your co-workers to check.
Trello, for example, is like a pinboard for information. Instead of marking emails in your inbox and forwarding them to the relevant people, you just make a new card on Trello and add team members to that card. You can manage permissions, add attachments and labels like you can with emails, and move the card between lists to show its status (WIP, waiting for approval, done, etc.).
You can see in the image above, we’re using Trello to manage our editorial calendar and progress on blog content. Each card is one blog post, and we condense communication around that post to inside of the card, keeping everything tidied and easy to reference.
The reason this will help your business scale is that it cuts down on a lot of needless admin work, allowing your team to build an infrastructure of information on the cloud instead of locking it inside their inboxes. With that system in place, sharing information, managing projects and hitting deadlines becomes much easier.
#6: Document processes right from the start
It can be hard to justify finding time to document your processes when you’re small, but how else do you plan on delegating work if the person you’re delegating to doesn’t have your official explanation on how the task’s done. Another reason you need documented processes is when making new hires since processes double as training material.
Here’s an example:
We’re no strangers to running our business with processes at Process Street, and the way we’ve found to be the most effective is to record a screencast of you doing the task yourself. Then you can include the video in the process, and take screenshots from it to explain each stage. Use a tool like Evernote or Jing to mark up the images with arrows, text, and highlights to make sure you’re being as clear as possible. Get started today by reading this introductory guide.
As a general rule, you should document processes for anything you do more than twice. For a great starting point, you should sign up to Process Street and use the hundreds of pre-made processes. It’s likely you’ll be able to apply many of them without much editing needed. And, just like that, you’ve got documented processes for your business.
As your business scales, you’ll need to make sure you’re also keeping your processes updating. With Process Street, you can track process activity to see if your team are using the process. If they aren’t, it’s a red flag that their methods have changed and the process needs updating. You can also create versions of your templates so you can track how your workflows change over time.
#7: Nail down your recruiting process
One of the most obvious ways a company scales up is by hiring more employees. It’s commonly used as a success metric to gauge how much a business has grown, and as one of the most vital ways to scale, it’s also one of the processes you need to optimize first.
Where do you advertise your jobs? How do you screen potential employees? How do you make sure you’re hiring from the best pool?
#8: Track anything in Airtable
Recently, we wrote a huge guide on how we track all of our content assets using the cloud-based database Airtable.
That means that all of our blog posts, guest posts, backlinks, Twitter mentions, and keywords are in one place, all linked together and easily searchable. We did that with content, but you could do it with anything. You could use Airtable to build your employee directory and calculate how long each employee has been with you (to automatically schedule annual reviews, for example).
The point of Airtable over a spreadsheet is that it’s not just for storing data. It’s for storing relationships between that data. Our content URLs are linked to data from Ahrefs and Twitter. And, since Airtable is connected to Zapier, you can send that data to over 750 other apps, automatically. No more digging through spreadsheets, losing information, or asking Bob to send you over the latest .csv file.
Relax in the blissful peace of organized data.
Build a scalable business today
A lot of the advice in this article can be summed up in two ways: move from local storage/paper to the cloud, and start using formal processes. The first steps you should take are to cut paper from your business by digitizing your documents, and to start documenting your processes. Process Street is a simple and powerful way to document, execute, automate, and track your business processes so you can focus on generating revenue instead of putting out fires.