My Guide to Surviving the High-Growth Stage Companies

by Joe Sexton March 29, 2017 | 6 min read

Last week, I shared my best practices for fast-tracking a career. This week I’m sharing my top pieces of advice for companies on the high-growth fast-track.

As the term suggests, companies at this stage are characterized by a rapid increase in regional and international sales, global employee headcount, and the overall maturity of their product or service. While this is an exciting phase for up-and-coming startups, it also presents challenges that can either kill your company or greatly strengthen it. We’re all too familiar with the Cinderella stories of Silicon Valley – and their demise at the hands of explosive growth. The growing pains high-growth companies experience can run the gamut, from finding time to dedicate to on-boarding and training, to making sure there are enough workspaces in the office to accommodate the rush of new employees.

Throughout my career advising some of the tech industry’s fastest-growing companies, I’ve developed several tried and true methods that can help companies successfully make it through this critical stage:

Set Clear Goals and Collaborate

The first and most important rule for any high-growth startup is to have a clear understanding of what you’d like to achieve as an organization in terms of growth metrics, sales goals, product offerings, and culture. Collaborating across all departments to set these goals helps build a solid framework the entire organization can apply to grow quickly and responsibly. A company’s performance can be measured against this framework on a quarterly basis and referenced prior to any significant strategic moves to ensure everyone is headed in the right direction. Make sure as goals are achieved, ALL the people responsible for achieving those goals are recognized in a consistent and as close to real-time way as possible. Recognition is the cheapest — yet a very effective — form of compensation. Set the goals high yet achievable. Your people will always have a tendency to view the future in the rearview mirror. Make sure they are seeing it through the windshield and provide reasoning around why these goals are doable. Finally, even though it may sound cheesy, all things are possible if the ENTIRE  organization works as a TEAM-(T)ogether(E)veryone(A)chieves(M)ore.

Develop a Scalable On-Boarding Process

Second, there will be many new, eager employees joining the team who will need to learn how your company operates and what their jobs actually entail. This gargantuan task of training a flood of new hires typically falls on a few seasoned employees, but this approach tends to cause bottlenecks across the organization due to large blocks of time taken away from their usual roles. To avoid this, establish a teaching culture in your organization where everyone is well-versed on how to train others. This makes the on-boarding process more efficient and promotes collaboration and open lines of communication between new and experienced employees. Remind everyone they were all new employees once and how they felt when others took the time to help accelerate their journey by sharing their knowledge and insights. As I said in my earlier blog, people also learn far more from teaching, as it forces you to be sharp and current when being asked to answer questions or give guidance. Also, deliberately capture on-boarding content as it’s created to establish a library new employees can access when they first join for “pre-work,” so they can quickly ramp-up and hit the ground running even before any formal on-boarding takes place. Focusing on effective on-boarding and continually upgrading it will enable new employees to become productive faster, increase their engagement to reduce future attrition, and drive morale higher.

Never Compromise on Hiring Standards

Finally, every high-growth startup must establish a list of non-negotiables for hiring. These are the skills and traits candidates absolutely must have to be considered for a job – no compromise. This is hugely important to determine early on as a way to safeguard a company’s culture and ensure that quality is always prioritized over quantity when hiring. Remember, a hiring mistake in a startup is a huge hit to the overall results when you factor in the time invested on-boarding someone, the time it takes to realize the person isn’t a fit in the organization, along with the time to refill a position that was assumed to be completed. Measure twice and cut once on all hiring decisions. Take the time to do blind references to validate the candidate’s resume and track record. Only relying on references provided by the candidate is easier and may seem faster, but taking the time to find blind references will usually lead to more candid answers on both strengths and weaknesses for the person being considered for a role. Try and hire only “A players,” but don’t fall into the trap of thinking a C player can be coached up to a B or an A player. It’s a time drain on your organization when there isn’t enough time to begin with, and it’s a morale drain on the top talent already on your team. Keep in mind that top talent loves to be inspired and challenged with what a start-up can offer and will always seek an environment that provides it. Top talent won’t “settle” for a job with a legacy technology company — they yearn to be part of innovation and the excitement that comes with being part of doing something few others can do. Don’t oversell that what you offer is easy. It’s not. But the rewards that come both professionally and personally from doing what average people can’t do is the reason why A players are inspired to come along for the ride. Always remember that a business is only as strong as its team and the ultimate winner in a market is determined by the best team.

In my own experience, high-growth startups are the most exciting companies to work with — they have the highest potential to disrupt a market, are driven by creating innovative solutions and, more often than not, boast the brightest minds in the industry. But be careful when navigating this thrilling, fast-paced stage — it’s better to grow intelligently than quickly.