We often cite Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest,” referring that only those who best adapt to their environment, survive the changing times. The concept was coined by Herbert Spencer and later popularized by Charles Darwin.
This concept is most applicable to the startup ecosystem of today. Staying agile and adapting to the ever changing market is important for your business to succeed and grow. Thus it is crucial for startup founders to focus on building stage-appropriate executional capabilities to not fall behind.
Startups may fail due to several reasons such as exhausted capital, lack of market demand, poor product, incorrect business model, wrong pivots, and incorrect timing, among others. All of these are factors that a startup does not have 100% control over. There is a mix of environmental factors such as markets, regulations, competition, etc. that will determine success. However, the only factor that can be controlled 100% by the startup at any point in its journey is execution.
Adopting appropriate executional practices in a timely manner is the key for startups. The key words here are ‘appropriate’ and ‘timeline’. Don't overdo it, don't underdo it.
But, what is operational excellence? How do you achieve it? Where do you start? Let’s break this down into actions that you can take starting today
There is no rule-book to success and it is most definitely not possible to guarantee it. But failure is a given if wrong people are onboard. The ‘wrong people’ and ‘right people’ are dependent on the stage your startup is in.
At an early stage (generally 24 months), you need generalists, who can work without clearly defined roles and processes, purely for customer delight.
But as you grow, operational complexity increases substantially, and this is when you need to hire specialists from different fields. As the business evolves, you need to give them a mandate and let them deliver results. You as a founder can track KRAs and metrics but Don’t interfere in the day-to-day if there is no fire to douse.
When you initially start up and the business is small, things are easy and you are able to pay personal attention and deliver quality work to the clients. But personal attention will become challenging as you grow and have more clients.
1.1) Organizational Structure: Founders need to think of the organization chart around roles and not people. While it is common to have one person in multiple roles in the early stages, it might always not be possible for them to scale up at the same pace as the business. Note that while loyalty is important, capability is important too. As you scale, distribute the roles and delegate decision making. The hierarchy or the processes will not be meaningful if every decision needs to be taken by the Founder.
1.2) Build the right team: Focus on hiring and promoting right. Make sure to find people who know how to scale up themselves, take risks and grow. In order to keep your team motivated, align your key objectives with the right incentives and build a proper culture of execution. Your culture should not just make the team get things done but on doing them right.
In the early stages when the team includes a close-knit group of five to ten people working towards the same goal. At this stage it is possible to make decisions, communicate and implement changes through gut feeling and aligned team vision. However such methods will not prove to be helpful after the business evolves. Rather than relying on such gut feeling, it is crucial to adopt formal planning and data-driven decision making processes.
Your process of getting work done must evolve with the business at different stages. Ensure that you build stage-appropriate execution capabilities to survive and scale up. If you fail to make the operational changes, the controls, processes in time, what you spend time on working as a CXO, your results will not match the changing market needs.
2.1) Communication Process: Establish a solid mechanism for internal communication to keep your team aligned with your objectives. As you begin with a small team, keeping everyone in the loop is much easier. However, the process is bound to get difficult as the team grows. Also try to track core metrics for all the critical functions required for scale.
2.2) Data utilization: Collecting and maintaining data or metrics loses its purpose if they are not acted upon. Ensure that the data collected is being utilized or implemented in your decision making processes.
2.3) Automation: It is important to stay frugal in the early stages but investing in good tech automation tools will add more value than their costs. Top three focus non-tech areas to be automated includes - communication, workflow and reporting/analytics. However, ensure that the entire company is using the same tools for seamless work. It is also important to keep headroom for your automation tool choices and your needs may evolve with time and changes in your business.
3) Discipline: As a founder, maintaining discipline and a rhythm to your work will help you become a better company. Ensuring discipline will help in remaining consistent with goals, operate efficiently, better utilize your funds, adapt to the market changes and stay agile even as the business grows.
4) Planning and Execution: While as a founder, one would like to have a roadmap in place as much as possible to avoid any derails, know that it is not possible to plan everything while building a business. Spending too much time into planning might barricade you from executing things or getting them validated. Founders can however make a calculated prediction and have alternate forms of solutions ready.
To summarize, ensuring company wide execution across people, process and technology will help you enforce discipline and a rhythm to your business. As your operational functions fall into place, it becomes easier to move forward as you scale up.
We understand that building your own business is not easy and the journey is filled with ups and downs. With the above mentioned actions, it will help you better execute your business thereby improving the odds of success.
The article borrows from the crucial insights shared by Ajay Kumar and Sridhar Krishna who co-founded AccelScale, at the second virtual session of ‘Unburn with Scalix.’ AccelScale provides Fractional COO services to meet the unique needs of fast-growing startups and helps accelerate sales growth, improve customer experience, and enhance service delivery.
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