Agony Lance: Growing pains

Agony Lance: Growing pains
Agony Lance hands out his best Uncle Wiggs advice for early-stage companies. He has tips on hiring (your mates), growing (no big, hairy audacious goals), and avoiding burn-out (why not take a month off?)

Q. How do I find great people for my business? Especially ways that don’t involve meeting strange people in bars at night.

A. I’m not sure what you are doing in those bars, but as you are already well engaged on Twitter you clearly know one of the best paths forward. But before you start, are you sure that your offer is great? Have you created a company and culture, which you can honestly evangelise about? Is the work meaningful, will people be on fast learning curves, and are the tangible benefits worth switching for? If you build it they may not turn up at your door, but your job becomes a lot easier.

And the first people you want on board are folks who you know, rate and who will help extend the best parts of the culture. Next is, of course, people that they know, and so on and on – slowly extending the network of awesome people is a great way to grow.

Meanwhile expose yourselves and your culture if you can, and reach out on Twitter and other media appropriate for your business, talking up the demand for awesome people. Turn up to conferences where talent likes to go, and make meaningful contributions and sponsorships. Reach into universities and programmes like Google Summer of Code to find and train emerging talent.

If all else fails, copy what Vend, Xero, Orion Health and others who are winning the talent wars are doing. Again, start with people you know, and people they know.

Q. How do you handle the transition from first success (“We aced that!”) to ambition (“Now what do we do?”) without burn-out?

A. Clearly as you grow your business you’ll need to set new goals – and there is always a greater challenge. That’s relatively easy to do, and those goals should generally make you worried but not to the extent that you are petrified. Keep them relatively short term as well.

It would be nuts, for example, for Xero to talk about reaching $10 billion in recurring revenue when they have only just hit $100 million. I reckon they will get there in the end, but it’s such a long way away, and it’s better to target a mere $500m, for example – scary but clearly within reach.

But the real question here is how to avoid burnout, and for that you’ll need help. Specifically the help of a strong team of management and staff behind you who progressively take on more and more duties.

The founders should seek to do nothing – and focus on finding and helping the right people to lead the next phase of growth. Set a personal goal of taking a long weekend off, then a week and later a month. If you can walk away for increasing periods it’s a good sign that the team is taking up the reins, and they in turn will need to do the same as they devolve their own tasks and responsibilities.

In a fast-growing company this process is continuous, which is why they are great places to work for people who like to be challenged, learn and grow – and that’s everyone.

Q. As you start succeeding, lots of opportunities open up. How do you keep focused or choose between them?

A. Every now and then take some time out with the leaders of the company and have a strategy and prioritisation session. Talk about your mission and values, the future business landscape, where the competitive gaps are and what are your own strengths and weaknesses. Then agree or reaffirm where and how you will compete, and from there make a list of the larger priorities. You’ll probably have too many, so use a simple prioritisation method (I like plotting Value versus Ease on a 2x2 matrix) to decide what to do first. It’s that easy. Oh, and you’ll also need to not do everything else that is not a priority – and that’s the hard part, but stick to it and you’ll win.

Q. It’s lonely and poor being a founder CEO. How do I get advice from someone who isn’t trying to sell me something?

A. Get out and meet other founders who are at a similar company growth stage – they are your best source of advice and solace. If you don’t know any then there are a decent number of events where you can find each other, and from there you can find a few peers. For example, a small group of founders in Auckland formed a group called Flounders, and meets each month, with about eight to a dozen people attending a simple meal hosted at someone’s house.

From there the group, ably guided by Sacha Judd, has organised a couple of national Flounders offsites and, recently in Auckland, a Flounders meet-up, with 60 self-selected founders of early stage companies. That evening, and the other events, are designed to get founders talking and learning from each other. Any speeches are short, and focused on Q&A, and we try to set monthly goals which are informally presented back each month. A board is one thing, but it’s high motivation to promise something to your peers, although many of the tasks seem to get done a day or two before the next meeting.

The night after the 60-person Flounders evening was the Deloitte Fast 50 Regional Award night, with Deloitte generously hosting sessions across New Zealand. These were richly stashed with successful founders and teams from each region, and Deloitte made things even easier with enormous name badges for all. There are plenty of these sorts of events, and I strongly endorse the idea of forming your own group from your area. Keep it simple, keep it low key and have only genuine founders and CEOs of companies in the room.