At the beginning of our journey in tech, Moonward experienced a rapid growth curve. At the start of our first year of Business in Australia, we started with just two of us in a co-working space, during our Christmas party in the same year, we had four team members. Over the next three years, we entered a period of what I would call, aggressive growth. We doubled our team, our capacity, our cash and unfortunately our problems. Before you read any more, it’s important to know that I regret none of this. This period of time was the storm Moonward needed to test the stability of our boat, and as they say, anyone can steer the ship when the sea is calm, but when the storm is lashing, only a skilled sailor can make it out.
I will admit, up until a few years ago, we valued this rapid growth in our company. It was one of our main points of difference, and we would mention it to our new hires to get them excited about working for our company. On the outside looking in, rapid growth is sexy, and I would be lying if I said it didn’t initially fuel my fire — it’s exciting to be a part of something exciting. But as time went on and the tech landscape shifted during the COVID-19 period — we started to feel worn down.
We knew that something needed to change.
We switched our efforts towards creating a company that focuses on sustainable and precise growth. This shift has not only been better for our team and clients who directly benefit but for us as the owners.
Here are a few of the red flags a business should look out for to gauge if their growth is becoming aggressive and falling outside of a parameter that cannot be managed.
Aggressive growth in tech or agency almost always equates to aggressive hiring. One of my favourite books ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins talks about the importance of putting the right people in the right seat on the bus. When you make rash hiring decisions, you will let the wrong people on the bus (unaligned hires) and seat them in the wrong place (inadequate training). This inevitably causes fractures in your workforce as you look to put bums on seats. I have previously written an article about the impact of toxic employees on your team, you can read more about this here. Unaligned hires are individuals who do not value the culture, do not follow the rules and irritate yourself and the high performers in your team. Near enough becomes good enough with unaligned hires, and a culture of near enough is not good enough at Moonward. Additionally, from a new employee perspective, rapid growth can be the killer waiting at the end of an already lengthy hiring process. They believe the poor behaviour that is being displayed by other unaligned hires is the norm.
It takes time to make a masterpiece, and inadequate training can cause blemishes early. At Moonward, it can take a developer around 3-6 months to get up to speed with our systems and processes, and from there, it can take a further 6 months for them to be integrated with the team and humming at full steam. When we do not have the right systems in place to bring any new hires up to speed, and we expect them to hit the ground running straight away, they will start cutting corners to meet our demand. As a company, we need to be realistic about how long it takes to train someone to meet our standard, this is the nature of any service business (Accounting, Legal, Marketing, Science) where the skills, vision, beliefs and attitude of the company need to be transitioned to a person. We are not selling a ready-made product off the shelf, we are not following a recipe at a fast food restaurant — we are selling people.
It is also worth mentioning that sometimes it could be more beneficial to take on people who have a lower skill set but are extremely passionate about working for your company and are aligned with the culture. This is where good training systems are a necessity to bring them up to your standard. But only by growing sustainably do you have the resources to invest in upskilling this individual.
When we have on-the-go systems and processes we can never truly know what works and what doesn’t, because the test is always changing, and subsequently we never know where the control is. This can create an atmosphere of chaos. When our systems and processes are tried and tested, your team and work can scale as needed.
At Moonward, we take the attitude of everything needs to be systemised — everything… The email template sent to new hires, the manner in which we follow up invoices, the way that code is submitted for review, and the way that we talk to a client at the start of a meeting. Everything has a document attached and a process to follow. This can sound overwhelming — everyone needs to refer to documentation when doing a task — but this is not the case when you have a culture of systemisation. It’s like creating muscle memory, the more reps you do, the more intuitive it feels and the stronger you get. It also creates a much calmer working environment. The team knows what is happening, the client knows what is happening. We all share a benchmark and we do not fall below it.
Of course, every system needs to start somewhere, and that is often in a position where there is no system. It’s ok to start with nothing. What I would say is become addicted to hunting out and creating systems. The hard work and difficult choices now, make for a much easier outcome in the future. The great thing about having an enthusiasm for always creating systems is the work never stops. Monitor the systems you have created and listen to anyone who uses it. Don’t have the attitude of this has always worked so this is how it’s done. Processes and systems are fluid.
It’s exciting to go out and start hiring a team, getting an office, networking. It is likely that the company has been yours, or a few members of close-knit teams’ vision for a long time, so when you get to go out and share that vision with others, it can be the next big adventure.
We see it a lot in tech when a big investor comes on board, the first allocation of funds goes straight towards hiring new talent, getting a new office fit out, bringing on a board of members, etc. It is important we do not lose ourselves and what made our business special in this process.
Rapid growth can mean a becoming of our true self — if this company had more opportunities we would have a bigger office in the centre of the CBD with a pool table — but it can also mean an unravelling of our true self. We start taking on new team members’ personalities and the vision that we spent so long building begins to shift. We can become addicted to the vanity metrics of growth, the square meters, the number of clients, and the team size, instead of focusing on efficiencies and retention. We can start to get frustrated with the results and blame others for unaligned staff, inadequate training, on-the-go systems/ processes and ultimately a loss of corporate identity — when really as the leader the fault and responsibility rests with us. We as the leader can get distracted by the power of growing, and by some twist of fate, the team can end up leaderless altogether.
Finding balance is good of course. We need to strive for big goals in a company. But we cannot do this with an 'any means necessary' type of attitude. Do not go past the mark of victory without a plan. In victory, we must know when to stop. There is a time for expansive growth, I believe that is when our systems are steady. There is a time for sustainable growth, I believe that is when we know ourselves as the leader and we are ready to enact the company's goals.
In the five years, I have been in the industry, I have seen this exact scenario play out a dozen times: big companies experience rapid growth and hire huge numbers of team members only to make 50-70% of them redundant in one fell swoop. I can imagine this is heartbreaking for their team, old and passing.
Anyway, many lessons here. Many things I have learnt along my own journey or observed from others who are in the same space. As always, if you have any feedback, please share.
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