Structure can be sexy

A start-up needs to be able to adapt to change quickly. It needs to be able to do this so it can get ahead of competitors – whether big or small. This agility, as a company scales, usually goes one of two ways. It could scale too quickly, launching new products or services all the time but not really evaluating whether they work, how much they cost, do they make the company a profit – the list goes on. Or it could take the second path where new ideas fly around left, right and centre but no one actually executes those ideas – the founders often talk about all these amazing ideas but none actually come to fruition. In a sense, it’s flexible because it can say it will do anything it wants but it’s all hot air.

By now you probably know that I have had my own companies, albeit very small, worked directly for founders and also I have coached entrepreneurs. A big lesson for me being back in a start-up is that it’s actually harder said than done – on many occasions when I coached, a founder and I would come up with an awesome idea in our coaching sessions but when they took it back to the business it was hard to execute. Why? Lack of resource, lack of enthusiasm from the team and a general lack of structure.

I’m now helping to run a start-up called Cypher Coders where we run coding camps and clubs for children. I used to coach the CEO, Elizabeth Tweedale, at the NatWest Entrepreneur Accelerator. She’s three years in, the company is on the tipping point of scale and we are learning that agility is very important but some structure, especially when managing people, is very important whatever size business you have.

I was trying to find a simple solution to help solve some of the challenges we were having and my husband mentioned a great book; Measure What Matters by John Doerr. It focuses on setting objectives and key results (OKR’s) – I was dubious at first, as we are a small company, but it has been really useful.

Before you set any OKR’s you need to know where you want to go – what’s the vision for the company (see my previous blog ‘We can all be visionaries’). Then take this to your team – on a whiteboard ask them why they bother to get up every morning to come to this start-up. Encourage them to have a good mix of personal and business why’s. For example, I get up because I want to prove I can scale a company but I also want to do it in a company where we are doing good – teaching children the language of the future is pretty important in my opinion. From a personal perspective I also want a family and be a part of a company that encourages this. Then ask them what they think the company’s ‘Why’ is – some call this the mission. If you have hired correctly you shouldn’t be surprised how aligned everyone is. Elizabeth clearly had hired correctly because I was astounded that everyone knew what Cypher’s ‘Why’ was!

At this point you probably want to go away, take what you have learnt and discuss with fellow founders, mentors or your business coach. How do you take that overall goal and break it down into more manageable pieces? Remember, you may have the most loyal team but they still won’t all own a piece of the business so you will always need to work on keeping them engaged (if you want to keep them) as it’s hard working for a start-up. These kind of sessions can invigorate even the most cynical of team members.

Your next session is about setting OKR’s – you should have your 12-24 month plan (if you don’t make sure you work on that before the follow-up session) and take it in. Break it into themes e.g. more locations, more people and better marketing. Then under each one state what you want to achieve. For example, in three months we want to have launched in three more locations. That’s your objective and the key results go underneath e.g. Identified and met with x number of new locations and completed on-boarding for those locations. For people you may want to hire x amount of people or even focus on development if you are able to. Then you get your team to put their name down and take responsibility for those key results – in front of everyone. It’s important to know that they must be measurable and you are measuring for the right reasons (stretch goals are good but make sure they are realistic).

It isn’t going to be perfect the first time you do this but it’s a process that will get better and better each time. We didn’t give enough time at the beginning (we didn’t account for how engaged the team would be – a good problem to have) and we also hadn’t finalised our scale plan.

Overall, you need to be willing to give it a go. I always struggle when start-ups don’t want to put any process or structure in place because they don’t want to end up like a corporate. Well, if I have learnt anything from working at both you need to take the positives from the large and small then merge them to make a successful start-up scale! Learn to love a little process, put some structure in place and enjoy the entrepreneurial rollercoaster as you grow (because trust me when I say the ups and downs are always going to be there along the journey – it’s inevitable).