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Coping with business growing pains

How maintaining a strong business culture and values can help you tackle the impact of scaling up

Scaling up a business inevitably brings both change and new challenges. 

But many of these ‘growing pains’ can be successfully dealt with if a business maintains its unique culture and values.

This can help the business adjust to the new demands of expansion, while preserving the spirit and qualities that helped it get going in the first place.

Hear from four business leaders who’ve learned valuable lessons about steering businesses through growth.  

Plan for growth

All successful businesses need strong management, but expansion can bring new demands. Dr Eric Mayes, CEO of Endomag, a medical technology company, says: “You start with a small team with a clear vision and then things change. Some people have the right capabilities, while others don’t. At Endomag we’ve bolted on people who were not only capable of fulfilling one role but who could grow with the company.”

Business leaders should spend as much time as possible planning for growth, but this can be easy to put off in the hurly burly of everyday tasks. Shai Vyakarnam, a visiting professor at Cranfield University who advises companies of all sizes, says failing to recognise that each stage of a business’s development needs careful planning means companies can “thrash around trying to do everything without properly prioritising their decision-making”.

Debra Charles, CEO and founder of Novacroft, which creates smart technology and customer care solutions, says she spends about 60% of her time planning. “Everything starts with a point in the future and asking what success looks like at that point. Then you look at the opportunities, challenges and barriers. That helps you build products and services to meet future needs.” But she stresses it’s a team effort: “People won’t blindly follow. It’s about helping people see what might be and then talking about it together.”

Weighing up potential risks is an integral part of planning, says Debra. “We identify the risks, look at how we mitigate them and ask if there’s a business case that makes it worthwhile. And you always revisit because planning is a living, breathing thing.” Shai Vyakarnam adds that his research has shown that while good business leaders tolerate risk, they "know where to draw the line".

Customer first

Planning for growth can be difficult to navigate, but putting customers at the forefront can help guide these decisions. Alan Wilson, CEO and founder of Expandly, which helps companies sell products across multiple online channels, says: “In the early days I was focused on building the technology and assumed customers would come – I didn’t focus enough on what the customer actually wanted.”

Debra Charles says being customer centric is part of Novacroft’s business culture. “We invite key customers in a sector to come and sit on a forum to talk about what they want in the future and what needs to happen to get there. That gives us an insight into how we can align ourselves more effectively to help them.” 

Staying true to your values

A business might start with one person’s vision, but establishing its culture and values is a team effort, says Debra: “A company isn’t some faceless organisation – we’re all human and it’s about bringing people together to do something meaningful. When I started, I knew what my ambitions were, but then it’s about bringing people on board and creating a sense of belonging. Those values were developed by our team through collaboration.” Alan Wilson adds: "I want our people to have ownership and pride, to feel part of Expandly so that it’s not just a job."

Even where a business has a clear vision that its people can get behind, and a set of values that drives it, scaling up can changes things dramatically.

Dr Eric Mayes reveals that Endomag faced a challenge when the Cambridge-based company expanded into the US: “We felt we had a cohesive group in Cambridge and we wanted to maintain that as we expanded. To do that we’ve spent a lot of money bringing the US team to visit the UK. Video conferencing can help, but there’s nothing like building real face-to-face relationships.”

The recruitment challenge

Of course, growth often requires recruitment, and it’s important to find new faces with qualities that fit the company’s values.

Dr Mayes says: “We have a strong culture running through the company that means we end up hiring people that share our values, no matter who is doing the hiring.”

Debra says Novacroft also looks for the right behaviours in recruits but adds: “Diversity of culture and thinking is vital to meet the challenges of the future – the days when business leaders tended to recruit people in their own image are gone.”

Both agree that once people come on board, the best way to look after them, and prepare the business for growth, is to ensure staff get the training and opportunities they need to learn, develop and improve themselves.

Scaling up can mean the focus of a business changes from entrepreneurial to being more organised. “You start off with energy and great intentions and then you start growing and that requires more structure and discipline and before you know it there’s no room for people to be creative,” says Debra. “We’ve been through that moment and that’s when we reintroduced a start-up mindset. That really turned things round.”

Listen and learn

Whatever the strengths of a business, there’s always value in getting good advice. Alan Wilson says: “Whether it’s from an outside mentor or from within the boardroom, it’s always a good idea to listen – just be careful to filter it because not all of it will be relevant.”

Dr Mayes adds: “Once a company scales up, you need to make sure non-executive directors have relevant experience. Having a board that really understands where you’re going and can offer support can make a huge difference.”

History shows that plenty of smaller businesses have successfully navigated their growth journey. As Shai Vyakarnam says: “I once interviewed the CTO of an emerging business in Silicon Valley with just 80 staff and asked what their growth challenges were. He gave me a funny look and said, ‘We’re not a small company struggling with growth, we’re a big company starting small.’ It’s a powerful message that growing a company is all about your mindset.”

Top tips for coping with growing pains

  1. Ensure your leaders have the skills to deliver at different stages as the company grows.
  2. Plan a strategy for growth, including weighing up possible risks – make it a team effort and keep updating your strategy to suit changing circumstances.
  3. Always stay focused on understanding your customers' needs.
  4. Work out what’s good about your culture through collaboration across the business – and take care to maintain that spirit among new recruits.
  5. Aim to maintain the values that helped to launch the business, even if growth demands more organisation and discipline.
  6. Make sure you have access to advice based on experience – either from external mentors or members of the board.

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