How to grow your Startup the sustainable way
Our COO and co-founder Johanna Baare complements the business and strategy development expertise to traceless’ 100% female founding team. As former COO of the start-up Panion and developer of the business activities for the strategy consultancy start-up BICG on the German market, she combines entrepreneurial and business development knowledge to scale up early stage ventures and teams.
Intrigued by her own experiences she asked over a dozen founders, employees, investors and start-up advisors about the main challenges they are facing when scaling up their ventures. Their answers are surprisingly similar. Interviewing founders, employees, investors and start-up advisors from Europe, the US and the Middle East, from healthcare over real estate to the fashion industry, in 2019 she identified six recurring challenges. In this blog post she presents us her findings – and how we tackle these challenges at traceless:
Finding great talent – and it gets even more complex as you grow
“The first 40 employees are relatively easy to motivate, after that it gets much harder – new employees don’t get equity anymore and the company would very well function without them.” (Co-founder and COO at a unicorn, USA)
In the founding days, people join a start-up for its mission and vision. They will collaborate in developing and sharpening these things, motivated through the inevitable ups and downs of the company by having a direct impact on the venture’s development. But for employee no. 40+ vision and mission are set. They join for a job, and while among the first hires everyone’s role is crucial and talent tends to evolve with the challenges the company faces, the later hires’ role is less impactful – the start-up would most probably survive without them. And the challenges are not over once the right talent is on board. A growing workforce also means new managerial requirements – such as technical and managerial skills the self-taught internal experts of the first hour might not possess. Hiring new people with expertise is expensive – and replacing long-term employees with external experts (with better contracts and salaries) causes dissatisfaction and can ultimately lead to a higher turnover and, as a result, knowledge drain.
At traceless we can see every day how much a mission and vision can motivate people to join a start-up – in fact, until recently the entire traceless team has worked on a voluntary basis for traceless, driven by our purpose and the impact we can achieve. While it is incredibly motivating to see how much of their time our team is willing to spend on traceless, we are very happy to being able to officially hire our core team. Nonetheless, hiring purpose-driven talent that wants to join our team to contribute to solving the global plastic pollution with traceless materials will always be part of our growth strategy!
Professionalizing processes - without drowning in bureaucracy
“You have to have this vision; this farsightedness from the beginning to establish the right processes – but usually, you don’t have the calmness to do so. You get short-term focused. You think of survival instead. It’s actually 80% survival - and only 20% structure.” (Founder at an expert economics consultancy, Spain)
With a growing number of employees, the number of communication channels within the company grows exponentially – making it just as exponentially more difficult to maintain an overview. In the early days of a start-up, everyone is aware and involved in everything that is going on; a status that is impossible to maintain through scale-up - establishing set workflows and decision-making processes becomes necessary. But as things become more standardized, employees feel left out, report a lack of overview and criticize not being involved in the decision making anymore. Finding the right balance between maintaining transparency and open communication, and the efficiency of operations without becoming bureaucratic is tough. Establishing processes and standards early on can be a solution – but in the highly volatile environment early stage start-ups operate in, the focus often is rather on the struggle to survive rather than on internal operations.
For traceless, in a way the Covid-19 was a blessing in disguise. Having founded the company during a global pandemic, we had to collaborate and communicate remotely and often time-shifted from the beginning. This helped us to establish online communication routines and reporting habits from the beginning and made us very aware of the importance of openly communicating in the entire team. Nonetheless – I can’t wait to have our first IRL team meeting with the entire team soon, because toasting to our achievements as a team online is just not the same!
Reaching client centricity – on an adequate level
“We’re trying to bring some sanity into our internal operations – they still often slip out of hand and we then have to bank on the goodwill of our clients.” (Venture manager, Dubai)
Whether it is the ideology of the idea versus the product-market fit in the early stages, finding the right level of excellence versus efficiency, or deciding how much time to devote to strategically expanding markets versus dedicating time on scaling business internally, balancing the right level of client centricity is rough. And defining an adequate level of client centricity versus dedicating time and resources to other issues is not a onetime task but rather a dynamic construct that needs to be constantly adjusted - changing through the different stages and situations of a growing start-up.
Coming from very different backgrounds, with very different experiences, our team members complement each other in many aspects, helping us to continuously find the balance between research and application, between marketing and deep tech specifications, between customer acquisition and product development. Further optimizing our product-market fit and balancing our customer centricity will continuously be in our focus.
Developing the role of the founder – or not
“Our founder was very charismatic, edgy and always consistent (…) He had great knowledge of the industry, the space – but we often teased him that he chased red, shiny balloons. When he left, we realized a need to tighten our internal operations.” (Employee at healthcare start-up, USA)
Through the growth of a start-up, the role of the founder changes dramatically – a shift of focus from visionary and operational to strategically developing business is necessary. It requires the acceptance of a dispersion of responsibilities, a certain loss of control – it gets impossible for the founder to keep doing it all by themselves as they are used to from the early days. But not all have the experience and expertise to manage a big company, or as a scale-up consultant described it “The CEO was too much of a visionary, that was trying to make everyone happy, rather than making a decision.” The need to bring in external competencies or even find a replacement for the job as CEO might arise. Most founders are well aware of these challenges but hope they can handle them on their own. And the issue gets even more complex when several co-founders are in the mix, possibly pulling in different strategic directions.
Both Anne and I are very ambitious and share our vision for traceless and the impact we strive to achieve not only between the two of us but with the entire team. At the same time, we both are very action and solution oriented. With Anne’s extensive experience in the exploitation of natural polymers, life-cycle- and impact analysis and her practical experience in the industrial and commercial implementation of another of her patented processes and my experience in building and developing business activities and strategies for early ventures, professionalizing and standardizing internal frameworks for business and team scale-up, we bring the right mixture of experience and expertise to scale traceless up successfully.
Evolving the company culture – while maintaining its spirit
“The main challenge for me as CEO at the moment isn’t growing our business – it’s growing the company sustainably. For now, everyone is in this together - how can we maintain this feel?” (Founder at sustainable economy start-up, UK)
Through all these changes one major challenge remains: maintaining a start-ups’ spirit, without losing its “flair”. While the few handfuls of early stage employees are easily brought together behind a culture, they are able to form and influence themselves, the next generation of hires are attracted by the promises of this culture – but often disappointed when it’s not scalable one-to-one. Not all rituals and traditions can be scaled and not everyone can be involved in everything anymore. A divergence between different employee waves occurs, that can become even greater when larger investments into the start-up lead to a faster pace of change – in processes, leadership, contracts, you name it. Maintaining a common understanding of the start-up’s culture, the self-conception of what, why and how things are done at the company through these changes is challenging.
While not having reached the scale yet where the scaling of our company culture becomes an issue, the mainly remote nature of our collaboration poses a challenge to build a company culture in the first place. Therefore, in our weekly team meetings and on other occasions, we make a specific point of spending time in actively developing it, laying the groundwork not only for our common vision of what traceless can and shall become but also the values and expectations of our collaboration. We regularly discuss and develop our traceless’ ways of working with the entire team.
Securing funding – a curse and a blessing
“Funding is always a main issue – and the time it takes to get it!” (Founder at a digital health start up, Middle East)
Depending on the stage of the financial cycle in which the venture finds itself, funding is either at the top of the entrepreneur’s mind or not being mentioned at all. But even when the (current) funding is secured, the challenges don’t end there. Funding means new stakeholders who want to see a return on their investment – yet another incentive to focus on the making of (quick) profits rather than sustainably growing operations, putting the sustainable growth of the company at jeopardy.
While we are of course no exception and can confirm the experience that many founders have made before us that securing funding – both public and private - is a long and challenging journey, we are lucky to have just closed our first investment round with three great VC firms that do not only support traceless financially but with their extensive background and knowledge in bio technologies, impact and the industry. Their understanding of what it means to scale up a biotechnology based deep tech start up and our alignment in vision for what we strive for traceless materials to become, is the best support we can hope for to scale traceless successfully.
To assure traceless’ sustainable growth, we envision and prepare the scale-up from the beginning on:
by establishing the right processes without losing an adequate level of flexibility.
through constantly developing our company culture and making it one of our main assets.
by maintaining an open communication, a clear common vision and involving everyone in bringing the company to the next level together – balancing internal development and client centricity.
This solid foundation will help us to sustainably and successfully scale up not only our operations but also the whole company, being even more attractive to potential investors to get the necessary funding for our next round of growth.