Mark Ridley: How to scale your (startup) team

Mar 2017

Blenheim Chalcot group technology officer Mark Ridley shares his tips on scaling startups.

I love working with startups. Startup founders are dreamers, visionaries, rebels and artists. I am, however, reliably informed by someone who has met actual rock stars that founders are, in fact, not rock stars.

Founders tend to be unconstrained by physics and unconcerned with reality. They’ve all faced down a decision to bet on themselves over a steady pay cheque. I’m always inspired by their courage and passion.

But I don’t blindly prefer startups to big business. There are inspirations to be taken from the corporate world where people can specialise more deeply, develop greater skills from the availability of bigger training budgets, and generally have more exposure to more ‘mature’ mentors around them. Some of the most entrepreneurial people I’ve met, people whose sheer skill, drive and talent leaves me feeling utterly incompetent, have worked in the biggest companies. Sales, in particular, is a skill that seems best nurtured and honed within an established sales team.

Corporates tend towards analysis and process, startups tend towards creative problem solving and seat of the pants reactivity. Neither is right or wrong, and elements of both are necessary at different stages of the business life cycle. As Bill Aulet would put it, entrepreneurs need the spirit of pirates, but the execution skills of Navy SEALs.

Love The Sales

Dave Bishop is the technical co-founder of Love The Sales, a London-based fashion technology company, one of the best developers I know and an enormous pain to manage. LTS have recently received their second funding round and a few weeks ago Dave asked me for some advice on scaling his development team. This, it occurred to me, was a beer conversation, not a Google Hangouts conversation.

When we finally found time to sit down with the rest of the LTS team, I answered Dave’s question with deliberately provocative advice: “Do everything you can to avoid scaling your team”.

But why?

Time is the most critical finite resource.

The one unchangeable rule when building software is that you’ll never have enough time or money. Of those two, time is the more critical resource – as businesses, we need to do everything we can to cut time and effort while maintaining quality. Doing this is the most effective way to cut costs, and is a better leading indicator to track.

Think about it this way; businesses exist by creating value for customers. Sure, some just work by convincing investors that one day they’ll IPO for billions but the good kind of businesses create value.

Productivity is a function of the application of resource over time. Value is a function of the correct application of resource.

Resource could be anything – staff, server capacity, raw materials, infinite monkey labour. Money can buy resource, but nothing can buy time. It ticks by resolutely and your startup business plan or your corporate innovation project goes out of date as you fail to ship. Lean principles teach us that code, business plans, Gantt charts and financial forecasts are all just wasteful intellectual inventory until we get the product in our customers’ hands, and most importantly for our company’s survival, the cash in our bank account…

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