During the fall of 2016, we started seeing real growth and we were excited to be over the hump. Hitting product/market fit meant that we had built something of value. We had it. People were buying it. They were loving it. And now, our job was to scale it.
At first thought it was “easy peasy”, and looking back, scaling is by far the hardest thing we have done to date. Scaling is not a simple task, but a very interesting challenge. How do you scale and maintain operational excellence when it comes to product quality, great customer service, team spirit, onboarding new customers, new innovative features, and launching in new countries when you have an annual growth rate around 100% and launching your product in 15 new countries per year?
We would soon find out the hard way. Scaling a global product and company is like being a teenager with popping hormones and growing pains in your entire body. Below, I have listed some of our biggest challenges and learnings so far, and while still scaling, we are constantly learning new ways to improve and tackle the daily challenges and growing pains.
A global partnership agreement is just a license to hunt
It’s a big victory when a startup signs a global agreement with a Fortune 500 company. Please celebrate it big time like the king and queen you are. You earned it, and also know, this signed global agreement is only a license to hunt. Now, the hard work begins, and now, it’s time to make this partnership a success for both parties.
There are several steps that come next. You need to co-create an implementation plan and establish common procedures and routines to continuously improve the following processes, commission structure, product training, roadmap, and business model. The most important step, however, is to be able to handle internal resistance and politics.
Do not underestimate the power of internal resistance. Your partners need to have strong leaders on the inside that can guide and eliminate fears and resistance, especially when you have a technology that could feel like a threat to their existing business. It is essential to be transparent and has open communication so you can tackle the problems together and create a business that will make both companies successfully build and scale.
Scaling shifts your engineering teams focus
Building a product that people loved was hard, there’s no doubt about that. It took us a long time, and a lot of money, and we had a number of setbacks and near-death experiences along the way.
All of a sudden we had thousands of users and millions of transactions using our platform. With more and more customers onboarding our platform, Tricefy bugs and incompatibilities are being found all the time. When this happens, we are not able to move as quickly or as aggressively as we would like to. More bugs mean less time for our team to develop and improve Tricefy, and it keeps us from tackling our product roadmap. My important lesson in this phase is to not let growth come at the cost of your existing customers’ experience, and make sure to invest in innovation that ensures long-term customer growth.
Stay innovative and open to pivot old processes
It has been hard for us to stay innovative, launch new features, and pivot outgrown and inefficient processes like finance, HR, customer support and sales. I think it is a very common problem for companies that are scaling fast. It is very easy and natural for the entire organization’s focus to be on taking care of the existing and new customer needs, and making sure new countries, partners, and teams know the existing product and processes. At least this been our case. I think it is important for the management team to really think through this challenge and make sure they have a strategy in place in advance to ensure they get clear on how to handle improvements in every process and every department in the organization.
My two biggest learnings here are, don’t build organizations silos per continent or country, and try to eliminate as many repetitive tasks from your team as possible. Both problems slow down your growth. With silos, fractions, and different processes create 100 different ways on how to perform different tasks like onboarding customers, support, sales etc. Systems are a lot easier to scale quickly than humans, so be sure to automate every step you can.
Fastest return of investment might not be what you think
As you grow, everything gets more and more expensive. The bigger your business gets, the more expensive everything will be. Be careful not to let your costs scale faster than your revenue. Many companies believe that the fastest return on investment is focusing on building new features, services, and new distribution channels. This might be the case long term but short term this will be very costly for your organization. I’m not saying don’t invest in new features and services long term as this will be important for your companies survival. But, I have learned this year there are 3 areas that will give your company a much faster return on investment than anything else. These include:
- Iterating your business model & pricing structure
- Improving existing partnerships and alliances
- User experience
Next year we will definitely focus more on these topics since it is also proven by many studies.
Don’t assume if it works in America, it will work anywhere
Do not make the same mistake we did by assuming if it works in America in the ultrasound segment, it will work in any imaging segment and any country. This is not true. People say entrepreneurs are so naive. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. Before you launch big time in a new market, you will need to adjust workflows, communication, and a pricing strategy on that specific market. A key component for us has been to have very flexible features, meaning we have multiple ways for our customers to share data, store data, access data, and create reports so we can adopt the service for every customer and for each country’s need.
Building a strong culture and team spirit
The absolute biggest challenge we have faced during this phase is building a strong team, spirit, and culture. It is very challenging when you have business in many countries. There are additional complexities with different cultures, languages, and with only meeting face to face once a year, effective, clear, and direct communication is critical. It can be easy to misunderstand each other in texts, emails, and phone conferences. Scaling in this environment is where fractions and subcultures are born and often lead to fractions between groups and people.
This is challenging, an ongoing learning process for any leader and organization, but I think it’s extra challenging when your team is spread out all over the globe and come from different cultures. How do you keep the team inspired, motivated, dedicated, and respectful to each other? Of all the challenges we had so far, this is the most interesting to me.
I have always been fascinated by human psychology. Understanding the brain, how our minds work, willpower, dreams, and especially human behavior alone and in groups. I love to read books about these topics and have deep conversations about life for hours with friends and people. Through these conversations and our rough learnings this year when distrust, fractions, and conflicts started to grow in our company, I knew at the foundation as humans we all want the same thing. We want to belong, be respected, be heard, trusted, seen, and loved. When distrust, fraction, or conflicts hit, it is imperative to rebuild a foundation of trust. Here are my best tips to do so:
- Intention: Get clear on what you want to create and why it matters
- Relationship: Establish a communication that is open, honest, respectful, without judgment, and respectfully view and listen openly to both sides
- Be as transparent as you can / talk about the white elephant in the room
- Be reliable (be your word) meaning do what you say you are going to do
- Connect with the vision and company culture: Learn what matters and what the drivers are and why
- Take responsibility and be accountable for your own mistakes
- Acknowledge people and tell them about the potential you see in them and what they mean to you and the company
- Advocate and connect with people’s fears and frustration
- Be bold and courageous, and set clear boundaries on what is okay and not okay
My last tip on this topic, and my most important criteria is that is when you are hiring a new person on your team, make sure the person has the right mindset and core values that align with your company vision and culture as knowledge and experience are much easier to learn than to change a person mindset or core values.
When you grow fast you need people that can analyze the issues from many angles, and see each other’s perspectives and intentions. You don’t want people on your team that are judgmental, think they know it all and always needs to be right. You want people that can give others the benefit of the doubt and extend generous thoughts and feedback.
As I look back at what we’ve battled, learned, and overcome over the past 30 months, and every battle yet to be fought, one thing is clear to me: scaling is, without a doubt, the hardest part of building a business so far. But after all of this years and especially this year together with my co-founder Åsa, Martin, and our great team, I’m 100% sure we will overcome any battles and hurdles the world will throw at us. Perseverance has become our middle name and we are getting closer and closer to our bold dream to become embedded in every new imaging device so we can make sure to provide quality of care for people everywhere.
“Change is hard in the beginning, messy in the middle and gorgeous at the end”