By Jennie Yoon, counder & CEO at Kinn, modern heirloom jewelry brand, made to last a lifetime — then, now, always.
There’s a good reason for cringing when parents pull out middle school photos that are best left in storage. The pimples, the gangly body, the friendship dramas: growing pains were real, but they paved the way to adulthood. As my company began to grow, I learned that startups have their own growing pains on their way to adulthood — just with better skin.
As with middle schoolers, startups experience some common growing pains. Outgrowing office space, job responsibilities or technology, to name a few, can take you by surprise as your business expands. I’m sure there’s another awkward period when my business has its next spurt, so I’m keeping my focus on the fact that growing pains mean my business is thriving. Here are the best ways I found to plan for and deal with them.
1. Constantly Putting Out Fires
You’ve launched, have repeat customers and they’re telling friends about you. It seems like a nice time to pop the bubbly, but instead, you’re donning your fire chief hat and dousing the flames nonstop. When this happened, I recognized it as our first growth curve and I needed to find better solutions. Whether packaging was out of stock or the website was running slow, everyone turned to me as each mini-crisis erupted. It might seem like the only thing to do at the time, but each time you stop what you’re doing to put out a fire, it’s time away from your long-term goals.
How To Solve: Set long-term goals and small-mid-high forecasts for your business, then you won’t be surprised following a growth spurt because you’ve done the due diligence. Recognize this as the time to hire some fire chiefs, a senior deputy or two, to be your surrogate in times of crisis. This helps build a company of employees who feel more invested in your vision. Finally, know when to say, “That’s OK, we don’t need to put out that fire right now.” Some things can wait, especially if it doesn’t align with your goals.
2. Not Enough Time To Meet Business Demands
When I started out, my focus was on getting the concept, branding and product right. As a bootstrapped company, I hired the team that was most qualified to get the job done quickly and affordably.
When your business hits a growth curve, it can feel like there’s never enough time to accomplish tasks. Stress can mount quickly and morale can sag. This is especially true for staff who are there “just for the job” as opposed to the mission. At this crux in your business, CEOs are infamous for wanting to control every last detail. As you loosen the reins and begin to delegate accordingly, ensure you have a team that is deeply committed to your vision and can grow with you.
How To Solve: Pull back, review short- and long-term goals, make sure your org chart is aligned and check in with your team. Are they contributing to the big picture or spending time on redundant tasks? Is your senior staff growing or are low-level tasks keeping them back? If you’re not ready for additional employees, try freelancers who can add short-term expertise. This will free up everyone’s time to focus on long-term plans and boost morale as well.
3. No Processes
In the early days of Kinn, I set up and ran everything — whether it was tracking suppliers, developing a marketing calendar or establishing HR procedures — in the only way I knew. Sometimes they were best practices, sometimes not. As we grew, it became clear we needed more established processes and procedures. The transition from solo entrepreneur to “real company” can happen suddenly for some startups with the arrival of one big PO. Responsibilities get passed onto multiple touchpoints, suddenly it’s unclear who owns what and things fall through the cracks. The saying “Don’t aim for perfection, aim for progress” stuck with me and is a good mantra to have when establishing procedures and processes.
How To Solve: Keep focused on long-term goals and enact procedures before you need them. Look into CRM software to manage the sales cycle, set up macros (to be modified) and take the time to build out a playbook. Mentors or professional groups can be helpful for recommendations. Listen to your team’s feedback — they deal with technology and processes every day and can have great ideas about improving operations.
4. Ineffective Communication
This writer explains the bittersweet transition that comes with growth so well: “There is an intimacy that every startup founder must say farewell to when their team grows beyond a few dozen. While this shift can feel sentimental…it also opens up the door to more efficient and transparent communication.”
For example, you’ll want your requests to be written so that the team can prioritize them properly based on whatever else they have going on in their current projects. Scaling communications for increased transparency and efficiency doesn’t mean you have to say goodbye to informal catch-ups. They can still happen over the proverbial watercooler, but more formal processes for your growing business mean more accountability and efficiency.
How To Solve: Consistent and frequent communication across all levels is paramount. Watch for signs of digital overload and start carving out calendar invites for one-on-ones and department meetings.
5. Knowing When To Scale
Not all founders are meant to run large-scale operations. Visionary skills and leadership skills don’t always go hand-in-hand, so be honest about your capabilities. Are you getting interest from retail partners but know you’re not there yet operationally? This matters when it comes to getting through growing pains. There’s a fine line between the potential for a good challenge or a crisis.
How To Solve: Have a solid board of directors or trusted mentors to serve as advisors.
As I reflect back on those growth spurts, I see a common theme: trust. Trust that you’ll get through them, trust that your team can step up to the jobs you hired them to do and trust that you’ll learn through each growing pain. After all, you’ve come this far!