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The scaling paradox: How growing quickly can actually slow you down

Between November 2021 and April of this year, the Knak team grew from 34 employees to 62. And as we went through this growth spurt, I expected that nearly doubling the size of our staff would have an immediate and proportionate effect on our productivity. Surely, having twice the amount of people meant we could do twice the amount of work, right? Not quite.

I’m learning that when it comes to scaling, reality doesn’t always match up with our expectations. There can often be a gap between what you think will happen and what actually does — and that’s ok. For example, our recent growth trajectory has actually slowed us down by presenting us with challenges I hadn’t anticipated. Here’s a look at how. 

It takes time for new employees to hit their stride

Nearly half of our employees are in their first quarter with the company — and it takes time for them to become fully productive contributors.

They have to be onboarded correctly, and time and effort have to go into training them and getting them familiar with our corporate culture. And who is doing the training? Our existing employees. Getting new people up to speed becomes a second job for them and it naturally slows down their capacity to do their regular work.

I hadn’t truly considered that when you’re hiring new people, the investment you make isn’t just what you spend on salaries. It’s also the time and money that goes into training and onboarding, the impact new arrivals have on existing employees, and the disruption caused by rapid growth.

A larger staff is less nimble (at least at first)

When we were a smaller team, we had figured out how to measure whether things were working, and how to identify things that weren’t — and pivot accordingly.

But as we have added more people, it’s become harder to know what works and what doesn’t. There are more people doing a wider range of different and new things, and measuring results is challenging because there’s no history to measure against.

One way we’ve been addressing this challenge is by making sure we have the right people in the right jobs, and by giving them strategies, clear objectives, and everything else they need to be successful. It takes effort to do that — effort that we honestly weren’t expecting.

It’s harder to hold meetings

Meetings have become problematic for a variety of reasons.

First, the number of meetings has increased, eating into the time available for other activities. For example, until recently, when someone new started, I would set up a one-on-one meeting with them that would last an hour. I would also hold regular weekly face-to-face meetings with all employees. Now, with people joining almost every week, it’s simply no longer possible to do things as we used to. 

Personally, I’ve adjusted by cutting meeting times to 30 minutes. And regular meetings that used to happen weekly now occur every two weeks. We’ve also re-evaluated who needs to be at staff meetings, and cut attendance as needed.

The second problem is that meetings have become harder to schedule. With a smaller staff, it was relatively easy to coordinate schedules. Now, because there are more people on staff and more meetings overall, it’s difficult to find a slot where everyone can meet. Sometimes, when a group gets together to look at an issue, a follow-up meeting can’t happen for weeks because calendars just don’t line up. That ultimately slows down our ability to make decisions and, as a result, we’ve now started to try to make decisions after a single meeting. It’s easier than waiting until everyone is available for a follow-up.

Approvals take longer

One of the big advantages of Knak’s product is that it dramatically cuts the time needed for marketing emails and landing pages to get through the approvals process. Our customers love that feature!

But internally, we can’t use Knak to approve everything. We have other decisions to make: What goes in that infographic? How do we design the new office? What prototype do we go with for the new feature in our app? And we’re finding that the time needed to get those decisions approved has increased, for the simple reason that more people are involved.

Previously, the person who built an asset might have also been the person who approved it. But that’s not generally the case anymore. Plus, we have to make sure our assets respond to the nuanced needs of our customers, for whom small details can make a big difference. With more people involved, that’s something we have to pay closer attention to. We’re learning on the fly to streamline our internal approvals process. But you have to see where the problems are before you attempt to fix them, and that takes time.

Red tape is more of an obstacle than before

As we’ve grown and added bigger names to our list of customers, it’s become important for us to put stricter security measures in place.

For example, we recently obtained our SOC-2 compliance security accreditation. SOC is an acronym for system and organizational controls, and it refers to the systems and controls a company sets up for such things as privacy and cybersecurity. Naturally, having this accreditation is a huge benefit and we worked for six months to get it.

Now that we have it, we have to follow its guidelines and best practices. That means, for example, that if we buy new software or onboard a new vendor, we have to make sure they meet SOC-2 criteria. Doing those assessments and following procedures makes this process less agile than it used to be.

Even giving a potential customer a quote isn’t as quick. Before, if a potential customer asked for a proposal, I’d just put one together myself and get it sent out the same day. Now, with all the important measures we have in place, things take longer.

More people means more time sorting through everyone’s ideas

Having a bigger team means more people pushing for more projects. That means more time setting priorities.

Everyone on our team has great ideas. Sometimes we even feel like we’re in idea overload! This is where it becomes important to focus, get aligned, and determine where we want to channel our efforts.

Our leadership team has been setting priorities for itself using the rocks-pebbles-sand time management system. Under this system, rocks are your main priorities; pebbles are your daily responsibilities, sand represents interruptions and water is whatever else hits you during the day. I like this blogger’s description; here’s another take on the system from Forbes.

To determine what the ‘rocks’ are, we ask our leadership team the following question: If you could only get three things done in the next three months, what three things would have the biggest impact on the company? As we get bigger, we may need to start setting quarterly ‘rocks’ for every part of the company, not just the leadership team.

We’re building on our potential

I’m impatient by nature. I like to move quickly and get sh*t done. So, for me, the slow-downs caused by our growth have been frustrating — but that doesn’t mean I don’t see the value of what we’re going through. 

We’re in an amazing position to be able to add more and more people to our team, and that continues to be a very real and tangible testament to the work we’ve done to bring Knak to where it is today. Plus, the team we’re building is incredible. I’m so excited about what each new Knakster brings to the table, and it’s been really rewarding to see them add new perspectives, skills, and ideas to our team. 

All of the time we spend now to onboard new people, get them involved, and set new processes is going to pay off many times over as we keep working towards our mission of empowering all marketers to be creative. 

We’re just getting started — and as we continue to level up what we do, I can’t wait to see what’s next. 

Pierce Ujjainwalla has years of experience as a CEO, entrepreneur, and marketing leader. He has lived in the marketing trenches at companies like IBM, SAP, NVIDIA, and Marketo, and he launched Knak in 2015 as a platform designed to help Marketers simplify email creation. Visit his personal blog, Unsubscribed!, for more of the insight he’s gained as founder and CEO of Knak.

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