I became a COO at Tools for Brokers when I was 22 years old. Back then, the team consisted of 12 people sharing one office in St-Petersburg, Russia. Fast forward to eight years later, and we have more than 80 people spread across four offices. Our turnover, income, and product range have grown exponentially. Today I have vast experience, and I am confident in my decisions, but it wasn’t always like that.
At the beginning of my journey, I sought advice and guidance from those I’ve perceived as the ultimate knowledge base — top managers of the big companies. Through multiple conversations with C-level employees of massive industrial companies, corporate giants, and businesses established in the previous century, I have realized that many of the things I talk about are either alien or nonsense to them.
Despite some obvious differences in our views on the world, future, and management, I have had three major takeaways from our discussions. I believe these takeaways can help many startups evolve and bring their A-game.
1. Information must flow out of the heads and straight into the text
Sounds poetic, but this one is actually quite straightforward.
In the beginning, startups typically have from one to 10 people in the team. Often, the culture reminds you more of a family, with its unwritten rules, inside jokes, and common understanding of how things are done. It’s all fun and games until you wake up a couple of years later, and you see that some people left, some people joined, and nobody fully understands what the agreements and procedures are.
Now it may sound boring, but everything must be written down: the processes, the workflow, the decisions made.
Don’t underestimate the value of a handbook with its basic rules and requirements for work. Not only does it help avoid unnecessary confusion, but it also helps smoothen the adoption process of new employees. People learn better and faster when they don’t need to play the guessing game.
There isn’t much point in writing things down though if nobody reads it. That’s why you need to make all information readily available to all team members. Keeping a folder with PDFs on your laptop won’t work here, so think through a system where everyone can easily access the data.
2. Build a clear career path for your employees
Another common situation in a startup is having a ‘jack of all trades’ attitude: responsibilities vary day by day, multiple positions are combined into one, everyone is doing more than they are supposed to do according to their job description. Again, it is fun and exciting for some time, but it’s not sustainable in the long run.
If a company truly wants its employees to grow, it needs to let them do the work they are hired to do — and they should excel at it. With everything documented, it becomes apparent when the team is understaffed, and a new person is needed to cover some of the specific tasks.
Documentation also helps uncover areas for improvement. KPI, or key performance indicator, is a fantastic tool that can and should be used for bonus calculations and potential promotions.
It feels like KPIs are a bit underestimated in the IT crowd, and there is really no reason for it. Show your employees the roadmap and clearly explain what is required to get a pay raise or a higher position.
It’s a win-win for both managers and employees when there is a clear path that needs to be followed to succeed. It also gives the team a sense of responsibility and autonomy — they know what is required of them, and they are in control of their future with the company.
3. Build a forecast to reach your goals
I often hear people complain that it’s impossible to know what happens in the future. Although this feels quite accurate for the past 12 months, generally, you can estimate and plan for what is coming.
There is a stage in each successful startups’ life when the product is simply selling itself. Whether you came up with a new niche or presented a unique feature to an existing solution, it looks like customers can’t get enough of your product. You might think that it will last forever, but it never does.
Don’t wait for your sales to sink. Act now: invest in promotion, calculate the time and the size of your estimated returns. You can ‘go with the flow’ and save yourself from data gathering, analysis, and multiple conversations with the teams. However, the result might not be satisfactory in that case. It’s hard to know where you’re going and what will wait for you at your destination if you don’t plan.
That’s why I urge you to stick to your startup’s vision — but plan ahead for a month, a quarter, and a year like a bigger company. Have your positive and negative expectations of market reaction and be ready to re-evaluate the strategy and final goals. Anyone can start a business. It’s keeping it alive and healthy long-tem that is the problem.
There is plenty of information online on how to do all of this in more detail, but the biggest obstacle is usually finding the time. My advice is to break the process into smaller steps: start reading a few articles, then choose one area of improvement per week and start analyzing it. You will be amazed at what can be done within one year.