Becoming a “Real” Company while Maintaining the Startup Mentality
Growing a business in a controlled, profitable manner is always a challenge, no matter what the industry or products. When joining Tools4ever New York in April 2006, I was the fifth employee in the organization and there really was only one product to sell – a user provisioning application. Although the operation had been around for six years, I decided to treat the opportunity as a startup – empowering everyone with an entrepreneurial attitude.
The first challenge was to learn what the product actually did for clients and how to sell it. With a somewhat lengthy background in technology and sales, including stints in management, I reasoned that this would be the quickest method to bring in additional revenue along with gaining the knowledge needed to make the process repeatable as we expanded. The product is a highly complex, technical application that allows organizations to automate user account lifecycle processing. The first step was to become familiar with Microsoft Active Directory. A lot of reading, questions, demos and talking with customers shortened the learning process. More leads than could be handled were coming in via our website so there were plenty of opportunities to practice and refine the sales pitch.
The second item I looked at was employee satisfaction. With only four employees in addition to myself, losing one would have had a huge, negative impact on business operation. The employees had numerous complaints about the previous leadership and many were easy to resolve in short order.
Simple items like a lack of a coffee pot and water cooler, and their inability to roll over unused vacation hours, were inexpensive and easy tasks I could implement, but they went a long way toward making for happier co-workers. To keep the positive atmosphere going long term, we have added events like happy hours, company outings and holiday parties and we make sure to always include spouses. Another aspect of creating sustainable employee satisfaction is to always allow spouse’s to travel when an employee needs to be out of town, at their expense, for training or a conference.
While trying to get the company profitable, it was necessary for me to look for the low-hanging potential revenue generators and cost savings. The first thing that jumped out at me was that all professional services were being provided to customers at no cost, and in unlimited quantities. Based on what I knew from previous organizations, this was most definitely contrary to industry standard. At this stage, we only had one technical person who was responsible for client software installs, providing support, doing product demonstrations and our internal infrastructure, too. I immediately hired a second technical person and set about the process of re-educating sales staff, and our customers, that services would now be billable by the hour. Although it took nearly a year to get fully implemented, all customers, prospects and staff are fully versed in our professional services model and what constitutes support versus consulting. Revenue in this area went from zero to six figures in short order and continues to climb year after year.
After the company started to take off — easily hitting double digit growth – the realities of that growth started to set in. We needed new office space, better health and dental care, a real payroll/HR company, not to mention new employees and all that goes along with them. Two servers quickly became eight, four phones lines went to twelve and so on. In managing a growing business, it becomes very easy to become isolated from the people actually doing the work and getting bogged down in the minutiae of the day-to-day operations. However, one of the tasks I have remained involved in is the hiring of new employees. Depending on the position, I am either the first or second person they speak with, often after a quick phone screen.
While I may not be able to assess their skill level with technological subject such as JAVA or C++, I am a good judge of character and can determine whether the person will fit in and thrive in our semi-laid back, lack of micro-management culture. For current employees, I maintain an open door, come-talk-to-me-about-anything approach. Nothing is too trivial that I can’t take a few minutes to chat and I think my employees appreciate that.
At this point, let me say that I detest meetings without a purpose. Too often as a company grows, meetings become de rigueur and entire days are spent around a conference table without real work being accomplished. However, as a company grows, the informal hallway conversations become insufficient. To that end, we have initiated a meetings with all department managers on a bi-weekly basis, sales pipeline and marketing reviews on a weekly basis and other reviews on a monthly basis. Once a meeting becomes stale, and by that I mean nobody can remember why we started having it in the first place, it is disbanded.
Suffice it to say, there are numerous challenges in moving from a startup to a “real” company all while maintaining the quintessential elements of the startup mentality. Although the product line has expanded, along with sales volume and personnel, I would like to think that we still maintain that mentality in everything we do. From the way we treat our employees and our customers, we will always strive to treat everyone we deal with as the most important to the success of our operation.
Written by Dean Wiech is managing director of Tools4ever US, part of a global supplier of identity and access management solutions.