Scale or fail: The founder's crossroads

In the dynamic world of startups, scaling is not merely a choice but a non-negotiable on the road to success.

Scaling is a phase filled with potential and peril, demanding founders to step into uncharted territories, which can feel daunting, especially if alone, but also even if supported by a Co-founder, senior leadership team or board. The ability to adapt to this transformative phase becomes the driving force behind a startup's triumph, signalling the founder's readiness to shed the limitations of their initial self and develop beyond who they have been in the past.

The inevitability of scaling challenges

The size of your business commands a different Leadership style. Your ability to adjust quickly will limit friction and drive further Performance.

Scaling is not just about increasing numerical figures; it's about navigating new challenges, from financial management to strategic planning, all part of a business’ journey - which will change on the journey from startup to scaleup Consider the remarkable journey of Airbnb, once a room-renting service, now a global travel platform. The challenges they faced - regulatory hurdles, logistical complexities, and market expansion - highlight the profound changes that accompany scaling.

In the realm of startups, the late-night pizza gatherings symbolise the spirit of a small, tight-knit team. Even giants like Amazon have aimed to preserve this ethos with their famed ‘two-pizza rule’ for meetings - whereby, according to Mr Bezos: no meeting should be so large that two pizzas can't feed the whole group, rather suggesting that the smaller the team, the better the collaboration.

Keeping the collaboration productive and all parties appropriately informed can become logistically challenging as business scales and teams scale accordingly. With growth also comes new business locations, further diluting the straightforward path to close-knit and productive communications.

Adapting to a changing role

Scaling demands not only a transformation in the company's structure but a profound shift in the founder's role. The hands-on tasks - coding, designing, selling - make way for strategic decision-making and leadership. A step back from the day-to-day activities to focus more fully on steering the ship, and ensuring the team foundations are strong. This transition requires a new skill set, one focused on emotional intelligence, delegation, and long-term planning, which can sometimes be far removed from the founder's original expertise or their passions.

Consider the leaders at Belgian unicorn Deliverect for example, where a former coder now oversees a team of more than 20 developers. CEOs who once sold door to door now pivot to strategic planning and team optimisation. The ability to evolve with the company is paramount, and adapting to different roles is a necessary step to continuing the trajectory.

The ability of a founder to adapt mentally and emotionally is for me the biggest predictor of the success of a startup.

The risk of stagnation

In the startup world, an inability to progress can be like a silent killer.  No business is able to stand still in such a competitive time. In a rapidly changing business landscape, failing to scale can leave a company vulnerable - a risk of being outpaced by competitors, losing market share, or worse, fading into irrelevance. For example, if you’re a founder reading this, think of a competitor or one of your peers who perhaps missed their window to scale. Perhaps a once-popular tech startup failed to innovate, and became overshadowed by more agile competitors. What were the consequences of their failure to embrace change? Did they survive the fallout? You only have to look at Kodak, a pioneer in photography in the 20th century, however the company struggled to adapt to the changing market in the digital age.

Keeping culture at the forefront

Scaling isn't just about expanding, doing more of what you’re already doing - it is an evolutionary process and there are lots of factors for founders to consider; it can involve maintaining a lean team and importantly preserving the company's culture. The ‘scale or fail’ mantra should include scaling smartly to avoid burning cash and diluting the essence of the company. Keeping a lean team isn't just a financial strategy either; it's a move to maintain agility and innovation. Founders must prioritise sustaining the close-knit culture that fuelled the startup's success (back to the Amazon two-pizza rule).

The people you select to work with is a critical aspect, and as you grow the business the sets of behaviours will drive results. Culture plays a central role to create a competitive edge. To grow your business you need to create an ecosystem that will allow you to grow personally as well as your team.

As founders you have to make many decisions that will lead to success, or not. You are put at a crossroads every week. As such, your ability to map out your own mental make-up is critical to take you to success or a failure.