From startup to maturity

There is a stage of startup life that is rarely in the spotlight: growing up to be a real company.

It is the stage when a startup needs to go from having the potential for exponential growth, namely a great product, a solid business model and some enthusiastic first customers successes, to realizing that potential.

It is the stage when a startup needs to stop acting like a brilliant yet erratic child and start behaving like a well-oiled execution machine.

And quite often it is where a lot of startups fail.

That’s hardly surprising given the challenges of scaling a successful global business, not the least because the qualities that propelled the company through the treacherous waters of early startup life are quite often not the ones that can take it to the next level. The creative chaos must give way to organized growth. The miracles of getting the first customers on board need to start happening a lot more frequently. The heroics to deliver the first customer successes must be replaced with repeatable processes. The infinite flexibility in making a product meet the needs of those early adopters must become a properly managed product roadmap that delivers revenue and innovation at the same time. The jack-of-all trades mentality (if not necessity) of the founders and early missionaries must transform into a well-structured and well-managed global team of passionate employees.

All that must take place while the train is running at full speed and without missing a beat, since setbacks at larger scales can be lethal.

If it sounds hard, that’s because it is hard. I know first hand. It’s been a good part of my 5+ years at Upstream, where I had the good fortune and privilege of contributing to such a transformation.

When I joined in September of 2007, the company had about 40 employees and a single office in Athens. By the end of 2011,  it had transformed into a mature company and a global industry leader with 160 employees, over $100 million in revenue, 8 offices around the world and customers in more than 40 countries.

Did  the company qualify as a startup ready to grow-up in September of 2007? After all, it had been around since 2001 and 40 employees is not what a startup normally looks like.

The answer is yes. By September of 2007, the company was gearing up for unprecedented growth. It had turned a very promising idea into a first version of a completely new product, which had been successfully tried in the market a few times. The day I joined, after a truly heroic summer that left several people burned-out for months, the company launched its biggest project yet with the most important international client it ever had. It was a giant gamble and a spectacular success. The success proved unequivocally the solidity of the new business model. It also gave the company the ammunition needed (in terms of cash and customer references) to fuel its very aggressive business plan for global expansion. The “growing-up stage was about to begin.

Within a little more than a year, I found myself running the technology and operations department, accounting for about half of the people at the company. My job, along with the rest of the management team, was to build an organization that could keep up with the explosive growth the company was experiencing. This meant guiding the technical teams in scaling our homegrown software platform as well the infrastructure needed to support our global expansion. It also meant dramatically scaling our operations to efficiently execute and support on a 24x7x365 basis the ever growing number of projects around the globe.

It was a truly wild ride. Along the way, I learned a lot about what it takes to grow a company into a global industry leader. I experienced the ups and downs, the rough times and the good times, the tough decisions and the celebrations of a company working flat out to succeed globally.

It’s some of these experiences and learnings that I have decided to share in a series of upcoming posts.

Now, more than ever, perhaps for the first time, there will be a number of promising startups in Greece that will get the chance to reach the growing-up stage and will have to deal with a part of the startup journey that few have told them about.

So I think that this is the right time to open up the conversation about how to deal with that. I believe that public discourse over the matter will help them be better prepared when the time comes.

An additional motivation is that Greek startups will most likely have a harder time staffing for this growing-up stage due to market structure and limited past success stories. As such, it’s a bigger issue that requires a lot more attention than in the US for example where there are armies of trained managers who can bring just the right type of skills to the mix.

The posts are by no means intended to be in the form of advice. After all, as the saying goes, “the best advice is this: don’t take advice and don’t give advice”. My intention is to share experiences and learnings that I picked up from the real world training that I got in this arena, in the hopes that other people will find them useful and that they will contribute to the public discourse.

As a final note, I should make a couple of important notes about the posts to come:

  • I will shy away from discussing commercial and marketing strategies since those are quite unique to each company, business model, product and industry. There are also other people who can do this better than me.
  • I will use examples wherever I can, while keeping within reasonable confidentiality bounds.

All in all, I can honestly say that the journey from startup to maturity as I have experienced it has been superbly challenging, but at the same time unbelievably exhilarating and rewarding. I hope my posts will tell a small part of that story.

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