Managing growth – the learning years
andreaculligan
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Growing pains in a business will always test your dedication and commitment to being a business owner. There are many factors that have led to the successes and struggles my business has endured through our growth period. We had to experience signficant lessons to get here, some of which are shared here.

Get your vision right (and don’t be afraid to change it)

We started Unimail in 1999, with the vision to be the email service used by uni students across the country. This was just as hotmail and gmail launched – so as you can imagine, we got lost in the trenches.

The vision changed over the next six years as we grew steadily but not rapidly. We created products and services that met the market, but our market wasn’t large and our vision wasn’t all that clear.

Five years ago, we became very clear on our vision – to lead the employer branding industry with excellence and innovation. We redefined our values, our mission and how we wanted to get there. We shared it with our team and our clients and well, we grew….fast.

We grew over 100% in 2008, another 56% in 2009 and another 50% in 2010. All of this lead to receiving the NSW Telstra Small Business of the Year Award, myself receiving the NSW Telstra Young Businesswoman of the Year and being listed on the BRW Fast 100 list in 2010.

Take care of your clients

Seems like such a simple concept right? But when you feel like your business is spiraling out of control and you’re flying along with it, the simplest things can become forgotten.

We work with the top 250 companies around Australia and the main thing we learnt is to focus on our clients that have been the most loyal, and provide high levels of service and communication throughout the changes. We had significant changes in our account management team and style. We learnt that in order to continue our successful relationships with our clients, we needed to share our vision, be clear about our process and communicate with them every step of the way.

Asking for feedback and acting on it also became essential to our next phase and we’re now even more transparent by providing insight on our goals and celebrating them with our clients when we achieve them.

Prepare for scalability and usability

New system integration is always very difficult no matter the size or style.

We needed new systems and we needed them quickly. We believed that we could mold to the system, not the other way around and in all honesty – it was just cheaper that way. This became the most expensive thing I’ve done in the past 2 years.

Mapping the way we operate and being clear about our needs across the business should have been the first step and customising a solution to our needs should have been the second. Unfortunately, we chose the latter and spent some hard earned money and time on the wrong things.

We are now at a phase where processes are absolutely integral to our business. Although we had always had them, not all were documented, transparent or even understood. By documenting, process mapping and deriving the workflow, we defined the inefficiencies, structures, reporting lines, and accountabilities for each role of the business. This would have been a lovely luxury to have prior to our growth phase but at 100 miles an hour we essentially restructured the business and redefined every role in the company. We now have full system integration across the business, which provides transparency and a clear understanding of our capability and workflow day to day – and the best part is it’s completely scalable.

Don’t hire for the sake of hiring

We were in panic mode; there is no doubt about it. We needed people, quickly and lots of them. So we hired people who met the culture – but the culture was shifting around us.

Now, I completely believe that if you hire the right mindset, the rest will follow. However, when you are the only senior person in the business and the current culture is not the culture of your future, how do you know what to hire?

We decided to stick to our values but hire with experience. We hired senior people into the business that are experts in their field and also had the core values we believe in. We hired passion but with accountability and vision, people that saw through the mess and allowed us to define the new path to the future. Our business became complex very quickly and it’s been hugely beneficial to have people in-house that understand and leverage off the complexity of the business needs.

The raw truth

The importance of experience, transparency and sticking to our values, combined with calculated decisions – even if they are made quickly – are essential to eliminating impulsive reactions and costly mistakes.

The need to shift goals, alter visions, develop new strategies, deal with constant negatives and struggle to see the light at the end of the tunnel can become exhausting and frustrating. There were a number of times where I truly considered working for someone else.

Now that I feel I have unwound the tangles, we are very excited about building the business the way we’ve always wanted it; sophisticated, observant, collaborative, and transparent. All this while adhering to and maintaining the core values of the business.

We’re a very different business than where we were 11 years ago, in fact we’ve changed even more in the last eight months. The learning curve and experience it’s provided myself and our team has been instrumental for our future and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Instead of our next growth phase being a frightening concept, we’re excited, poised and ready to go.

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2 Comments

Thanks Andrea, this is such valuable and honest advice!

What amazing growth. To hear about the struggles which go with success and what you have learnt from it is really interesting.