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Creating a business from scratch is not an easy feat, but scaling a business successfully is even more difficult. Luckily, then, scaling was the topic of the day for TechTO’s September meetup. Featuring ‘lightning’ talks from five successful entrepreneurs and startup executives, the conversations ranged from scaling without venture capital, to fundraising, to developing holistic strategy, to building a great culture.
Scaling with and without venture capital
When Adrian Joaquin started Workhaus, a coworking space in Toronto, he didn’t have experience in business. A chiropractor who was thinking of his next endeavor, he just needed a place to work.
What he learned quickly, though, is that the patient listening and negotiation skills required to become a successful chiropractor translated well to client management and business negotiations. In his talk, he shared the key lesson he learned from his chiropractic days that helped him scale Workhaus with no outside investors.
In a word, it’s about listening.
“You have to listen intently to the needs of the other side,” said Joaquin. “You need a full picture of what’s going on… and you need to be able to clearly communicate what you want.”
On the other side of this equation, TechTO’s Raise of the Month feature was Mike Murchison, the founder of Ada Support. The company has raised over $20 million in VC funding, and Murchison shared his top tips for entrepreneurs looking to go down the fundraising route.
His first piece of advice is to treat fundraising like a hiring process.
“There’s a power dynamic that exists in every VC meeting,” said Murchison. “It’s your job as an entrepreneur to break that power imbalance.”
Murchison says that if you interview your VC like you would a candidate for a job or your board, you learn more about them than if you simply talked financial terms. When that goes well, “a great VC adds far more than just capital.”
He also recommends focusing on being an outlier, noting how “shocking” it was to him that so many entrepreneurs go through the generic steps of fundraising because they think they have to. Instead, Murchison feels that anytime you’re doing something only because you think you have to, there’s “an opportunity to challenge yourself.”
Scaling culture and strategy
When Nina Angelo, VP of product marketing at EdTech company TopHat, joined the firm, she was inundated with requests to expand. The company focuses on higher education, but she recalled her business development team begging to sell to K-12 schools because they had so much inbound interest.
She had to decline because it didn’t fit the company’s strategy and would require tons of resources to properly service this new market.
While it’s painful to turn down any revenue for a growing startup, Angelo said it’s necessary to stick to your strategy. Creating one, she added, is not even that hard. In her talk, she shared her five steps to creating a holistic strategy.
- Strategy is about choices: choosing where you will play and the angle you’ll use to win.
- Strategy is about where you don’t play, as well: be clear about the places you could go but won’t because you need to focus on your core ‘play’ areas.
- Write it down: it’s not only helpful for accountability, it’s a built-in internal communications document.
- Edit as you go: strategies need both the Intentional Strategy (the things you know work) and the Emergent Strategy (the things you want to try to stay ahead of the curve).
- Tactics matter: your strategy should be clear about how you plan to execute.
Once you have a successful strategy and process, though, culture is crucial to create self-direction and self sufficiency in employees.
Both Michael Lysaght, Chief Digital Officer at WW (formerly Weight Watchers) and Marc Staveley, CTO at Index Exchange, know this challenge all too well. When the two took on their respective roles, they noticed how engineers and developers were not structured or incentivized to support a company mission. They had little visibility to the client and, as a result, produced products and technologies that didn’t wow customers.
Despite being in two very different business – WW in the health and wellness space while Index Exchange is in publishing and programmatic ad buying – the solution for both companies was similar. Both Lysaght and Staveley restructured how their teams operated, moving from a horizontal scope to a vertical scope.
“We switched to become business-value oriented,” said Staveley. “We worked in product delivery units… so everyone understands the value of the products they are delivering.”
Lysaght did something similar at WW, creating what he called “full delivery pipelines” from development to deployment.
The premise was simple: instead of organizing people based on the layer of the product they built, both leaders created smaller teams that focused on specific business outcomes. That way, every person involved – from development, to operations, to product and sales – saw the creation process from start to finish.
Visibility and vision
A common thread emerged throughout all the advice and stories shared on the stage: people care more when they can see what they are creating. While Joaquin, Murchison, and Angelo focused on having clarity of purpose, Lysaght and Staveley looked at the structures that empower clarity.
In all cases, the leaders advocated an approach where everyone knows not only what they are doing but why they are doing it, noting that intrinsic motivation can form only when someone knows the why.