Guide: How To Scale Your Business in 2020
Growth might make the headlines, but scaling makes the business. This comprehensive guide will teach you to master mid-growth challenges and build the systems that support scalable, thriving companies.
Did you know that if an ant were the size of an elephant, it would collapse under its own weight? It’s counterintuitive, but ants aren’t the only ones impacted by the physics of scale: across the board, weird stuff happens when you move from the very small to the very large.
Businesses are like that too. The systems that perfectly support a startup can turn into flimsy stilts as the business grows. The product prices that encourage early success can create margins so paper-thin, they’re practically transparent. And even the most capable teams can struggle to cover workflow gaps that multiply each day.
This is all normal. But because most business articles position growth as the ultimate goal, there’s a shortage of information about what comes next. What happens after you’ve followed the tips and achieved growth?
Well, the real stuff. You enter the messy, awkward stage when your ant-shaped business starts to buckle under its own weight. But that doesn’t mean starting an ant-shaped business was the wrong idea. It just means your business structure was right for its size, and now it’s time to evolve.
What Does It Mean to Scale A Business?
The words “growth” and “scalability” are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing.
The difference between growth and scalability is the difference between building a skyscraper and making sure the tower is structurally sound. Without the second part, your tower would topple on the first windy day.
Scalability doesn’t mean being 100% prepared for everything on day one, though. It's great to prepare for as much as possible, and later we’ll show you how to build scalability into your business from the beginning. Realistically, though, a lot of scaling happens on the fly: sometimes you simply won’t know you need a system until you need it.
And that’s fine, because just like the most earthquake-sound structures have a little bend in them, the most scalable businesses are flexible.
Part 1: Challenges in Scaling
When we work with growing businesses at Studio, we notice that completely different businesses can face an eerily similar set of challenges. The next few chapters will walk you through the most common issues we see.
When businesses fail, it’s because of poor cash flow management 82% of the time.
Cash flow problems occur when business expenses exceed the cash on hand. There’s an important distinction here, though: cash isn’t revenue. Businesses can expect that during the early stages of growth, their expenses will exceed their revenue — on average, it takes businesses two years to become profitable.
Cash flow is about having enough money to cover the bills. So why do so many businesses struggle in this area? Because they vastly underestimate the financial strain that growth puts on a company.
Every time a business grows, it unearths needs that it doesn’t yet have the revenue to address:
As businesses that manufacturer their own products grow, they need: commercial-grade equipment, Standard Operating Procedures, communication and organizational tools, and systems that minimize waste and check for quality.
Some businesses bypass the hassle of manufacturing and contract with manufacturers or wholesale vendors instead. They can expect lower profit margins, sizable up-front purchases, and the burden of keeping enough inventory on hand.
Salaried hires come with substantial overhead: insurance, training, paid time off, and more. As teams grow, the need emerges for organizationally vital employees who don’t directly drive revenue, like managers, HR and customer service.
From production facilities to storage and fulfillment, growing businesses need space. Larger spaces mean higher price tags, and that raises the stakes. If the business has a bad month now, it’s still on the hook for bills that get bigger with every upgrade.
Few marketing strategies are as simple as “Money out, money in.” Brand awareness and organic strength happen over the long term, and even the more straightforward strategies like ads require a certain amount of trial and error.
Taxes, business fees, business insurance, employee benefits and worker’s comp, oh my! Businesses also need to follow state-specific laws, obtain permits, and comply with industry-specific regulations like Good Manufacturing Practices.
Forecasting for these expenses can only get you halfway there. The other half hinges on your business's ability to match its increasing financial obligations with proportional, sustainable revenue.
If you grew up with siblings or have kids of your own, recall a time when an older sibling wore a younger sibling's favorite sweater and stretched it until it no longer fit the younger child. Financial obligations are like a sweater: they grow as revenue increases, but they don't shrink as revenue decreases.
That's how a viral marketing burst, for example, can kill a business. When the viral cycle burns itself out, growing companies are left with increasing financial obligations and receding revenue. The sweater doesn't fit, leaving the business with two options: increase their revenue immediately or downsize.
A Thought Experiment
If you’d like to watch business expenses unfold in real-time, journey with us through the first year of a hypothetical bakery/ecommerce shop called Smart Cookie. Ready to get into character? You’re now the business owner, a cookie maestro who bakes and decorates mouthwatering works of art.
Before you sold a single cookie, you worked out the prices you’ll need to keep your business afloat. Factoring in ingredients and labor, it costs you $12 to make a batch of cookies, so you’re looking at $1 per cookie (most of your cost is labor, which you’ve priced at $15/hr).
Selling your cookies for $4 retail will give you a nice, healthy gross profit margin of 75%. By the time you work in your one-time and recurring costs, you’re down to a 15% net profit margin. That's not bad - the average net profit margin is 10%!
Maxing Out Production
Before you know it, you have so many customers that you’ve maxed out your own production capacity of 200 cookies per day. That's $800 revenue or $120 net income per day.
Assuming you never get sick and want to work 365 days a year, you could stop here and remain a comfortable one-person business with an annual take-home pay of $43,800, minus taxes. That’s round-the-clock work for a middling salary, and your customer base is growing — so you decide to sell more than 200 cookies per day and hire your first employee.
Your First Hire
Paying your new employee will be a tall order when your business only makes $43,800 annually. To make matters worse, when you calculated your $15/hour labor price you forgot a key detail: cookie decorating takes legitimate skill. So you either have to train someone from the ground up or hope you can miraculously find a qualified decorator who’s willing to price themselves at $15 an hour.
You end up bringing someone on board for 20 hours per week. To cover the $300 per week they’re making, you’ll need to sell 500 more cookies per week, or 100 per day.
You Just Have Two Problems...
1 - Maxing out at 200 cookies per day doesn’t mean you’re selling 500 cookies per day. You’ll need to hire help to handle any amount over 200.
2 - Assuming the sales are there, can your part-timer make 100 cookies a day? Not at first. They’re going to move pretty slowly until they get more experience under their belt. On top of that, you forgot to factor waste into your cost of goods, and your new employee breaks or ruins about 20% of the cookies they make.
The second you started selling 201 cookies per day, you maxed out the production capacity of one employee (yourself) but weren't making enough revenue to comfortably cover the extra hire.
Your needs stair-stepped and your revenue didn't.
Poor communication costs businesses an estimated $37 billion each year. Growing businesses are especially vulnerable to communication breakdowns because of two issues that naturally accompany growth:
Unclear Processes: Let’s say your growing marketing team makes the leap from writing occasional blog posts to following a multi-writer content strategy. That creates what we’ll call an anti-process: the noticeable absence of a process. How will the team come up with new topic ideas? How often will they post? When are drafts due, and who edits and posts them? This process didn’t need to exist before, so it didn’t.
Situations like that occur across every team. And as deadlines get missed and tasks fall through the cracks, customers get caught in the crossfire. When a customer has a complaint or need, the words “Let me refer you to…” can launch a game of interoffice hot potato that would make even the most bureaucratic organizations proud.
Poor Role Definition: When you run a small business, each person on your team wears many hats. As your business grows and the workload increases, specialized roles open up. And as you fill them, you notice an interesting phrase that's sprouting up everywhere: “That’s not my job.”
People aren’t necessarily shirking responsibility or refusing to be team players when they say this. It's just a byproduct of specialization.
When you hire people because of their skills in a particular field, they won't feel great about work that doesn’t match their training and experience. Expecting everyone to pitch in to pick up the slack occasionally is reasonable, but routinely asking the same people to do work far outside of their job description breeds resentment.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have another deadly phrase: “I’ll handle that!” While the well-intentioned phrase can lead to great results, it's a double-edged sword.
Say you hire one of your first employees for his Jack-of-all-trades skill set and bump him into a management position as the team grows. He's now in charge of people who, in all likelihood, have more specialized knowledge in their given field than he does. If he used to love certain tasks, he might have a hard time giving them up. In this case, "I'll handle that!" is a refusal to cede control over work that’s a better fit for someone else.
According to LinkedIn, identifying and closing knowledge gaps was the top focus area for talent development last year. For enterprise companies, these gaps can be a sign of bigger problems like poor investment in training or loss of a competitive edge.
At growing companies, though, knowledge gaps aren't a symptom; they're the nature of the beast. Emerging naturally and seemingly overnight, the gaps cleft into two channels: specialized knowledge and institutional knowledge.
Generalists are a shrewd pick for your early staffing needs. However, as you encounter issues you’ve never seen before, you’ll need to call in the people who have: custom developers, IT-savvy troubleshooters, product experts and more.
Startups move so swiftly that it's common for people to forget to document their process. That means the knowledge they've earned through trial and error disappears when they leave, forcing new hires to reinvent the wheel.
Bonus Challenge: Leadership Bloat
In 1937, economist Ronald Coase theorized that as companies grow, management costs escalate at a faster rate than sales and profit. Moreover, he speculated, worker productivity actually decreases as management numbers increase. The insight earned Coase a Nobel Prize in 1991 and shapes our understanding of organizational behavior today.
You start out with a lean in-house team of people who handle core business activities.
As the business grows, you promote each original team member to a management position and fill in roles under them.
One year later, you promote those people to management positions and start to fill in roles under them, except...it only makes financial sense to bring one or two more people on board.
...The logical conclusion is a huge team of high-salaried decision-makers and a much smaller team of people who shoulder the productive burden.
While the structure isn't financially healthy, it's a byproduct retaining and promoting top talent.
Part 2: How to Manage the Growing Pains
The simple act of naming your company's pain points can focus your attention on finding the right solutions for your business.
Know Your End Goal
Before you get too far in your plans, define your end game. How big do you want your business to get? Do you want to sell it after a few years or stay at the helm for as long as possible? In your ideal world, does your business turn you into the CEO of a mega corporation or simply keep you comfortable and boss-free?
Keep in mind, growth isn’t the right goal for every business. If you started your business so you can have a flexible schedule and spend more time with your kids, you probably want to keep it small and financially healthy, not growing and cash-strapped. Knowing this early can affect:
Your Product Pricing
The higher the volume purchased and sold, the lower the prices.
The Amount of Profit You Take
...And the amount you reinvest in the business.
Your Break-Even Point
If growth isn't your goal, you'll want to break even ASAP.
Don’t Wait to Hire an Accountant and/or Lawyer
The “don’t hire ‘em until you need ‘em” approach is a smart bet when you’re just testing an idea, not when you’re serious about growth. If you’ve validated the market and are genuinely committed to your business for the long haul, then you’re ready to prepare it legally and financially.
Consulting with an accountant will make your finances a lot easier down the road, and the lawyer can prevent possible issues from toppling your business later. What if you build your whole business around a patented product, or your products don’t comply with industry regulations? If a customer sues you, are you properly insured? Catch problems like this early and you can correct them or pivot.
Set Scalable Prices
When businesses have seemingly healthy margins but they start losing money as soon as they make their first hire, the likely culprits are unexpected costs and low price points. The former happens when businesses neglect to build every possible cost into their margins, so margins that look healthy are actually inflated.
Even when the margins are healthy, items with low price points need to be sold at a high volume to turn a profit. To produce that volume in the first place, extra hires need to come on board before the profits can support them.
If your $8 products have healthy and accurate margins, you’ll break even eventually. To speed up the process, raise your average price point. Changing your prices from $8 to $10 won’t be enough to move the needle and might be more than your customers will tolerate, so look for other solutions:
checkAdd products with a higher price point to your line-up. This won't break brand cohesion as long as the new products serve the same audience and meet a complementary need. For example, bath and body company Lush sells $150 perfume alongside $8 bath bombs.
checkPackage low-priced items together and sell them in batches. Instead of selling one $8 bath bomb, sell them in packs of three.
checkSell gift sets. This lets you create a more ideal blend of product price points. It helps you offer something new without demanding the financial overhead that new product launches usually require.
checkSell wholesale volumes. For many businesses, selling wholesale to retailers is the secret formula that gives them the volume and stability they need as they build up their B2C marketing strategy.
If the margins themselves are unsustainable, you’ll need to bring your costs down or raise your prices.
That's one reason why price should never be your brand's main differentiator. If your value proposition rests on out-pricing the competition, you'll attract a fickle audience that will shop wherever the price is lowest. Should you discover your margins are too low, you'll have no choice but to cut production costs.
By contrast, a brand that's known for quality, innovation or a certain marketing style has much more freedom. When you attract and audience that loves your brand and products, you can set the prices that support your work.
If you’re a fan of cooking, you might follow the “Clean as you go” principle. This simple and self-explanatory approach lets you take on a series of barely-noticeable cleaning tasks throughout your cooking instead of letting them pile up until they become an insurmountable chore.
Documenting as you go works the same way. Every time you or someone on your team creates a system, document it. After each campaign, analyze your results and write down takeaways that can inform future campaigns. Create living documents that anyone can reference: brand guidelines, sales strategies, target personas.
In the early business stages, it's easy for people to rely on the information that’s in their head. Unfortunately, individual brains aren't great places for information the whole company needs.
Set up a shared drive (it doesn’t need to be fancy; Google Docs works!) and instill good documentation habits in your team. Here are some strategies we use at Studio:
checkWe use Slack company-wide and have different Slack channels dedicated to group-specific projects and initiatives. This gets ideas out of our head and puts them into a shared space.
checkSome team members use a browser extension like Evernote to clip information or jot down ideas on the go. Others chat ideas to themselves on Slack. Still others keep a Google document bookmarked where they can add ideas as they have them.
checkWe don’t expect anyone to knock together a formal process document in one sitting. Instead we keep living documents that are updated over long periods of time. Our team-wide Wiki contains links to descriptions of every process and tool imaginable, and we add to it gradually.
checkWhile most people don't mind doing it, documenting isn't a top-of-mind task. The simple act of reminding people to document their process in the first place goes a long way.
Templatize as you go, too. Was that spreadsheet exactly what you needed? It’s a template now. Did you build checklists in Trello to manage a project or campaign? Turn them into templates. Love the layout of your latest blog post? Make it a template. Over time, you’ll have a stable base of templates to use instead of building your project or page from scratch each time. It’s a life-saver!
Think you need to hold that meeting? What if you knew that on average, nearly half your staff considers meetings the biggest time-waster in your office? Or that of the 11 million meetings taking place every day, a third are unproductive? And when they're unproductive, employees feel less focused and happy at work?
When it comes to meetings, many people adopt the "It can't hurt, and it may help" approach. From the top down, change the default assumption at your business to this one: meetings have a (literally calculable) cost. And if staff calendars are perpetually booked, you're paying the price.
Weaning your company off a culture of meetings isn't just great for productivity. In the absence of meetings, you'll need to rely on more scalable communication systems, from transparent project management strategies to company-wide collaboration tools. And the "Document as you go" practice from the last chapter? It's a breeze when your communication is documented by nature!
At Studio we have an "avoid unnecessary meetings" policy, complete with a handout we include with our onboarding materials:
check If you set the meeting, create an agenda for it.
check Don’t book hour-long meetings by default. Consider the length of time the meeting will really take or default to 30-minute blocks. More often than not, you'll discover that the same objectives were accomplished either way.
check Consider creating a Slack channel instead of having a meeting.
check Think critically about who should be included in the meeting and who can be brought up to speed later. Not sure? Make use the the "Optional" and "Required" invitation settings on your calendar.
check Avoid booking meetings during peak productivity hours (for most people, those are in the morning). Aim for the 2pm slump instead so people can spend their best hours working.
check Drop recurring meetings when they stop being productive.
When you do have meetings, pay attention to who’s speaking. Unless someone needs to present information, meetings should feel collaborative, with everyone jumping in to share ideas. If your loudest team member dominates every meeting, those probably aren't productive meetings.
Dangerous though it may be, leadership bloat is the byproduct of a good thing: retaining and promoting talent.
That makes it a formidable challenge. Without the upward mobility that leadership positions provide, talented employees can grow frustrated and leave. So how can you reward great work when you don’t actually need more managers?
The answer to that question is still up for debate. One promising solution is to stop treating management positions as a reward for high performance and start treating them like any other role within the company. It takes a certain set of skills to manage people, and the best performers on a given team don’t necessarily have those skills. Are you sure you even want your best performers to stop producing their excellent work and start managing people?
That’s the question that led Moz CEO Rand Fishkin to create two separate tracks for his employees, a manager track and an individual contributor track. Both tracks are considered equal, with title changes and increasing levels of authority built into each one. This lets him recognize and reward talent without needlessly duplicating managers across the company.
The difference may not seem like much on paper, but it’s huge. Yes, you’re still likely to end up with a fair number of high-salaried team members as you promote your top talent. But as Ronald Coase taught us, the true danger of leadership bloat lies not in the salaries themselves, but in the number of salaries on your payroll that aren’t directly productive. A method like Rand’s lets you reward top employees without drastically changing their job responsibilities.
Map out your ideal employee structure at every stage of your business. Then every time you hire or promote someone, ask yourself: does the current structure still line up with your map?
Now we get to a hard truth: all the organizational systems in the world can’t fix scaling issues that are rooted in money. Knowing that, think about your growth-related goals one more time.
The amount you want to grow (and the amount you realistically think you can grow) will influence the amount of time your business can tolerate staying in the red. If you’ve run accurate forecasts and know your break-even point, it’s time to decide how you’re going to fund the investments you’ll need to get to the next stage. At the broadest level, you have four main options:
True-Blue Bootstrapping: When businesses are bootstrapped, they’re built from the ground up with little to no outside support. Bootstrapping in the purest sense — no business loans — comes down to one thing: don’t spend more money than you make.
While keeping your business lean at all times is smart, growth and true-blue bootstrapping can be incompatible. If you’re experiencing a cash flow problem and you don’t want to reduce the size of your company until the “money in/money out” balance tips in your favor once more, this option is off the table.
Investors: If you have a realistic business valuation and the historical data to back it up, you can plead your case to an investor. The investor will foot the cash in exchange for a small portion of the company. The pros: the money will usually be granted as a gift or no-interest loan, and the investor may offer access to a valuable network. The cons: you’ll no longer have full ownership of your business, and investments often come with strings attached. You will also be accountable to your investors, who may have the power to veto or change strategic decisions.
Partners: Sometimes all you need to get out of a hole is the right business partner. This is a person from your network who can run your business with you, investing their own resources and adopting the hands-on, vested interest of a co-owner. Business partnerships are often comprised of one person who does most of the work (the CEO) and one person who provides all the resources, but not always.
The pros: you’re only one person. Your partner won’t just bring additional resources; they’ll also bring their time. You won’t have to make decisions in a vacuum anymore, and you’ll be stretched less thin because there’s someone else to share the burden. The con: sharing ownership of something you’ve poured your heart and soul into can be really tough.
Loans: For most business owners, business loans are the most realistic option. Loans let you maintain full ownership of your business and can be tailored to your needs. And as long as you choose a reputable lender, interest rates and repayment schedules are manageable.
To make yourself an appealing loan candidate, open a business bank account and start using (and paying off) a business credit card as early as possible. New players like Kabbage can help businesses that have a limited credit history, but you might pay for that convenience with higher interest rates (it’s situation-dependent, though).
Before you apply for a loan, do your homework. From microlending to online banks, exciting new options for business owners emerge every day. Vet each one carefully, reading reviews from multiple sources.
And while this may seem obvious, don’t take out a loan or line of credit just because you can. Understand the loan’s position in your financial roadmap. It should function as a bridge to the next stage, not a bandaid.
The agency vs in-house question is often reduced to an all-or-nothing debate: if you can only have one or the other, which one should you choose? The truth is, most companies need both. They need the strong foundation of an in-house team that lives and breathes the company for 40 hours per week. And they need to make sure there are moving parts built into the system.
The trick is knowing when to add to your foundation and when to use moving parts. In-house hires are a financial and logistical commitment. You’re not just paying for their time; you’re paying for their benefits, sick days and holidays; for their workstation and the tools they’ll need to succeed at their job; and for the competitive salary and enviable office culture that will make them want to show up and give it their all every day.
Compare an in-house hire's hourly rate to an agency's, and the in-house hire's rate will almost certainly be lower. The math quickly changes, though, as you factor in what you don't have to pay for when you work with an agency. Namely, you don't pay for the time that your agency doesn't spend working -- and that adds up exceptionally fast.
Because of this, growing companies can benefit from keeping their core business activities in-house and contracting out specialized roles.
checkHR agencies can help with recruiting, benefits, payroll and conflict resolution.
checkIT companies can provide tech setup and support.
checkDigital agencies offer expert-level design, paid search, SEO, social media and PR services.
checkYou can form long-term relationships with accountants and lawyers on an hourly basis without absorbing their full-time salaries.
checkIf your Jack-of-all-trades team is green in a particular area, those same agencies can provide specialized training, consulting and support.
Everywhere you look, you’ll spot seasoned pros who will handle vital business activities on a flexible basis without costing you an in-house salary. As you grow, you can strategically and intentionally fill specialized roles within your own company.
Stressed-out employees, angry customers, frequent lay-offs, broken systems everywhere you look...it’s enough to make anyone second-guess the long-term viability of their business. Issues like this aren’t harbingers of doom, though — not even close. They’re simply signs that the business probably can’t exist for long in its current state.
When signals like this emerge, your interpretation makes the difference. If you blame everyone and everything else on the planet because surely, your current approach can’t be wrong, then you might have a rough road ahead. If you work to understand what each signal is telling you and make the changes that are needed, your business can move past the growing pains and thrive.
Listen to feedback. Stay open and humble. Know where your money is going and what the market wants. Don’t surround yourself with Yes Men. Stay away from get-rich-quick seminars. And ask for help!
At Studio our bread and butter used to be small businesses — which means we’ve worked with hundreds of growing businesses. We’ve watched countless businesses navigate the transition successfully. We can assure you, your ant-shaped business has what it takes to become one magnificent elephant.