My Learning Through Helping Companies to Scale Up Nilesh Gohil

Many of you have also taken the path of joining a growth-phase company and been through its rollercoaster ride, and learnt (not to leave the path, hopefully!). Much of the learning might be contextual and some may even be painfully frustrating to recall, however we’re all skilled to take the fruit and leave the chaff. An acute need for people who could help in this crucial phase of a company’s lifecycle is felt across the world.

Let's first talk about PEOPLE...

The first and the most important pillar of a company. Overall business success is a result of getting several right things done, so focus on this key pillar on its own wouldn’t guarantee overall business success. However, not focusing enough on the pillar could certainly get a company killed, or make the process of scaling so much more hard.

At its heart, there are two philosophies to run a company: (a) customers focus, and (b) people/employees focus. While much of it’s a marketing gimmick and it’s clearly not an either-or decision for a company, a calibrated approach is often needed for a successful scale up.

Customer focus has been the pitch for decades. As a kid, I cherished this quote from Mahatma Gandhi on my family’s business premises:

“A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption of our work. He is the purpose of it...”

As a small business before its first growth phase, it is survival instinct for company’s leadership to focus on the customers as it’s not only the source of validation of the business idea, but also the crucial revenue source to pay bills. This DNA is especially prominent for an early-stage B2B companies.

Some pitfalls of excessive customer focus, as Mr Christensen covered in his award-winning book of “The Innovator’s Dilemma”, are now generally widely understood.

We were blindsided at Symbian for such excessive focus on our direct customers – including Nokia, Samsung and Motorola, and we paid for it through the nose for such shortsightedness.

While the employee focus is also equally well understood, it’s not seen as strategic and left to HR to ‘take care of’. However, HR is generally not well established at this stage or the function is acting as management’s voice to the employees than employees’ voice to the management. As a new business leader, most of us also continue the time-tested rituals of the customer focus. However, as a senior hire to help company in the growth phase, it’s your job to help it achieve the equilibrium between the customer focus and the employee focus.

The employee focus would help to attract much-needed talent and achieve the very growth that the company is striving for. Happy and engaged employees would also deliver the ultimate customer delight. More importantly, the new talent could help the company to grow beyond being a one-trick pony (the first product-market) and shape it into a more sustainable business across products and markets in medium term.

Vision

At risk of sounding cliché, an inspiring and articulated Vision of the company is the foundation to attract and engage employees in the growth-phase.

Symbian had a compelling vision: To become the most widely used software platform on the planet.

This vision gave focus for all of us as we grew. At a times, we felt that we didn’t do enough to fulfil this vision completely and should have done more, e.g., break into the high volume mid-range phones and built foundation for connected devices. Instead, we concentrated on the smartphones. Well, it still propelled us to achieve over 70% market share and around 500 million units sold, not a small feat by any standard!

Being data-driven is fashionable nowadays, but let’s not settle for just SMART goals. A company has much grander ambitions typically, it might require articulation though.

Many revered business leaders have made the vision into a compelling story. Much talked about vision of SpaceX:

... to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.

Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act; to do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul.

Growth

The next thing that we need to decide is equivalent of “buy vs. build”. It’s typically not a tough decision, as there is typically not so much there for you to build upon, i.e., limited internal talent pool. In addition, you need different skills to scale than those needed in the bootstrapping phase. However, a tricky thing here is how to insert lateral hires to achieve envisioned impact. This is to be done delicately with required internal buy-in, which is often easier said than done.

I would start with complementary role(s), so job security of the existing folks is not threatened. The job compartmentalization would still create some doubts, however first few hires in a complementary role should ease existing people’s job and that should land you some support.

More recently, we complemented our account pod structure with Success Managers and Data Scientists, and that prepared our existing team of Domain Experts & Engineers to scale our customer engagement model.

Definition of the new role (RACI matrix would be handy) helps to crystallise what the new hire would do and how it would work with the existing roles.

Involving existing folks in interview panel would create even stronger understanding of persona of the new role. Beyond the obvious functional evaluations, the panel could help to evaluate softer aspects, such as cultural fitment, abilities to manage specific stress situations, people management approach. I use competency based interviews that defines boundary of the interview evaluations, so I have chance to evaluate on overall fitment of the new hire. I would look for someone with speed of decision-making, entrepreneurial drive and commitment to the common cause of scaling the company.

I usually strive for a significantly higher talented people for the new role. This would ensure that we not only realise expected business value during this delicate phase but also raise overall talent bar of the team.

Build

In parallel, I would work on building rapport with the existing team, earn its trust and tirelessly work to create individualised career growth plan for the folks. I would also create a lightweight people development approach by defining Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), 1-2-1s, appraisal and promotion systems, training – pretty much the bread & butter of a great organisation. This effort may initially receive a cold shoulder from the existing folks. You would feel very lonely but don’t worry, that is expected. As many wouldn’t have felt such need during the bootstrapping phase. They would soon start to acknowledge the need as chaos of the growth phase replaces that of the earlier phase!

Symbian invested significantly in its people. High quality training and coaching efforts were absolutely outstanding.

High potential leaders went through specially designed Symbian Pathway program, my interactions with its experienced coaches were priceless. Through this growth-phase, a number of us grew in the ranks and taken up more challenging roles.

It’s important to avoid going overboard in your newfound enthusiasm as too much of people processes would be a dampener to the entrepreneurial and self-starter culture that you want to preserve very hard.

If we have done the above things well, within a couple of years it would be time to change the gears again. As we want to build internal talent engine rather than continue to rely on external supplies. Focus on the “build” part with even stronger people focus with only a fewer roles to be hired with lateral talent.

We are at the beginning of such journey with my recent employers, and have seen several of my colleagues now taking up different roles – in business development, engagement management, partnership management, product management, data science, or growing to more senior position within existing career path.

Identifying individual’s strengths and interests, and building upon those, has been the success mantra.

We have modelled upon Google’s 80/20 rule, and our folks have taken up projects in their chosen areas for their on-the-job learning and growth.

There is a plethora of management literature on this pillar and one recommended reading that I would add is “The Hard Thing about Hard Thing: Building a Business When There are No Easy Answers” by Mr Horowitz.

Now It’s Your Turn

Even after 16 years, I feel like I have barely scratched the surface and have lot to learn. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments.

Please reach me on nilesh.gohil@gmail.com for more detailed questions, such as importance of free food, how to instil customer focus, define KPIs for different roles, hire HR, or design compensation & incentive structures.

Once we have few like-minded people, we could eventually form a Google/LinkedIn group to discuss this further within the group.

About The Author

Over the past 16 years, I have helped multiple tech companies to scale following their bootstrapping phase. Early member of Symbian, which was at the epicentre of the Smartphone ecosystem for over a decade. I professionally grew at Symbian and literally 'felt' the Business Lifecycle through its struggle to survive following the emergent threats from Google and Apple. The journey started with my very first opportunity back in 2003 to help Symbian set-up it’s first offshore site. Had limited success initially, however this learning help us pivot to a better approach and within a couple of years, the site had 200+ product engineering team.

Over the years, I have done so across different domains (Digital and Analytics from Mobile), industries (eCommerce, App, BFSI and Telco from HighTech), functions (consulting from product engineering) and markets (India, APAC from the EU/US).

I’m currently leading Sokrati through the similar growth curve and now we are 90+ Sokratian in the team with most of the growth since our series B in early 2015. Together, we tripled the revenues, improved customer satisfaction (130% NPS lift) while building new business lines.

I’m an engineer with an MBA from Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA).

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