Growing a business is hard (and soft) work
Vistage speaker Balaji Krishnamurthy sometimes describes growing a business as a task that requires ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ work.
So what does this mean? Hard tasks are those you generally associated with growing a business – managing finances, setting the right organisational structure and introducing the right processes or systems.
The soft tasks are the more human, intuitive challenges – creating a strong brand, defining the company culture and looking after the wellbeing of your people.
Beata’s career began at the Financial Times, where she worked in the IT department, helping the team to create software to support the newspaper’s production. After that, she moved into IT contracting and eventually on to the Home Office, where she was involved in large-scale IT projects, including systems to help manage immigration and locate sources of hate speech.
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Like many Vistage members, she felt the call to set up her own business. Over the last few years, HeadChannel has experienced year-on-year growth of around 40%, which spurred them on to relocate their office, take on new staff and grow their client base.
Find out more about the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ work that ushered HeadChannel’s business through this massive growth.
1 – Make a detailed long-term plan
“In 2017 we created a detailed, three-year growth plan that took us right through to December 2020,” Beata explains. The growth plan included forecasted revenue, profits, cashflow arrangements, number of staff required, number of long-term clients they wanted to have, the responsibilities of the different departments and the milestones required to achieve these goals.”
It’s worth noting how specific these goals are. They aren’t vague aspirations. They are concrete targets, drilled down to the exact numbers they want to achieve within specific timescales.
“Things always vary depending on what’s happening with the company,” Beata says. “But these are our goals. These are our areas of focus.”
2 – Introduce processes that support the plan and make people accountable for delivering against set milestones
“Once we had the plan we then broke it down into milestones. We assigned those to departments and then to individuals within the departments.”
HeadChannel now runs monthly meetings where they measure their progress against these milestones. They also discuss the plan for next month and any potential blockers, plus what they can do mitigate these blockers.
“It’s about making people accountable,” Beata explains. “For instance, our head of HR is accountable for growing our training programme. This month she’ll be developing a plan, next month she’ll be focussing on the budgets, after that she’ll be finding the right courses. It goes from very high-level to specific tasks for each month or quarter. However, we always make sure that each person has three or four things they need to progress each quarter and no more. We have to be realistic.”
3 – Have difficult conversations
Having gone to great lengths to create a detailed plan and put in place the groundwork for people to deliver it, the plan needs to be followed and people need to know that if they don’t stick to it there will be consequences.
“To be honest, we had to be quite ruthless. If you’re trying to grow and you have people around who aren’t ready to grow with you, then you might have to let them go.”
Softly does it
Tech and IT is an employee market. Staff turnover is high, around 25% to 30% a year. Developers and programmers know that their skills are in demand and that new jobs are easy to find. As a result, tech leaders have to go to even greater lengths to create workplaces that staff value and want to stay at.
How has Beata managed this at HeadChannel?
1 – Fuel employees’ desire to learn and work on interesting projects
“Tech people want to learn,” Beata explains. “Training and development is important to them in order to keep up with new ways of doing things, but also because they’re naturally curious. We try to facilitate this as much as we can.”
Giving people the chance to work on interesting projects is another priority. This is how developers build up their skills and portfolios. If a developer is working on dull projects or feels like they’re not being challenged, they may be more likely to look elsewhere.
2 – Be transparent, treat people with respect and listen to your employees
“We have three core values as a business – ‘respect’, ‘professionalism’ and ‘play together’. Andy (Beata’s husband and co-founder) and I are nice people and we value our employees. It’s been like this from the beginning and it’s very important to us. We’ve tried to keep a close atmosphere at the company as we’ve grown.”
These values are supported by day-to-day behaviours such as taking the team out for informal drinks and meals, and being transparent about business performance and their plans for the future.
They also conduct employee impact assessments to establish how the team are feeling, and to find areas of the employee experience that can be improved.
3 – Hire for cultural fit, not just for skills
“Our values are important to us and we always look for people who are going to fit in with them. We’re looking for a certain disposition,” Beata tells me. “Sometimes we reject great candidates because we feel they won’t be a good fit for our culture or with the rest of the team.”
Defining a company culture that articulates the ‘soft’ side of your business is similar to defining a business plan that captures the ‘hard’ part. And in both cases, those plans need to gel with your people. It’s no good making a business plan that your staff can’t or won’t deliver, just as it’s no good setting out company values and then hiring people who aren’t a good fit for them.
“Hiring for cultural fit also helps with scaling your brand. Once you have these things in place it becomes easier to hire new talent because you know what you’re looking for. If we can maintain a positive environment and stick to our values, we can deliver a good software product.”
There’s one more thing that Beata thinks is worth passing on:
“Look after your cash flow. Always have arrangements in place or some money in the pot for challenging times. It can really hurt your business if you don’t have a backup. Especially in the early stages, when things are uncertain.”
As Balaji says, the work of growing a business can be ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ work. But there are symmetries on both sides. First, you need to set out your stall – whether that’s a plan for your business or articulating what you stand for. Then, you need to implement processes that support those goals, so that your people are empowered to make them happen. Finally, you need to choose your staff carefully and not be afraid to lose staff or potential recruits who don’t fit with your vision – even if, on paper, they have useful skills.
If you’re looking for more advice on how to grow your business, use our site to find your local Vistage group. Businesses experience an average of 220% faster growth after their leaders join. You can find more reasons to join Vistage here.