Scaling Your Startup Without Falling In The Chasm

How our tech company is crossing the chasm without falling in (and bleeding out)

***This article originally ran in The Startup, a Medium publication. 

The chasm between early success and continued market acceptance of a tech product has been made famous by Geoffrey Moore and his 1991 book, Crossing the Chasm.

I like to think of the chasm a bit differently. To me it’s Jaws. Yes, like the giant shark the 1975 blockbuster movie was named for.

For most of the past decade, my husband Jeff and I have been busy building our SaaS (software as a service) company. We’ve developed proprietary technology and landed long-term enterprise clients with big visions who use it. Along the way, we’ve built an advisory board and even made it through rounds of investment funding.

Life in our small tech company is rosy. But to get out to a mainstream B2B market, we know it’s time to cross The Chasm. (And avoid sinking into the shark-infested waters!)

It’s time to cross The Chasm — and avoid sinking into the shark-infested waters!

The Jaws Version of the Technology Adoption Bell Curve
My Version of the Technology Adoption Bell Curve

The Technology Adoption Bell Curve

When I peek over the edge of the Early Adopter slope, I see a huge open shark’s mouth with never-ending teeth that glisten, hungry for my business. As one entrepreneur tips over the edge of the chasm and tumbles down, the shark gnashes and breaks teeth on the business bones. This Jaws is very hungry and he never tires.

Jumping this chasm is scary and challenging. You need to be thinking about the core foundation of your business and prepping for the journey on the other side..I think of that journey as Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the hill for eternity. But let’s not get caught up in Greek mythology just yet.

Jaws is hungry.

How do you jump over the chasm? It’s not science that’s for sure. It’s science, heart, and courage. Here are a few key things I’ve learned so far to help small companies get past the “Jaws” chasm in business:

RACI: Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed
RACI: Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed

1. Build Confidence and Accountability in Your Team: The Not So Racey RACI

As you grow your company, you’re hiring people, you’re getting jobs done and the slots are filling up. This is exactly what you should be doing.

However at some point, you’ve got a team but the time to get your work done has dramatically decreased. What’s wrong? You think to yourself, Why do I have less time with more people? This is surprisingly tricky to decode and where good old RACI rides over the horizon waving her stetson to help.

RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed) is a Responsibility Assignment Matrix. Do not be turned off by the terrible acronym. It’s very effective.

RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed) is a Responsibility Assignment Matrix. Do not be turned off by the terrible acronym. It’s very effective.

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • A project is running smoothly and at the last second a team member swoops in and everything changes — arghhh!
  • You have a project that never seems to end and drags itself along week-to-week looking very pale and sickly.
  • It seems like everyone at the office, including the potted plant Gary, is asked to contribute an opinion on the project
  • You have a couple of people who constantly respectfully disagree about a project and this leads to a lot of circular arguments and everyone feels dizzy and wants to get off the ride.

If you nodded your head to any of these you need some RACI rescue. RACI will put a grinding halt to these kinds of problems. When a project starts your team will determine the key roles and responsibilities of those roles. You could also give them branded sheriff’s badges.

Besides shiny-looking badges you’ll get:

  • Confidence that every team member knows where they sit in the project and how they’re expected to contribute
  • And while you will still have respectful disagreements everyone knows that the accountable person has the final say
  • You’ll watch more Clint Eastwood movies and say y’all around the office.
Build a Bridge, Not a Wall: Company Culture
Build a Bridge, Not a Wall: Company Culture

2. How to Make a Better Company Culture

Okay, so you might be rolling your eyes and thinking yeah, yeah — visioning exercises, and big-picture thinking and team lunches are nice but it’s not really going to impact my business. Wrong.

I spoke to an investment firm last week where the head of partnerships told me that the businesses he invests in that have a good culture outperform his other teams every year without fail. That’s a pretty good reason to care about culture.

Even Gary V, who I don’t always agree with, speaks about how culture is going to define the success of companies in the coming decade.

I think it’s really important to not think about creating a “strong” culture — have can have a super strong culture of misogyny and that’s not going to get you anywhere fast, plus it’ll be a really crappy place to work at if you’re not a young white man.

I had a brilliant culture experience at the first startup I worked for, Abebooks.

In 1998 it wasn’t even called culture. We worked hard, were given a lot of responsibility, had great parties, threw office competitions like Foods Of The World. At the time, I just figured every office was like this.

In 1998 it wasn’t even called culture. We worked hard, were given a lot of responsibility, had great parties, threw office competitions like Foods Of The World. At the time, I just figured every office was like this.

When I later started working with a government agency, I realized that no, the rest of the world is not a joyful, hardworking, and dedicated bunch of people. My government role wasn’t a shock to my system, it was more like a slow deadening of my internal drive. I got bored and lazy. This is not the kind of culture you want.

Let’s take a look at the words, “culture building.” I like the idea that building means to create something brick-by-brick, but you can build anything: a bungalow, a wall or you can build a bridge. How do you become a company that builds a bridge? Or at least, how do you support that direction?

How do you become a company that builds a bridge?

Find people that add to your culture, one brick at a time

Recently I saw Emily Chang speak about bro-culture in the technology space. My big takeaway from her talk was that, in order to build a meaningful culture, you need to be looking for more than just “culture fit.” You’re going to end up with a lot of people who are just like you. And while that will feel great, you’re missing out on the big wide world…the whole spectrum of people that make up a community.

Instead, look for culture add. This means your new team members share your values (ie. build a bridge and not a wall) but have interests, skills, and perspectives that differ from yours.

Build that culture bridge with lots of different people, skill sets and perspectives.

Avoid the Tsunami — Decide where to steer your business
Avoid the Tsunami — Decide where to steer your business

3. Avoid the Tsunami

What you want to achieve with your business directly impacts what you should be doing.

In the early days we’re told, find product-market fit, find paying customers and then keep growing. But at what point do we stand back and make sure we’re building the business we want to be in?

The most impactful planning in my business journey this year has been for us to re-evaluate what where we want our business to be in three years. This isn’t about vision or mission or even growth, but instead about options.

In three years do you want to:

  • Sell your business?
  • Raise capital to grow even larger?
  • Cap your growth and run a lifestyle business?

I’ve always known you need a goal to aim for but I didn’t realize how that should trickle down to every decision you make every day. Yes, I just breathed a big sigh typing that line. It sounds completely overwhelming like a tsunami advancing on your desk. And yes, it kind of is a tsunami and your desk is your ship. How are you going to avoid the tsunami if you aren’t pointing in the right direction?

The sailing analogy is strong in the startup world, but usually, you talk about reefing the sail and adjusting course. Sometimes you don’t need just a course adjustment, though. Sometimes you’ve turtled your boat and you need everyone in your family and your team to help you flip the boat, repair the sail and set course to where you just came from. And that’s the advantage of preparing to steer your business through those shark-infested waters, on your way to whichever horizon you choose.

What You Can Learn from Our Mistakes

Scaling a company is like successfully navigating shark-infested waters. So far, we’ve learned a few things that help:

  1. Instill confidence and accountability in your team so they’ll be ready to steer through shark-infested waters together
  2. Build up your team by adding people to it that make it more diverse, more opinionated and more adaptable
  3. Decide which direction to steer towards, and avoid ending up in the wrong place after all that work.

xxx

Annabel Youens

About Annabel Youens

I'm a co-founder and CMO at AE. I believe that truly successful internet businesses have to connect people. {wave} When I'm not online I'm exploring beautiful Vancouver Island. Things I love: everything scifi, literary fiction, coffee, Google Music, my workhorse sewing machine and board games.