scaling a startup

Scaling a startup, raising small humans and embracing change

Post by: Gabrielle Cutfield
Published: 10 May 2023

Scaling a startup is fun but this is not a one size fits all process. You’ve got to anticipate difficulty at various times. My biggest focus has always been ensuring that we have the right leaders in the right roles, appropriate for the stage of business we are at. 

This is not easy. There’s simply no straightforward formula to scaling a startup especially when you are dealing with people. 

Scaling a startup: Pain points, pressure points, boiling points

I have been lucky to work with CEO’s who are in tune with the importance of recruiting for the role that we need to get done right now, rather than crystal ball gazing when we hire.  This minimises the risk of getting it wrong and setting a wonderful person up to fail. This also enables our great leaders to develop along with us. The speed of scaling up in a B2B SaaS environment, coupled with leadership changes that occur can often come with the perception that change is bad! 

But is change bad?

I am constantly working to reduce the fear of change. I want teams to embrace change and see it for what it is in our world.

Change for us means rapid growth which, in turn, means skyrocketing peoples’ career trajectory!  I’m aware that this may not suit everyone but this is pretty much what gets me out of bed every single day.

Starting a new function when scaling a startup

There are a couple of initial steps that one has to put into play when starting up a new function, particularly when you are scaling a startup.

Being the first “boots on the ground” for a function requires a high degree of prioritisation and the ability to say no to things that will not move the needle. 

There are a few key ingredients to success in scaling a startup, I believe. It starts with being aligned with your CEO on priorities. You’ve got to create a plan – a documented, visible plan as opposed to just a conversation. You’re not looking to boil the ocean in the first year. And importantly, you must do what you say you will do to a high standard. 

What else? Own your failures and always communicate with your executive team. Lead with data, rather than gut feel. Once the function is established and you are looking to hire, be absolutely ruthless in scoping the role you need. Hire someone who is better at it than you! You will halve your workload and you’ll be able to take someone special with you on the growth journey.

Being supported as a female leader

I have two little boys and while they are my biggest loves and life achievements, my career has always been very important to me.

In every discussion about expectations in a role, I am clear about the balance I need to achieve both my career goals and to be there for my family. 

Two things have supported me in having my family get into a better routine: being in a global team (with flexible hours to accommodate regions) and the reduced expectation of long-haul travel after Covid.

I have been advocating for myself (and mothers, in general) by talking about what it means to be a mother every day. If you’re wondering how this looks, it’s simple.

I tell my team when I have to take my one-year-old to the doctor urgently for his ninth ear infection this year. When my five-year-old bursts into the room during an executive-level meeting, I just embrace him instead of pushing him out the door. If I have a school pick-up to do, I decline a meeting. But have I been to a Sports Day this year? No. Do I feel guilty about it? Absolutely!

But I realise that I cannot do it all and I’m happy with the choices I’ve made.

My advice for you if you’re about to make a move into a leadership role

Your first sole-charge leadership role can feel scary and lonely, at times. When you transition from a team (where you can collaborate and vent with others) to having the buck stop with you, the natural inclination is to find someone internal and use them as your dumping ground. 

My advice: keep it external! 

Get yourself a great mentor (ideally, your previous boss- thanks, Keith) and allow them to support you muddling through the transition. My biggest challenge was not the delivery of great work – it was building trust within the senior leadership group. 

Sometimes, this requires you to take the time to listen, support, and coach others. Yes, that can take you away from your agreed deliverables. But it’s worth the investment. It sets you up to be a leader who people want to work with and trust. 

Be human, be honest and shut up and listen to people. Think about every tough situation as building your leadership tool kit for bigger things to come.

Change is on the Horizon – What is next for you?

Change is afoot as I focus more on partnering with smart and ambitious business leaders in a more flexible way.  Often there is a need for strategic planning and the creation and implementation of a people strategy to support, but that skill set does not necessarily align with the ongoing management of the people function.  

I have started Emerging Engines to bridge that gap and demonstrate the return on investment when you invest in efficiency through organisational design, culture and operational simplicity.  

Thanks to my first amazing clients that have joined me on my journey. I am excited to kick things off officially next week after a week of drop offs, picks ups and maybe even the odd sports day!!

I am always open to speaking with tech businesses that have some problems I can help solve to help your fast thing grow faster!!