There are a number of stages every business goes through during its lifetime, each of which has a unique set of challenges.
At start up, you’re looking for clients and funding, and proving that your product, service and business model are viable. When you move into growth, the sales and customers start coming in, but suddenly you’re faced with the challenges of managing staff, growing your team, maintaining cash flow and implementing new systems and processes.
Simply, the skills and strategies needed in a growing business are different to those needed in a start up, which means many businesses don’t survive the transition.
But what if you knew all of that in advance? What if someone who has successfully scaled a range of business could give you their top tips for success?
Enter Robert Tolliday, Commercial Director at Sensis. In this instalment of #humansofsensis, Robert shares his best advice for scaling your business.
What’s your role at Sensis?
I’ve been at Sensis for almost three years and as Commercial Director have overseen a number of our businesses during that time including; Yelp, Sensis Data Solutions, Digital Display and the Skip business, along with running True Local for 18 months. I’m currently working with our digital media services division leading a project to bring a new product to market.
Essentially, I’ve been given a lot of different growth businesses to look at how we can scale them successfully, which has led to a number of transformations throughout the business.
What’s one of the transformations you’ve been involved with at Sensis?
When I was at True Local, the business managed product development in a very traditional way, where the product team, technology team and design team were all separate functions, and new features were released every couple of weeks.
While that might work in a smaller business with a simple product – one that doesn’t need many features or updates – as a business scales and the products become more sophisticated, that method isn’t sustainable.
So we asked ourselves, what if, instead of releasing new features once every two weeks, we could release them more frequently and move towards continuous delivery? Instead of dividing functions into separate teams, how can bring those people together?
This led to a big transformation around setting up ‘squads’, where product, design, development, and marketing resources all worked together on the different problems that we were trying to solve, rather than being divided by their function.
This meant we had a squad that was thinking about how we could solve consumer problems for True Local. We had a squad focused around how we could solve commercial problems for businesses. And we had another squad that was focused on growth, and how we could really drive the key growth metrics in business – more reviews, more listings, and so on.
The change then led to greater team engagement, because each individual had a greater say in the finished product. Developers were having a say in the product part of the business, while the product people had a better understanding the technical part of business. The whole team at True Local felt that they understood the vision of the business and where we were going. I think it’s fundamentally because they had a say in it, because they were a part of the decision.
Then, through working more collaboratively together, more was getting done. More was being released more quickly as well – we more than doubled the number of technical releases in the 12 months following the change.
What are some of the challenges businesses experience when it comes to scaling?
There are a lot of challenges in scaling a business, especially a small business. In fact, before I joined Sensis, I set up a media-based business in Melbourne. While it was one arm of a big global company, I was the first employee in Melbourne. So, I was selecting the office, the furniture, plugging in the phones, trying to win customers – essentially starting a new business from scratch – and then figuring out how to hire people and grow, once we’d won enough customers.
In my experience, I’ve found there are a couple of big challenges when scaling:
- Have a desire to grow: In the business world, it can often feel like scaling and growing your business isn’t an option – it’s something you must do to stay viable. But the truth is that there are lots of small businesses that are really happy with the size of their business – they don’t want to employ staff, they don’t want the hassle, and they’re happy with the way their business operates today. So the first challenge is deciding whether or not you want to grow. If not, that’s fine.
- Access to capital: Another challenge can be getting access to capital, especially in Australia. Whilst the start-up scene in Australia is becoming stronger, and early stage capital more accessible, we do lag some other parts of the world. In the tech space in particular you don’t need to look far to see businesses like Unlockd or Deputy going abroad to access the capital needed to scale, which creates the impression that it’s harder to get capital in Australia than in other tech hubs, like Silicon Valley. That said, we’ve had some really successful tech businesses come out of Australia, like Atlassian, 99 Designs and Freelancer so innovation is far from dead in our market.
What are your top tips for businesses that want to scale?
There are four things any business should keep in mind:
- Develop the ability to pivot quickly: A key element of scaling successfully is to be able to pivot really quickly. You often hear of companies that started off with a very different vision to where they end up – what they’re doing is pivoting, based on the wants and needs of the market. So, don’t go in with a set mindset, because many times you’ll end up doing something completely different to what you expected.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help: At the moment, I’m working out of a co-working space at Hub Melbourne, which has a fantastic community of start-up businesses. One of the great things about the community is how they help each other – even if they’re competing in a similar space. Everyone wants to succeed, and everyone wants to help. The key is asking for that help.
- Be open with your ideas: For many entrepreneurs it can be a bit scary to tell people about your idea, because you don’t want someone to copy it. However, talking to as many people as you can about your idea is really useful for early stage businesses that are trying to grow. If you don’t, you might not realise that someone else is already planning to do that same idea. Or, through talking to people, you might be able to turn your idea into something even better than what you’d planned.
- Back yourself: The final tip is to back yourself. I was recently watching Shark Tank, and there was a woman in her 60s who had a great business that she’d grown to $2 million in turnover in a very short period of time. She asked the sharks for help to grow her business, but the truth is that she’d already successfully grown her business herself. So know that you have the skills and knowledge to drive your business. Believing in yourself, in your business, and in your ability to succeed is critical to your success.