Should You Ditch Your Startup Culture?

Just because you've outgrown the scrappy, all-hands-on-deck stage doesn't mean you have to sell out. Here's how to cope with growing pains.
October 18, 2012

Small-business owners are often terrified of growing. Deeply concerned that increasing size will cause them to lose the core values upon which their companies were founded, they do everything in their power to maintain their startup culture.

The media provides a lot of advice to this effect. Among the suggestions I uncovered in a simple Google search:

Pay People to Leave

Fast Company writes about Infusionsoft, a sales and marketing software company founded in a garage that puts each new hire through a two-week intensive orientation. When that’s complete, new employees are offered $5,000 to walk away. The offer allegedly tests individual commitment to the small-business status quo.

Don’t Hire from Big Companies

People who worked in a big company have no idea how to match that success in a smaller organization, writes Geekwire. Their skills may not be that transferable. They may have been responsible for a set of success metrics, but what was their direct role in making that happen? Big company experience can mask this.

Design an Employee-Friendly Office

The UK-based publication Management Today recommends installing a quirky piece of art to act as a talking point, or designing themed rooms or laying down unusual carpeting. Astroturf perhaps?

There are, however, disadvantages to a startup that never grows up.  Although you may guarantee that some things never change, you will likely miss out on opportunities that are more readily available to bigger businesses.  Here are a few reasons you may want to consider “scaling up” your culture:

Customers Take You More Seriously

Whether they are regional, national or international, larger companies typically have better brand recognition than their smaller counterparts. Because people think of them first when purchasing a certain product or service, they sell more with less effort. Furthermore, an established business has been in the marketplace longer and has had more time to build a solid reputation. This legacy helps them more effectively weather storms and create trusting, reciprocal relationships with other large businesses and the government.

Processes Keep Things from Slipping Through the Cracks

One of the problems small businesses face is that most employees wear a lot of hats. If everyone is responsible for answering the phone, then the day will inevitably come when no one will answer it because of the assumption that the call will be taken care of by somebody else.  Processes don’t need to be needlessly complicated or bureaucratic, but having them in place ensures that work is done efficiently, on time, and by the right people. 

Big Businesses Can Take on Modern Challenges

Startup cultures may spurn the idea of a departmentalized company that has teams for HR, finance, sales, etc. But a separate HR function, for instance, is extremely useful if a massive new client comes in and the business needs to hire and onboard people quickly.  A legal department can monitor changing business regulations to ensure compliance. Larger businesses can take on a variety of projects—possibly outside the core area of expertise—because they have a deeper bench of resources at their disposal.

Remember, scaling up does not equal selling out.  As long as you continue to prioritize your values, communicate actively with your internal and external constituents and make sensible changes, growth could be the best thing that ever happened to your organization. 

Alexandra Levit is a former nationally-syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success. Money Magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.

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