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The days of slowly building a business up from nothing are almost over. Where in the past a new company might have played it safe in order to not overextend themselves, companies of today, particularly in the tech sphere, are all about exponential growth. They want it all and they want it now, as Freddie Mercury so eloquently put it.
This creates an interesting situation for the employees of an exploding start-up. To experience growth of thousands of percent within a few short years – perhaps just months – is to see your whole professional life change in front of you. The environment presents its own set of huge benefits, but also challenges.
How do you survive in an environment of extreme growth? We spoke to some of the longer-term employees of Qualtrics and hipages, two companies that have experienced incredible growth, to find out exactly what it takes to adapt and ultimately prosper in such circumstances.
Degrees of growth
Qualtrics breached Australian shores a little over two years ago, in January of 2015. An American company new to the market, they began with an understandably small team. “You could count us on one hand back then”, James Hull, one of the first wave of local employees explains. Things are different now. “As of April 2017 there were about 80 of us. To put things into another perspective, I started just over 2 years ago and I am older than 71% of the company globally”.
While working with a slightly longer timeline, hipages’ growth has been no less impressive. Adam Woods, hipages’ Engineering Manager, has seen the staggering growth first-hand. “I have been at hipages since October 2014”, he says, “and in that time I’ve seen the company grow dramatically, especially within the engineering team. When I joined we were a team of 8 people, now we’re sitting at 27 with plans to grow by another 20 people in the coming financial year”.
The benefits of exponential growth
One major benefit of working in an environment of extreme growth is the breadth of experience that it offers up to those who get in on the ground floor. Elaine Mostert of Qualtrics’ Client Success team has a unique take on the whole experience, describing the feeling of “learning in dog years by working directly with senior management on a regular basis”. The accessibility to those with experience offers up and coming professionals an invaluable and extremely condensed education.
Nathan Platus, VP of Operations in hipages Manila offices, has a similar take. “It’s not often that one gets to work across every department of a business”, he surmises. “This was the opportunity that I had in the early days of Hipages, from managing the development and sales & service teams, through to running the office”. This flexibility has allowed him to work his way across and up the company from data entry to his current position of VP of Operations.
The challenges of exponential growth
But the laws of the universe are inescapable – every action has an equal and opposite reaction. For all of the upsides of being part of a fast growing company, there are an equal amount of challenges to be faced. Some of the challenges are obvious, as Stephen Keighery, Director of Sales at hipages, has seen – “Physically it can be hard to support the rapid growth. We’ve knocked down walls, built new desks and chairs and had to squeeze people into our offices”.
Woods echoes Keighery’s sentiments but has found intra-office communication the biggest hurdle. “In a small team, it’s quite easy for everyone to be across the majority of changes that come through. As the team grows, however, it becomes increasingly important to have formalised processes for communication and knowledge sharing”.
But on a more personal level, the challenges faced by employees of an expanding company are many and varied. Platus describes the importance of not getting outpaced by the growth around you. “In this type of an environment it’s important that you develop as quickly as the organisation, otherwise you’ll be swallowed up”.
Anesh Ravi, Account Manager at Qualtrics, says that the inherent flexibility of roles within a high-growth start-up can be both a blessing and a curse. “Being in a start-up phase, some roles haven’t been fully defined”, he notes. “It can be challenging to know what you should be doing and difficult to find direction”. It’s a real sink or swim environment, and one that suits some professionals far better than others.
The key traits of those who prosper
So what skills and characteristics do you need in order to make it in such a high-paced environment? One trait comes up continually, and it can be a difficult one to develop in those who don’t possess it naturally:drive.
“You need to be hungry to succeed”, Ravi says. Platus reiterates the sentiment. “You need to work for what you want, you need to be driven and ambitious, and you need to bring a ‘can-do’ attitude”, he instructs. “Nothing is ever handed to you on a silver platter”.
Woods expands a little more on this seemingly mandatory burning desire to succeed – “The main traits that I think are important for someone to be successful are drive, curiosity, and positivity. You must have a drive to succeed or you will never truly excel in your career. Having a curious mind will lead you to explore your area of expertise more deeply and think about problems creatively. Don’t just be a task monkey. Your career will have its ups and downs, but keeping a positive mindset will always serve you well and will make you more enjoyable to have in a team”.
Retaining a work/life balance
Work/life balance means different things to different people. An average worker might describe it as a 40 hour work week, 9am – 5pm Monday through Friday. But those in the high-octane world of tech start-ups are seldom average professionals. Platus explains – “I feel that simply having your weekends free and coming home at a ‘reasonable’ hour is a good work life balance, but this was only achievable through hardwork in the early days”.
Ravi, by comparison, breaks up his often hectic work life by locking in short holidays throughout the year. These offer the opportunity for him to get away from the weekly grind and truly switch off.
The feeling of investment in your fast-growing company and the subsequent feeling of responsibility has made a proper work/life balance difficult to achieve for Woods. “When people ask you for things at work, they generally feel that their request is the most important and needs to be done ASAP. As such you can end up staying at the office well beyond normal working hours”. But the solution, he says, is simple; “I have maintained what I would call a healthy work-life balance by being critical of the urgency of tasks given to me. When you take a second to question how urgent something is, the answer is usually that it can at least wait until tomorrow. This also leaves you space to give truly urgent requests the proper priority”.
Survival tips from those in the know
They’ve been there. They’ve done that. So what advice can those that have survived and thrived in the face of exponential growth offer up?
Ravi’s message is a simple one. “Never lose your drive”, he says. If you lose the fire in your belly to move forward, you’ll stagnate. And environments of exponential growth have no room for stagnation. You’ll be toast.
Platus describes a dog at a bone attitude. You need to “persist in the face of adversity and have a passion for what you do”. Being a dog at a bone is one thing, you also need to like that bone.
But the last word on the matter is perhaps best left to hipages’ Adam Woods. “As I mentioned earlier, don’t let the daily grind beat you down. Keep a positive outlook and it will guide you through the tough times you’re sure to encounter. Give yourself space and time to regularly reflect on where you are in your career and where you want to go. No one can decide your direction for you – you have to own that”.