Transitioning your digital product through start-up, run and growth: Why it’s harder than you think.

You’ve done it!! Your amazing product is finally in the market, its value proposition is resonating with your target market and customers are buying it. You’ve made it, right?

Well… almost. As a leader of any type of organisation using technology to achieve its goals (and one way or another, who doesn’t have an IT organisation these days?), you’re now faced with a whole new set of headaches: How do you balance maintenance with new features? How do you scale your IT operations without losing quality and pace? What about onboarding new users/partners/markets – who takes care of it? How about compliance, availability, vendor management, disaster recovery, etc… the list goes on.

As your product gains more traction in the market, things that were potential distractions during the start-up phase become crucial. Customers, users, partners, and investors quite rightly demand more assurance, more rigour, and a more mature IT operating model. So how do you transition?

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this complex question, but here are a few key things to get you started: –

  1. Accept that as your journey progresses, your IT organisation needs to evolve.
  2. Embrace the fact that businesses that scale their IT organisation successfully, do a great job of defining processes, boundaries, and team roles.
  3. Instead of focusing on changing your organisation, put your energy into embracing change so it can evolve naturally.

On our own journey, here’s what we found this means in practice: –

Accept that as your journey progresses, your IT organisation needs to evolve

Founders are typically driven at everything they do, but sometimes they may be reluctant to embrace a broader viewpoint as their business matures. Founders whose businesses survive and flourish find a way to keep their passion, whilst embracing best practice. A great example is Buffer, who accepted that their vision of a truly flat hierarchy just wasn’t working and needed changing.

The real trick here is to get out in front of the change – recognising that your current structure is ready to evolve and seed the change sooner rather than later. In our own case we evolved two useful frameworks to accomplish this: Change Blocks (to look at overall organisational maturity) and our IT Periodic Table (to look at 45 different facets of our IT organisation). These allow us to benchmark the current situation against a trusted reference point and decide where to direct effort.

Embrace the fact that IT organisations that scale successfully do a great job of defining processes, boundaries, and team roles

During the start-up phase, the focus is typically on identifying the market fit as quickly as possible. At this stage, well-defined roles, processes, boundaries, service design, IT organisation design, and similar concepts may appear to be real hindrances.

But as the business evolves, so does the need for its processes to follow suit. Typically, by the time the business is close to the end of the start-up phase, client-facing practices have mostly been defined. However, the crucial back-office procedures such as incident response, patch management, change management, risk management, and many more, are still living in someone’s head.

As the run phase starts to gather pace, it’s essential that you get a handle on these things. We find that our IT Periodic Table gives us a great starting point, and we usually supplement it with process maps, role definitions and RASCI matrices (if you haven’t used them yet, you’re missing out).

Instead of focusing on changing your organisation, put your energy into embracing change so it can evolve naturally

It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? As a founder, you are always under pressure to deliver on your next set of goals or projections: It can be extremely easy to slip into ‘captain’ mode and away from ‘coach’ mode.

Think of a nuclear submarine – the commander takes decisions, and the crew implement those decisions based on a set of well-rehearsed procedures. An order to dive to two thousand feet means they take the prescribed steps to dive to exactly that depth – all based on known historical certainties. But in a growing organisation, you only know one thing for certain – change is just around the corner: You must act like a coach, therefore, giving your team the tools and resources needed to manage change in a way to makes the business improve.

This isn’t a quick thing; managing change effectively is one of the hardest things for businesses, but the pay-off can be incredible: Amazon Web Services started as an internal change project, which evolved into the framework that is Amazon digital products, and then into a customer-facing proposition. This accelerated the business into a seven-year lead over its competition; it’s the market leader and responsible for a significant portion of Amazon’s profits. All from knowing how to spot opportunities for change and implement them successfully!

What has worked for us also works for our clients when we help them on this journey: e.g., we find that Change Blocks are a great way to assess the current picture and provide an actionable path forward.

Closing thoughts

Scaling continues to be the scariest part of a founder’s journey. Do it too soon and you can join the 74% of start-ups failing because of premature scaling. Too late, and you will severely hurt your chances of making it past the first growth spurt.

There is a silver lining though: At the start-up stage, everything about your business is unique, but as you grow, you will converge towards well-trodden paths which are adaptable to your own business. It’s simply a matter of understanding the challenge, defining it clearly enough, designing the correct approach, and implementing it with skill.

If you think we could help you on that journey, or if you would like a copy of our IT Periodic Table and Change blocks, you know where to find us.