It’s impossible to avoid hearing the phrase “90 percent of tech startups fail” when you run a startup. Early on, I realized it was better to see my startup as just any other small business endeavor — one that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates has a 70 percent three-year survival rate, which is a less terrifying statistic.
It’s our fifth year, and after speaking with attendees at a recent Inc. 5000 event, honoring the fastest-growing companies in America, I identified four ways to help position companies for survival and growth.
React to “No”
Founders usually share a common experience: At some point someone has told them “no,” and they didn’t like it. So, they turned that “no” into a new company or market-changing product. “No” became an action point rather than a full stop.
In my case, it became the idea of the anti-agency: a no-nonsense agency dedicated to using innovative user experiences and disruptive design thinking. Today, I always pay attention to (and investigate) the possibilities of “no.”
For example, growth is good, right? But what if the answer is no? When I considered whether my business should continue scaling, I thought about the impact on my clients, employees and myself. Considering this “no” response sparked a divergent thought about slowing growth to develop a new line of workshops and enable myself to write a book. We are now acting on these ideas, which will catalyze future growth. React to “no.” It often hints at your next action.
Growth is a devious metric; sometimes friend and sometimes foe. We’ve doubled our workforce in the last 18 months, but I’m still conservative about growth. One way to grow smart is to hire contractors first, converting them to full-time employees as business needs dictate.
This model scales and provides the opportunity to gradually consider someone as a full-time hire. But the real secret for me has been to grow when I meet someone who gets our brand and can contribute to its enhancement, and when a project comes along that is too great — nice people, cool work, huge impact — to pass up.
Keep Operations Sharp
You need an experienced operations team responsible for establishing and enforcing protocols. This is the trusted team that knows practically if you can hire people and triple office space without going bust.
Human resources and operations are business realities, so don’t be too busy dreaming and ignoring the basics. Then there is your special ops team. These individuals are special because they do their jobs so well that they don’t need much supervision. I stand back so they can go forth and lead, build, etc. — which is what I love the most. This trust also saves time and money.
I’m notorious for following my gut on everything from the employees we hire, to the clients we take on and to the customers we fire. Therefore, I need a team to consult and cover my back. The special ops team quickly reacts to course changes, getting done whatever needs to be done and doing it well.
Speaking of business basics, an employee handbook is a necessity. It covers the legal stuff without being too formal or boring. Your handbook should be written as an insider’s guide to how you and your company work.
Our employees must read this guide first, which starts with our Rule No 1: “Use your best judgment: This company is about innovating — not the buzzword — but real innovation. When given a task, try it using your best judgment, not what you think you should do, but what feels right to you. Be different so you can think different. You were hired because somewhere in the interview process, you demonstrated you could.”
This rule empowers employees to draw on their skills and instincts rather than worrying about “the right way” to do their job. Build confidence through a mentoring program: pair new employees with seasoned ones to give them on-the-job training. Sink or swim isn’t a best practice to follow if you want to grow and survive.
To best position your company for survival and growth even if the odds are daunting,react to being told “no,” grow smarter, keep your operations sharp and empower your employees. Running a business isn’t always fun, so focus on what you can control — your choices — and choose to enjoy and learn from them. The most terrifying or costly thing would be to have regrets.
This article has been edited and condensed.
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