How to grow from a startup to a global business: Our five key lessons
By Gunnar Bijker (CFO, Global Kinetic)
Global Kinetic has been operating for over 15 years, and our growth journey is accelerating. When we launched in 2005, the attraction for most of us was the opportunity to work on interesting projects. None of us knew how to grow a startup into a successful business, and not all of our early decisions were growth orientated. However, some decisions have worked out for the best – our growth trajectory remains steady, and we continue to attract projects that keep us fascinated and engaged.
While none of us at Global Kinetic would claim to be an expert on growing a successful business, we have learned valuable lessons about survival and success.
- Stay small and lean
It’s a cliché, but perhaps the most critical issue for a startup or small business is to choose a cautious and steady pace. Do not attempt to grow too quickly or make commitments without the security of a long-term cash flow. Achieving this balance between short-term growth and long-term plans can be challenging. Perhaps you have been slogging away for a couple of years on a shoestring budget, based in a garage or at a kitchen table, and now you’re working on the first or second project that provides a steady cash flow. It can be tempting to move your operation to better facilities, but while it creates a more favourable impression for employees and clients, it also creates a commitment to a rental agreement. Staying small and lean made all the difference for us. We were fortunate to have access to a client’s office and infrastructure without cost, but we would have looked for similar low-cost premises elsewhere if this facility had not been on offer. We also did not employ anyone outside the founders’ group until we knew that we had enough cash flow to pay for at least a year’s salary for the role. It can be exciting to win a big, high-value project, but managing emotions and expectations is essential because cash flow will always be an issue in the early days.
- It’s not all about money
Growing a successful startup is not all about watching the pennies. This statement may sound contradictory to my first point, but one of the main reasons we have thrived, I believe, is due to our focus on people. We offer organisations managed teams of highly skilled software engineers who have an incredible problem-solving capacity and can produce a creative solution within a set timeframe. We have spent many hours learning how to create the optimal team environment, one that engenders creativity, personal motivation and optimises team output. We have applied that knowledge of people and team management to every aspect of Global Kinetic’s operation. Understanding team members’ motivation and ensuring that they feel valued and understand the task at hand is fundamental to our ability to deliver on our promises.
- Secondary skills
Secondary skills have been an important element of our success. When we first began working together as Global Kinetic, all of us had software engineering skills. Our CEO, however, also ensured we had a good mix of other skills within the group that would be needed at critical moments of our journey. For example, within the original core group, we had people with human resource experience, financial knowledge, sales and marketing insights, all the various functions required to ensure the smooth running of a business. While there were no specific roles in the early years, if any query arose about a non-core issue, someone within our team would be able to lead on a response. Our skills grew along with the organisation; for example, I had financial skills, not to a standard that I could have applied for a position as a finance director, but enough to figure my way through financial documents. When the time came to formalise roles, I had enough experience to steer the organisation as a financial director.
- Outsource non-core tasks
We learned from experience that outsourcing non-core tasks could save a great deal of time, money and frustration. We outsourced administrative functions like payroll, legal (both contract and labour), and tax accounting almost from the start. We realised that achieving a professional standard requires attention to detail and task completion to certain specifications within a set time frame, and that ongoing maintenance and problem-solving could be costly in terms of time. It is more effective and efficient to have a dedicated service for this task than to distract an engineer from a critical project.
- Don’t pick the best expert; pick the best fit
As startups grow into established businesses, the need for business critical processes grow too. Non-core functions such as human resources and sales become pressingly important and require dedicated time and personnel. We have made the mistake of employing someone for a specific role without really understanding the requirements, resulting in a mismatch of expectations and goals and frustration all around. We’ve found from experience that it is better to seek a good fit for the team and the company and work with someone who has a good attitude and is keen to learn on the job. While specific skills are necessary, we realised that it was more about personality and approach than skillset and experience. In a small, fast-growing company, the emphasis is on personal responsibility and teamwork.