How to Identify a Company that Has Potential to Scale?

In Feb 2016, MIT released a report on the state of entrepreneurship and its impact on the US economy. The report is titled A New View of the Skew: A Quantitative Assessment of the Quality of American Entrepreneurship. In a nutshell, the study raised a very important point for policy makers to note:

Quantitative measurement of entrepreneurship (no of start-ups per country) tells us nothing about the future of an economy because it is not start-ups but scale ups that matter.

Start-ups are too diverse in nature, and hence hard to pin ‘how to help’ whereas scale ups have certain characteristics that can be identified and to indicate potential.

Thus, the key question shifts to this – how to identify ‘potential’ in a company?

I believe potential can be spotted in two areas. One is in the mindset of the owners, and the other is in the ‘framework’ of the company.

Mindset

I will address this question with a point raised in this report as well as from my view as a business coach with Gazelles International, an organisation at the forefront of working with Scale Ups across the world. Gazelles International is founded by Verne Harnish, one of the best minds on how to scale a business. Harnish is also the best-selling author of the books Mastering the Rockefeller Habits and Scaling Up, two award winning business books that are the culmination of his 34 years of experience helping businesses to scale.

The first point I want to address is the mindset of the business owner and the management team. Harnish teaches in his masterclasses that in his years working with Scale Ups (companies who grow 20-30% a year, and who double their growth every 5 years approximately), he observed that the name of the company tells a lot about the intention of the founders. In other words, it reflects the mindset. This point is also brought up in the report by MIT as an indicator of potential – the name counts because there is more to a name than just words.

It signals intention.

One of my personal observations working with companies across Southeast Asia is this – to scale a company requires a business owner to think differently about his business – different from competitors, from culture, from industry. He or she will want to do something differently.

One key difference is how they approach the question of change. To scale up, businesses have to make changes. How disciplined are they in implementing changes is the key? How open are they to change? Most people will say they welcome change, citing clichés like ‘Change is the only constant’, but their approach to strategy and their implementation of things that are different from their usual practices tell us if they have the right mindset to scale. Maybe business leaders are willing to learn, but few are willing to change. Change means to adapt and implement.

In short, to manage change effectively requires discipline. Discipline in thinking and focus as well as in execution.

Framework

A way to determine this is to use the 4 Decisions Framework developed by Gazelles International as an indicator. Gazelles International has helped more than 2000 companies around the world to scale. The 4 Decisions Framework identifies 4 areas a company must do well in in order to scale. While not all companies will use the term ‘The 4 Decisions’, the characteristics identified in the 4 Decisions serves as a good indicator of whether a company has the right foundation for higher growth.

The 4 areas are:

Strategy – All businesses not only need a clear strategy that differentiates, but it must also be positioned to break industry bottlenecks to develop an overwhelming advantage over its competition. As Harnish puts it, a company who has the potential to scale is a company who deals with a ‘big-ass’ problem with a ‘kick-ass’ solution, with people who are ‘smart-ass’.  In other words, Scale Ups have people who think where the competition doesn’t think.

As John Rockefeller said, ‘Competition is a sin.’

The foundation of a good strategy is the right mindset – to not accept industry constraints but to constantly find those problems that competition neglects or resign themselves to accept, and solve them. Besides having this mindset to find the bottleneck, does the company have the tools and skills to find and solve these problems? If they do, the company does not get stuck in the traffic jam of competition and be resigned to accept marginal growth.

I call this the difference between a Keep-Up and a Scale-Up. Scale-Ups run towards the industry’s constraints while Keep-Ups run away from them.

Thus, to identify if a company can be a scale up, one needs to examine this company’s mindset towards strategy – is strategy to differentiate from competition or merely to keep up?

The next question is whether they invest time in delivering their strategic differentiation. Strategy can be simple, but the execution of strategy is time consuming and requires discipline.

What will they do when they find a constraint in the industry? Do they have the time, patience and skills to break it?

Whether a company is prepared to invest time and resources into strategy will tell if it has the potential to be a long-term, sustainable Scale-Up.

In a nutshell: Scale Up potentials see industry problems differently from their competitors.

People – No company ever scales without good people.

Every business should examine if they are held under the tyranny of the organisational chart. We do this by applying what Jim Collins teaches: asking if we have the right people, on the right seats, doing the right things.

What does this mean?

It means that everybody is clearly aligned to an outcome that is significant to the business, with the right action KPIs assigned, and that person is clearly the best person to fulfil those actions and deliver those results; in other words, fit people to actions that can be taken rather than fit people into roles. Companies traditionally fit CVs to roles, but we need to move beyond that to fit people i.e. unique strengths, talents and interests to critical actions and outcomes.

Most businesses I know do not have the patience, or more importantly, the mindset to ask themselves honestly if everyone they have is that ‘right’ person on that ‘right’ seat doing that ‘right’ thing? A person who fulfils these 3 criteria is an ‘A’ player; someone who is a natural in creating value in that given capacity.

This process is tedious and requires a different way of looking at staffing and recruitment. But companies who invest in this process to find ‘A’ players gain 3 times the value of a person who is merely ‘staffing’ the role.

Kip Tindell, CEO of The Container Store believes that only ‘A’ players should be hired. Everyone in his company from the store assistant to the management team is carefully selected through a rigorous process. For example, even if you are a junior front line staff, you go through as many as 9 interviews. The Container Store, as Kip says, “sells empty spaces in boxes”. Yet it is has grown huge enough to be listed in the NYSE. For sixteen years, The Container Store was consistently voted in the Fortune’s List of ‘100 Best Places to Work in the USA.

Their secret, according to the company’s president – hire only ‘A’ players. The Right Person, on the Right Seat, doing the Right Thing.

Another aspect of having the right people in the business is to have people who are continuously learning. Here, Harnish starts at the top; he observed that Scale Ups usually have a leadership team that never stops learning. He calls them ‘Rabid learners’. The leaders are not only industry experts in their own right, but they learn and learn, and in doing so, encourage their colleagues to grow and learn. This is even more critical in the 21st Century where things are changing faster than before. Businesses can be made obsolete overnight, so learning is the only way to keep scaling.

Are you intentionally building a system with the 4 ‘Rs’ – Right People, Right Seats, Right things and Rabid Learners?

A company that has the right people policy is poised to scale up.

In a nutshell: Scale Ups are not afraid to invest a lot of time in finding the right people to put on the right seats, to do the right things.

Cash –  Cash flow is the oxygen of all businesses. Cut it and a business, no matter how good, dies.

Do you have a strategy to ensure that cash flow is smooth? Most businesses I know accept the payment terms of their industry as something cast in stone.

They often complain, ‘But the industry is like that.’

Do you have to accept that?

Can you be intentional about getting a better cash flow than your competition? Business strategy, by definition, is the intention to achieve differentiation. So we need to be intentional about getting better payment terms than the industry standard if we want an advantage over our competitors in this area. One way to do this to understand and shorten your Cash Conversion Cycle. Which part of the cycle can you work on to shorten it?

Besides a cash flow strategy, it is also important to have a money value strategy. What this means is to understand whether you are getting the best value out of your business model. Is your business model building company value, or is it merely creating profits? If there is a hierarchy of revenue, is your revenue stream giving your company it’s the highest valuation? Thus, for a business to scale, it must have a smooth cash flow, as well as a money value strategy to ensure that the business can grow smoothly and achieve its highest value.

In a nutshell: Scale Ups constantly find ways to improve cash flow, and constantly question and improve their business model.

Execution – The last, but not the least, is how a company executes its strategy. Be it business strategy, people strategy or cash strategy, it all hinges on Execution to get things done systematically. Hence I consider this the most important decision amongst the Four Decisions.

In Gazelles, we put in place three things that help keep a company on track. They are Priorities, Metrics and the Rhythm. These three things form the ‘Execution Culture’. Do you have a great execution culture? Or is execution haphazard and frantic? Are meetings more a waste of time or a time when things get done?

The first step to develop a great execution culture is to understand the differences between a task and a priority in order to develop focus.

Tasks are often mistaken for priorities. What are priorities? Priorities differ from tasks by having a direct leverage on results. Which action has the biggest impact on results? Which action needs to be completed before other actions can take place? When we fire-fight, we are focusing on tasks. When tasks are not differentiated from priorities, businesses become stuck on a treadmill – they work very hard to keep up but they don’t scale.

The Rhythm is like the heartbeat of the company. Irregular heartbeat can cause death in humans, so it is the same for companies. The Rhythm keeps the organisation focused on priorities that will drive the strategy of the company. Without a rhythm, most companies get lost in the day-to-day fire fighting.

How do you set a Rhythm in your business that ensures that strategic priorities are executed and accounted for?

Do you have a system to warn you in advance if things are not going well so that you can take corrective action?

There are some companies who have outstanding strategy, the result of a lot of time and effort put in, only to fail because it was not executed well.

Coming back to the point that strategy is differentiation, if we want to achieve a different result from our competitors, then we need to do things differently. We need to look at Execution differently.

How a company executes strategy is a sign of whether it will scale up.

In a nutshell: Scale Ups invest time to set Rhythms in the business. They don’t allow things to happen by chance. Nor do they miss opportunities because they got too busy with day-to-day things.

Conclusion

There are many ways to determine a company’s potential. Some people look at market size, demographics, macroeconomics and trends etc, but all these are meaningless unless a company is poised to seize the opportunity. There is only so far a business can grow by being at the right place at the right time, or by the entrepreneurial guts of the founders. A business’s potential should be determined by whether the company has the right mindset and skill set towards growth.

In other words, do they have the right approach to scaling up? Their mindset and actions will tell. While they might not have everything laid out in a nice package as explained in this article because business is always messy, but intention is always seen in actions. Thus, as long as a business owner or leader demonstrates an intention to build the characteristics of a scale up in his business, there will be potential for higher growth.

 

 

 

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