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From startup to scale up: lessons from entrepreneurs

This article is based on a panel discussion held at Citi Commercial Bank’s EMEA Digital Leaders Summit 2023 held in Prague in September. Comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Scaling up a company from a startup is exciting but presents numerous challenges. Baris Tezcan, Head of Citi Commercial Bank in Central Europe, talks to two business leaders about achieving goals.

Successfully scaling a startup requires a combination of strategic planning, resource allocation, adaptability and investment in infrastructure and talent. It is also important to maintain the qualities that made your business successful in the first place. Growth is a dynamic process that often involves overcoming numerous obstacles along the way.

Planning – combined with flexibility – pays off

“When we launched in 2010, e-commerce was either facilitated by post offices or international logistics brands with limited domestic operations,” recalls Simona Kijonková, Founder and CEO of global logistics and e-commerce platform Packeta.

Kijonková spotted a gap for domestic carrier networks that could connect brick and mortar shops and was able to grow very rapidly. “The key to successfully scaling was a constant focus on execution,” she says. Packeta now has more than 2,200 employees in eight countries.

In the context of scaling a company, execution is the process of implementing the strategies, plans, and actions necessary to achieve growth and expansion goals. It is the practical and operational side of scaling, where you translate your vision and strategic decisions into tangible results. Execution is a critical component of the scaling process because even the best-laid plans can fail without proper implementation.

Susan Repo, CFO at ICEYE, an earth observation data and solutions service provider that uses commercial satellites to provide space imagery to governments, insurance companies and other organisations, says that during rapid expansion, it can be tough not to get distracted. “Over the past two years, we have grown from 200 to 600 people. To do that successfully, we have had to keep our heads down and concentrate on execution and operations.”

Having a clear strategic plan is essential if growth is to deliver the anticipated results. Your plan must include not only operational targets but also identification and assessment of financial, operational and compliance risks. “The importance of change management in relation to governance and legal matters is often underestimated,” says Repo.

At the same time, adaptability is also important. “In my previous role at Tesla, the mission of the company was significantly expanded from electrification of transport to becoming a leading sustainable energy provider when SolarCity was acquired in 2016,” recalls Repo. “The strategic goals of the company evolved given the expansion into a different business segment. But the overall objective remained operational excellence to facilitate rapid scaling.”

Getting the details right

What might seem like unimportant minutiae in a small company can become major headaches in a large firm. For instance, in a small company, measurement and analysis may be straightforward. But once your firm grows, you need key performance indicators and metrics to track progress. Regular analysis and reporting helps you make data-driven decisions and adjust strategies as required.

Similarly, effective communication becomes more complex in a larger organisation. Ensuring that information flows efficiently and that everyone is aligned with the company's goals and strategies is vital. “When we scaled up, we weren’t fully prepared for all the implications,” says Kijonková. “It took us a few years to realise that internal communications were critical. While operations had been similar in each country, practical day-to-day management at each depot was different and that created problems when they interacted with each other.”

To scale up, Packeta needed to standardise not only communications, business processes and technology but also to centralise management. “It was hard for some people, especially older workers, to change but we took the time to explain to every employee at every office and depot why the changes were essential for our international growth,” says Kijonková.

Increasing diversity delivers dividends

For many companies, hiring the right talent is not just about finding individuals with a suitable skillset but about building a diverse organisation. Diversity brings together individuals with different backgrounds, perspectives, and life experiences and has a wide range of benefits.

Diversity of thought can spark creativity and lead to innovative solutions to complex problems. When people from different backgrounds collaborate, they bring a wider range of ideas and approaches to the table. Similarly, diverse teams tend to make better decisions. They are more likely to consider a variety of viewpoints, challenge assumptions, and arrive at well-rounded conclusions. This can lead to more thoughtful and effective decision-making processes.

“The founders of our company strongly support diversity and our workforce of 600 people has 58 countries represented,” says Repo. “As a technology company, innovation and thought leadership are a key part of our success. It is challenge that gives rise to new ideas and we are working hard to get women into leadership and technology roles to support that. There is also plenty of evidence that diversity in the boardroom improves performance.”

A diverse workforce can help your company to connect with customers and therefore better understand their needs. Inclusive workplaces where diversity is valued tend to have higher levels of employee engagement and job satisfaction. When employees feel that their perspectives are heard and respected, they are more likely to be committed to the organisation's success. Companies that champion diversity are also often more attractive to a diverse pool of job seekers.

“Part of my mission has been to bring more women into leadership roles and also into IT where they were underrepresented,” says Kijonková. “It can take persistence to deliver results, however. For example, if your goal is to achieve gender diversity at a board level – which we have now done – it takes time to develop talent so that you have a pool of motivated people to draw on.”

 

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