I have been working at a startup in Boston since 2008. We have been been on the INC 5000 list every year, and it has been a positive experience. When I started I was but a callow youth, yet I have learned a great deal in the last 3 years. My experience can mainly be boiled down to “To be successful, everyone needs to pull on the same rope”. This seems obvious, but it has been hugely important.
Mission and Strategy Matter: My sense is that while many companies have a “mission statement”, they do not align their employees around said statement and make sure that every decision moves the company closer to that objective.
When I started, we had just undergone a re-org, we were not profitable, and we needed a serious turnaround. At our company retreat that year, our CEO unveiled a new mission statement – “To be the biggest and best in home tutoring company in the US”. To do so, we would focus on working with “Families who make significant investments in tutoring”. Again, this seems simple, but it helped everyone to pull on the same rope, because work wasn’t just “work” – we all knew where the company was headed and what we needed to do to contribute. Three years later, we are profitable, we have had at least 50% growth each year, and we have invested significantly in technology that makes us more efficient and allows us to focus on what we do best: working with children and their families.
Manage Change Well (and sometimes slowly): As part of our turnaround, we urgently needed to change our sales and service processes. We were too slow, and were losing sales to our competitors. Without being too specific, we moved to a system whereby our sales people were able to allow families to choose their tutor, based on realtime availability, location, and tutoring subject. This was a big change. It sped up our sales cycle, resulted in higher customer satisfaction (as measured by Net Promoter Score) and eventually allowed us to manage our Gross Margin by charging more for more experienced tutors. This project HAD to succeed – the future of the company was at stake. So, our founders planned a pilot program in one market, which ran for nearly a year. They analyzed the results (lead conversion rate, revenue, NPS etc) rigorously, and built consensus among the teams during our team meetings. When this new process finally rolled out to the company, and the result was the best month in our company’s history. Take home lesson – you only get one chance to manage change well.
Culture is Key: This is our latest project. Once we were no longer on the brink of ruin, we needed to lay the groundwork for sustained success. One way to do this is to develop a strong, positive company culture. Using Zappo’s as an example, we began to develop a list of core values – concepts that are central to the company’s operations as well as relations between employees. We chose Zappo’s as our model after reading Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and a Purpose. In the book, Tony writes that Zappo’s success can be attributed to its culture – in fact, his main goal was to get the culture right, and trust that everything else would follow. It obviously has worked for Zappos, and we mean to follow their lead. All of our employees contributed to the list, which includes mantras like “Communicate, Communicate, Communicate”, “Build Meaningful Relationships” and “Deliver and Expect Excellence”. We live by these ideas, even if some are a bit hokey at times. As a result, we were named one of america’s 50 Most Engaged Workplaces for 2011 alongside companies like Zappos, Hubspot, Alcoa, and ADP.
Whatever I wind up doing in the future, I will take these lessons with me and apply them as best I can – hopefully as leader of my own company.