Helen Yu is the founder and CEO of TigonAdvisory, driving growth for tech companies from startup CEOs — who go on to achieve multibillion-dollar revenue growth and record profitability — to global titans like Oracle and Adobe. She’s a board advisor to fast-growth SaaS companies and is on the board of the Global Cybersecurity Association. She’s a top Twitter influencer with a 10M+ weekly reach and was ranked a Top 10 thought leader by Thinkers 360 and a top 10 digital transformation influencer by IBM. She’s spoken at SXSW, TiECon, DMS and Money2020. An avid adventurer who trekked to Mount Everest base camp and ice climbed glaciers, her new book is “Ascend Your Start-up: Conquer the 5 Disconnects to Accelerate Growth” (Made for Success, May 2021). Learn more at tigonadvisory.com.
As a new founder at the beginning of your entrepreneurial journey, you have many tasks at hand and little bandwidth to do them all. There are countless responsibilities, from everyday tasks like investor pitch decks and elevator pitches to longer-term tasks like business plan revisions, product launch strategy and much more. How do you know if you are putting your time and energy into things that matter? It all comes back to why you started your business in the first place — understanding your “why” will keep you going when the road gets tough. But “why” alone is not enough for the long haul. You must couple your “why” with four specific steps needed to scale a business:
- Intentional go-to-market preparations
- An ability to adapt to customer needs
- A willingness to acclimate or even restart in the face of changing or more demanding market environments
- The heart to celebrate with your team when you collectively hit milestones along the way
I learned this approach while ascending one of the world’s most famous mountains.
Here is how I learned how to scale a business to success:
In 2008, I climbed Mount Everest. It took hundreds of hours of training and dedication to achieve my goal — including staying committed to the climb while my hands were freezing from the cold and my head felt heavy from the rising altitude.
Why did I keep climbing?
Because I had made a promise to my grandmother to spread her ashes on a tall mountain. That “why” gave me the will to keep moving forward. It gave me the courage to see my limitations and overcome them: to learn mountain climbing and train my body to withstand it, to find a Sherpa guide who could lead me into new territory. My goal of climbing Mount Everest started not on any map but in my mind. It was a dream that became my North Star, helping me choose the actions and paths needed to fulfill my grandmother’s wish.
Your startup has a similar North Star: the reason that led you to start the business in the first place. You also have an inner voice that serves as Sherpa guide. Why did you start this business? Who are you serving with it?
By asking yourself these questions, you will find the determination and grit to keep moving forward and find the keys to scale a business. A North Star may look distant and unattainable, but it is achievable when you take consistent actions to reach it.
When strategy and execution aren’t aligned to the mission and vision, disconnects occur. Internal communications break down. Customers are dissatisfied with their interactions with your company. Growth opportunities are missed. Investors become wary of your potential to survive.
With your “why” kept front and center, you will be able to choose the actions that support it and overcome these common disconnects. It all begins with preparation. Before you begin your startup climb, be sure that you’ve lined up your partners and support team. Don’t go to market until you have processes in place to hear and respond to your customers.
Your startup’s “why” must not simply be mentioned in a high-level vision statement but must also be integrated into all of your company’s operations, from product creation to marketing.
Do your employees understand your company’s mission and vision? When your team understands their impact, they can find more fulfillment in their jobs, which leads to alignment across the company and higher performance.
Your North Star, or “why,” will not change, but the vision and strategy for reaching it might. You may find the business you started is not the one that will move you forward toward that North Star. At that point, you must either implement changes within your business to move you closer to those goals or create something new entirely.
Often wedded to their original ideas, many founders resist adapting even when it becomes evident they’ve misread the voice of the customer. Stay aware and agile. This is the time to pivot, perhaps even redirect, to incorporate the customer’s voice into decision-making.
Be ready to test your assumptions of what is working and what is not. Your “why” may take you on new roads that you never thought possible, and your ability to adapt to your customers along the way can keep you moving forward.
Adapting is all about shifting direction. Acclimating means pausing, or even restarting, listening to the customer’s voice and adjusting to demanding markets that have little margin for error.
Like climbers who reverse and go back to base camp after reaching each summit, the reflective, backward steps of acclimatization will allow your business to figure out repeatable success (the cornerstone needed to scale a business!) and keep you moving forward in the long run.
Finally, don’t save all the confetti and high-fives for the very top of the mountain. Remember to celebrate small wins, too. As a founder, you need to inspire devotion in others. Celebrating the little victories along the way is an expression of gratitude to your partners and teams and reminds people why they started the journey with you.
Startup culture is complicated, with many opportunities to get off track and lose the point of why you started in the first place. By keeping the “why” of your North Star front and center while preparing, adapting, acclimating and celebrating along your journey, you will make the necessary adjustments to avoid many of the pitfalls that cause startups to fail and, instead, start to scale a business with confidence.