From Start-up to Scale-up: Think

Oftentimes when I speak, when it comes time for Q&A, people ask how I made my own multiple start-ups successful. While I have no “secret sauce” or recipe for assured success, I have been in high tech for long enough to get a sense for what is needed most. If I could sum it all up in one word, that word would be “think.”

Too many early-stage companies fall into the pitfall of believing that they have the next big idea without yet considering how to build the right founding team, how to bring their idea to market and where, and what will happen next when their idea has “made it.” It’s one thing to see your product in a box on a shelf. It’s another thing to be all the way on the other side of the world and in an unexpected place where you see your product being used in a way that’s mission-critical to someone else’s business success. Maybe your ideas and your product are that big, and maybe they’re not. But coming out of the gate with some Big Think is necessary while you figure that out. In this piece, I’ve sketched a rough outline of four “thinks” that I feel start-ups need to consider.

First, think up a big idea, and, once you have it, think about a big market that needs your big idea right now. Look for that idea and that place with a combination of vision, humbleness, and timing. If you start too early or too late, you miss the mark; either buyers won’t be ready for your solution, or the customers won’t be there yet. Is now the time for your solution — and where?

Second, you have to bring the right thinkers together to compose the founding team very early on, which can feel a bit like getting married without an extensive dating period. On that founding team, each member has to have appropriate roles. Right away in today’s world, that team needs to think about how things are so advanced and so fast that as you build your product, you have to think about UE, design, and security, especially, with so much being totally open and in the cloud. Importantly, your team has to think about the right foundation and architecture for scalability — otherwise, you may have a great product-market fit, but you won’t be able to grow. Strong people are needed to lead product as well as deployment earlier than you may think you need them; for a big idea, those are founding team roles. Things move that fast.

One mistake I’ve seen too many CEOs and founders make is in trying to do everything themselves. This is not a good idea at all. Wearing too many hats means that you’re thinking too broadly in places where detail may be needed, not to mention wearing yourself down — and we all know how hard it is to think creatively when there’s too much on our plate. When you bring together enough smart, thinking people in proper roles on a founding team, you end up moving your idea into being both faster and smarter.

Third, remember: product-market fit matters. Think of how everyone is using videoconferencing during this Covid-19 pandemic. A lot of companies relied on their existing solutions to be seamlessly scaled to accommodate shifting work needs. Others knew what they needed, and they knew how to find it, even if it was a new solution for their company. It may seem like a tall order for your founding team to have to create a leveraged model that is discoverable and will have virality right away, all in a time when all products are supposed to engage the user while having a low cost of customer acquisition. But, think about it: during the early spring, you witnessed the speed at which that happens.

Fourth, now, let’s assume for a moment that your company has gotten there. You have your product. You have your fit, and it’s in a big market. You have some virality building, too. Are you done? (Never!) Now is the time to think about measurement: measure, measure, and measure more, and measure all of the results in all parts of your company. How you scale is by understanding your customer, their adaption, and what your virality factors are. At my company, RingCentral, executives still gather at the beginning of every week to slice and dice customer acquisition reports that came in daily. It’s practically a religion for us in terms of how we measure adoption, churn, cost, use predictive analytics to manage our pipeline, analyze various ratios and so on.

Innovation, in a nutshell, is a Big Think task. It starts with your idea, grows with your team, fits into the market — and then, if you’ve done your job, it goes back to your team to think of measurements and scale. From day one, things will accelerate more and more, and there is no escaping that tornado. If you aren’t feeling like you’re amid a tornado, you’re probably not growing fast enough or even may be stagnating. You can’t just sell more products to get back into the game; you have to drive innovation to stay relevant. And you do that by continuing to think and to measure, never getting complacent, and surely, by keeping up.

This post also appeared on LinkedIn.

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About Kira Makagon

Kira Makagon is a successful serial entrepreneur and tech industry leader. A graduate of UC Berkeley with both an undergraduate degree in computer science and an MBA, she enjoys sharing her lessons learned from being a veteran “only woman in the room.”

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