Organization building happens in stages. For most Indian startups, the founding team is usually a two- or three-member unit, comprising friends and former colleagues. Most founders start making calculated decisions from the time of early hires. They note areas in which the existing team is particularly wanting and hire talent accordingly. Hirings and firings are important, not simply because they solve a particular problem or address a crucial issue, but more generally because they represent the building blocks of a successful organization. Indeed, putting together a well-rounded organizational structure where team members complement each other is one of the key essentials for building a scalable company. We asked founders to identify the stage at which they started putting together a scalable organization structure and share tips with our readers who may be starting out.
You have to go through the life cycle of a startup where initially everybody is kind of figuring out how to build, then you are trying to figure out how to sell, then you are trying to figure out how to support, then you are trying to figure out how to implement, and then the cycle repeats itself, and there is a lot of stress in the system every time you go through these transitions. You have to be very, very focused. You have to say that this is what I have decided as my mission and vision, and I want to make sure that all the decisions I take are aligned to that, and I am also thinking long term, not short term. This has always forced us to have an org structure that works for us at the stage we are at—and we are not afraid to iterate and learn! The structure that can scale is a structure that can change, and adapt and be resilient!
AFTER PRODUCT-MARKET FIT, IF YOU ARE NOT SCALING UP, YOU ARE LOSING OUT THE OPPORTUNITY OF EXPANDING.
– RITESH ARORA
My co-founder Varun and I founded a company called SocialCops which was a data-science-for social-good company. We spent five years building up the company to one of the world’s leading data-for good organizations. We did a lot of work with folks like the United Nations, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, several large governments. That is really where I learnt everything that I learnt about building and running data teams. As soon as we started hitting a little bit of scale at SocialCops, somewhere in 2016, we had this spurt of growth. Over a couple of months, we suddenly went from analysing data for about two million people to 500 million people. The scale was immense, and it just led to a lot of chaos. We realized that there was no way we could scale like this, and that is when we started this internal project that we called the assembly line project. The goal with this assembly line project was basically just to make our data team as agile as possible. We brought transparency at every stage of the life cycle, upskilled at different stages, allowed an analyst to do what an engineer would do. Over a couple of years, we had made our team about six times more agile. At scale, SocialCops built India’s national data platform, which all the members of Parliament, including the prime minister, use today. We were a global partner for the United Nations in their sustainable development goals/programmes, and the only reason we were winning these projects is that we could do in a month what another person would take six months to do. Towards the end of 2018, we realized we had inadvertently ended up building something more powerful than we had earlier intended it to be. The teams were becoming more and more ubiquitous in the organizational fabric. So we said that we would build these tools for our own data team. Is there a way that these tools could help other data teams around the world? And it was with that one question that Atlan (Prukalpa’s current company) was born.
THE RIGHT SCALE HAPPENS WHEN YOU WORK BACKWARDS FROM YOUR EVENTUAL GOAL.
– RITESH ARORA
From the early days, I sought a well-rounded team whose members would be generally complementary to each other. And I think with my two co-founders, we had a very good mix in that regard from the start. Ankit Sobti brought a wide array of capabilities with him when he joined Postman; he was the most experienced of the group and had worked in big companies. Abhijit Kane was really fast with shipping stuff, and, of course, I was doing what I was doing; I was more a generalist, and I could design and build.
But, soon after that, our first hire on a contract basis was a graphic/visual designer. We chose a designer because we wanted to get a great brand logo and look. I feel like that is the biggest area that people ignore. Especially with today’s design talent, I typically recommend to people to get a first-rate designer very early on. In this way, we tried to bake design excellence into the DNA of the company.
Next, we looked at our engineering talent. We didn’t have great depth in that area, so we got our chief software architect, Shamasis Bhattacharya, who’s been with us for six years now. He was a key addition.
And that’s how we continued scaling. I would look at our entire team and see what is the next thing that we need. I think we were a 30–40-member company when we got a VP of marketing, then after that, we got a VP of customer success. So each unit was evolving, and that’s how we scaled and grew.
The question of scale becomes important once you have achieved product-market fit. You want to reduce the time and put in your best effort to get the product-market fit. You shouldn’t have to do this between two people—you want to put together a team of 10 people and do it. After the product-market fit, if you are not scaling up, you are losing the opportunity of expanding. If you are not scaling up your sales, it means that there are potential customers that you are not reaching out to who can use your products. If you are not scaling up your engineering, that means there is an opportunity of adding more features and you are not doing that. The scale thinking allows you to see what all you are losing, which, given a choice, you wouldn’t want to lose. Now in BrowserStack, the way I think is that my universe is made up of 150,000 potential customers. I don’t tell myself that currently, we have 5,000 users, so now we will go to 8,000— that is incremental thinking. The right scale happens when you work backwards from your eventual goal. My eventual goal is 150,000 so we brainstorm to see what we can do to reach the entire 150,000.
Scaling has to do with lots of things: Are you focused enough on iterating? Are you taking the features fast to the market? And are you being very, very frugal about what features you are building and taking to the market in the first phase so you can iterate very quickly? If two people can code, your cost will come down dramatically because the cost of building has come down dramatically. I don’t have to build a huge infrastructure to start coding today. There is a low code platform available. I can actually do PMF on a low-code platform. My daughter was trying to do something; I said, let’s take a low-code platform. Let’s do the PMF on a low-code platform itself. So, there are many options available these days.
Every founder should constantly look at a pie chart for the team. A lot of times, the early-day founders can make a mistake where they are taking on too much of the load. Each one is a full-time job; for example, doing pre-sales demos or doing sales calls or doing marketing content or doing development or doing design—these are all full-time jobs. There is only so much a founder can take on. So, you have to identify the departments and maybe you take on a double role or a triple role at first, but then, eventually make sure to bring in people to fit the roles.
The second phase is when you have mid-level managers for most of the departments (support, HR, facilities, sales, product), but you are still calling all the shots. You are still signing all the offer letters, still deciding the discounts for customers if there are any, and you are still handling customer escalations. That phase will last from anywhere between 30 employees and 500 employees. You don’t have a full-fledged leadership team yet and this is where the third phase
ARE YOU BEING VERY, VERY FRUGAL ABOUT WHAT FEATURES YOU ARE BUILDING AND TAKING TO THE MARKET IN THE FIRST PHASE SO YOU CAN ITERATE VERY QUICKLY?
– MANAV GARG
comes in, where you realize that you can’t just keep running day-to-day operations. The key question to ask is, am I the only person who is capable of doing this work, or am I doing it because I only have midlevel managers who turn to me for approval? That is when the third phase kicks in, when you start hiring leaders who will work with you for strategy but will go and run the day-to-day. You are no longer needed for the day-to-day; you can just jump in for the firefighting. There are so many fires which exist every day, you just have to go and focus on the fire of the day, but you are not involved in the day-to-day, and you have the leadership team running the company.
AFTER THE PRODUCT-MARKET FIT, IF YOU ARE NOT SCALING UP, YOU ARE LOSING THE OPPORTUNITY OF EXPANDING. IF YOU ARE NOT SCALING UP YOUR SALES, IT MEANS THAT THERE ARE POTENTIAL CUSTOMERS THAT YOU ARE NOT REACHING OUT TO WHO CAN USE YOUR PRODUCTS. IF YOU ARE NOT SCALING UP YOUR ENGINEERING, THAT MEANS THERE IS AN OPPORTUNITY OF ADDING MORE FEATURES AND YOU ARE NOT DOING THAT.
– RITESH ARORA, BROWSERSTACK