Tips for Scaling Your Business

How to Scale a Small Business

How to Scale Your Business in 6 Steps

You started a small business and, after lots of ups and downs, the company’s foundations have been set and things are going well. But the business is beginning to approach the point where progress is slowing down and earnings are starting to hit a plateau. These are the signs that it’s time to take the next step forward: it’s time to grow and expand your company.

As challenging as it is to start a business in the first place, the process of enlarging the operation will come with its own hurdles that need to be cleared. You won’t want to embark on the next chapter in your company’s story without first learning about what you should expect and how to handle the challenges ahead.

For that reason, we’ve compiled the top 6 tips for how to scale a business for you so that you’ll be able to perfect your business scaling strategy. Keep reading and discover how to scale your business like an expert…

Applying the six s framework

1. Staff

You can’t scale your venture alone. You need a team of talented, highly motivated staff who believe in the company’s mission. For resource-constrained startups, the right talent can change everything: High performers are 400 percent more productive than the average employee, according to McKinsey. As roles grow in complexity, that productivity number jumps to 800 percent.

When a company is in a rapid growth phase, it often feels easier to hire just anyone who can get the work done. But as Apple Founder Steve Jobs once said: “Go after the cream of the cream. A small team of A+ players can run circles around a giant team of B and C players.” If you compromise on talent early, it’s harder to backtrack.

“You need to set a high bar for the first few recruits in the venture,” Rayport says. “You can’t compromise on that first wave, because they’ll be the ones who propagate the values of your organization. Pretty soon, they’ll also be hiring the next wave, and they’ll hire performers who are a lot like them.”

2. Shared Values

Shared values represent a company’s culture, and are what defines how employees interact, solve problems, and work with one another, according to Rayport. As individuals encounter challenges and learn how to collectively address them, particular patterns are reinforced and ultimately coalesce into shared values and beliefs about how work gets done.

“Most startups have a culture that is a direct reflection or translation of the founders’ personalities and values,” Rayport says. “And most founders are largely unaware of the outsized impact they have in instilling the culture of their organization.”

One of the biggest scaling challenges around culture is de-personalizing the company’s values, so they feel less like mantras shaped by a few individuals, and more like a shared organizational fabric.

“You need to make those implicit values explicit and take the time to write them down,” Rayport says. “It’s important to separate cultural inputs from outputs. Most ventures describe the culture they want, which are the outputs, as opposed to determining the actions founders can take, or the inputs, to deliver on that culture.”

3. Structure

How you structure your organization is crucial to success. As the company grows, so, too, should the number of decision-makers. The founders can’t be involved in every detail of the business once it scales. It’s important to recruit seasoned leaders with specific skill sets or develop employees who can thrive in environments with more specialized roles.

Training new employees can feel like additional work, but taking the time to properly onboard them pays dividends later. It’s all about creating leverage to deliver on the founders’ vision—and that requires not only recruiting the right people, but structuring their roles and the organization in ways that favor growth. If you don’t let go, your organization won’t scale.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos encourages failure. As he once wrote in a shareholder letter, as reported in Business Insider, “Failure comes part and parcel with invention. It’s not optional. We understand that and believe in failing early and iterating until we get it right.”

Entrepreneurship Essentials - Succeed in the startup world. Learn more.

4. Speed

Most ventures accumulate “technical debt,” which is the price of scaling what works rather than what’s perfect. Over time, tech debt adds up and it’s critical for leaders to find ways to pay it down. That’s the only way you can create the robust business systems and stable infrastructure needed to support increasing scale.

“It’s better to pay down your tech debt as you scale,” Rayport says. “If you have a market opportunity, you don’t want to wait a few months to get your house in order. But sooner or later, you have to upgrade the systems and infrastructure. As Marshall Goldsmith famously said, ‘What got you here won’t get you there.’ It’s important to recognize that each stage requires its own set of approaches.”

5. Scope

On the other side of speed is scope. Rather, where do you look for opportunities? At what point should you consider expanding into new geographies or markets, or building additional products or services? It’s easy to lose focus when you start to scale, but having a map of growth options helps.

“One way to start categorizing your options is by asking, ‘Will I grow by extending existing products into new markets or by selling new products to existing markets?’” Rayport says. “Make decisions rigorously to set your path.”

6. Series X

Financing is one of your most valuable resources, and it’s important to understand how your financing strategy aligns with your growth strategy, according to Rayport. Hiring additional employees and building out the right infrastructure and business processes typically require capital. You need to know both what kind of financing is necessary to support that growth and where you can cut costs.

preparing for scale

Do you want to master a proven framework for building and financing new ventures? Explore our four-week online course Entrepreneurship Essentials, and discover how you can learn the language of the startup world.

About the Author

Lauren Landry is the associate director of marketing and communications for Harvard Business School Online. Prior to joining HBS Online, she worked at Northeastern University and BostInno, where she wrote nearly 3,500 articles covering early-stage tech and education—including the very launch of HBS Online. When she’s not at HBS Online, you might find her teaching a course on digital media at Emerson College, chugging coffee, or telling anyone who’s willing to listen terribly corny jokes.