Preparing for scale: “You’ve got nothing without employees”

Preparing for scale: “You’ve got nothing without employees”

Author: The Carta Team
Read time:  27 minutes
Published date:  December 9, 2021
Five seasoned operators and early-stage investors share advice for startups to overcome the growing pains of scaling up fast.

Scaling is a sign of success: It means investors believe your leadership and business model have what it takes to go the distance. But many founders struggle through common growing pains as they scale. Hiring, process building, communication, and transparency can all pose difficulties as a business leaps into growth. In a panel at the 2021 Carta Equity Summit, a diverse group of investors and entrepreneurs offered advice to founders and operators starting to scale up. 

The panel:

This transcript has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Fern Mandelbaum: Hope you’re having an amazing Equity Summit. I’m Fern Mandelbaum. I head up early-stage investing at Emerson Collective and I teach at Stanford Business School. I teach three classes: Entrepreneurship From a Diverse Perspective; Power: Building the Entrepreneurial Mindset; and Equity by Design: Building Diverse and Inclusive Organizations. The people on this panel are truly extraordinary. Some have come to my class before. They’ll all be coming next year because I think they are just phenomenal. They’re going to take just a couple of minutes to introduce themselves. Leyla, will you kick us off?

Leyla Seka: Hi, everybody. My name’s Leyla Seka. I worked at Salesforce for 12 years. I helped build the AppExchange, among some other things. While I was there, I also went with my friend Cindy to Marc Benioff and told him he wasn’t paying the women the same as the men, which started the equal pay initiative that ran across corporate America. After Salesforce, I joined my friend Mallun Yen at her venture firm Operator Collective, where we raised $50 million and deployed it to enterprise B2B software. The interesting thing about Operator Collective is that of all of our LPs are operators, 90% of them are women, and 40% of them are people of color. Just recently, I got the itch to go back to operating because I missed doing work like that. So I joined Ironclad as a COO. That’s not to say that investing isn’t work! But I missed getting in there and doing the COO kind of work. So I went back to Ironclad. I’m the COO and I’m super happy to be here.

Julia Collins:I’m Julia Collins. Like Leyla, I love getting in there and doing that kind of work. I’m a serial founder. I like to build businesses at the intersection of food and technology, with the thesis that we can use the power of food to make the world a better place. My company’s called Planet Forward. We’re on a mission to tackle climate change by making it easier to bring climate-friendly products to market. We help companies understand, reduce, and neutralize their carbon footprints. Prior to founding Planet Forward, I co-founded a company called Zume Pizza, where we did many amazing things, including raising more than a half a billion dollars in capital over three years, which made me the first Black woman to have raised that much money in the tech space. Now I’m really focused on making sure that I’m not the last Black woman to achieve that level of interest in terms of fundraising.

Allison Barr Allen:My name is Allison Barr Allen. I’m the cofounder and COO at a company called Fast, where we’re scaling one-click checkout all across the internet. Prior to Fast, I was at Uber for two years. I’ve been doing Fast for about two years now, and we’ve scaled from two people to about 350—some very rapid growth. I’m also an active angel investor; I’ve invested in 20-plus companies over the past three years.

Laela Sturdy:I’m Laela Sturdy. I’m a general partner at CapitalG, where I do a little bit of work—not according to the other Layla, but according to my schedule every day. I lead investments in growth-stage companies. I typically join the board after that. I’m on the board of UiPath and Duolingo. I led our investment in Stripe, Webflow, Whatnot—a bunch of great companies. It’s been a ton of fun to partner with those entrepreneurs and those teams for the last many years. Prior to investing, I spent most of my career as a “real” worker on the operating side. My most recent job was leading a team called Emerging Businesses at Google. I helped launch and build a few new businesses at Google, including AdWords Express and several others, some of which worked and some of which didn’t. So I learned a lot about entrepreneurship inside big companies and around scaling different types of businesses, particularly in the payments and S&B space. 

How scale amplifies challenges

Fern: Thank you all so much. We have a number of questions that we’re going to pose to the panelists. And given that we have four people on the panel, each question will be answered by two people. 

First question: What are some of the challenges you face as a company scales beyond those key milestones, whether it’s 500 employees, many Fortune 100 customers, $50 million in revenue, a $500 million valuation—though that seems to happen quite often these days—that you didn’t face earlier in the company’s lifestyle? Leyla, you want to kick us off?

Leyla:Sure. I think the thing about hitting those milestones is you’ve been working towards them, and all of a sudden you hit them and the goal shifts. And making that shift really quickly, right as you hit the milestone, is very difficult. I think the key thing you have to do when you’re building a company like that is really pay attention to the impact that has on the employees. I mean, obviously, the customers too—that’s always front of mind. But it’s difficult for employees to handle a lot of change. Often, as you move through those milestones, you have to implement new systems—auditing, different types of processes, different ways of building—that can be jarring, especially for older employees who have been there for a long time and felt like the old way was the best way. Being deliberate through those changes, and really thinking about how the culture needs to shift, and what elements you need to hold onto, and what you have to let go, and help the company do—I think those are key.

Fern:Thank you. Julia?

Julia:I totally agree with what Leyla shared. To build on that a little bit, I think scale amplifies everything. As you scale up, the things that are working really well within your organization become really obvious and it feels great. If you have a very strong and well-defined culture, as you scale that grows and has a bigger impact. 

But scale can also amplify the places where your organization is not well resourced or where you’re misaligned. Scale can amplify challenges in communications within departments. All of a sudden, if you’re not aligned, things you could resolve with a quick conversation require much more intervention to re-knit. 

Scale can amplify administrative challenges. If you aren’t really well buttoned up on your legal and your accounting and your payroll and all those things, as you scale, things that you can intervene on as a founder really quickly become much hairier to resolve later. I think this is why when we talk about scale, we often talk about it in the same breadth as systems and processes—because oftentimes investing in those before you begin to scale reduces the number of times that you find yourself in these really challenging moments.

Fern:I love that you both really focused on process, and I’m wondering what processes have allowed you to scale faster—rather than, as we sometimes see, slow things down—and in particular, what specific team processes?

Laela:One area that comes to mind immediately is processes around hiring. I remember as an operator learning this first lesson. I had to hire about 300 people in a four-month period. And I laid the targets out to my team. We were all off hiring, doing a good job at sourcing, getting it in—but I had never stopped, and no one on the team had ever stopped, to do the math around our current hiring process, and how many actual minutes it would take for each person who was currently employed on the team to hire that many people.

When we started to realize the bottleneck of not having enough time in the day to actually do work, I finally did the math and realized I was asking people to spend about 70% of their time interviewing instead of actually getting work done. So we quickly revamped the process and were able to make it very standardized: no more than three interviews, no more than 30 minutes each. Every person was covering very different specific criteria that we were making the hiring decisions on. And we just completely revamped the process to, first of all, make it a much better process, but secondly, and most importantly, to help it get done in a third of the time. So I think it’s examples like that, where you really get in the weeds hiring and onboarding—particularly in high-growth companies where you’re typically doubling the number of people every year. And remember, you’re doing that for multiple years in a row. It compounds very quickly just how new everybody is. I would say that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned. 

The second process around scale that I think I’ve learned the hard way lots of times, and focus a lot on, is communication. As organizations scale, you really need to make sure the communication processes are scaling with it. There’s a lot of informal communication, a lot of team-based and locally driven communication when teams are smaller. You have to formalize how the communication plan is going to scale with time and with people. I think a lot of it going more asynchronous again, to make sure people aren’t stuck in meetings all the time, is a really important muscle that organizations have to build. So those are the two that come to mind for me.

Fern:Thank you, Allison.

Allison:To add, I think one thing you have to be careful about with process is that a lot of people will join startups or smaller companies because they felt held back, or there were a lot of gatekeepers at previous companies. So there’s a very fine line between where the process should be. But in many cases, really good processes can speed you up significantly. I think one of the most impactful ones that we’ve actually done is around procurement—especially right now with all the enterprise SaaS tools in the market. It’s so easy to sign up for different things, but then it’s hard to keep track of everything that’s going on. So now we have a central process where all of those spending decisions, and privacy and security reviews and all of that, goes through one central team. That’s their mandate: to make sure that everything is done safely, but also in an effective way, so that people aren’t waiting around for weeks and weeks to get approvals to purchase or invest in different tools. 

I think outage processes are another hiring process. Another thing with processes is you have to get pen to paper and roll out a process—but you have to always look at it with a fine eye around redoing it and being comfortable changing it if it’s not working, and getting your team comfortable with updating the processes, as well. Because that’s where you can get stuck in the old company mentality of “Oh, this is how we do it. Everyone’s aligned”— and then not be willing to look at the bigger picture of needing to update or change it.

Fern:That is such a great point about revisiting—not just, “This is the way it is.” These companies are going through such change all the time. 

This is a conference on equity, so we’d be remiss if we didn’t ask a question that is completely focused on it. How do you ensure equity and inclusion while experiencing hypergrowth? We’ll start with Laela.

Cultivating a culture of equity and inclusion

Laela:First thing I would say is that you have to focus on it immediately. One of the fun parts about being a growth-stage investor is I get to see lots of companies. And one of the things you quickly realize over time is that what a company has done in the past is a good predictor of what they’re going to do in the future. It’s not always the case, but it’s more often the case. So the biggest thing I would say to any leaders I work with is, “Don’t talk about how we’re going to fix this as soon as we get around this corner or do this: We need to be talking about it today.” It’s much easier to set the culture the way you want it, and to get the right team as early as possible. Then, leadership that really embodies the values of a focus on equity and inclusion from the beginning is critical. So focus on it today as the first, most important thing. 

I think there’s lots of different parts. Hiring gets a lot of attention. And some of the things that I’ve learned around hiring are, first of all, to set goals, to be explicit about those goals internally and externally, around what you’re committed to from an equity and inclusion perspective. Focus on different talent pools. 

One of my companies that is an absolute leader in this is Duolingo. They have done an amazing job building a really diverse engineering culture by, again, just setting goals. They identified that if we look at universities that have active clubs around equity and inclusion in the engineering school, that’s a good place to start. They built an amazing college recruiting program where literally they’ve hired 50% female engineers, and 70% engineers who identify as people of color over the last couple of years—it’s just incredible—through that focus, and by being creative about looking in different talent pools. So I think there’s a big thing on hiring. 

I love the point about equity and inclusion. I think inclusion is a really important part and piece of this puzzle. It very much defines the culture of your organization. Thinking about how and serving and talking to different groups and people within your organization, and measuring the inclusion—measuring things like psychological safety and identifying what’s preventing some or all parts and people on your team from feeling like they can fully be themselves at work and contribute in the best possible way—and then making those changes.

I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all, but there are lots of patterns across organizations that we can improve once we all get awareness. But that inclusion piece to me is the piece around just making sure the culture that you think you want and that you talk about really is the one that exists inside your organization. You have to just talk to the people inside to figure out if that’s what’s happening. 

Leyla: Listen, I’m going to echo a little of what Laela said, but then I’ll give a slightly different example. You have to be super intentional about this. This isn’t going to happen unless you’re super intentional. I have been at a big company that figured out they weren’t being intentional about it. And then we tried to be—and man, that was a heavy lift. It was a lot of work to try to get intentional when we weren’t before. 

And here’s a really practical one. Laela was mentioning hiring. A lot of startups reward referrals because we can get more people in faster. But if you’re a white founding team and you hire your friends, who are probably white people, engineers, they’re likely going to hire their friends, and their friends. And then you end up with an org that looks like the people who started it, unless you are super intentional about thinking about who you’re looking for to fill these roles and the diversity of opinion you want to bring into your product, into your company, and into your reactions with your customers.

So this is not negotiable anymore. The days of, “I don’t want to do this” are over, thank God. Because not too long ago, I was still convincing people they should be thinking about this, which is ridiculous. But how you do this will differentiate between building a truly awesome company that will last long, and some BS company that’ll get bought up by something else and taken down because no one’s interested in the company or white people telling them how to do stuff anymore. We’re all done with that.

Fern:Julia, would you mind adding any thoughts? And Allison, after that, if you have anything to add here as well.

Julia:Absolutely. So first of all, snaps to Leyla because I am totally in vehement agreement with everything you just said. But in addition to being intentional about DEI, you need to be strategic—just the way that you are with any other big initiative within your organization. You need to be strategic, and being strategic starts with creating a strategy document—like actually document how you plan to make this happen, and be very clear in that documentation about the who, the why, and the what. And then there’s this overarching thing: If you’re the founder who’s leading this work or anybody on the executive team, lean into your power of vision. Startups are uniquely good at presenting the big vision. So how is the world going to look different? How’s your company going to look different, your product, the universe of human beings who consume your product? How is that going to look different if you’re successful in your DEI efforts? Be really clear and charismatic about that, and make sure that you match that to the strategy as the backbone.

Fern:Allison, did you want to add anything?

Allison:I’ve done tons of recruiting. I think right now it’s not “relatively” easy to raise capital, but there’s a lot of capital out there, and it becomes really, really important to be able to build your team and recruit the best people. It’s a challenging thing, and it gets easier as you get more people. But especially at the beginning, it’s very, very hard. I’d say don’t be scared to reach out to people who may not actively be looking for roles, or who may be in a different profile. Reaching out gives them confidence that they may be capable of taking on roles that they never thought of. Because there’s a gender difference in how actively people apply to different roles. Always keep your networks open and try to identify people and in roles they may not even have thought of themselves, but that you think they could be a good fit for based on your experience.

Fern:I love that you brought that up. When this work was just starting, it was “attract, select, develop, retain”—and the “attract” part didn’t really focus on going out there and meeting people where they are, and letting them know that they were right for the job—whether it’s gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, ableism, or one’s ability. It’s really important to get out there. So thank you for adding that. One simple example of how to maintain a culture is asking, can you even meet everyone in the company any longer? We all know when you get to maybe 200 people, probably 150, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, who is that person? Do they work here?” And that always feels bad—it certainly feels bad for me. What systems have you put in place to really drive and maintain that culture that I bet you all work really hard to put in place from the beginning? Julia, you want to kick us off on this one?

Julia:I distinctly remember the point at which I was no longer able in the morning to greet every single person in the office. I used to take such pride in doing that. I would set my calendar so that I always arrived at work about 45 minutes before my first meeting. And I would spend those 45 minutes just touching desks. And I loved that, and I felt a lot of mourning for that period once it was over. But since it was such an important part of the way I worked, I tried to simulate it in different ways. This is as soon as we were scaling. And one of those was to create time that was office hours where anyone could feel free to come and see me. They didn’t need to book time. Now I do that virtually. I just have time when my Zoom screen is on and people can just pop in. So I think one is being intentional about being accessible and building it into your schedule, prioritizing time when your employees set the agenda. Another thing that works well is if you have a company all-hands meeting, you can create a framework where anyone can ask a question, and set aside time during the meeting to go into the grab bag of questions and answer them. So people know that you’re always listening.

Fern:Thank you. Allison?

Allison: Sure, I’ll add a few things. We do have a weekly all-hands on Fridays, and I sort of MC the agenda and help plan it all out and everything. And we put significant time into thinking through how it’s structured and what we present. Both myself and my co-founder give updates during that meeting. I think it’s a good way for everyone to understand what the highest priorities are and hear directly from us about what’s important. We do a monthly Q&A with all new hires where they can ask any questions, and then we’ll also do another monthly Q&A with all employees where they can answer questions. In-person is also pretty important to us. We haven’t traveled extensively, but we’ve done a few meetups, and we try to be accessible and meet people in person because I think it really helps.

Maintaining organizational transparency

Fern:Yeah, however you can do that safely. I’d convinced myself that one-on-one chats on Zoom simulated reality, and they don’t. So however you can make that happen. We could have a whole panel on going back to work, or how you can be in your offices and really find time to get together with people somehow—it’s so important. 

This is always a question I get related to transparency. How has transparency within your organization evolved as you’ve scaled? Leyla, you want to kick us off?

Leyla:Yes, I do. Listen, this is hard because when you’re small, those all-hands meetings Allison’s talking about: We have one, we tell them everything, we’re very open. We’re super transparent. We’re trying to make everyone an owner at the company. We’re trying to make them feel that level of ownership and teach them also, what are these metrics, what are we doing? And the reality is as we’re growing—and even now, this will happen at Ironclad—we have to stop sharing as much as we prepare for different motions in the business and different things that we have to do. The way we’ll do that is by being transparent about the fact that we’re not going to be as transparent anymore—which sounds ridiculous, but there’s real power in explaining why. People don’t like when you take things away, when it just goes away.

But you say, “Listen, I can’t share all this with you anymore because it’s getting sensitive,” or “We’re getting too big,” or, “This is very peculiar” or whatever it might be. I think then, people are more rational and understand why you’re shifting. I also think you can share different things. A lot of what we did at Salesforce, we were very open for a long time. I started when it was a $500 million company, which was small, because when I left it was $17 billion. I don’t even know how big it is now. One of the things we did at Salesforce was that when we had to stop talking about things—we were public, we were getting too big, and it was getting out—we started talking about different things with a great pivot. We just switched and started talking about our customers: like details—really ridiculous details. United Airlines did this because Salesforce did that: People could pass at a bar and it became sort of conversational. We switched the dialogue away from some of the internal things we had been sharing before to really a wealth of information about customers. That became what we trafficked in as jargon inside the company. So I think you can transfer it and continue to share in different ways if you’re just—again—intentional and thoughtful. And you also have to tell people, tell them you have to stop doing it. Everyone gets it. People aren’t irrational.

Fern:Yeah. I think the key thing you said is just the “why.” It’s like with children: if you can just explain why. If you just tell someone, “That’s the way it is,” they leave and they conjure up so many things in their head, and then there are entire little side meetings talking about why. Why not just explain why?

Julia:Transparency is really important because you want people to know what’s going on. But I think transparency is also a value that people want to ascribe to. I would argue that you increase your chances of retaining really great people if you prioritize transparency. And while it may be the case that you have to pull back on some disclosures that you used to make as an early stage company, you should always find places where you can be radically transparent, and invest in those places. For me, I think goal setting is an opportunity for transparency. I’m a firm believer in OKRs. I don’t think it’s ever too early or too late to implement OKRs. Really being clear about what the organization is tasked to do within a given period, and how that cascades across and aside and within the organization—that’s one place for transparency. And then to the degree possible, being transparent about fundraising and fundraising milestones can be really important for employees, as well. How much funds will you have? What are your plans for your next round? In my experience, it’s actually a good thing to share those things.

Managing disruptive change

Fern:Slightly different question here. I’m an early-stage investor, so it’s always so many ideas, so crazy. And then I watch board meeting to board meeting, year to year, and sometimes you can have that innovator’s dilemma about how you balance these incremental improvements with having disruptive innovation going on. It is a challenge. I can’t imagine anyone better on the panel to answer it than you, Laela.

Laela:Thanks, Fern. Yeah, so this is an area I’m really passionate about because it was where I spent a lot of my time as an operator. And then it’s something—as a growth stage investor, as you mentioned Fern—that I talk about with all the CEOs and exec teams that I work with a ton. Especially as companies are approaching going public, it’s something they have to really think about in their operating model. They have their core business—which, if they’re getting ready to go public, is usually robust and doing quite well—but then the investors want to understand, “OK, that’s one business, but what’s your second act? Is there anything else going on?” So that’s one form of additional innovation that’s needed beyond the incremental. And then, of course, disruption is a core part of everything that we’re all doing in technology: We usually start off as the disruptors starting a new startup, but then there’s disruptors at every turn along the way.

Technology is changing so quickly that you have to be thinking about that in your long-term strategy—always. I think the way that I’ve consistently seen companies achieve success in this is to be honest about the talent and the people that really are great operators in a more incremental style, and the people that are great operators in an early stage environment. Sometimes people can be both. But a lot of times, the type of thinkers who are more discontinuous in what they want to work on—projects that have more risk, but perhaps a bigger vision—you often need a different type of talent. You almost always need to separate that talent out from the core. It’s incredibly hard. 

In my operating days, I was working at Google when we acquired YouTube: You couldn’t get a sales person to leave Google Search because money was coming over the barrel to buy search ads. And here we just bought a property where you want to sell ads with cats on skateboards—you’re not going to make your numbers in the same way. But look at the business that YouTube is today. A lot of the way that we had to think about building that business model was to separate it out from the core, and allow dedicated people who wanted to work on that particular challenge—both on the consumer and the monetization side—to have the resources to experiment, and not have the thing that they’re measuring themselves against be incremental achievement in a really great core business. 

As I led the team in emerging businesses, we were completely separated out. We hired entrepreneurial people. We worked really closely and cross-functionally—which again, when you’re getting to more of the incremental stage, it’s often the case that people are working more closely within their function as opposed to cross-functionally innovating. So a lot of this comes down to talent and org design, in terms of whether the innovation is going to happen inside an existing company, or whether the innovation is going to happen outside it with a new company coming in and disrupting the old innovator. Even if that old innovator is only a 10-year old company or a 100-year old company, the pace of change in technology is so rapid that I think we see it at all stages.

Planning for a market exit

Fern:We all know, you’re not really supposed to be thinking about your exit, certainly when you’re investing: You’re not trying to think, “Who’s going to buy it?” or, “Are they going to go public?” But of course we all look at multiples and things like that. So here you are, you’re running a phenomenally successful company—or maybe not. How do you evaluate exit opportunities? What goes into that decision? And really, who can you talk to about it? And I’m hoping Leyla, if you could start us off and then Laela, maybe you could follow up.

Leyla:Look, everyone’s business is different. And if you’re running your business correctly, you’re always looking at that. That’s somewhere on the equation. It’s not maybe the primary thing, but it’s in some part of how you’re thinking about the business. As far as who you go to, that’s really the key here. These jobs are lonely. You’re alone a lot of the time, making a decision between two bad calls. There’s two bad things, and I gotta choose one: It’s very rare that you’re sitting there with two beautiful things and you get to choose which beautiful unicorn or rainbow you get to play with. Often, it’s bad decision A or bad decision B. And I gotta make the call that’s going to help the company go as well as it can. So who you can call at those moments is really important.

You need people inside the company you can talk to, to get advice and input. You need some folks outside the company, and you need some who are close to it. That’s often your board. You should hopefully have a board that is very active and super available and helpful, and that will help you think through plots and thoughts around that type of stuff. As the leader, you also need some people who are outside of the company and not directly related, to give you just a different perspective. A lot of exit is about the market, and the market right now is bananas. I mean, it’s a cuckoo bird market. I would call you, Fern. I’d probably call Laela. Allison knows everybody. I’d call Julia. Not everyone: You’ve got to call people you can trust, who aren’t going to be like, “Oh, Leyla said…” But you definitely need to have a lot of opinions inside of yourself before you formulate what you’re going to do there. And it has to be planned.

Even if the plan’s going to change 500 times, just like Julia said about diversity and inclusion, exits require plans. Even if they’re 10 years out, you should have a thought on how it’s going to look and what you’re running toward—because that’s what your investors care about. Not ultimately, but they do. Actually, ultimately that is what they care about.

Laela:So good to know Leyla and I are going to do a deal after this panel—very excited for that! 

So I agree with all that. And I’d say typically, when I talk to entrepreneurs, and when I think about companies who we’re investing in, the true north exit is, “Can rebuild an independent, durable business?” Because the reality is that’s the path you have the most control over. Exits outside of independent, durable businesses are just very, very hard to predict. And I think most entrepreneurs, or some that I know, are so focused on building an independent, durable company that the blinders are on, and they don’t want to consider anything else—which is awesome. And there are others, and that’s what they’re marching towards and the teams are marching towards—but they have conversations, and you can’t predict when those are going to happen, or how. But they’re open to discussing. And they’re typically open if they think they can achieve the same mission inside a larger company and get it funded in that way. 

But the main thing I would say is you really can’t control much of how and when those come together, so you really have to be focused on the end goal of an independent, durable business. I would say that for some, it happens less because, as Leyla said, the capital markets have been so robust and the availability of capital has been overflowing the last couple of years. I still hear this sometimes, but I used to hear it a lot more—where companies at that sort of early growth stage, they would really be thinking about, “Hey, I don’t want to raise a too-robust valuation because I want to at least have the option to consider a different exit.” And once you raise a certain amount of money and are a certain size valuation, that becomes less likely. So I do hear every once in a while founders sort of being like, “OK, we’re going for the long game here.” But on the whole, I think most start the company with the idea that they’re creating a company for the long haul. And that’s the only way I really see of doing it.

Lessons for founders preparing to scale

Fern:This panel is titled “Lessons from scale.” So I’m hoping each person can share a lesson: something that maybe didn’t work out well, and that’s how you learned the lesson. Or it did work out well. I’m going to kick us off, so you can all think of something. 

I think values are so key. Julia mentioned it in relation to transparency. I think someone else mentioned in terms of thinking about DEI from the very beginning, and putting these processes in place. I think you really have to create your company values in the beginning. And they can slightly evolve—that does happen. But really think about what are the values, what are the norms, what are the behaviors—because they really help you make these big decisions that come along literally daily, certainly weekly. And the decisions, as we know, get harder and harder. If you have a really strong set of values that can help you make those hard decisions, it’s quite helpful. I’m going to pass it to you, Julia. And then maybe you can pass it to someone after you’re done.

Julia:I think what I’m about to say is the easiest advice to give, and sometimes the hardest advice to receive: You have to invest in yourself as the founder, as a member of the executive team, as anybody within the organization. And I’m not just talking about getting media coaching or learning SQL. I’m talking about deeply investing in yourself, your wellness, your happiness. You need to sleep. You need to move your body. You need to have help when you’re down. And I think if you don’t invest in yourself, then there’s going to come a moment where you just can’t carry it all, and you’re going to drop it. So what I hope everyone can take away is really, really spend time making sure that you’re whole, and that you’re well. I’m going to pass it to Allison.

Allison:Thanks, Julia. That was great. I don’t know if it’s a much of a lesson, but I think something that I’ve really learned over the past couple years is the importance of being able to clearly articulate what you’re building and what your company’s about—and being able to inspire people through that thirty-second pitch around what you’re building. Because at the end of the day, a lot of what you do as a founder is selling—whether it’s talking to investors or bringing on potential employees, or even actual sales, where you’re going out and getting partners and building the business. So you end up repeating the same messages over and over, but you really have to be thoughtful with yourself about if it’s resonating, and making sure that people understand what you’re doing. Because if your pitch is too complicated or it’s not inspiring, it’s really hard to bring a lot of people on for the ride—which is what you need to build a really big business. I’ll pass it on to Leyla.

Leyla:There are many, but I think for me, you really need to think about your employees.  You reallyneed to think about your employees, because you’ve got nothing if you don’t have them. Julia was talking about not being able to talk to people at their desks. You have to create an operating plan that every person in your organization can relate to and sees their work and themselves in. This is hard, but there are many tools. We had a great one at Salesforce (not to talk about Salesforce all the time). I do think that the real snap here is that you have a 200-person organization that becomes a 2,000-person organization that becomes a 20,000-person organization. If you have to think about the tools you’re using to run the company and communicate internally—and how everyone from the college recruit to the COO understands their place in that and can see themselves and their work reflected back to them, and how the company’s moving forward—that takes a lot of work. But if you do that, they will stay. And it will be their company, not them working at yours.

Fern:I love that.

Laela:I’ll tie it together. I think a lot about what my other three panelists said as I’ve been working with hypergrowth companies that scale. The thing that really struck me is the compounding effect of these teams doubling every year, or more or less doubling. And what I’ve seen is that you really need that next level of leaders who have an incredible endurance and incredible ability to navigate through uncertainty and change and are very strong people leaders. 

I think about a slightly different question. What does it take to operate at scale if you dropped into a big company like JP Morgan, or some CPG company or something? That would be very different—the type of leader that you would need to operate at that level of scale. And there’s a certain type of thinking and strategy and leadership that you need there, very different from the type of leadership I think you need to get in a company that is growing, that is doubling every year for three or four years. Because not only is the company scaling, but the main thing that your leaders are thinking about is how to scale, and how to scale teams and people.

And that’s very different than thinking about mostly their functional discipline. They have to do both. So I think as we talk about scaling, we don’t often talk about sort of scaling as an experience. Have you been someone that has scaled companies over multiple years? Just like you think, are you a marketer? Have you had experience running brand marketing and acquisition marketing? I think that particular skill set is critical to get into the company and not just at the CEO or co-founder level: It’s that next level of execs that becomes critical in carrying the culture and getting the right people on the team.

Fern:Gosh, I just wish I was in a room with all of you right now and just could hang out and talk to you. There’s no doubt in my mind that each and every one of you is such an inclusive leader, just an amazing human. I hope I get to spend more time together. Thank you so much for helping Carta with this panel. Have a wonderful day and we’ll see you soon.

DISCLOSURE: This communication is on behalf of eShares Inc., d/b/a Carta Inc. (“Carta”). This communication is for informational purposes only, and contains general information only. Carta is not, by means of this communication, rendering accounting, business, financial, investment, legal, tax, or other professional advice or services.  This publication is not a substitute for such professional advice or services nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business or interests. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business or interests, you should consult a qualified professional advisor. This communication is not intended as a recommendation, offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security. Carta does not assume any liability for reliance on the information provided herein. ©2021 eShares Inc., d/b/a Carta Inc. (“Carta”). All rights reserved. Reproduction prohibited.

The Carta Team
While we believe in assigning ownership at Carta, this blog post belongs to all of us.