Young man sitting and talking with friends at a cafe

By Dan Graham

Startups are sexy. Fortune 500 companies are sexy. The middle is not sexy.

For many companies who have “started up”; those who have graduated from startup status — but have a while to go before hitting Fortune 500 — the middle is the most formative time for their growth. Trouble is, a lot of these companies find themselves at a loss when it comes to recovering from the startup hangover and navigating the growth spurt. Chalk it up to a lack of seasoned resources, the time it takes to invest in the bigger picture, or a looming board asking for focus elsewhere.

But as a founder of a company currently mitigating the middle – I can attest to two things: keeping your culture true and your operations lean are the most important cogs in the growth-stage wheel.

Keeping your culture

Startups having a hyper focus on a quality culture is probably the least newsworthy thing you’ll read all day, but that tidbit still remains at the core for startups. To them, a quality culture envelops all the needs of its employees to help foster retention – from wellness perks, to team building budgets, to a stocked golden bar kept next to the Skee Ball machine. After all, a company is only as good as the people it keeps. And according to a recent employee retention survey conducted by TinyPulse, employees that give their workplace culture low marks are 15% more likely to seek employment elsewhere. So as a startup grows and scales, it’s crucial they protect the very culture they’ve been carefully curating to prevent avoidable turnover and eliminate employee dissatisfaction.

In order to do this, leaders of the company need to remain in touch – both with themselves and with their teams. A common management malpractice (and, admittedly, one I’ve committed a time or two) is operating out of a black box; chugging along without giving their team members a transparent look at progress, changes, mission, or otherwise. This is often a result of poor communication from the top down, which leaves team members feeling unsure of their purpose, vision, and contributed value to the company.

To combat this, executives and managers alike should implement a fervent and frequent review system along with a culture champion squad to keep everyone and everything aligned. For reviews, this goes well beyond a time-consuming mass employee engagement survey – rather, engage them with one-on-one regular coffees, up reviews, and quarterly check-ins without distraction. Empower your employees to develop a “culture team” made up of liaisons from each department that allows for diplomatic discussion and actionable steps to drive wanted change within the walls of your organization.

When in doubt, lean it out

New founders are definitely deep into the mindframe of “fail fast”, which is an excellent way to test, iterate, grow, and scale at the rapid rate that competes with demand. And along the way, they pick up key new hires, pull habits from fellow founders, and adopt new processes to keep the plates spinning. But once the startup explosion dust settles, most business leaders can finally see the profitability finish line, and in turn – the accumulated fat that begs to be trimmed. This fat can include a wide range of things that pull focus from trudging through the growth phase: superfluous hires, unnecessary projects, systems, or protocols that detract from maximum efficiency.

Similar to the “culture champions” initiative, I encourage you to use your employees in creative ways to help you tighten up operations. A few years ago, was finally hit with the “started up” reality and needed to make a number of changes. Our teams had grown to the few-hundred, and free snacks were starting to be a real expense. What’s more, we had implemented a slew of systems that seemed to be causing more bottleneck than progress. To help subdue this problem, we instituted the “Dumb Rule Contest”. This contest was designed to get our employees who had to deal with these injustices and inefficiencies daily to speak up and problem-solve.

Of course, there were some abusers of the system, but overall we received some great feedback that wound up saving us time, money, and kept morale high. We eventually got rid of 2-3 policies and protocols that were deemed unnecessary, shifted to a market-style snack system with reloadable key cards, and awarded our participants with high fives and a wad of cash. They felt heard, valued, and the company saw benefits from their solutions. These are the folks on the ground and in the grind every single day – and should be the ones you seek first if things start feeling shifty or unstable.  Let them know how important they are to the success of this company!

So founders, I encourage you, as you work your way through this phase of your business’ life cycle do not neglect the principles on which you built your company, and uplift the teams you hand-picked to help get you to profitability.

Dan Graham, CEO of Follow him at @BuildASign.