In Extreme Revenue Growth by Victor Cheng, a book about developing “revenue growth engines” to scale quickly from $1 million to $25 million+ in revenues, Cheng introduces “The 10 Times Question” which goes like this: If your business grew 10 times overnight, would you be able to handle it?
The question is intended to help company leaders think about what might break in the business if sudden growth were to happen and in doing so figure out what bottlenecks can be identified and addressed in advance.
Like many good questions, Cheng writes, this one spurs on more questions and forces a company leader to really think deeply about what’s important to the business and what tough decisions may emerge when systems are put under immense pressure.
In the context of a web agency business like Barrel, if we 10x’d in the amount of work and revenue overnight, would we be able to handle it, and if not, what would have to change in order to help us scale up?
The Initial Step
If our business 10x’d overnight, we’d be in serious trouble. We run a lean shop as it is with tight resourcing decisions made on a weekly basis. Instantly feeding 10 times more work through our existing infrastructure would cripple our ability to serve existing and new clients. I can recall when business picked up by 30-50% in recent years where we buckled under the load and failed to deliver adequately. So the first step is to admit that we’re not set up to process 10 times the amount of work.
However, if we were given a bit of leeway, maybe 4-6 weeks to ramp up, I think there’s a chance we could quickly make moves to accommodate more work. Here are two moves we’d make right off the bat with the entire leadership team and perhaps the entire client services team present:
- Identify all the new projects that need to get going and order them in priority of importance – which clients, based on relationship, future revenue potential, urgency of timeline, and impact of the work, need to get staffed right away? Which can get going a bit slower with some slack to make up later on?
- For each project, identify the staffing needs and how we could leverage existing resources, both our full-time team members and anyone in our freelance/contractor network, to get things going as quickly as possible. Figure out the gaps where we need to go out and recruit additional resources.
This is not too different than what happens in our weekly resourcing meetings, but what happens next is the real test to our infrastructure. We would:
- Take a step back and draw up a new org chart that would result from expanding the team to accommodate all the new work. This will inevitably require additional layers of management and the creation of a few new roles to ensure that we have oversight across all the projects. It’ll be impossible to expect our existing managers to carry all the new direct reports and also hard to have the same number of executive sponsors across 10 times more deals. We would make a list of these types of manager / executive sponsor roles that need to be fill in addition to the individual contributor roles on projects who’ll do the actual work. Keeping an updated org chart will help us visualize who will report to whom as we start to fill these roles.
- Create a task force to expedite talent acquisition. Right now, as a small team, we rely on department leads to manage most of the hiring processes. However, if we needed to scale up quickly, we would first recruit a talent acquisition manager (or multiple managers) and also leverage external recruiters and feed them the list of hiring needs. We would expect them to serve us up with vetted candidates that our team can quickly interview.
Scaling Up Business Operations
A services business like Barrel runs primarily on people. There are no manufacturing or supply chain logistics to worry about, but even with people, there are various factors that need to scale up with the hiring. These include:
- HR/IT support: We’ll need to ensure that we have the people and the systems to quickly set up dozens of new people onto payroll while shipping out properly configured laptops and providing support where needed. We currently rely on our Team Experience Coordinator to handle most of this process, but she would need more support. Our contract with our outsourced IT vendor may have to be upgraded to also allow for greater support (like installing all the right software on laptops) as well as leasing or buying more equipment from Apple. We would also need to revisit our HR and IT-related documentation on our company wiki and rely more on them to guide new hires. Numerous other considerations will pop up like the question of whether or not our existing password management practice will work with a larger team and if we need more dedicated HR support to answer questions about benefits and other HR questions on a daily basis.
- Onboarding: Our existing onboarding process is fairly intimate with new hires getting a lot of 1:1 time with leadership and other team members. During a period of rapid hiring, the onboarding process would also need to scale and we would need to explore things like a group orientation for a certain cohort of employees starting at the same time. We would also leverage pre-recorded videos and stronger documentation to ensure people can get the onboarding information they need. Right now, we have some documentation, but have the luxury of the 1:1 meetings. These would quickly become bottlenecks to solve for.
- Resourcing: As new hires quickly come on to the team, our existing resourcing process would likely get very overwhelming. We currently rely on our Client Services team to work with Finance to make staffing decisions each week, but we may need to hire some fully dedicated resourcing professionals to help stay on top of everyone’s availability and needs. We may also need to explore splitting the team into different pods or groups to keep things more manageable.
- Finances: A sudden spike in both revenue and expenses means we’ll need to revisit all aspects of cash flow management. We’ll need to make sure our accounts receivables is tightly managed and if necessary, get additional support to chase down payments and ensure invoices are sent in a timely manner. We’ll have to explore increasing our line of credit because our payroll and contractor expenses will have ballooned and you never know if a client might take long to make a big payment. We’ll also have to keep a close eye on all the related expenses like software, equipment, and other costs since more people means more opportunity for new expenses. This might also require additional support in the form of an expanded finance team or a consultant to come clean things up every few months.
- Business Development: Assuming that suddenly 10x’ing also means we’re getting 10 times the opportunities, we would look to scale up our business development team. We currently rely on a 2-person setup (a Director of Business Development and a Business Development Coordinator) with Barrel partners and department leads participating in the business development process, especially as qualified deals progress towards later rounds. There will certainly be a need to expand our business development team to process more deals and we’ll also have to figure out who else beyond the partners and department leads can participate in gathering requirements, estimating, and presenting to accommodate the increased load. It’s possible that we end up experimenting with a much stricter lead qualification process, in which case, we can limit the number of deals that need the attention of partners and department leads.
Process & Training
Assuming we’re able to work through the areas above and get our projects fully staffed, the areas that will really get tested will be our processes and our ability to train new team members.
Scaling Up Process
I can imagine the early pains we’ll go through as new team members try to follow “the Barrel process” of working on client websites. We currently have some major gaps in how we’ve documented our processes and even in a relatively small group of account managers and project managers, there are variations in how people go about leading projects and ensuring the work gets done.
In order to make things work at a larger scale, we would need to shore up our process documentation. These don’t need to be overly extensive or perfect, but they do need to cover as much of the basics as possible, including who is responsible for doing what and how to escalate issues to whom whenever the need arises. We’ll have to ensure that everyone has clear access to centralized, up-to-date standard operating procedures (SOPs) that walk people through the core processes across all of our projects (including retainers, which I’ve grouped together with projects). These include things like how to kickoff new projects, how to put together and manage schedules, what happens during the design phase, how to plan dev sprints, how we conduct QA, the checklist that gets executed pre-launch, and a dozen other items that, if written clearly and properly followed, can lead to some degree of consistency.
One aspect of process that I’d be curious see play out at a larger scale is the project debrief and how lessons from each engagement can then be effectively rolled into new processes and approaches for future projects. Right now, we have a team-wide meeting every month to review the most recent project debriefs with our internal team. Would this scale with a much larger team? Or would we have to be more targeted and run these through department-specific meetings instead?
Scaling Up Training
When I think of training in our business, I think about a few different areas:
- Technical skills specific to the role, e.g. designers and their ability to use Figma effectively or their mastery over typography, colors, and other visual elements; developers and their ability to code on certain platforms and to problem-solve; project managers and their ability to keep tight project schedules, create burn reports, and plan sprints
- Communication skills with clients and team members, e.g. the ability to clearly present thoughts and ideas, navigate difficult conversations, provide/request feedback, summarize and synthesize important information, etc.
- Other soft skills, e.g. the ability to prioritize tasks and manage time, asking good questions, anticipating risk, etc.
At our current size, we rely on organic ad hoc training that happens between junior and senior team members or in department-specific team meetings. We don’t do a whole lot in terms of training programs across the entire company except the occasional workshop with an outside consultant.
At 10x, we would need to take a deeper look at how training can be better systematized to serve the growth of our team. Would we invest in some dedicated roles to support internal training? Would we explore hiring outside training consulting groups to help design and build stronger training programs? What would enable team members at all levels, from the most junior person to the executive team, to have the resources and structure that allows for ongoing training that levels everyone up?
Honestly, this one feels a bit out of my depth and will require more investigation. I’ve long been skeptical of corporate training programs because I lean heavily towards being an autodidact and have a tough time going through mandated training materials. But people are different and I’m sure there’s a significant percentage of people who would benefit from a structured learning / training program.
Overall Team Structure
I mentioned the need for a revised and updated org chart above, and one of the challenges of handling a 10x situation will be finding a workable team structure. Even at the scale of 20-40 full-time team members, I’ve got plenty of scars from misconfiguring team structure. Having the wrong structure can lead to confusion, communication silos, distrust between groups, and a great deal of inefficiency. At 200-400 people (assuming we would 10x headcount), nailing the team structure would be quite the challenge.
I’d start by hitting up anyone who runs a 100+ person firm and trying to understand the structures they have in place. Having done this with dozens of agency owners in the 20-100 person range over the years, I can guess that there will be both recurring patterns as well as some different approaches. These will be helpful ideas as we figure out what works for us given the type of work we do for the types of clients we attract.
More specifically, I would be looking for inspiration in the following areas:
- How is the leadership team structured?
- What are the different departments and groups that exist across the org?
- What is the reporting structure across these departments and groups?
- How many different layers of management are there?
- What are the titles of the various roles, especially towards the top?
- What are the different levels across managers (e.g. manager, director, VP, SVP, etc.) and individual contributors, and how do they vary depending on group or department?
- Is there a single P&L or P&Ls across different groups?
I can already imagine the initial team structure attempts going sideways and causing all kinds of issues, but making necessary revisions based on observations and feedback and continuing to experiment while being okay with the chaos, pushback, and frustrations can lead to a worthwhile payoff.
We’re Not Ready and That’s Okay
I really enjoyed going through this exercise because it forced me to confront the reality that we’re certainly not ready to handle extreme growth. Even a 2x growth scenario gives me pause because I know we’ll have some major struggles to overcome. This exercise also tells me that I’ve spent too much time in a defensive “how can I get by with where we are” position versus a more expansive “how can we grow more” position. It’s a good wakeup call, especially as we’ve spent the past year trying to rebuild and clean up a lot of past poor decisions.
I also want to note that there are dozens of other areas that I didn’t address above when thinking about 10x’ing the business. These include areas like performance management, professional services automation (PSA) software, compensation structure and processes, team meetings and gatherings, contractor management, program/account/project management, financial reporting, leadership team dynamics, and more that I don’t even know to ask about.
I certainly don’t know when or if Barrel will 10x as a business. We certainly would love to see it happen. I can see 2-3x growth happening to our other Barrel Holdings businesses that are much smaller than Barrel, and being involved in supporting those businesses will be fun challenges. Either way, however big or small the overall business, a lot of the systems and bottlenecks that come into view will remain compatible, and entertaining an exercise like this will serve as a helpful training for when growth really happens.