“The best time to install a sprinkler system is before your house burns down.” – InfoWorld Magazine: Off the Record page, Feb 20-06
As soon as I read this sentence I knew I wanted to talk about disaster management and scaling a business. From an entrepeneur’s perspective, disaster management is a tough thing to deal with. Often we don’t bother at all, or we do very little; we’re too engrossed in launching our new business and generating sales that disaster management is a low priority.
First off, what is disaster management? Well in my mind it essentially means, “planning and being prepared for any possible disaster.” Certainly that can mean a lot of things. If we take IGotNewsForYou.com as an example, there are any number of disasters that may need managing at some point in time. The most obvious would be: What if our website crashes and customers can’t get to it? No website, no business. No business, no sales. No sales, no revenue. No revenue, no business. How’s that for clear?
For entrepreneurs, disaster management is often like succession planning; we just don’t do it. And to a degree that’s completely understandable because we typically have limited time and resources. We need to get our business off the ground, guns a’blazing, and worry about problems after that.
But what I want to talk about is a different angle on disaster management, and it’s one that I think entrepreneurs do think about but don’t necessarily have a handle on. What happens if our business is very successful? How do we scale? (Plus, talking about it from this angle puts a positive spin on it; your business is growing really fast!)
Everyone wants their business to be successful, and most of the time as quickly as possible. But what about scaling? What about handling the increased demands that will come with managing more orders, more clients, more support, etc.?
At IGotNewsForYou.com we haven’t even launched yet but we have talked about issues of scaling. What if we get a lot of poster orders, how will we print them all and mail them? What happens if one of us goes on vacation for a few weeks? What happens if the website crashes because too many people are visiting it?
Admittedly, we can’t answer every question for every issue that might crop up. Neither will you. But what’s critical is that you ask the questions and think about the answers. You may discover there are things you can do in preparation for certain eventualities.
For example: I’ve thought of ways of improving our system’s architecture (at a fairly quick pace) if we see that the website is slowing down. That means I need to be prepared to measure website performance and at some point make a judgement call as to when I have to implement my scaling-up plan. By asking certain questions I came to the realization that I have to monitor performance, something that I can do now, that may/will be of importance down the road.
Another example: Think about sharing duties. It’s a dangerous road when you’ve got a small group of entrepreneurs working on a project and each one works in a silo. Sometimes that’s unavoidable, but the risk (when we’re talking about scaling) is that somebody in the group can’t handle their workload and things start slipping through the cracks. Depending on what those things are, it could have a very serious and negative affect on your business.
When we think about things like software development or sales it may not be possible to share duties and have a cross-team knowledge of how everyone does their jobs. But this is often more possible when we talk about “operations”. Operations involves running the business – ordering supplies, customer support (I’m lumping this in for now), accounting, tracking overall progress of orders, shipments, etc. Often, entrepeneurs aren’t experts at operations to begin with, so sharing those duties and ensuring that everyone knows how to handle the basic “running the business” functions can help mitigate risk and ensure that you can scale more easily and quickly. At IGotNewsForYou.com we’ve already done this in the way that we handle a number of administrative tasks, many of which may be specific to our business, but the goal is the key: to minimize one person getting overloaded and things falling apart.
As you think about how to scale your business, I would recommend that you try and piece together some plans (or at least some thoughts) on the key things that might come up and how you might resolve them. For example you might realize that at some point you’ll have to outsource some development of your software application. There’s no harm in looking for vendors right away, making the appropriate contacts and building relationships. It won’t take that long to do, and when the time is right and you have to outsource, you can execute more quickly because the research is done. Even taking note of where possible problems might arise is a good first start to managing the scaling of your business. Put some indicators in place that can flag/warn you before the problem occurs and at minimum you’ll be made aware that something needs to be addressed in more detail.
And finally, one of the key things when scaling is to talk with your customers. Make sure they know what’s going on when a problem arises. Most (if not all of them) will know that you’re a small, entrepeneurial operation, so there’s no point hiding things; and the fact that you’re scaling and that’s causing problems can almost be looked at as a good thing – the business is growing and you’re working like mad dogs to meet your clients’ needs. I would also ask your customers for help. For example, if you suspect your website is slowing down contact your customers and ask them. They’ll usually be pretty upfront and open with their comments and they can be the best pre-indicators to disaster.