Founder's Guide
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4 Ways to Build a Strong Operational Foundation for Your Early Stage Startup

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Six plus years ago, I co-founded Go Nimbly, the first-ever consultancy to help SaaS companies implement Revenue Operations. RevOps is a methodology that aligns organizations around the customer, unifying go-to-market ops functions into a core strategic unit and closing gaps in the customer experience to increase revenue.

There are some common misconceptions that can lead companies to put off making any kind of substantial operational spend early on. One of these misconceptions is that hiring sales reps (or other specialized roles) and shelling out money for ad campaigns will impact your company’s revenue more than investing in building repeatable processes that will scale. It’s true that the former might have a more noticeable impact in the short term, but the fact is that healthy operations are critical to long-term success when it comes to generating, measuring, and protecting your revenue.

Having worked with many SaaS companies to transform their operations, I can say with certainty that your customers don’t care how small you are or how many rounds of funding you’ve raised. What they do care about is the caliber of your product and the experience of interacting with your brand throughout their journey. This means taking full, effective ownership of your data, optimizing your tech stack to work for your company’s inflection point, and eliminating internal silos that cause leaks in your customer experience.

The key to doing these things, and to easily scale your operations as you grow, is to start with a solid operational foundation. This means having a clear idea of where you want to end up and making intentional decisions and investments that will help to get you there. Here are some ways you can improve your customers’ experience early on, while also setting your company up for operational harmony down the road.

 

Be Intentional. Stay Intentional.

On that note, let’s talk about what it means to be an intentional organization, and how that can help dramatically when it comes to operational processes, problem-solving, and scalability.

Becoming an intentional organization, unfortunately, isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. The reason being that it requires you to step away from a reactive approach to problems and embrace a more holistic view of your business. Instead of looking at operational issues as exercises in blame-placing, look for ways to collaborate on solutions to avoid those issues in the future.

This approach will build and strengthen your company’s agility muscle, as well as help train your team to work cross-functionally and look at problems through a broader lens. It will also decrease the role of ego in the problem-solving process, as people won’t need to defend their mistakes or prioritize getting credit for ideas.

When starting Go Nimbly, my partners and I closely analyzed the values of the core team and aligned them with our intentions for the company. I find it’s important to be opportunistic to the things that line up with your values and push them forward.

 

Embrace Change & Discomfort

For many companies, particularly in the SaaS industry, growth happens fast and is exceptionally transformative. Every time your company doubles in size, it becomes a new organization entirely, with new problems to face and structural shifts that fundamentally change the way information flows between your teams. 

While growth is something to be celebrated, it also comes hand in hand with growing pains that can—for better or worse—shape the way in which your company operates. For example, when your team is small, it’s often understood that everyone will act as a generalist, stepping in when needed and driving work to the finish line, even if it’s not an area in which you feel most comfortable or experienced. 

My advice is to lean into the discomfort and encourage your team to do the same. Create a culture that promotes the development of new skill sets, and invest in giving your people the time and tools they need to become generalists. By doing this, you will be building a team that can learn from one another and approach problems from more than one disciplinary vantage point. This way, as you grow, you won’t need to go looking for tons of specialists to fill in skill gaps—there simply won’t be as many.

At Go Nimbly, we hire people with various professional backgrounds–sales ops, marketing, customer success–and help them to become generalists. We do this by ensuring that they are given the opportunity to be hands-on in areas that aren’t their specialties. I have always made a conscious effort to create a culture of self-betterment at Go Nimbly, building five hours of individual professional development into each week. Our employees use this time to expand their skill sets by working towards a goal in an area in which they feel they need development. 

Something else we do every week is an hour-long, company-wide retrospective. Though we’ve had to restructure the meeting as we’ve grown, it started out as an all-hands exercise where each person reflects out loud on that week’s personal wins, learns, and changes. The idea is to avoid shoutouts to teammates and focus solely on your own development. Not only is it something people wouldn’t generally take the time to do on their own, but it creates greater empathy within our organization.

 

Stop Silo Syndrome Early

Here’s the thing: having silos within your organization doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong. Silos are natural and tend to form on their own as a company gets larger and people settle into more specific roles. 

Organizational hierarchies, for example, play a large role in the formation of silos. When a person is hired, their instinct will be to look to their manager or boss for validation of their work. When each discipline is playing by its own rules in service of its own goals, it’s no wonder things start to fall through the cracks and less work gets done. 

By establishing a common goal to track towards–which, in Revenue Operations, is revenue–you give your go-to-market teams a shared incentive to communicate more often, thereby breaking down some of those informational or data silos. What you want is for everyone within the company to be speaking a common language and rallying around that shared metric of revenue.

There are ways to tell that silo syndrome has begun to creep into your business. For example, look out for what I call a “not my job” mentality, which is when people are unwilling to step outside their specific job function. This indicates that silos exist and that people are more interested in checking off boxes within their discipline than helping to drive the company towards its holistic revenue goals. 

I suggest having your sales and marketing people meet weekly, along with customer success, to ensure that everyone on the revenue team has visibility into what each function’s action items are and how they can help support each other in those initiatives. Establishing accountability for everyone when it comes to driving revenue is ultimately how you’re going to combat silo syndrome.

 

Always Be Roadmapping

Just as product teams depend on a roadmap to guide their strategy, so should operations. Your teams will still be doing the work within their respective disciplines; however, that work should be prioritized based on its predicted impact to your most important KPIs.

A roadmap does not need to be complicated. Its job is basically to serve as an illustration of your company’s top priorities. At Go Nimbly, we use Roadmunk to create roadmaps where work is separated into categories and assigned a priority level or status, (i.e. ASAP, Next, Soon, or Proposed, Scheduled, In Progress).

 

4 Ways to Build a Strong Operational Foundation for Your Early Stage Startup

 

The prioritization of items on the roadmap should be based on that north star metric that drives your go-to-market strategy: revenue. Therefore, you should analyze each item to determine how it will move the revenue needle. To do this, we use a framework called 3VC, which stands for Value, Volume, Velocity, and Conversion. If an initiative will impact any of these areas—for example, increasing customer LTV (value), attracting more leads (volume), accelerating your sales cycle (velocity), or driving more conversions—it should be prioritized on your roadmap.

Who is responsible for creating this roadmap will depend on the size and structure of your company. For later-stage organizations, the RevOps team will own this. For small, early-stage companies, it will be leadership (or whoever owns operations) who makes these decisions. 

Sometimes, companies forego the creation of a roadmap, thinking it’s meant to be set in stone and might be a waste of time as inevitable pivots occur. However, we see a roadmap as a living artifact—something that is built to shift and adjust with you, but that will help you stay the course towards where you want your company to end up. Far from being limiting, a strategic roadmap can actually improve your agility and allow you to make informed decisions as you move towards each new inflection point.  

How often you update your roadmap is up to you and depends on the nature of the work. Internally, we update our roadmap quarterly, though we also have weekly leadership meetings where we discuss current and upcoming initiatives and strategy. You can also create roadmaps with specific themes. For example, if you have a problem with churn, you would do an analysis to determine possible causes and decide on the operational workstreams that will help decrease your churn rate. These would be prioritized based on their predicted level of impact. 

Obviously, there’s no way to predict exactly where your company will be in a year, or five years, or ten. However, being mindful of how early decisions will impact your operations down the road, will make it much easier to adapt to growth as it comes. With Revenue Operations, you can unify your teams as they form, which will lead to better cross-functional alignment and a customer experience with much less friction from the start.

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