Getting business from childhood to adulthood – how to grow your company

Here, Philip Rooke is CEO of Spreadshirt, explores how businesses can get through the 'puberty' phase and stimulate growth.

All growth businesses hit business puberty at some point. That awkward phase when the business grows rapidly, bringing new problems like me-too competitors, a disgruntled team and product changes. After the excitement of start-up, growth can feel like some sort of business puberty. Things change rapidly and feel beyond your control. Plus, investors and customers can stop seeing you as a cute new arrival and start expecting you to behave like a grown-up.

Spreadshirt has just hit fifteen years as a self-expression platform with a lot of growing up in the last few years. Becoming consistently profitable is hard work and it’s not always straightforward. Here are my tips for making it through business puberty to the comparative safety of adulthood.

Stop doing lots of things badly

Start-ups think they can do anything because they just did something fast. It’s part of the appeal of start-ups and echoes the Facebook mantra; move fast & break things. They also don’t want to rule anything out. Like many growing businesses, we too wanted to do lots of things; to expand our customer offering.

It’s tempting to try and do everything, but it can lead to trying too much and ending up doing lots of things badly. At Spreadshirt, we originally worked on too many customised and individual solutions aimed at single partners, building unique brand stores. We also tried to add another business into our platform, when it wasn’t quite mature enough. As we grew and expanded into new markets we realised it’s more important to have the satisfaction (and profit!) of doing a few things really well.

Thankfully, we’d worked out that we needed to keep things simple and focus on reducing complexity. By doing this we achieved steady profitability by the time others arrived to disrupt the print-on-demand merchandising space. Profitability and a well-structured business can help you ride out the arrival of disruptors. And, if you want to expand internationally, you need to have worked out how to get everyone to concentrate on doing a few things well.

Focus on profit

Profit buys safety. Profitability and a well-structured business can help you deal with the wave of me-too businesses that will follow you. As you become more established and technology moves on, the industry disruptors arrive challenging all or parts of your business.

Profit also allows for risk-taking. If a business is profitable it can take risks and survive if they don’t work out. Being a grown-up company doesn’t mean being risk adverse, because if you don’t take the risk, a competitor might and steal a charge on you.

With disruptors seen off and risks taken, profit will buy more investment, so you can scale quicker, with the right resources when you need them. Profit, team and talent are key in making sure growth is as successful as possible.

Deal with disgruntlement

Leaving start-up life can be hard for people working in the business. There will be those who don’t want to move on from the cool, start-up world and take the leap towards a full-fledged business. But disgruntlement (and managing it) is part of growing-up. It’s possible to become a fully-fledged business without losing the benefits of start-up life. Communication with your team is key here. What are the parts of start-up life they like? What can you afford to take with you? At Spreadshirt, this was the reason we recruited a Feel Good Manager six years ago – somebody tasked with keeping the good vibes flowing.

It’s important to communicate with and listen to the people in the business, because you need to bring your talent with you. Building a talented team and letting them get on with it is key to successful growth. And a good team can get you out of trouble. They will be calm in a crisis and then take risks. Some will pay off and some won’t, but with a good team you win more than you lose.

So, talent development is crucial. In scaled companies that are concentrating on doing few things well, the team motivation changes. It’s now less about doing something new and more about doing something better. This means the behaviour of the team changes from staying up all night to launch something to daily improvements. This is also what they want themselves: they want to see more empowerment, training, skill development, career progression, and work life balance. If you want to hang onto the good people, you are going to have to accept this change.

Get some grown-ups

Ah, the grown-ups. Your growth business may have started out without any, but getting to grown-up usually means expanding the management team; for example, tempering the enthusiasm of the founder with a wise old CEO who’s seen it all before.

A growth and scaled business is not like a start-up where everyone can easily talk to each other, or frankly just overhear everything. In a start-up the founder is king and can change things fast because everything is new and the team is small and nimble.

A scaled business is very different. We have 750 people across six venues, scattered across two continents and with 15 years of doing things in certain ways. This is a very different business that requires very different communication practices. It can only be agile if you empower all the different parts. This means the job of the CEO changes. It’s now more important to focus on empowering people and keep them heading in the same direction.

Solid leadership can bring up the organisation from the start-up childhood, through the awkward years of business puberty to adulthood and a steadily growing company. It can create a company that is working on improving margin, maintaining consistent profit, generating a good set of assets, a solid balance sheet and attracting investment and talent.

Becoming a grown-up can be as challenging as starting the business in the first place. It’s hard work, and like real teenagers, the world cuts you less slack than your cuter younger siblings. But acknowledging the awkward growth years and planning for them can be the first step towards navigating business puberty successfully.

Philip Rooke is CEO of Spreadshirt

Owen Gough

Owen Gough

Owen Gough is a reporter for He has a background in small business marketing strategies and is responsible for writing content on subjects ranging from small business finance to technology...

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