Three things that saved our sanity when we scaled up
By the 3rd week of March, we went up an order of magnitude, moving from processing hundreds of teacher applications to processing thousands of resumes. So now everything is a little bit harder. For example, we have ten-times more email from applicants. It requires more planning, discipline and focus. My teammates and I shifted to doing work, like checking email, in time-boxed batches. We also prioritize ruthlessly, struggling to do work that was important and urgent, and carve out time for work that was important, but not urgent, yet.
For me, this meant spending time finding ways to increase our capacity and ability to scale. I spoke to vendors about getting help recruiting more teachers. I started setting up Salesforce to manage our teacher records, because, shockingly, the Google spreadsheet we use to manage teacher records wasn’t kept totally up to date. So, someone had to spend two hours fixing it before the end of the month. We even started a new teacher training series and interviewed interns. Despite the normal bumps, it felt like things were on track, and my teammate Sean and I spent a few — okay maybe one — blissful day in what we call the “orange zone.”
But then we started getting complaints from teachers about not having enough hours. Indeed, the difficult thing about two-sided marketplaces and “gig-economy” companies is balancing supply and demand. Lyft, for example, needs to balance drivers and riders. If they don’t have enough passengers, drivers will leave Lyft and find work elsewhere. If they don’t have enough drivers, passengers will be left waiting for rides.
So, I took inventory and counted the number of lessons we had that week. Next, I counted the number of open spaces for lessons that week. Needless to say, the numbers didn’t match up. Our team delivered the a quantity of teachers based on an assigned goal. But sales didn’t keep up.
I spent the rest of the week figuring out and implementing a plan to bring our supply and demand back into balance. Just as we were making our goals and gaining momentum, we slowed down the application generation engine. I strongly believe in being honest and transparent with users. I also believe in taking responsibility for things that aren’t working. So, I sent out hundreds of emails that essentially said, “I’m sorry, please bear with us.”
I felt like I also had to manage staff expectations, at every level, which is difficult, because I want our team to maintain the energy and enthusiasm.I learned things in this process.
First, I have to make maintaining my own energy level a priority. When I don’t feel good or bring energy to the work, it affects other people, making it harder for them to feel good and be positive. So, that weekend, for the first time, I didn’t do any work on Saturday and Sunday. I got a massage. I took short breaks during the day. Studies show taking breaks helps people maintain their energy and productivity throughout the day.
Second, our company struggles with being so overwhelmed with the day-to-day work that it’s difficult for people to look at the big picture or make a plan. People are just reacting to immediate problems and deadlines. But, I realized that no matter how busy and frantic things get, I have to stop and think about what I am doing. The questions are, what am I doing? Why am I doing it? Is this what I should be doing? In other words, does the way we spend our time as a team match our priorities? Further, do we still have the right priorities in the first place?
Facebook VP of Product, Fidji Simo, explains this in detail in an interview published by First Round Talent. Simo likens leading a project to steering a boat, and she is quoted as saying,
“It’s much easier to go in the direction you want if you make a thousand small changes along the way, rather than letting the boat go in a completely different direction and needing one big maneuver to get back on track.”
I got honest with myself about how I spent my time at work. I realized that I spend hours every week putting out fires. Instead of hoping we wouldn’t have any problems, I put time on my calendar to deal with problems. Then I calendared time to work on projects that aligned with my priorities. I realized that I had to be very intentional about what I gave my time to every day.
For instance, had I not stopped and asked myself if we still had the right teacher acquisition goals and taken the time to count inventory, we might not have had the opportunity to adjust course. I was afraid after I sent the emails to our teachers that they might be angry and quit. But many people emailed notes of thanks, appreciation and even encouragement.
Last, I realized that I have to plan for things to go wrong. My wife gave me Atul Gawande’s piece in The New Yorker titled Failure and Rescue. The article explains that surgeons with the best survival rates do the best job rescuing patients after something goes wrong. They make just as many mistakes as the other surgeons, but they are better at recognizing a problem and fixing it. Similarly, part of what made antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton one of the world’s greatest leaders is his ability to rescue men when the mission failed.
So, maybe success at a startup is less about not making mistakes and more about getting better at fixing mistakes. At our company, folks are moving incredibly fast and making the best decisions they can, but they don’t have all the information. Plus, people are doing things for the first time and making it up as they go. Mistakes are part of the process.
I tell interns, who are generally terrified of messing something up, that, “If you aren’t making mistakes, you probably aren’t moving fast enough.” (Also, this isn’t heart surgery, so we aren’t going to kill anyone.)
What is important, is that we work as a team and help each other fix mistakes. It’s okay to ask for help, and we need a culture where people aren’t afraid to admit when something has gone off course.
Furthermore, I realized that the ability to recognize that something is wrong is essential skill when you work at a startup. The ability to say, hey, this isn’t working, and show others why, is mission critical.
Returning to the boat metaphor, we must know when we are off course in order to course correct. And I personally can’t think deeply about anything without setting aside time to address problems. Finally, dealing with nuance and complexity, communicating effectively with people, being flexible, it all takes energy.
In summary, here are three things I learned:
1. Make my energy a priority
2. Take time to stop and think
3. Be prepared to course correct