There’s no shortage of people discussing what they think should be a business’ focus and priorities to drive its success. The phrase “cash is king” has 585 million search results on Google; “Content is king” has almost 4 billion. Businesses of all sizes, across thousands of industries, can benefit from both of these approaches. Stacks’ growth, however, has been driven by a different priority: a focus on our people.
Our mantra has been “the right people, in the right seats” since we began in 2018. While it doesn’t roll off the tongue as well as the examples above, we hope that the lessons we’ve learned from putting people at the heart of our business, intentionally and by accident, can offer some value to other businesses just getting started.
5 Ways to Use People-Focus to Drive Growth
1. Install a Business Operating System and Regularly Update it
If you have a computer, you're familiar with operating systems. You’re likely either a Mac or Microsoft user, and switching from one to the other may be difficult. Your operating system will also regularly update, adding features or changing the way you interact with it.
The same should be true for a business. Your employees should understand the basic structure of the organization, how things work, and what kinds of changes they can expect in the future. They should know how to navigate the organization’s different departments, teams, and tools, just like apps and menus on a laptop. This kind of structure provides stability for employees as their roles and responsibilities change over time.
There are many good operating systems available for small businesses, all of which provide tools for leadership teams to develop a vision for both the short and long term. Stacks uses the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS), to guide our leadership and strategy conversations and make high-level decisions that affect the entire organization. We hold regular meetings with entire teams as well as individuals at least once a quarter to provide “updates” to this operating system as they happen.
2. Stay Focused on the Long-Term
Having the right people in the right seats has proven to be the most significant asset we have as an organization. As we've grown, so have our people. Our lack of personnel issues has allowed us to focus on solving the problems that sustained growth tends to cause in startup businesses. We currently have a turnover rate close to zero and many team members who have a deep sense of ownership in the business.
For small businesses, it’s important to identify the roles and functions your business needs now and, in the future, as well as how your current team fits into them. EOS provides tools for mapping this out and slotting people in. Once roles are identified, you can determine which team members fit in which seat(s) and who you’re missing.
You may find that some of your people don’t fit in their assigned seat—or any other position you need. That doesn’t mean they need to be let go right away or ever, but it does help identify personnel issues that could be sources of friction in the long term and allow you to begin solving them.
3. Consistently Invest in People
Regularly investing in the professional development of your employees is good for business. Career development boosts employee engagement, which results in happier clients and customers, and ultimately a more profitable company.
This investment shouldn’t stop when times get tough. In 2019, things were going pretty well for our fledgling business. Accordingly, we hired more people to manage the workload (and a few extra team members as well). Many were new to the digital asset management (DAM) field. Some were right out of college. Several were splitting time between multiple jobs and projects. All were people that had passion, drive, and the positive attitude we needed to lay the foundation for a healthy business.
At several points over the next few years, work slowed down, whether due to the COVID-19 pandemic or the normal ebbs and flows of business development and B2B sales. Rather than downsizing our staff, we found ways to grow their skills since we were confident we had the right people in place for the long-term success of our business. We enrolled them in classes, kept them in the loop about the skill gaps we had, and allowed them to grow into vital roles on the leadership team.
These slow seasons proved critical for Stacks, as they allowed us to be ready when new, more complex work came our way. Now, even during our busiest times, we continue to provide opportunities for our employees to grow their skill sets and step into new, more challenging roles.
4. Contracts Make Payroll, Relationships Pay Dividends
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world, everyone was affected. It shrunk budgets internally as well as externally, for our clients, prospects, and partners everywhere. For example, one day, a client we’d been working with for over a year sent us this e-mail:
“Unfortunately at the moment, I only have bad news. Due to not knowing if the [season] will be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been told to put any major spending on hold.”
We could have pushed back and reminded our client of their verbal commitments and signed agreements with us, but we didn’t. Long-term relationships are built on empathy, trust, and shared experiences. Contracts may make payrolls, but relationships pay dividends. Our teams kept in touch and this client later re-signed at a higher rate and referred us to two other industry contacts at organizations we now have multi-year contracts with.
“Unfortunately” responses have been around long before COVID and will be with us long afterward. The important lesson we learned through those “unfortunatelys” was that people-focus transcends just employees and partners. Business fundamentals and corporate mumbo-jumbo are important—until they aren’t.
5. Change is Constant, Growth is Optional
While a long-term vision for a business is vitally important, rushing to achieve it isn’t. If there’s one thing we’ve found as a startup, it’s that growth, especially over a small period, is painful. Part of that's unavoidable. Part of it, however, isn't.
In our experience, there are ways to justify just about anything for the sake of short-term growth in order to achieve yearly goals. For example, we’ve been approached several times by large organizations with recognizable brands to do work for them that didn’t make sense for us at the time, whether due to scope or price. We learned quickly that the growth those contracts achieved wasn’t worth the headaches and pressure they brought on our employees.
While we wish we’d known that all along and turned all those opportunities down, we didn’t. Luckily our investment in our people ensured that a few tough projects didn’t make them leave. We learned that while pushing ourselves, being ambitious, and recognizing growth opportunities are vital, growth for growth’s sake isn’t an end that justifies the means.
Entering into year five, Stacks is stronger than we could ever have imagined and our team is more bought into our mission than we could have anticipated. Our first few hard years were a critical refining process for us. We were forced to shed bad habits early on, built an exceptional team from the ground up, and established a company culture that we’re all proud of.