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Scaling masterclass: 5 Silicon Valley Lessons from Slack, Box, Twitter, Google, and more

Silicon Valley UK Mission, London & Partners, MIBP, Department for International Trade

Trip to Silicon Valley

I was super fortunate to participate in an incredible trip – a Female Founders’ mission to Silicon Valley in June with 14 other dynamic women who are running exciting businesses that have the potential to change the world. Our mission was led by Rajesh Agrawal Deputy Mayor of London for Business, Janet Coyle from London & Partners, and Sherry Coutu, a serial entrepreneur, and Angel Investor. Supported by a talented team from London and San Francisco including Evie, Padric, Penny, and Jaclyn, MIBP and Department for International Trade.

Apart from the benefit of spending time with this amazing group of women, doors were opened to incredible ‘A-lister’ Silicon Valley leaders who were generous with their time and their personal stories. It was inspiring to hear them recall the days when their companies comprised a couple of dozen people with a passion and a mission. How they have now scaled to become household names: Google X, Instagram, Twitter, Box, Udacity, Square, Slack, Edmodo, Linkedin, Apple, Kiva to name just a few. The trip was like attending a series of TED talk exclusives.  Personally, I can’t think of anything more interesting than listening to their scale up journeys and words of wisdom. The trip was no jolly, however, more of a founder ‘boot camp’ where we had to sing for our supper to a host of VCs and Investors; plus at breakfast, lunch and times in between. Janet and Sherry would instruct us “30 seconds, 2 minutes pitch – now!”. We rehearsed on the bus in between meetings and sleep wasn’t on the schedule.

My notes from the mission take up seventeen pages. I have been sharing them with colleagues but thought it might be helpful to share a short summary of some of the lessons learned. In particular, the five key lessons which are helping us to scale our business to the next level.

Lessons learned

1. Develop an operating rhythm

Aaron Levi talked about how he personally made the transition from the garage start-up stage to running a billion dollar unicorn. Key milestones included recruiting a superstar salesperson and developing an ‘operating rhythm’ for the business. He had to shift his leadership style from focusing just on tactical short-term tasks but also set time aside for thinking about the company’s long-term strategy. During the week he tracks 100 tasks to inch the business forward and on weekends he reflects on thinking how to 10X the business.

We had been using Asana on and off to track tasks but it wasn’t until I had the word ‘operating rhythm’ that I realised that was what we were struggling with. We have now implemented a weekly reporting regime with a Monday stand up meeting to report on tasks associated with our core mission – not the day-to-day stuff that is assumed will get done – the two to three tasks that will scale up the business. I found the book 4 Disciplines of Execution by Steve Covey, helpful in setting our reporting framework.

Aaron also talked about how he had to delegate more of the business operations. I too have delegated to our recently appointed COO more operational responsibility particularly around budgeting and financial management.

2. The importance of culture

Perhaps my biggest takeaway from California was the importance of culture. The effort dedicated to creating a positive culture and how it works. Square, for instance, ensures that their hire strategy reflects their culture and all new intakes must have evidenced passion for the business. Marne Levine, COO of Instagram told us that culture translates into your product. One of the values of Instagram is craft.

Getting the culture right is critical because startups are hard, with continuous highs and lows. Selecting and motivating the best team of talent is vital. As Julie Hanna, Executive Chair of Kiva shared with us when the times are tough “who do I want to be in the foxhole with me?” I interpreted that comment as those who share the passion and live the culture – that’s who!

Julie shared further insight, to get a harmonious culture across different disciplines –

  • Get techies to believe in your culture
  • Organisations go tribal by background. If you hear they and them in conversations this is a warning sign – so get obsessive about breaking down these walls
  • Demonstrate radical empathy and this forms connective tissue across the organisation.

To implement culture requires adopting a rhythm of behaviours (there is that word rhythm again). At Instagram and Facebook, there is a Q&A every Friday. Clear accountability and metrics synced with the company values mission are vital. Facebook and Instagram have sophisticated performance management systems to underpin these metrics.

So persuaded was I about the importance of culture since returning from California we have taken the step of halting meetings round the kitchen table to investing in a proper office. To persuade half our team to move cities I had to share my vision of where I saw the company heading and what an ideal corporate culture for Classlist would look like. I was able to describe a clear picture of Classlist’s future thanks to meeting such inspiring people and visiting their offices. Each office clearly projected the company culture and values: Box’s library of business books available to all, Square’s rainbow coloured step auditorium in the heart of their office, Instagram’s feminine Scandi vibe and Slack’s decor reminded me of New Zealand’s rainforests, just to highlight a few examples.

3. Read and learn

We were given books to read by Aaron Levi, CEO, Box, on a range of subjects: marketing positioning, leadership and strategy. We were told by Rocket Space that Founders in the Valley read two books a week and listen to audible books on top of that. We were given book recommendations at virtually every meeting. Hillary Mickell, Head of Global Partnerships at Udacity told us that CEOs can grow from 10% to 2000% through reading.

Just some of the titles I have read since getting back:

  • Inside the Tornado: Strategies for Developing, Leveraging, and Surviving Hypergrowth Markets, By Geoffrey Moore
  • Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries, Jack Trout
  • 4 Disciplines of Execution: Getting Strategy Done Paperback – 21 Jul 2015, by Sean Covey
  • The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom
  • The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business (J–B Lencioni Series), by Patrick M. Lencioni
  • Only The Paranoid Survive Paperback – 6 Apr 1998, by Andrew Grove

4. Risk-taking

Okay it has been around a while but the concept ‘fail forward fast’ still prevails in the Valley and the subject of risk-taking came up regularly in numerous meetings. Obi Felten told us to face the fear and try anyway and Have a go at the hardest things first. Julie Hanna from Kiva Never make a decision in place of fear.

Growing requires constant experimentation and focusing and measuring what was learnt. Karl Hanson, CTO Slack talked about to achieve growth, you need to accept a certain level of risk, in contrast to more established companies who are more risk averse. As the company scales it is important to have deeper vs broader expertise to optimise growth. Eight of the original team members still work with Slack but at the same time, they have had to recruit more specialists to scale.

This discussion prompted me to recall very clearly the more fearful leaps we have made so far. Going live with a platform which has evolved every week with parents at the Dragon School in Oxford. Recruiting our first employee, crowd funding, throwing away our tried and tested platform and starting from scratch to give us the capacity to scale, just to name a few of the more scary moments. It is early days to say whether these decisions were right or wrong. The important thing is not to shy away from what you know in your heart is the right thing to do vs what is the more comfortable and less confrontational route.

5. The Power of the Network

I was really struck by the generosity of time given to us, from our first lunch meeting with TiE to our last meeting with Linkedin. It felt like our hosts were giving back to the entrepreneurial network that supported them and which has now gone global.

The shared experience of participating in the mission created our own founder cohort or network. This wonderful network has helped me already with elevator pitch feedback, HR, marketing, branding and Edtech industry contacts. I hope I can contribute back even more in future.

Indeed I am looking forward to starting the new school term (which dictates our business rhythm) and opening our space for networking and giving back to others.

As an Australian who was brought up for a while in Berkeley California, returning to that part of the world rekindled the can do Californian attitude instilled in me in my teens. Not only did I learn a lot, I am even more fired up about scaling our business to new markets – the impossible seems more possible.

About the author

Susan Burton

Susan Burton

Susan is the CEO and founder of Classlist.