To guide a startup through a growth cycle, as CEO you have to develop a unique skill—the ability to hold in your mind the vision of where you’re going while you’re guiding the team there with you. At times, I’ve felt like I’m leading a hike up a mountain in the dark, navigating our course to the top and running to the back of the line to make sure everyone is accounted for.
I didn’t realize when I started Farmer’s Fridge just how many times this growth cycle would repeat itself—five or six times over our seven-year history, with three of those cycles occurring in the last 18 months. It’s not an easy process. Work, especially at a startup where teams are small and everyone is in it together, inherently feels personal, and adjusting to the next growth stage can be a painful process. Now that I’ve been through it a few times, I can start to recognize the patterns of a growth cycle and know the steps to get us through.
Here’s what I look out for, the canary-in-the-coal-mine key indicators that let me know a growth spurt is on the way:
- Proven playbooks aren’t working as well. Strategies and tactics we’ve relied on in the past aren’t delivering the expected results.
- Trusted lieutenants are struggling to perform at their best. Top performers—people I know are up to challenge—begin to get frustrated or underperform.
- Like clockwork, once I connect the dots on the two points above, in the next business review I’ll see that numbers are starting to slip.
So what do you do? Here are the steps I follow, along with tactical examples from our most recent growth spurt when we launched our home-delivery program.
1) Start with the numbers
When you see the business is headed offtrack, start with the economics and what the numbers tell you. Ground yourself in what you know to be true. This is your map and compass. For me, delivery was a new business model from our previous brick-and-mortar business. I had to do a quick crash course in e-commerce and food delivery. I reached out to advisers, read everything I could get my hands on, and learned about all the major players in the space.
2) Share your vision
Bring people together to share your vision early on. Start with why changing course is important, then share all the information you can. It’s crucial to relay what new information has specifically changed your thinking. We launched delivery with the intention solely of making up lost revenue during the pandemic, but after a few months it became clear that it could be a viable long-term channel. I convened our leadership team to realign on delivery as a new arm of the business that deserved true investment of time and resources.
3) Find the right questions to ask and bring the team together to problem solve
In the initial set-up or problem-solving phase, go deep in the work and question everything. Set the rules of engagement or play, and set the tone for the level of detail and types of questions you’d like to see asked and answered. I organized a multiday, cross-functional working session led by our directors. This exercise will tighten your focus by highlighting your strengths and drawing attention to the areas that need more work.
4) Clarify roles and responsibilities
Move quickly to change team roles and accountabilities as needed. Clarifying responsibilities and stakeholders can feel challenging in the moment, but it sets the stage for success for everyone involved. As delivery became a priority, we needed new roles to manage the channel. We reshuffled responsibilities and added a channel manager (to help with decision-making) and a program manager (to keep everyone aligned), shifting folks from other teams that weren’t as in demand to fill the roles.
5) Hammer out the details
Stay involved to spot issues until the ways of working are clear, which will set you up to take a step back. Right now, I’m deep in the weeds of every expense associated with the delivery channel to make sure we are building the right foundations for long-term success. In the future, I won’t know the ins and outs of each marketing expense, but for now I’m very involved in building the financial framework we’ll use moving forward. Clear metrics and financial goals give everyone room to run without friction.
6) Have faith and trust the process
It will take a few months. This is the hardest step for me. After a setback I am always tempted to step back into the work and try to problem solve. However, if the goals are clear and we have the right people in the right seats, then they will figure it out. I’m still working on this one for our new channels. (Check back with me in a few months!) I do have faith that we have the right structure in place to capture market share come January, when healthy eating becomes top of mind and the cold weather makes delivery especially attractive.
Years ago, when the company was only a few dozen people, I used to brute force this process over weeks or months. Now that we have 200-plus employees, that would never work. Even though I’m more comfortable going through this process these days, I still find the change and ambiguity can be tough on everyone. Just make sure to give yourself and the team a break as you figure things out. Like most things, the learning curve only accelerates over time.
Luke Saunders is the founder and CEO of Farmer’s Fridge, a network of more than 400 smart fridges stocked with fresh meals and snacks, and a delivery service in select cities.