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Go Beyond Scalable Websites, Learn How to Create Scalable Technology Businesses

- Wednesday, February 23, 2011 |

Define success. Imagine the steps you have to take to get there. Multiply that by the number of clients you want to work with by the end of the year and see if your plan is still viable. Success is tightly connected to scalability, a term equally familiar to systems engineers and to entrepreneurs. Scales are not just about measurable units, but also about brands, products, processes and teams managed for growth before the need to scale up becomes overwhelming. This week's post is about scalability for businesses, not just websites.

Photo by: Z33 Art Center

Scalable Teams

Behind everything you will do there will always be people. There is as much design involved with building a great team, as it is with building strong brands. The people you have around and count on will shape your vision from the inside, while working with the very first clients. It is important, in the long run, to think about how flexible and scalable your team is, even when you are starting off with one or two people on your side.

There will always be a strong connection between the team dynamics and the company's evolution in the market. People perform operations, make decisions and use technology and knowledge to create a constant flow of ideas, behaviors and achievements that ultimately shape a business from the inside.

Computer Time
Photo by: Thomas Hawk

Going back to scalability let's see what a "scalable" team looks like. Scalability in terms of people resources is pinned down to three elements: responsibilities, collaboration and skills set.

1. Attitudes that Scale

Why pick just attitudes from the great variety of factors influencing team performance and dynamics? The answer is - attitudes mediate the team's reaction to change. Attitudes that scale are attitudes that prepare people for the next level of complexity: trust, dedication, openness, flexibility, determination and focus - just to name a few, but you can read more about that part in our blog about overcoming limitations as a creative or entrepreneur.

2. Skills and Ability to Adapt

Scale issues are dealt well by people who show the ability to take in new tasks and grow their knowledge and skills by participating in various activities. These will often be T-shaped people who will play a key role in making decisions and helping new members join the company with as little as friction as possible. Their input and work will determine how the company responds to market factors, change and increased demand.

3. Collaboration

Sometimes you will have to work with people outside the team to meet your company's growing needs. Outside help is needed either because of the magnitude of the project or because it's a slightly different area of expertise you need help with. You will want to keep in touch with the teams and freelancers that you may work with for a limited period of time.

The NORAD of ABC in Austin
Photo by: Trey Ratcliff

Scalable Processes

A business' life is written in processes: creative processes, value creation, implementation, workflow and client relations. It would be difficult to scale these processes if you shy away from experimentation and play. Any business model can be reinvented or replicated because the processes involved in running it can vary greatly, but some business models fail because the processes they run on cannot be scaled. Usually small doses of variation or adoption of new methods and tools will make it easier for you to scale up over time.

More eloquent examples of scalability through process comes forth when you look at how roles and responsibilities changed in the past few years and how companies learned to be more open with managing and handling operations. More and more processes will become automated and more efficient as businesses realize they need to be more productive, that is spending more time generating value rather than spending time administrating and fixing internal issues. Businesses become more collaborative with outside systems, either by encouraging outside teams to build on their platforms through APIs and using open source systems or by seeking to embed their products in the ecosystem and make them compatible with multiple devices and platforms. This type of experimentation and openness to collaboration test early in time a company's ability to operate through scalable processes.

processing f-up
Photo by: Brett Renfer

Three Practical Ways to Ensure Process Scalability

Like with mental processes, scalable business processes are iterations where your team is used to perform a task. Here are three ways to make sure these processes are efficient across different tasks and at different scales:

1. Use Smaller Goals to Break a Project Into Measurable and Achievable Tasks 

Break your project down into milestones of simple tasks that will allow you to more easily make and measure progress until completion. Creating small goals makes it easy for your teammates to take action and keeps everyone motivated when they can see that progress is being made. 

2. Don't Leave Questions Hanging

A lot of questions come from the client; even if you have tons of experience with similar projects, it is best to find answers to these questions is before you start working on the project, especially if it's about how a solution can be implemented. It should be clear right from the beginning what the limitations are for executing a specific task and that changes can only occur within these limitations and set scope. If you clearly describe a solution and define the scope, you control the workload and the magnitude to which changes might occur as you go.

3. Adopt a Development Methodology Like Scrum 

The Scrum Methodology was created to best serve teams of 5-9 people involved in software development. One of the Scrum principles is that "working more hours" does not necessarily result in greater or better outputs, but highly organized teams that communicate effectively - do. It's interesting that in a Scrum session the team talks about the impediments and difficulties they might run into. This type of communication is less likely to occur with clients because to them talking about impediments is like talking about real risks, costs and broken deadlines. The truth is, they need to know that. A "we can do it all" attitude is heart warming, but definitely not scalable or efficient.

Scalable Products/Services

The life of a product will be shaped by various cycles the product needs to go through to adapt to the environment it was made for. Sometimes businesses can make the environment adapt to their own products and that happens when the adoption rate is higher than average and increases until the product becomes a part of people's lives.

The scalability of products is more obvious with web services because their structure needs to produce the same results over multiple different platforms. When the need for change arises (either to ensure accessibility from new devices and platforms or to include new features), the architecture of the product needs to be scalable.

Dropbox is a product that can be scaled because it's using back-end technologies that can me meshed up to expand its features and functionality. In terms of reception, it can be adopted and used by multiple types of customers for various purposes. These guys experimented with an old idea (file sharing), paired it with some cool features (like being notified when files are changed, automatic file synch and keeping versions of the files stored) and came up with a simple and scalable model that has proved to be successful and sustainable since 2008. It's interesting to see how this product will evolve and work with other open systems to provide even more features for its users. It's the perfect example of scalability in terms of structure, future development and adoption. The same example warns us that if your products are appealing to people who push the markets forward, then you need to keep up with their expectations and that is where product scalability becomes a selection criteria in a product's life cycle.

Photo by: Johan Larsson

Endnote: The scalability of your product/service, your team and your business overall is something that should always be on your mind if you want to grow. Handling scalability issues early and having solutions ready before a problem occurs will save you from many headaches in the long run.

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Garold Split commented on 02-Mar-2011 05:56 AM
I guess that it is not particularly controversial nowadays to say that the majority of a technology/business model's value relates to the amount of users (alternatively customers). So it seems likely that the more a business model can construct and generate network effects among its user base the more the opportunities will arise for the business model to become scalable when customer demand augments (likely without large COGS increases).
Catalina Butnaru commented on 02-Mar-2011 07:11 AM
Indeed, there is a growing of tech start-ups relying on business models that use networks to expand their market share and increase their perceived value and influence. Nonetheless, given the variety of changes and adaptations a tech start-up needs to make to its own products so that new users are able to comfortably adopt its products, scalability issues should be addressed early in time. Ideally, businesses would want to recognize an opportunity before the competition grabs it and choose a cost-effective way to accommodate that opportunity without compromising consistency in answering their customer's current needs.

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