How to quickly scale a startup without everything going wrong

Nick Wilson

Every startup dreams of scaling quickly, but fast growth throws up challenges that force founders to adapt and deal with the growing pains of an expanding team. “I’ll tell you what, the biggest issue is meeting room space,” says Sophie Adelman, co-founder of London-based apprenticeships startup WhiteHat. “Space is an under-appreciated problem.”

Adelman and Euan Blair launched WhiteHat in 2016 with the mission of “democratising access to the best careers”. The company aims to offer an alternative to university by recruiting and training young people as apprentices for roles in companies including Facebook, Google, Warner Music and BP. WhiteHat’s approach consists of three main parts: a digital marketplace that matches candidates’ profiles with potential opportunities; access to coaching and educational resources; and a community similar to a university alumni network.

In 2019, WhiteHat doubled the number of apprentices on its scheme to 1,000 and received tens of thousands more applications within the same period. It aims to take on 10,000 apprentices by 2023 – “which will make us look like a university in terms of size and scale”, Adelman says. This growth is fuelled in part by the apprenticeship levy introduced by the UK government in 2017, collected from employers and made available to fund apprentices’ training.

To keep up with demand, the WhiteHat team has doubled its staff to 110 people. The company raised $16 million (£12 million) in a series A funding round in July 2019, led by Index Ventures. Aside from having to constantly upsize office space, the biggest issue is recruiting talent at pace. “The challenge is maintaining the quality bar,” Adelman says. “I think in all businesses, you are only as good as the quality of the people that you hire.” The temptation when you have seats to fill, she says, is to rush the recruitment process, but it’s always better to be patient. “A bad hire costs far more than waiting for a good hire.”

One particularly difficult task that comes hand-in-hand with growth is having to hire people who are more experienced than you are. In 2019, WhiteHat hired Steve McCluskey as vice-president of sales. He has experience with multiple previous startups, most recently at AppDynamics. The trick to hiring for such a senior role, Adelman says, is spending time on the interview process to make sure the person aligns with your company values, and then onboarding them properly. After that, it’s a matter of giving new recruits enough information, but also enough freedom to do their job: you’re hiring them for their expertise, so you need to give them space to apply that knowledge, rather than trying to micromanage how they reach your goals.

Adelman is a fan of the concept of “giving away your Legos”, coined by startup founder and former Facebook and Google employee Molly Graham to describe dealing with a scaling team. In Graham’s metaphor, the growing business consists of Lego towers that its employees are constantly building. As more people are hired, existing team members may feel anxious or threatened and not want to share their Lego bricks for fear of losing control over their tower’s design. But the better course of action is not to hoard bricks, but to find a bigger tower to work on instead.

As a co-founder, Adelman has had to learn to flex her own managing style to suit people at different levels in the company: individual contributors, first-time managers, managers of managers, and now senior executives. Her day-to-day role has shifted as the company has scaled. “It’s less doing, and it’s more coaching and guiding, setting strategy, and making the difficult decisions,” she says. “Now we’re getting to the situation where my team should feel empowered to make decisions.”

WhiteHat’s top tips


Hire a head of people
“One thing I wish I’d done is hire a head of people or a VP of HR earlier,” Adelman says. She thinks this support becomes necessary at around 70 people – otherwise, your time as a founder will get taken up by people issues.
Keep communicating
WhiteHat has a weekly all-hands meeting where people share “wins, focuses and metrics”, and fortnightly email updates from team leads to the whole company. The team uses Slack and collaborative Google docs, but Adelman says she’s still a big fan of picking up the phone.
Stick to the vision
When you believe your idea could be truly transformative, you’ll feel pressure to push for that change. But don’t sacrifice quality to get there faster. WhiteHat is Ofsted-regulated, and Adelman says a dip in quality would be the biggest threat to the business.

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