How do you scale up? It should be an exciting process, and it can be, but it also entails a flood of challenges. As a startup, you’re a tiny but fearsome team working on ideas you love. Communication is effortless. Feedback loops are swift. Products are improving. Motivation is high. Magic is in the air. You work harder and you grow, you work even harder and you grow some more. But somewhere along this growth line things start to turn. Your business becomes less efficient, communication slumps, values become inconsistent, standards slip and everything seems to run away from you. You’ve grown, but it’s cost you. Growth is a quantum leap and these issues are unavoidable.
There is, however, a right way to tackle these problems, and Bart van Nol is someone who knows what it is. After successfully starting and growing two businesses of his own, Bart started ScaleUp Company. They’ve helped over 750 scaleups in Europe alone, showing them that even when the growing gets tough, it can still be done in an effective, focused and structured way. You can even have fun whilst doing it. It can be a fulfilling adventure. You don’t have to compromise your purpose. But for this to happen you have to be open to radical change. Bart knows that scaleups who only aim to work harder without critically adapting their systems and structures as they grow are much more likely to fall. When you grow, you change. Old ways of working are not applicable anymore and new approaches are the only way to reach your dream. Admittedly, it takes a certain perspective to see this needed change, and that’s hard to have when you’re in the thick of it, but that’s exactly why Bart and his team are there.
What is ScaleUp Company and what do you do?
We help fast growing companies with the transformation they experience when growing. But we help them do it in the right way, which allows them to scale up quickly in a structured, effective and fun way. We also give people the confidence and ability to get a real grip on the entrepreneurial adventure.
Importantly, ScaleUp Company starts with the end. We want to know your dream for ten year’s down the line; a dream so big that you’d almost be ashamed of saying it to your mates in a bar. What will your company be, how big will it be, how many people will work there, what will you be doing? And then we make you draw the line backwards; to five years, three years, one year, next quarter, next month, next week, tomorrow. To realize this dream, everything you do in this company is going to be focused on that dream, from tomorrow. You’re not going to spend a second on anything else.
The fundamental questions we ask are crucial to being able to scale up well. Questions such as what are you really good at? What is your real purpose? What is your economic drive? These are basic questions, but most don’t really know and if they do, there’s often not a consistent answer across the business. If this is the case, how can you optimize systems and models to scale up in the best way possible?
Where does your own growth mindset come from?
I love finding out if there is a system behind something, whether that’s related to growth, success or anything else. Is there a model you can apply that will increase your chances of being successful? I’ve always been interested in these models even when I was young and playing sports. I used to be in the Dutch Taekwondo for a few years and if I’m honest, I don’t think I had that much talent. But I had three of four things I was very good at and that made me better than a lot of other guys. I had a kind of system that increased my chances. I like shortcuts that allow you to optimize your full potential, even if you might not be ‘the best’ in traditional terms; it’s a lot of fun.
The second big driver for me is that I was lucky the two companies I started grew very rapidly. Pepperminds, which was my second company, had a several million euro turnover within two or three years. We suddenly had more than one hundred people working at the company, we were traveling to different countries and opening new branches. I didn’t ever see myself running such a fast growing business, it surprised me, but it also made my team and I realize that we had to grow as professionals as well. We had to learn and develop ourselves fast! I was in my mid to late twenties and it made me grow as a person in a big way, I loved the adventure even if it was overwhelming at times.
What did you learn from starting your own businesses?
I learned you have to have enough distance from what you’re doing every day to really gain perspective. Don’t work in your company, work on your company. You should aim to have a universal perspective on what your business is doing every day, every year. Having this kind of perspective really shows you what you’re doing.
Why is growth so difficult?
Firstly, a company will only grow if its leaders grow. The evolution of the entrepreneur is critical to it all; the bottleneck is always at the top. Business growth starts from growth at this entrepreneurial level. When you scale up quickly, there are times when need you to adopt a completely new way of looking at the company. You have to be agile. As a rough guide, for every twenty-five people you add to your business, you need a reset. You need to look at the entire business with a fresh mind; leadership, funding structures, information structures, product/market fit. You have to be open to change a lot of things. Growth is difficult because a lot of entrepreneurs don’t realize they need to change. They continue doing the same thing they’ve been doing for the last three years, but a little bit more of it. It’s about working differently and not just working harder. You really need to look at the fundamentals of your company which takes time, money and guts. People don’t like change, but if you want to grow, you have to embrace change and work with it to see what lies behind all your ambitions.
You help companies and people scale up, but your business is also growing. How do you maintain your own growth? Who do you learn from?
We’ve been in business for ten years now and we’ve helped over 750 scaleups in Europe. Especially in the last two years, we’ve grown very quickly ourselves and are now in what we call the ‘second stage of growth’. The funny thing is that all the problems we see with our clients are of course happening to us. One of my colleagues said that it’s a bit like the dentist; even the dentist’s kids teeth fall out. We have the same troubles as all the scaleups we work with but the difference is we know what’s going on and we know how to create solutions. We also have fourteen scaleup professionals that help customers and one of them is helping us, so there’s this circular relationship happening.
Why is it important to find the right customers and not every customer? And how does this relate to growth?
A lot of companies think their customer is another company. We believe if you really, really know your customer, you know they’re real people with needs, emotions and characteristics. They read the news, listen to the radio and have a favorite band. If you know who buys your product or service (or who would want to buy) with this level of detail, you realize that these are the people who are going to allow your business to scale up. Growing is going be much easier if you know this. Not only is the growing easier, but it’s also easier to put your sales and marketing efforts into this ideal customer.
One company we worked with found there were only around ten specific types of people in the Netherlands who were their core customers. Before this they were spending a massive amount on advertising through radio and magazines, but they stopped all of it and only tracked and targeted these ten ‘people’. They built meaningful relationships with them and by doing so, they doubled their turnover very quickly and spent around one tenth of their old marketing budget.
What motivates you and your business?
I believe the only way we’re going to build a better society and a better world is to be fully aware of our own influence and know exactly what kind of companies we want to create. I want to teach entrepreneurs how to scale up their businesses with total freedom based on their own purpose and their core values, and allow them to see that they can shape the company they want with enjoyment. I want entrepreneurs to grow the companies that the future needs. We have a lot of problems to solve in the world, and companies can be the accelerators for solutions to these needs. Businesses that are consciously working based on a fundamental purpose will change the world in a positive way, and I want to help in this change, this is my purpose.