Jan 212005

Ratcheting Up Is Hard To Do (or Boiling the Frog, Part II)

Ratcheting Up Is Hard To Do (or Boiling the Frog, Part II)

I’ve had to ratchet down business several times over the years at Return Path.  Times were tough, revenues weren’t coming as fast as promised, my investors and I were growing weary, the dot com crash, etc. etc.  We had layoffs, consolidated jobs, cut salaries multiple times, made people wear 8 hats to get the job done.  It’s an awful process to go through.

In the last year or so, business has finally started going much better.  We’ve been fortunate in many ways that we’re still around, with products that work really well, with a good customer base, and with good and patient investors and employees, as the business climate has improved.  We’ve grown from 22 people (at our low point) up to almost 75.  But what that has meant for our organization is that we’ve had to quickly "ratchet back up," adding people, adding new functions that were previously one of many hats worn by a single person, operating at a different level.  While ratcheting down is a nightmare, it turns out that quickly ratcheting back up is in many ways just as hard on the organization.

Some examples:

– IT (internal email and servers) has been run by a part-time resource and "off the side of the desk" of our product development engineering department.  Now it is almost completely broken, and it turned out we hired a very talented IT manager, probably about three months too late.

– Staffing up is particularly tough without a dedicated HR function and with a legacy of missed budgets.  HR has been done off the side of the desk of me and my executive assistant, and we can’t keep pace any more with all the recruiting, hiring, training, and development planning.  Now that we feel like we need and can afford more staff, we need to hire an HR manager to handle it all, but we need someone in place and trained today, not three months from now.

– A 22 person company can function brilliantly as a network of Individual Contributors who loosely coordinate with each other.  But now what we need at 75 is a a few hardcore Managers that can build systems and processes so that the whole machine runs smoothly.  We don’t necessarily have those people in-house, and if we bring them in from the outside, I’m left wondering if the Individual Contributors will feel like their years of hard work aren’t appreciated if there’s a new layer of management surrounding them.

I hope we never have to ratchet down again…but part of the reason why now is that I never want to have to ratchet back up, either!

Thanks to my COO and business partner Jack Sinclair for his help with this posting.

Filed under: Entrepreneurship