Startups have a very clear and established strategy for growth. First, find a great product-market fit. Then, once you get the product right, invest heavily in marketing and start reaping the rewards of your work.
While that is an effective strategy, it misses out on a core element: people.
The basic startup strategy looks good on paper, but executing and scaling it requires leaders and teams who completely understand your product, market, and vision.
Like other startups, our company began as a small group of multi-talented engineers who served many roles. But as we grew, we needed other people to serve in vital roles like marketing, sales, customer success, and HR.
In short, our entire growth strategy was people-dependent. Without committed people in these positions, we would never reach our goals.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned as the CEO of a startup about why employee engagement is central to our growth strategy.
Nothing happens without teams
As a CEO, it is often my role to come up with the initial strategies for how to grow. But 99% of the time, someone else executes that strategy and improves on it. I must have complete trust in the people who will turn my ideas into a reality.
As you grow, it’s not just individuals, but entire teams need to be committed and aligned to a common purpose. That’s where employee engagement becomes inevitable. It’s one thing for me to be concerned with how aligned my direct reports are with our vision. But they also need my support in creating a culture and space where all of their team members also enjoy coming to work and executing the strategy.
Your culture is your infrastructure
When it comes time for startups to scale, one of the biggest challenges is keeping the same culture even after adding 10X employees. One reason this is so hard for many startups is that their culture is undefined. Those who are a part of the early days know how things used to operate, but rarely do companies spend the time in articulating actual core values and reflecting on what makes them unique and how they can improve.
When your culture is an open and evolving topic, even as you add more people, it becomes easier to scale and keep the same focus. The culture provides the skeleton structure on which you can build out the entire organization. When all of your key leaders are committed to the culture and demonstrate it in their own work, it helps you grow sustainably.
Investing in people is equivalent to investing in marketing
When most startups think about the money they spend on growth, they consider what they pay for paid search ads, content marketing, SEO, and other direct expenses.
However, when I review where we spend money, I see the investments we make in salaries, office space, retreats, and culture as just as important to our growth. Without a committed group of people caring for our end-to-end processes, the money we spend on direct marketing is useless. CEOs need not see employee engagement efforts as just a spend category but as a marketing investment.
Getting better all the time
Another key reason I see employee engagement as central to our growth strategy is that employee engagement forces us to ask tough questions. Employees often bring up blind spots that we weren’t aware of. We have to systematically look at how we will address changes and go the extra mile.
We apply the same thinking to our growth. Often, our best ideas come from employees when they feel comfortable enough to share their ideas with us. When stuck with a problem, we have to sit and think through many different strategies, and we aren’t surprised when we find blindspots or inspiration from many various sources.
Employee engagement as a way for startups to grow
Many startup CEOs may see employee engagement as just a necessary activity to attract and retain talent. However, building a culture of focused and happy employees is actually a way for startups to grow effectively. Startups die or thrive based on the quality of their people and how much they contribute to the strategy of the company. By investing in employee engagement, you are also investing in your growth.