Women Leaders Who’ve Scaled Startups on the Lessons They’ve Learned Along the Way

by Janey Zitomer
December 11, 2019

When scaling a business, Snapdocs Head of Engineering Anupreet Walia says you’re always exchanging one set of problems for shiny new ones. 

As the business approaches an inflexion point, Walia must consider its infrastructure and single point of failures. She also has to think through succession plans for key roles and assess technical debt management while building new product features. 

If all that were on your plate, where would you turn your attention first? We spoke with Walia and Mae Podesta, senior vice president of marketplace operations and payments at Guild Education, about the lessons they've learned amidst rapid business growth.

 

Guild Education
Guild Education 

Mae Podesta, senior vice president of marketplace operations and payments at Guild Education, relies on Bain’s “RAPID” framework to make sure everyone is on the same page about big company decisions. Bain & Company introduced the framework in the early 2000s and Bain partners Paul Rogers and Marcia Blenko shared it widely in a 2006 Harvard Business Review article on how to enhance organizational performance.  

The acronym for “recommend,” “agree,” “perform,” “input” and “decide” takes an idea from ideation to execution within a few stages of production. The model requires collaboration from people outside the proposal team to diversify the research and make sure it’s feasible. Podesta added that one caveat of this process is that it requires significant investment in time and resources. 

 

Tell us a bit about the role you played in scaling the business. What lessons did you learn along the way?

Like many startup leaders, I’ve worn many hats. When I first started at Guild in 2017, I was the head of finance and strategy, which included traditional finance and accounting tasks such as raising our Series B and Series C financing. In this role, I was also responsible for developing our tuition payments strategy, which has become an integral and growing part of our business. I now focus on overseeing our payments products, strategy and all operations to ensure the process of returning to and paying for college is seamless for the students we serve. 

 

Building Your Management Bench 

When I started at Guild, we had 40 employees. Today, we have more than 400 and continue to hire across departments. As companies grow, it’s important to build out a bench of talent with strong managers so that leadership can scale alongside the business. We have built leaders from within while bringing in new voices and experiences to round out our teams. We have designed cross-functional management training with all Guild managers to help them grow into leaders and provide them with a network of other managers to learn from and lean on. 

Another important lesson in scaling our leadership team is the value of coaching and mentorship. As new team members join the company or grow into new roles, I invest time and support to mentor them as they get their footing, while encouraging managers to take advantage of various external coaching opportunities that Guild offers its leaders.  

While difficult to balance, it’s critical to invest the time to incorporate the right processes and systems.’’

 

Scaling Cross-Functional Collaboration 

It’s often a challenge to scale work cross-functionally. When growing quickly, it’s easy for wires to cross between teams or accidentally fail to include newcomers. While difficult to balance, it’s critical to invest the time to incorporate the right processes and systems. 

At Guild, we’ve found a few useful processes to facilitate cross-functional collaboration. We’re constantly assessing whether they are serving their purpose or if we need to adapt. For example, we often rely on the “RAPID” framework, which can be helpful in making decisions cross-functionally to align on who has a say in this decision and who ultimately gets to make the final call.

Other processes we have found to be helpful include over-investing in written communications so those who need to know the context, goals or key decisions and rationale are aware, as well as publishing goals across teams so there’s a common understanding of each team’s priorities and a general sense of empathy for what others are juggling in terms of workload.  

 

snapdocs
Snapdocs

When your team is scaling quickly, hiring new employees ASAP might be an appealing solution to a problem that actually requires thoughtful process re-evaluation. And if the candidate’s skill set doesn’t align with your future goals (let alone, your current ones), you’re putting your business in a position that’s detrimental to product quality.

Anupreet Walia, Head of Engineering at Snapdocs, told us that her team will be placing specific skill expectations under the microscope this year. 

 

Tell us a bit about the role you have played in scaling the business. What lessons did you learn along the way?

We had a tall order of moving to an enterprise software development process and improving the quality of the software, while rearchitecting the application from a product to a platform. After assessing the gaps in the team, we recognized the process and skills we were missing, which we needed to either develop or hire for. In less than a year, we have built a front-end team, services team, QA team, infra and data team, with skilled engineers who brought both experience and processes. Our change failure rate has dropped to less than 10 percent and critical issues leaking into production have dropped to less than one in 10 releases as we hit the 30-engineers mark. 

For us, mapping the skill expectations for a role to the interview questions was insightful. It allowed us to talk explicitly about the expectations for the role and what success looks like for the candidate. The other important learning was using feedback from the recruitment team to improve the questions and interviews.

The biggest challenges so far have been identifying, managing and communicating the risks.’’ 

What are the biggest challenges you faced while scaling the business so far, and how have you overcome them?

The biggest challenges so far have been identifying, managing and communicating the risks. When the business is approaching an inflexion point, we have to worry not only about the infrastructure and single point of failures but also the succession plans for key roles and technical debt management while building new product features. 

I believe we are always exchanging the set of problems we currently have with shiny new ones, and it’s important to assess these problems based on our current stage of business. Open communication and future alignment is key. Along the way, we have developed a common shared language and protocols to ensure that we can have quick, high-bandwidth conversations.

 

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