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A few years ago the term "growth hacker" became all the buzz in the tech scene. This trend didn't surprise me since the "grow at all costs" mindset has dominated the startup world long before the "growth hacker" trend started.
I understand the importance of growth (especially if you're a VC backed company) but what stage does the emphasis shift towards efficiency?
How many "growth people" do you have in your company compared to operations people? Who is responsible for saving you money vs. responsible for spending your money? I think these questions are important.
In this post I'm going to share over 30 ideas on how you can optimize your startup and save your company a huge amount of resources.
Not all of these ideas will be relevant for your company because of it's size and industry but I'm confident you'll find a few which could make a huge difference to your bottom line.
I've included a list below to make it easy for you to jump straight to the recommendations which catch your eye.
The typical startup uses an ever growing list of tools. These tools will range from mission critical (think CRM, marketing automation, github, etc) to completely redundant. One of the easiest ways to save your company money is to ask your managers to create a list of the tools their teams are using and then start cutting the fat where possible. You may find a few services which aren't even being used but costing you money every quarter.
I recommend that the CFO or a member of his team be responsible for the audit since they can cross-reference the list that is built with the expenses.
In some cases you'll have 2 or more tools which provide the same functionality. Where possible you should move employees from one tool to the other and consolidate the list of services being used.
Once you've decided which tools to keep you should make sure each tool has a dedicated owner or owners. These owners will be responsible for making sure the tools are being used to their potential, subscriptions are being renewed, and consumers are receiving ongoing training.
These owners should be encouraged to become experts in these tools. This will help the company get maximum utility, and potentially save the company money as more features and functionality is being utilized.
I enjoy learning new online tools and services and I guess you could call me an "early adopter". In my previous company I was known as "the tools guy".
I've found that there is a handful of tools that provide a massive amount of value for money. I've listed my favorite below and I highly recommend that you at least give them a try. You can thank me later.
Disclaimer: There's no such thing as a perfect tool and the tools below might not be the best fit for your company (because of culture, stage, industry etc). What I will say is that you should give them an honest chance and then decide to drop them or to use an alternative.
I've been using Asana for years both as an employee and independent consultant and rate it as one of the best productivity tools on the market today. It's a perfect solution for independents, and small and medium-sized companies.
Asana supports both list and kanban board display options which means it can double as a "Trello" alternative.
Asana has a Zapier integration, a calendar, centralized inbox, task ownership, commenting, a hierarchical structure to tasks and a lot of other hidden gems.
Jira is a fan favorite of R&D and product teams around the world. Jira's integration with Confluence is really powerful and if used correctly can provide a lot of insights into the efficiency of your R&D and product teams.
Both of these services have a learning curve, especially Jira, but thankfully there is a lot of useful guides, courses and other training material that can help you master these tools.
Slack has the title of the fastest growing SaaS company in history so the chances are you're already using it.
Slack is amazing for a number of reasons, my favorites being the threaded responses support, and the search functionality. Everything communicated in Slack can be searched. This powerful functionality turns Slack into the "dropbox for discussions".
Calendly is one of those tools which solves one very specific and painful problem. The problem it solves is scheduling calls with people outside of your organization.
How many hours have you wasted going back and worth over email trying to find the best time slot for a skype call with a prospect? Calendly solves this pain point by syncing with your calendar and making it really easy for someone to schedule a call with you at a time that works for both parties.
I came across Lucidchart years ago while trying to find a virtual whiteboard solution. If you frequently need to build flow charts or diagrams to help you plan and execute projects then Lucidchart is the only solution you'll need.
Lucidchart is easy to learn, has a large library of useful objects and useful collaboration tools.
If you're still addicted to email and using Gmail as your email provider then I highly recommend Boomerang.
Boomerang is an extension to Gmail that allows you to automatically "boomerang" emails back to your inbox after a time period that you choose. This makes it easy to set emails to return to your inbox so you can follow up with whoever you emailed.
We often forget that the most important assets in our companies are the people. It's natural to try to get the most out of your employees so your company can grow bigger and more profitable faster, but what's the best way to do that?
I'd argue that one of the best ways to save your company money is to actively combat employee burnout. Below are some tips on how to achieve this.
I remember sitting in a meeting with a bunch of managers in my previous company and the COO (who happened to be one of the founders) made a funny comment on how much money the meeting would cost the company. It took me a minute to understand what he meant.
If you have 10 people in a meeting which lasts 1 hour and the average salary of those 10 employees is $100 an hour then that one meeting will cost the company $1,000.
Most companies have no rules / culture when it comes to meetings which leads to massive inefficiency. Things can spiral out of control as the company scales and more teams are formed.
Don't get me wrong, I think meetings are important and it's dangerous to come to decisions without first having necessary discussions, but I think this area of the day-to-day can be done significantly better by most companies.
Below are some tips for improving your meeting culture:
As your user base scales so does the resources you spend on supporting these users. If you've reached the point where your support team is overwhelmed, and you're hesitant to hire additional reps then it might be time to revisit your support strategy.
If you have a freemium model or a very cheap lower pricing tier it might make more sense for the business to limit the amount of support you offer these users. There's nothing wrong with having a different SLA for different users based on their pricing tier. Most companies accept that one of the benefits of being on a more costly tier is a higher level of support.
You should run an analysis of your support tickets and determine the areas of your product which generate the most questions / issues. Once you have that list, invest heavily in support documentation, in-app walkthroughs and automated email support. This will drop the number of tickets being generated which will allow you to scale your support team at a slower pace.
Time is money and so much time is wasted by employees on tasks which could be automated.
Zapier is an incredibly powerful tool for small online companies and will pay for itself a thousand times over if used correctly. Zapier makes it easy to connect different applications together, allowing an action in one app to trigger an action in another. An example of a trigger is "received an email in Gmail with subject = X" and an action would be, "add a row to a Google sheet".
At the time I wrote this post Zapier had integrations with over 1,500 apps.
The screenshot below shows just a few of the millions of possible integrations available through Zapier.
I was extremely fortunate to have a mentor when I transitioned into a director role at my previous company. This individual made a massive difference to my growth as a manager and I wouldn't have survived in this role without his guidance and support.
It's a lot easier said than done but if possible new managers should be partnered up with a mentor that can help them through tough times and work on their development.
Reach out to your investors and see if they have industry leaders that could act as mentors to certain managers in your organization.
If you can't find mentors for your new managers than at the least encourage your managers to seek out their equivalents at other companies. Your gut will stop you from making this move but you shouldn't worry about your employees seeing if "the grass is greener on the other side". Your employees will respect you for helping them to grow and to find people in the industry which can guide them through their current challenges.
One idea that is picked up from a simple conversation could change how your company operates and I think that's worth the risk.
Since I became an independent consultant I've focused a lot more on my productivity. I've read dozens of articles and learnt a lot of tricks, methodologies and philosophies. I'd recommend that managers become familiar with some of the more popular productivity methods and hacks and to pass on this knowledge to their team members. The idea is to help people have more energy and to become more efficient.
Some of the ideas I've shared below are not limited to the work portion of our lives. Ideas like habit stacking and batching will make you more efficient cross the board.
Below is a list of my favorite productivity knowledge bits, methodologies and philosophies.
As your company scales you'll inevitably introduce more robust, complex systems to your day-to-day operations. This may include a CRM system like SalesForce, BI tools like Segment and Tableau, or a project management solution like Jira.
You'll be tempted to get these systems in place as quick as possible so your teams can start using them but this is a mistake.
Each system has it's own best practices when it comes to initial setup and scaling. If you go against these recommendations you'll pay an ever increasing "tax" as the tool becomes more embedded within your organization.
I've seen this time and time again with my clients. A common example is Mixpanel which gets implemented without a tracking plan. Product and R&D then go wild with creating events which don't follow recommended naming conventions. All that hard work by R&D is often scrapped when the decision is made to do things correctly.
I recommend either hiring a professional system integrator on a contractual basis, or extending the implementation timeline.
Email is still the bread and butter of communication in most companies.
I was fortunate that certain mentors pointed out that I sucked at email and that I needed to work on it.
Below are some of the tips that I've learnt and try to implement when I'm writing email. I'd recommend sharing this list with employees so the company as a whole can be more efficient with its' communication over email.
A strong business operations department can have a massive impact to a company's bottom line.
Business operations can be divided into 3 main areas, business intelligence, business applications and business processors. You should invest in all 3.
A business performance team is a spin off of the more classic data or BI team. The main responsibilities of a business performance team include:
A strong business performance team will make the company significantly more data-driven and help root out inefficiencies at scale.
The obvious question is, "won't setting up this team, the tools they need, and BI infrastructure cost me an arm and a leg"? The answer is yes, there will be a significant cost in setting up this team but you'll be building an asset which will pay for itself many times over. It shouldn't take you more than 3 - 6 months to get a small team, necessary BI infrastructure and new business processes in place. From that point on you'll significantly reduce the risk in the business by including data in major decisions.
The business applications team is responsible for the main business applications used by the company. These applications usually include the CRM, marketing automation, and billing systems.
The main goal of this team is to make sure the company is leveraging these expensive systems correctly. Every custom-facing team, the data teams, executive level and financial department will all rely heavily on this team once the company is at scale.
Data is the life blood for many companies but more often than not only a handful of people in the organization have access to the data. If you've followed my recommendations above and started investing in business operations then more data should be getting into the hands of more people.
Tools like Mixpanel, Tableau, Heap, Amplitude and Redash are great for providing self-service analytic support to companies. If you're using any of these tools then make it a responsibility of the owners of these tools to start spreading the love (and training).
Another important way to decentralize data is in the creation of robust, dynamic dashboards that can be used by entire departments to answer questions on demand. Tableau is an amazing solution for doing this thanks to its' support for custom parameters, action filters, custom fields and dynamic loading of views.
When you're a small company everyone is aware of the main challenges facing the different teams in the company. As you grow this benefit disappears and the less cross pollination of ideas take place.
I love the idea of hosting an evening once a quarter where each department can share one or two significant projects that they worked on. This is not only a good way to break free of routine but allows teams to show off their work. Another massive benefit is that the event helps in spreading ideas that could help solve major challenges that other teams are facing.
The concept of "people ops" has been getting more and more attention in the last few years and I'm a big fan of this trend.
The concept behind people ops is to proactively work towards improving the happiness, moral, efficiency and overall quality of your human resources.
A newish position that companies are now hiring for is VP of People which is a category in of itself in the HR department. The mandate of this VP is to build a team that proactively supports the rest of the human resources in the organization. If recruiting is to help bring in new faces, people ops are responsible for keeping the faces that exist in the organization smiling.
Imagine you're on a ship out in the ocean but you have no idea where you're heading. More than once I found myself in that situation working for companies and it sucks.
It's imperative that the CEO ensures his "crew" knows the mission and the direction where the ship is headed. The best way to do this is frequent all-hands meetings where the entire company comes together to hear from the leadership.
This meeting should take place at a minimum of once a quarter and even more frequently depending on the growth of the company and the state of the market.
One short meeting where the goals are clearly communicated is one of the best ways to instantly get everyone realigned. This will increase focus and efficiency.
More and more companies are choosing to hire remote employees instead of investing in expensive office space.
Companies like Invision, Buffer, Zapier, Automattic and Hotjar have all or many of their employees working remotely. Invision has over 700 employees and zero office space.
Making such a huge shift for a company with the traditional model is difficult so I'd recommend starting slowly and see how it works for your company's culture.
Hiring is a very expensive activity for startups but it's also one of the easiest areas to optimize.
If you're under 10 employees then I'd stick with Google Sheets, email forms and other free tools to help facilitate the hiring process. Hiring managers should be responsible for the entire process and make it a priority. Their teams should be made aware that their focus is shifting to recruiting and everyone needs to adjust accordingly.
If you're more than 10 employees then I'd recommend hiring a recruiter and to investing in recruiting software. My recommended recruiting tool is Greenhouse but I'm sure there are some great alternatives on the market.
A professional recruiter will be able to take a lot of the workload off your managers. Make sure the recruiter is the type of person that can wear many hats so they don't become a liability during hiring freezes.
A tool like Greenhouse will force you to think through the hiring process for each role and automate part of the communication. You'll have all your prospects in one place and this will result in a smoother experience for everyone involved.
It's a shitty experience for anyone that went through multiple steps in your recruiting process to be left in the dark for weeks because a task to update them fell between the cracks. This will hurt your brand in the long run so make sure it doesn't happen.
What is your philosophy on buy vs. build when it comes to tools? This is another interesting debate which is as old as software itself.
Companies like Facebook have always built their own tools for internal use while the majority pay other companies to solve their needs. I remember coming across a great post titled Build vs. Buy: How to blow $100,000 saving money by Josh Pigford, the founder of Baremetrics who made great arguments against building your own solutions.
Whichever philosophy you hold I recommend you revisit it and make sure it is the most efficient way for you to operate your business. Perhaps the decision to build was made to keep the VP of R&D happy while the product team are suffering because of limited dev resources. Alternatively you may have an over zealous head of marketing that adopts new tools like it's Black Friday every week.
Follow the advice I shared at the start of this post and include this question as part of your tools audit.
If you have over 100 employees working in your company then it's time to consider adopting an employee registry. The idea behind an employee registry is for employees to be able to quickly and easily understand the responsibilities, skills and hierarchy of their colleagues.
The employee registry should be under the responsibility of the VP of HR / People and updated frequently. A good tip is to include an update as part of the onboarding process of new employees. Managers should make sure new employees exist in the registry and that their info is up to date.
I've only worked at companies which built their own employee registry so I don't have any online solutions I can recommend. Building an employee registry is a fun hackathon idea.
I'm sure you've heard of the anecdote, "prevention is better than cure". This simple concept applies to most areas of life, including business.
You want to be aware and a step ahead of serious business challenges, and have options in place to address them within your grand scheme, instead of letting them sneak up on you. Constantly having to rebuild your plans and having an overall state of instability, throws everyone off and will cost you excessive time and money.
There are a few ways you can make your company more proactive:
As organizations grow and become more complicated the more isolated different business units become. One classic example is the gap between the product managers and the sales reps.
The product people live in spreadsheets, project management tools and in meetings. The sales reps spend their time on calls with prospects and in the occasional product update meeting.
One great initiative which I saw at my previous company was product managers listening to sales calls. This allowed the product managers to learn the pain points of potential users as well as help out the sales reps with recurring technical questions.
This is just one example but there are many benefits to exposing teams to the day-to-day activity of other teams.
At best your teams will help solve major challenges and gain valuable insights, at worst your teams will be more connected.
One sure way to save your company money is lowering your customer acquisition cost. If you're able to bring in the same amount of revenue for less money then you'll have the option of shifting marketing budget to other areas of the business. This will make you more nimble and help you lower risk in the business.
There are many ways to try and lower your CAC but I want to focus on my four favorite ways.
Do you know where your marketing dollars are going and the value you are receiving from each channel? If not maybe it's time to invest in some tracking so you can perform a Pareto analysis of your marketing spend.
Not sure which channels are bringing you value? Stop spending money on certain channels and monitor your sales. This may sound like a scary approach but it's the quickest way to determine which channels are working and which are wasting you money. Turn off one or two channels at a time so you're not creating unnecessary risk and monitor your numbers closely. Make sure this is a coordinated effort so when the numbers do start shifting there isn't panic.
Once you've determined the 20% of your marketing efforts which are driving the majority of your sales, look for ways to scale these efforts.
From my experience most startups have 2 or 3 main channels which drive them new business. Your head of growth should consider experimenting with new channels to lower risk in the business and identify cheaper channels.
I get it, it's tough and not obvious which channels will work. In some cases it can take months of investment before you see any returns (think blogging, podcasting etc).
Some channels like social media, guest blogging, creating an industry newsletter, hosting a conference and co-hosted webinars can have much quicker turnarounds and should be considered.
Companies aren't doing enough A/B testing. People underestimate the power of small improvements.
Your marketing team should be continuously A/B testing email subjects, on-site funnels, CTAs and copy. If you can assign this responsibility to a growth marketer and include "A/B testing frequency" as part of your quarterly KPIs. You want it as part of your marketing culture.
Tools like Optimizely and Visual Website Optimizer (VWO) are my tools of choice. Hotjar is also great for heatmaps and video recordings which are really helpful for learning how visitors are interacting with your website.
Your marketing team needs to be as close to the market as it can. A marketing team which doesn't know the motivations of their target market, the language they know and use, and how they feel about your products are destined to fail.
Similar to setting up a culture of A/B testing, the same should be done around market feedback. Tools like Typeform, Intercom, Zapier, Qualaroo and Wootric are great for automating the collection of feedback.
Once feedback is flowing into the organization you should analyze and share it with relevant teams. Everyone from the CEO to the social media manager can benefit from ongoing user feedback reports. Make this a habit and you'll have a new competitive advantage in your organization.
If knowledge is a resource, then the lack of knowledge is a liability. You can easily reduce this liability by investing in a company knowledgebase for employees. The company knowledgebase will hold key information about your product, market, pricing, team structure, processes and anything else which may be of value to your employees.
Investing in training is an obvious way to optimize your business. There is a great quote which I've shared below which hits the nail on the head.
Your people are your most important resource and if you're not actively working to help them grow you'll end up losing them. You must set up an environment which encourages and supports continues development or you're people will go somewhere where they can grow.
You should aim to provide training both at the company-level as well as on the individual level. Budget should be put aside to send employees to conferences where they can learn from industry leaders. The company should invest in training programs and employees should have dedicated time during the quarter to learn.
Employees that come up with new tricks and ways to work should be encouraged to share this info to their colleagues.
If you're struggling to hire for certain roles in your current geography then perhaps it's time to consider moving your resources to a different geography.
I know what you're thinking, "but Justin, that's going to cost me a ton of money and you're meant to be helping me save money". Try and imagine the costs involved in the hundreds of hours wasted in trying to find top talent in your current geography. How many companies are digging for gold in a desert?
Most major tech hubs today have "WeWorks" and other great coworking options so you don't have to break the bank setting up a satellite office in a different city. As I mentioned earlier, more and more companies are hiring remote workers so if large tech companies like Zapier and Invision can do it, why can't you?
Time is money and if you can shave off months every year in bringing in top talent then the money you'll save in the long run will be well worth the risk.
Disclaimer: You will be sending clear messages to your existing employees when you start opening up new offices and hiring people in new geographies. Try and be sensitive to this fact and handle it correctly by ensuring your employees that their jobs are safe.
I'm definitely biased here since I work as an analytics and biz ops consultant but I've also seen the benefits small companies gain from bringing on an experienced specialist at a time of need.
There are numerous benefits to working with consultants. I've listed the main ones that come to mind below.
There are risks to relying too heavily on consultants. The biggest risk is that the knowledge and expertise belong to the consultant, not to your organization. I make it a priority to lower that risk for my clients by providing training and even to help recruit a replacement for myself when the time is right. If the consultants you work with are not addressing this concern then make this a priority within the scope of their work.
As I mentioned earlier in this post recruiting is a very costly exercise for businesses. If you're a data-driven organization and using a good recruiting software then you should have data on your recruiting process that you can analyze.
You want to understand the following metrics across your entire organization and per department and role:
Once you understand these numbers start with the obvious issues.
Below are some ideas:
If you have enough historical data, you can use the insights gained from your analysis to better plan hiring timelines and your budget.
I'd recommend using a tool like Lucidchart to map out a very detailed sales funnel and then try to automate parts of it.
There are some amazing marketing automation tools, chat bots and data-driven email solutions like Customer.io and Vero that can be used to automate part of your sales funnel.
This practice can lead to an increase in conversion rate, many hours saved by your sales team and an higher average order value.
Your reps will benefit from having more time to prep for demos and cold outreach.
If you're fortunate enough to have a sales ops person within your sales organization then you should be constantly experimenting with your sales funnel. Use your analysts to help map out each step in your funnel in an easily digestible dashboard to help monitor different experiments.
If you're a software company which works in sprints then I'd recommend holding organized sprint summary meetings. The goal of a sprint summary meeting is to analyze the previous sprint and learn how to improve the process.
The sprint summary meeting should be led by the head of R&D or a senior member of R&D and follow a strict agenda. I'd recommend that everyone in R&D and product be encouraged to submit feedback throughout the sprint. This feedback can be looked over by the head of R&D and product before the meeting. This will keep things organized and avoid a free-for-all during the meeting.
The goal should be to look for trends within the feedback and come up with testable actions that can be implemented to improve the process.
Too often sprint summary meetings become very heated and emotional. The individuals leading the meeting must make sure the meeting flows and that everyone sticks to the agenda.
In today's tech climate the "grow at all costs" philosophy rules supreme. Rarely do we hear a story of a company which grew the smart way and focused on efficiency.
In this post I've covered over 30 ways you can save your company money and start adopting a more efficient business philosophy.
Every aspect of your business from your marketing spend to recruiting practices could probably be optimized. Small wins add up and if you follow just a few of the recommendations I've shared above, you'll save your company millions of dollars over the next few years.
I'd love to hear which tips you've implemented in your business and other ideas that I can add to this post. Let me know in the comments section below.