by Gavin Weale and Fellows, 30 November 2021
Crowdsourced in Vancouver, Canada, from the assembled Shuttleworth Fellows, alumni and staff of 2017, and transcribed (with bad jokes) by Gavin Weale.
In the world of social innovation and making change, we are continually barraged by the imperative to scale. In every funding bid, in every set of objectives, it is an impossible dynamic to escape if you are trying to seek support. But what does scale even mean? And why do you even want to scale? More importantly, if you do end up going 100X, will you know how to handle it without turning into a hot mess of anxiety and remorse?
Following a Come-to-Jesus confessional about my scaling pains with Livity Africa, in which I described an attempt to scale in 2016 that ended in tears, heartbreak and debt, we discussed and shortlisted the top ten lessons I and others should draw from the combined hivemind-megabrain of the Shuttleworth Foundation macro-institutional memory.
That is to say: here is the shit you might benefit from knowing, in ten Biblical directives. In short: you can believe in God, but do remember to tie up your camels.
Whatever your P&L or balance sheet says, if you see minus signs in your cashflow then you have to take action, and quickly. This may mean painful decisions like reducing headcount. You need to grasp those nettles as early as you can to avoid greater pain down the road when you can’t afford to pay people’s salaries. Which, for those who have never experienced it, creates a sensation something akin to what I imagine having a fork inserted into one of your eyeballs would feel like.
Success can breed success, and, especially in the funding world, zeitgeists come and go. You may be the cock of the walk today, but if the whims of funders change, you could be tomorrow’s Kentucky Fried Leftovers. When scaling fast, you can protect yourself by defining and adhering to your mission with almost laser precision. If you and your team are clear on the value you want to create, you are less likely to sleepwalk into bad funding relationships.
There are hares. There are tortoises. And there are lemmings waiting to throw themselves off of the Cliff of Scale through sheer stupidity. If I could talk with my younger self, the one with a full head of hair and a six-pack, I would tell him to approach big opportunities with an attitude of incrementalism, both in terms of the targets he takes on, and the team he builds. And I would tell him to stop being such a dick.
Your growth and your scale is your own business. While it may be tempting to think that the Silicon Valley model of scale is the only true benchmark, in the context of a social enterprise, the scale is relative to your impact. If you train a million people, is that truly “scale” if the training is not impactful? What even is scale? Why is it important to you? How do you define it? What’s the meaning of life? Who am I? What year is it? Who’s the President? (Actually, on second thoughts don’t answer that last one…)
Who is going to say no to being offered a squillion dollars by a funder? But if you do… What happens when that contract ends? Large funding wins should be greeted with celebratory fizzy drinks or other non-alcoholic victuals, and then treated with extreme caution and scepticism. Your approach to scaling up will be key here. How will you crew up and then potentially crew down if the contract is relatively short? Whopper money with a whopper target tastes better on the way down when the funds hit your account, but not so good when you are vomiting blood with anxiety trying to hit an astronomical delivery target. Make sure your funder target is achievable and delivers scale of impact too.
If you are to stray from your mission in the interests of, say, generating a ton of cash from a commercial opportunity, then you should try and think modular. That could mean sectioning off products or revenue streams to be delivered in a way that they can be grown / spun-off, or killed and forgotten without spilling too much blood. Never look a gift-horse in the mouth. Just make sure you can humanely shoot it in the paddock if it leads you in the wrong direction.
Sustainable growth will only happen through continuous learning. Documenting mistakes and learnings, as well as recording values, mission and strategic / operational principles, is best captured along the way - although some of the most critical learnings will inevitably be internalised by the sheer agony they cause you. In a way, defining your scale in terms of your business model could be treated as a product or experiment of its own.
Cashflow will fluctuate, especially if your model is heavily funder-based. How are you going to keep your voluminous under-trousers stretchy enough to take up the slack when your coffers grow, but not fall to your ankles when your pockets are empty, leaving you dangerously exposed? It is worth having scenarios in mind for both worst and best-case scenarios, and considering how your operations and team would cope with either. This will force you to think about the best way to scale up or down in an agile way. An outsourced / freelancer model may help.
If you do not understand your numbers you will die. Make sure you know, or pay for someone who knows how to help you know. Reading a cashflow forecast and profit and loss sheet is a basic human need for a social entrepreneur. Cigarette-packet budgets and thumbsuck forecasts will get you through a couple of years of helter-skelter growth, but if you want to really ride the Big Wheel, you better invest in the time or cost of a bad-ass beancounter. And if that is not a clusterfuck of metaphors in one sentence, I don’t know what is.
I will say it again: scaling numbers does not equal scaling impact. The value you want to create in the world is up to you to define, based on your ambition and the things you think are important in your theory of change. If you know you are creating true value and changing things, it should be fairly clear to you, and you perhaps should not even worry about scale if you haven’t got that bit clear. If you have, then go forth: you are ready to make like a lizard and get scaley.
With thanks to all Shuttleworth Fellows who took part in this Gathering session in 2017:
Peter Bloom, Sean Bonner, Tiffiniy Cheng, Peter Cunliffe-Jones, Alasdair Davies, Isha Datar, Kathi Fletcher, Adam Hyde, Seamus Kraft, Tarek Loubani, Aaron Makaruk, Peter Murray-Rust, Luka Mustafa, Mad Price-Ball, Anasuya Sengupta, Astra Taylor, Ugo Vallauri, Jesse Von Doom, Gavin Weale, and Johnny West.