This article includes key takeaways from Guillaume Princen’s talk on how to scale ops. Check out the full video on Youtube or get the…
4 key best practices
Best practice #1: Sequence your company DNA
Culture doesn’t just happen. Stripe were very deliberate in the way that they laid down their culture in what they call their Operating Principles. This document, much like the Constitution, lays down general guidelines to inform decision-making within the company, without over-engineering things. Guillaume advises having fewer than 10 principles and making sure each one remains applicable at scale. These Operating Principle shouldn’t just embody who you are now, but also who you want to be in the years to come. In practice, transmitting the resulting culture looks a lot like how doctors are taught in school: see one, do one, teach one. First, a new team member sees how these principles are put into application in the org, then they apply these principles themselves and, finally, they share these principles with new hires.
Note: One of the operating principles at Stripe is “we haven’t won yet”. It’s a recurring theme in Patrick’s internal emails to the entire company. And, through repetition and seeing these principles applied at all levels of the org, Stripe’s culture spread to all Stipes, regardless of company seniority and geographical location.
Best practice #2: Iterate your way to process
The birth of process looks a little bit like this: you wait too long to introduce process, you handle issues as they arise, things start to break and no one knows what to do, until finally you end up imposing a massive top-down change that everybody hates. Sound familiar? This is exactly the situation you want to avoid. Most time though, what you actually need to get past the roadblock is fairly simple. Step 1: define high-level, company-wide goals. Step 2: get each team to define their goals, enmeshed into the wider vision. Stripe puts this in place through what they call Charters. Charters are a two-page document going over: the objective of the team, the mission of the team, the metrics measured by the team, and the main projects the team is going to work on.
Note: Charters represent long-term goals for each team. However, being able to accurately predict and commit to specific projects is difficult. In Guillaume’s experience, it takes a few years to get these right. His advice: start small and move from there!
Best practice #3: Get ready for growth
In the early days, startups focus all their efforts on getting to Product/Market Fit. The scary thing about Product/Market Fit, though, is that your product begins to be used in ways that go far beyond what you had anticipated. The consequence? You start being flooded by requests, in different langages, asking you to answer questions you hadn’t even thought about. Startups mistakenly assume that the same methods they used to reach PMF will continue to work. Actually, solving problems pre-PMF and in hyper-growth are two very different things. The same logic can’t be applied: you need to plan ahead and start putting in place systemic improvements in all layers of the organization.
Note: One such instance at Stripe occurred back in 2014 when their growth began exceeding their capacity to manage it. Support tickets kept pilling up, and their answer back then was to adopt an all-hands-on-deck approach with everyone in the company handling support tickets. What would have worked just fine pre-PMF turned out to be a mistake: everyone on support doesn’t scale. As much as the team wanted to keep supporting their customers, they couldn’t keep up. The solution Stripe opted for was to invest in a vendor deal that could scale the support function for them (handling languages, time zones, and other specificities they weren’t equipped to handle) better and — most importantly — faster than they could have done so internally.
Best practice #4: Preserve optionality
In hyper-growth, the moment you think something is fixed it’s already time to start thinking about fixing it for the next stage of growth. A good example is office space: the minute you move into a new space, you’re already planning for the next move. So, what do you want to optimize for as you scale? When you’re scaling, your most valuable currency is optionality. You want to avoid making what Guillaume calls “trap door decisions”, i.e. decisions that lock you in.
Note: Job titles are a good example of a trap door decision: they lock you into a structure that may no longer fit your needs in the medium term. Guillaume argues that most startups have a tendency to structure too early. Giving out big titles early on can block you later. He advises to postpone giving those titles for two reasons: first, preserving optionality, and second, validating a candidate’s fit into a culture such as Stripe’s that emphasizes adaptability.
4 key mindsets
Mindset #1: Embrace evolution
At a startup, your product should evolve. But it can’t be the only thing that evolves: the people, the structure, your processes should as well. This simple truth is often ignored as it seems too “fuzzy”, until things start to break. Evolving your product makes it stronger, and the same logic applies to your organization. Ignore evolving your org alongside your product at your own risk.
Mindset #2: Hire 2 years ahead
You’re hiring people today who will need to integrate to and deliver in a company that will be twice the size by the time they actually join. Before you hire, you should ask yourself, where will I be in 2 to 3 years time, and hire based on criteria you expect would be required in that timeframe. In doing so, beware of structuring and handing big titles out to early will hinder the adaptability of your organization (see best practice #4: Preserve optionality).
Mindset #3: Managers = talent retainers
As the adage goes: people don’t leave a company, they leave a manager. Pay special attention to hiring managers as they will be expected to embody your culture and communicate it effectively to the rest of the team. This is especially the case for managers who will be expected to hire and grow their team.
Mindset #4: Top-down AND bottom-up
Implementing and evolving processes requires both top-down and bottom-up approaches to be enmeshed. Top-down is required. It ensures the necessary focus and alignement across the org. Stripe does this through Operating Principles (see best practice #1: Sequence your company DNA). Bottom-up is also essential. Crafting their goals and plan to implement it allows buy-in from teams. Stripe does this through Charters (see best practice #2: Iterate your way to process). As a rule of thumb, Guillaume makes the case for enabling decision-making to happen at the lowest possible level in the organization.
About Guillaume Princen:
Guillaume is Head of Continental Europe at Stripe, which he joined in 2014. Guillaume built — and scaled — Stripe’s European operations, keeping two priorities closely at heart. First, laying the groundwork for Stripe’s successful growth in Europe. And second, trying to replicate Stripe’s culture in their European team. In this talk, he shares his insights on how to structure the team for further growth and why culture was essential in Stripe’s story.