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Finance tools & tech 7 min read

Scaleup tools: 7 golden rules for software that scales

Patrick Whatman

At Spendesk, we know all about scaling up. We were thrilled to raise our Series B in September 2019, and we’re working hard to grow and serve more customers all over the world.

We also take this period seriously. And we think you should too. Because while fast growth is good, it usually also means lots of change. And with change can come confusion, complexity, and conflict.

Which is not what you want.

One of those key changes is setting up new company procedures and strategies. These will hopefully be there for the long run, which means it pays to get them right from the start.

This also means new technology and especially new software to handle this change. So in this article, we’re going to set out the guidelines for choosing software that will scale easily with your company.

Choose good tools now, and you’ll move easily from a few dozen employees to hundreds without skipping a beat. Choose poorly, and you’ll hit the same roadblocks every time a new team member comes onboard.

So let’s talk technology. But first, a quick definition.

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What is a scaleup?

It’s worth quickly defining the kinds of companies we’re talking about here. Because as is often the case in modern language, “scaleup” means different things to different people.

Some publications define this term in numbers. For example, the OECD defines “scaleup” as a company with “an average annualized return of at least 20% in the past 3 years with at least 10 employees in the beginning of the period.”

Which might be technically true, but it doesn’t describe the way it feels to run a scaleup. Because it’s definitely different from running a startup.

For the purposes of this article, “scaleup” means the following:

A company in a rapid growth phase - usually as a result of new funding - typically with between 50 - 500 employees.

These companies will have established product-market fit, have shown that they can sell their goods or services, and are expanding fast to strike while the iron’s hot.

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Key scaleup indicators include:

  • Targeting new markets
  • Opening offices in new countries
  • Workforce doubling (or more) in size each year
  • Emphasis on new customers and gross revenue growth

If all of that sounds familiar, you’re probably in a scaleup.

What’s different for scaleups?

The transition from startup to scaleup should be smooth. In theory, you’re doing what you always did - just bigger and broader.

But whereas startups need to be scrappy, move quickly, and keep things lean, scaleups need to think about the future. Because while you have 50 employees today - mostly in the same office - soon that number will be 150, and then 300.

And they won’t all be in the same office, the same city, or even the same country. You can’t “hack” things like payroll, health insurance, or expenses with 300 team members.

You need processes that the newest employee can pick up and run with, and you can’t afford to hold everyone’s hand.

The business is set to grow faster than ever before. And what was seen as “a little bit messy” before is going to turn into a major headache in a hurry.

Golden rules of scaleup tools

As you move into this new period of growth, you’ll have plenty of processes and policies to implement. Many of these will come via new software - you’ll get a platform for payroll, one to manage expenses, another for invoicing and accounts payable, and so on.

These platforms will quickly become integral to internal workings of the company. Every employee (including the ones that haven’t arrived yet) will soon rely on them as the only way to complete a given task. Which means they need to be good.

Here are seven golden rules to help as you search for new tools.

1. Decentralise wherever possible

Just about the worst case scenario for a fast-growing company is having tools and software that can only be operated by one person. Of course, sometimes that’s necessary, if data is sensitive or the tool is complex.

But any software that impacts the vast majority of employees should ideally be managed by those employees themselves. Otherwise, when that one person is away sick or on vacation, the company can turn into a scrambling mess.

This is really the core idea behind Spendesk. Employees know their own spending needs better than your finance team or CEO does. They should be able to purchase their own software and arrange their own business trips.

The trick is to have built-in approval workflows and other measures to keep spending under control. You’ll save your finance and administration teams major time, and your employees can pay for what they need from wherever they are.

Because if you still rely on just three company credit cards, you’ll always have the same problem: when the card is away, nobody can pay.

2. Keep it in the cloud

Most startups are already well aware of this, but CD-ROMs don’t scale. If you can’t access a tool or software from anywhere, new hires are going to have even bigger problems.

And since you’re about to have a flood of new staff in offices all over the world, software needs to be universal and easy to access.

Choose tools that you don’t need to download. Even better, make sure they work on mobile and tablet. Because you never know when a team member’s going to need to look something up from the back of an Uber or in an airport lounge.

This is why tools like Salesforce, HubSpot, and Dropbox are so popular. You have the same access to information whether you’re sitting next to the CIO at company HQ, or on the other side of the world in a Starbucks.

These are tools that your sales, marketing, and design teams can’t live without. And since they’re available online from anywhere, they never have to.

3. Reliability is a must

If your data is going to be hosted off-site, you need to be sure that it’ll always be there when you need it. Not only that, but platforms need to be fast to load and quick to navigate around.

Even software that’s completely browser-based can still be slow and clunky. And you don’t want hundreds of employees losing time (and the will to live) as they search through a CRM or asset database.

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Of course, the odd crash is to be expected; even huge sites like Facebook and Google Cloud had outages in 2019. But before you sign on with a software provider, it’s worth reading a few reviews to make sure that they’re reliable.

Check their ratings on Capterra and G2, and look specifically for mentions of crashes or down time. Most reviews won’t mention this at all - a good sign. But if users complain about slow load times or consistent outages, you’re probably best to avoid that particular tool.

4. Users should onboard themselves

Showing new employees the ropes is important. But there are so many internal processes to learn, and the vast majority of information is quickly forgotten.

When adding new tools, make sure that users can set themselves up quickly and easily. This is especially important for company-wide software: payroll, for example.

This is one reason we love Payfit. When a new employee arrives, they receive an email from the Payfit sent by an administrator (in our case, a member of the HR team). The software then walks the team member through every step in a clear and simple flow.

In just a couple of minutes, that employee knows how to check their payslips, request time off, and any other important payroll details they need.

The HR manager didn’t have to arrange a meeting or explain the process for the hundredth time. Which is exactly what you want.

5. Integrations are crucial

Your sales team doesn’t use the same tools as HR, and neither does the product team. If you don’t already, you’ll soon have dozens (if not hundreds) of platforms on which your teams rely.

And while some of these work well in isolation, you’ll likely need data to pass easily from some tools to others. If they can integrate smoothly with one another, you’ll be far better off.

This becomes a bit of a balancing act - teams will want to choose their own tools, but some tools work better with others. So for the good of the business, certain business units may have to accept their second choice.

Of course, there’s always Zapier to connect things that don’t integrate. This is your helpful hand if you need to make two solutions talk to one another and you don’t know the first thing about code.

But the more you grow, the less you’ll want to rely on workarounds. So when it’s time to add something new, see which tools would slide nicely into the stack you already have.

6. The more intuitive, the better

For the same reason that users need to be able to onboard themselves, the software you choose needs to be as intuitive as possible. You simply don’t have time to teach everyone how to use every tool. And every little question from a new user to their manager adds up.

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So favour platforms that show them what to do from the moment they log in. Uncomplicated dashboards, clear headings, and obvious navigation are so important.

Measuring “intuitiveness” is tricky. So your best bet it to look at those reviews again and see what users have said. Phrases like “once I up to speed” or “with the help of…” should be somewhat concerning. And of course, “easy to use” is just the opposite.

Again, this is something that Zapier does really well. You don’t even really need to know what Zapier is, you just find the first software you want to connect, and then it guides you through each step of the way.

It’s also a reason why we like Livestorm for webinars. It’s pretty much impossible to get things wrong. It could be your first webinar ever, and you’ll be able to figure out what to do without any trouble.

7. Knowledge should be readily available

This is both a golden rule and a software recommendation. Create a knowledge base today. And then, emphasise the importance of documentation and knowledge sharing as often as possible.

When you’re small, you everybody knows pretty much everything about the company. A lot of processes and strategies are stored in your team’s brains. But soon you’ll be adding team members faster than you’re ready for, and knowledge simply won’t flow the same way.

So this is two rules in one:

  1. Every company-wide tool should have clear instructions for use - including how it should be used in this company; and
  2. Get a good knowledge base software

This is what’s great about platforms like Notion or Slite. You can let teams create their own knowledge bases and manage projects themselves. But you can also implement clear rules and give different levels of access to different team members depending on their needs.

As long as you have a good culture of documenting processes, your knowledge centre will grow organically and allow every new employee to find what they need easily.

Scale without fail

Scaling up should be the most exciting time in a young company’s life. You know the product’s good, you have clients coming in fast, and you have a fresh injection of cash.

But important processes can easily get lost in all the excitement. You can be so eager to sell, sell, sell, that you stop thinking about where the company needs to be in two years, five years, and beyond.

Hopefully the rules above will help you keep your eye on the future. Take time to consider these factors when choosing your next company-wide tool, and make sure that the company can continue to grow smoothly and without roadblocks.

For more software ideas - especially for finance teams - download this PDF guide:

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Patrick Whatman

Patrick Whatman is a content marketer and writer. He lives in Paris, loves music, and writes his own brand of cultural criticism for fun. Tweet him @mrwhatman where he mainly talks digital marketing, American sports and New Zealand trivia.