This year at Slush, our Founder and CEO Kristo Ovaska got on the Founder Stage with Miki Kuusi, the founding CEO of Wolt, to reflect on the first years of expansion of their companies. Facilitating their discussion was Linda Liukas, the author and illustrator of Hello Ruby, a children’s picture book about the whimsical world of computers.
What gave this talk an amusing twist, was that Kristo, Miki, and Linda have known each other for over a decade. Linda and Kristo were among the founding members of a student entrepreneurship organization called Aaltoes back in 2009. Miki joined the community in its early days and ended up co-founding Slush in 2011.
Fast-forward to today, and Kristo has started three companies out of which two failed, in his words “miserably,” and the third, Smartly.io, is now six years old, 350 people strong and has 16 offices worldwide. Miki founded Wolt in 2014, and after raising some very impressive funding, the company has grown to 600 employees in 19 countries. Linda has founded Rails Girls, a global movement to teach young women programming in over 260 cities, and become an acclaimed children's book author.
This blog post features the highlights of their talk. You can also check out the talk video here.
Hiring right is the key to sustainable scaling
Both Smartly.io and Wolt have been recruiting at speed for the past few years. Smartly.io has been roughly doubling its team size every 12 months, while Wolt has gone from 250 people to almost 700 in the past year. “People is probably the most important thing you want to get right,” Kristo says. “And you need to get it right starting from your co-founder and so forth. But when you’re scaling, the people issues, recruiting, and keeping the culture is hard.” According to Kristo, even when you have the pressure to hire fast, you should keep the hiring bar high. “At Smartly.io, we hire to elevate, not to delegate, which means that every new hire needs to be value-adding and develop the team.”
“In our case, even though we have hired about 500 people in the last 12 months, every hiring decision has been made by a very small group of people,” Miki says. Wolt is building teams in multiple countries simultaneously, and Miki highlights the importance of their 12-person Expansion team that recruits, onboards, and trains people in the locations. “We have kind of pushed the boundary on how quickly an organization can grow,” Miki says. “I think if you really want to scale rapidly, you need to start slow and accelerate. People tend to think you have to grow very big very quickly, but the right way to do it is to go slowly at the start and then start picking up speed. If you have built the foundation well, going from 80 to 250 people in 12 months doesn’t feel so different from going from 250 to 700.”
Kristo has believed that a company can't scale more than 100 percent in a year without breaking things, so he’s impressed with how quickly Wolt has been growing. “You’ve done a phenomenal job,” he says to Miki. “We’ll make sure to follow your learnings and implement them for ourselves,'' he adds with a grin. Whereas Wolt has been accelerating steadily, Smartly.io has grown in spurts. “We have slowed down our hiring to fix the things that got broken during a faster scaling phase to make sure we can continue scaling in the future,” Kristo says.
“My constant worry is that our people are able to live through the scaling phase,” Miki says. “When you’re scaling, you’re not able to hire everywhere fast enough. Support functions especially are really difficult to staff properly when you’re adding so many countries at the same time. You want to take good care of people, but at the same time you want to grow really fast, and those things are sometimes difficult to combine. There’s a constant battle between not going too fast but not going fast enough. The balance is difficult to find.”
Prepare for changes in culture
Miki and Kristo agree that hiring, onboarding, and other people topics are some of the trickiest things to get right when it comes to scaling a company. Company culture, while at the same time challenging to nurture through changes and growing pains, can help with keeping it all together. “Culture is what has made Smartly.io successful,” Kristo says. “Especially what we call being a Humble Hungry Hunter—being humble to listen to your customers, being extremely passionate about solving their problems, and then building those products and services that meet their needs.”
Kristo says the importance of culture has always been clear at Smartly.io. He also knows that it is tough to stick to it when the company scales. “We have been doing many different things to nurture the culture on the organizational level,” he says. “We have integrated our culture and values into our internal processes, like recruiting and onboarding. We have also documented our culture into a culture handbook and we talk about these topics with the whole team.” Kristo has found that displaying the culture handbook openly on the website starts to attract people who believe in that culture. “It has a self-strengthening effect on the people that you hire,” Kristo says.
Culture is essential for Wolt, too. Being spread across 19 countries and relying on Slack to keep tabs on the different offices, the company gathers to an offsite once a year. “We had the first Wolt One offsite in September, and we brought all the 500 Wolt employees together for that,” Miki says. “With all this scaling going on, it might make you fear that your company is changing and that we might not feel that we are part of the same group anymore. What has surprised me is how you can find people who really feel like Wolt in very different kinds of countries, as long as you have your hiring set up in the right way.”
“We have found offsites to play a hugely important role, too,” Kristo comments. “One of the most valuable outcomes of offsites has been involving the whole company into nurture and verbalizing our shared culture and values. We have usually prepared some talks about the culture beforehand, but then we have had everyone contributing to them through open discussions and workshops.” Involving people into co-creating the culture boosts their sense of ownership of the culture. “When you tell people ‘this is how we do things’, they might or might not believe you. But when you tell people ‘hey let’s build our culture and vision together,’ and they put time and effort into it, they actually believe in it and own it. These shared discussions have been an extremely important part of building a common culture and keeping to our values while we have scaled.”
Many founders worry about their company culture changing as the team grows. At Smartly.io, we believe that culture should evolve in concert with the company. “There are some things in the culture we want to stick to as an organization, like we want to be customer-centric, maximize learning, be transparent, and help each other to succeed. These things we are very strict about, they need to be in place everywhere in Smartly.io,” Kristo says. “But then the beauty of having many offices is that they can learn and create new things and then we can implement them globally. As long as they stick to the core values, we encourage Smartlies to do things differently, which has helped us stay fresh and keep innovating.”
The role of a CEO in a scaling company
Miki and Kristo also talked about their own role—the role of a CEO in a scaling company. According to Miki, the most crucial skill for a CEO is to be able to learn fast. “When scaling, the company is bound to change dramatically every six months, and you have to relearn many things over time.”
Both Kristo and Miki highlighted the importance of making sure the company has the right people in the right positions and then getting out of their way. In Miki’s view, a scaleup CEO goes from solving one crisis to another, which is why he or she needs to be on the lookout for what’s breaking apart in the organization. Miki shared a piece of leadership advice he got back when he was the CEO of Slush and wanted to be part of everything that was going on in the organization. “I was told that if I want to succeed as an entrepreneur in building my own company, I need to learn to make myself redundant,” Miki said. “As a CEO, your job isn’t to be a part of everything. Your job is to build an organization that doesn’t need you.”
Kristo brought up a point that ties into the topic above—about how companies should also invest in growing leaders from within the company. “Growing leaders internally is one of the most impactful things companies can do,” he says. “Sometimes it’s smart to hire managers from outside. But you should always be striving to hire people with leadership potential, and then nurturing and helping them grow into the role.”
Put your own oxygen mask on first
At the end of the talk, Linda guided the discussion to a more personal topic: how Kristo and Miki scale themselves as leaders. Both founders highlighted wellness and work-life balance. “Even if you delegate well and have the best people in the right jobs if the founding CEO burns out, there is a massive risk that the company suffers,” Kristo says. “And there is a serious risk of burning out if you’re leading a scaling company.”
To avoid burning out, both Kristo and Miki recommend thinking about the scaling phase as a marathon. “I remind myself this the level where I need to be able to function every day for the next ten years or so,” Kristo says. “So if I feel tired or I don’t recover during the weekend, something is wrong.” Miki says he had to learn the marathon mindset when Wolt started growing at speed: “The startup phase is like a sprint, it’s very 24/7, and it’s difficult to find a work-life balance because you’re racing against time. When you find the product/market fit, you need to change the mindset to cope. I’ve learned to respect evenings and weekends, the fact you can’t always be online, and that you have to find time to exercise. That’s not something I had at day zero; I had to learn it step by step.”
“It’s intense,” Kristo chimes in. “We have three kids and the fourth one on the way. Combining being a CEO in an extremely fast-growing company, and having a lot of responsibility at home is challenging.” Kristo tries to keep his three priorities always in mind. His first priority is to take care of his mental and physical health because if he loses either one, he won’t be of much use to anyone. The second one is to take care of his family. And the third one is to feel like he’s learning all the time, which means surround himself with amazing people who he learns from and who he enjoys working with.
Final question by Linda: what is the one thing Kristo and Miki have changed their minds about since founding their companies? Miki says he’s become less idealistic. “It’s difficult to start and grow companies, which is why I have tremendous respect for all entrepreneurs,” he adds. Kristo’s answer is quite the opposite: “I thought it would be hard to start a company and find a product/market fit, but what comes after—the scaling part—is harder. But that’s what makes it exciting; you get to learn new things and face new challenges every day.”
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