12 Founder Disciplines that Helped Me Scale to $10m ARR

My name is Saravana Kumar, and I’m a founder of a company called Kovai.co. The company was started back in 2011. I was doing consulting for 10 plus years, and I found a gap in the market. 

I started as a solo founder and then slowly scaled it to first from one employee to five employees, to 20 employees, 50. Then today we are about 250 plus people in the organization.

We are over $10 million ARR, but that’s a slightly old number. It’s a 2021 number. We are about that publicly disclosed data. We are also a multi-product company. I’m going to touch base on why we are a multi-product company and what made those decisions to go into a multi-product company.

The mission for us is when people ask “you are a bootstrap, what are you trying to achieve?” The objective for us is to build a hundred million dollar run rate business by 2030. Sooner if possible.

This is a kind of the growth trajectory of how we have grown since 2011. It’s not like a hockey stick growth, but it’s an organic growth of constant predictable growth over the last 10 years.

Until 2019, it was a steady growth. That is when we made a decision, “what can we do to scale bigger?” A lot of things changed from 2019 until 2019. We were only a 50 people organization. If you wanted to put the number per head, counted a number per employee, it would’ve been significantly higher when you compare 2019 data.

But today we operate more like a VC funded business model. We invest pretty much everything and then we are ramping up everything towards growth. 

Today my talk is going to be more on the personal level, as a CEO of this company for 10 years. What are the things I have learned. I just bucketed it into three different items at a personal level as an individual.

What are things I do? Of course as a team, with my direct reports, how do I handle them and what are the things I practice on a day-to-day basis? At a company level, what are the things we do? So let me start with the personal thing.

Managing your schedule

One of the key things as you grow as a CEO is when you have like 250 people, one thing that becomes supercritical is how do you manage your time? In my case, I try to keep it as simple as possible, and my calendar is pretty much free. I keep everything in one point.

This is a typical week:

My entire week is the first 1.5 days. I had management meetings on the first day and then some items on the second day, Tuesday. After that, it’s all about just ongoing activities, and you try to keep it as free as possible.

I think that the other important thing is, what I learned, everybody has an optimal time. I’m a typical early morning person. I wake up at 4:30 in the morning, and the first three hours are completely non-negotiable. I do only really high performing activities. You don’t check your emails, you don’t check your Slack or Teams or whatever you are using. That time is purely you doing things that you wanted to accomplish on the day. 

A lot of times what happens within the three hours by 7:30 in the morning, my day is pretty much over. You accomplished what you wanted to do on that day, because after that, once you reach the office around nine o’clock, you really can’t control too much on how your day progresses.

The habit I built up right from day one because the initial days, it’s a bootstrap company. The initial days I built the product myself and I was working for a Fidelity investment. Some of you from the US know the company. In the morning I build the product, I go to work, and that continues for a year.

Don’t do things you don’t like

This is kind of counter counterintuitive, but when you are at the early stages as a founder, you tend to imitate people, right?

You tend to see somebody who’s super active on social media. You try to be that person. You see somebody very good at speaking in conferences, but we need to understand not everybody is the same. 

You have your strengths and you have your weaknesses. Don’t try to do things which you are not comfortable with. For example, I stopped tweeting five years ago. I don’t get into Twitter anymore because it’s not my cup of tea.

Same with talking in conferences. It’s not for everybody, but if you see somebody is doing it and you try to do it. 

The problem is when you’re trying to do something which is not your regular, where your core strength is, it tends to take five to 10 times more of your energy and you might be losing more.

You’d rather do things which you are good at.

Stop actively working on things

The third point is actively working on things, you need to stop working on things while taking on tasks. Your thinking should always be if something comes along, it should be more of who can I delegate to rather than how am I going to do it? 

Once you touch something, at that scale, when you have 200 plus people, once you start doing things of your own, it’s not the most efficient way you can operate.

It won’t stop just at that level. You do something and then the follow up comes and it goes on and on. It always thinks about how you can delegate it and how you can pass it on to people when you have a lot of people on board.

Make few quality decisions every week

If you can achieve two or three really good items in a given week that’s a much more productive week than firefighting with lot of things throughout the week. 

There’s a difference between being busy and being productive. You want to be more productive rather than being busy. If you keep engaging too much on your emails and too much on Teams and at the end of the day lots of meetings are one of killers.

If you do a lot of things at the end of the day, you’ll feel like you are too busy, but probably you won’t have achieved anything.

You’d rather focus more on being productive and doing things which will yield you the right things.

Don’t delay difficult conversations

The first very important thing I want to convey is as a founder, there’ll always be difficult conversations.

Either your key resource is leaving or somebody’s not performing well or the specific team is not performing at the max. 

Whenever a difficult situation comes in, it’s better to engage and try to solve the problem as soon as possible, but the normal tendency is you tend to not to talk about it. You won’t give the feedback that is required for the person to perform at a higher level that only hurts that person.

The problem won’t magically go away. It’s going to come back and hurt you.

Your goal is to make people operate independently

You can take any analogy where you are like a coach.

Your objective is to make that person as productive as possible and as soon as possible because the tendency otherwise is you try to jump on and keep doing things again and again.

Eventually you can’t come out of the loop, but rather you invest your time, you make sure you can train that person, you can come out of it.

That’s the only way you can scale it over a long period of time.

Don’t build a flat structure

Don’t build a flat structure because what typically happens is when you’re in the early stages, like 10 people, 20 people, you try to build a flat structure.

Everybody reports to you and it’s fine. But once you start scaling, when you reach 25, 50, 100 people, that is not going to help you.

You’ll have more reporting lines and sometimes you even struggle with it. 

You got two people, you need to promote one person, which you can’t do. You keep promoting them. All of them are at the same level and it’s not going to go away.

Try to build a hierarchy as quickly as possible.

Keep your direct reports manageable

In terms of direct reports, you need to try to keep it at a reasonable level. Six to seven is an ideal number.

Anything above that, it’s not manageable because you need to invest your time on them. 

It requires a lot of investment to build a team. You try to keep that to a minimal level as much as possible. This is seen as a sample chart:

We try to do it at every level so that you try to build up the hierarchy, as soon as possible.

Why multi-product?

There are a few reasons why we are a multi-product company.

We were a single product for five, six years. I’m coming from a technical background. I spent a lot of time building the co-initial team. I invested my time and we had really got a hardcore team.

We built up in the five, six years time. Being an engineer at some point they’re going to get bored because there’s only so much you can do in a product after some time. 

Otherwise, you’ll be all the core parts are over and it’s more like you’re building things, patching here and there and rewriting some stuff, so it’s nothing exciting for the team. 

That’s one reason why we thought we’ll go multi-product because we assemble the team. 

Then we start building new products because we know the strength of the team and they’re able to do it.

The second thing is you also need to understand your strengths and weaknesses. We are predominantly based out of India. We have a team headquartered in the UK. We have about 10 people in London, but the remaining 240, 250 people are based out of India. You need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the team. 

It’s harder to build a single product, a hundred million dollar business then it’s fairly comparatively easy to build a $20, $30 million business.

That is also another reason why we went into multi-product. We also have playbooks of scaling, building products at that level. That’s one of the reasons why we went into multi-product and into the company. 

Have a frugality mindset

One of the examples I want to give you is that I approve a lot of invoices.

It goes through workflow, the people put through everything, but the final approval, the money that is going out of the bank I control it. I won’t control it in the sense that I have visibility.

It’s very important to have the visibility that keeps you having transparency like knowing how much money is going where it helps you to be frugal and understanding. 

Recently I watched, masterclass from Richard Branson, and he mentions exactly the same thing. He used to maintain that approving invoices, he recommends, to keep it as long as possible. 

Executive reporting 2 page/month

How do you know what your team is doing? You need to get some level of reporting.

We tried various formats over the years, and what’s working great at the moment is at the beginning of each month our executive team needs to give a document.

It’s a two page document. They need to cover it within two pages, two A4 pages. 

The first page is all about their personal achievements and what they did that month. It’s more about I, rather than the team because when you have an executive team and when you have 30, 40 people reporting to them, it’s easy to come and say “they did this, they did that.” It’s all more of a team update.

It’s important that your executive team understands where they are spending their time. 

I personally write my own executive report. I tell the entire team, what did I do last month? These are the bunch of activities I did. That helps understand everybody.

The executive reporting is basically a two page document. The first page is all about the personal thing, and the second page is all about what they achieved as a team.

Maintain a risk register

I don’t know how many of you are aware of a risk register.

As a company there’ll always be a bunch of risk dependency risks. Being a founder, there are a lot. Always some, five or 10 items that are dependent on you. Without you, it’ll fail. 

It’s good to maintain a register so that you know that at least the team knows what are the dependencies, and if something happens, what could be done.

The SVB case is a really good example.

Five or six years ago we used to have banking in a single bank, which is registered on a risk register because it’s a big risk. You start listing all those items, what you think is a risk in your business, and you try to address it over a period of time.

It’s impossible to eliminate all the risks, but at least you can minimize and mitigate your risks. 

The above is a lightly edited transcript of Saravana’s presentation from SaaSOpen. Watch his full presentation here.

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