The magic number too many companies overlook

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  • Before he joined Hootsuite last year, our senior VP of product, Andrew, co-founded a chain of bike and ski shops. He was founding investor. He hired. He strategized. If something went wrong, he was on the hook.

    On the surface, there’s not much overlap between that and what he does now, overseeing updates to our social media management platform. On a deeper level, however, being an entrepreneur was some of the best training he could have had for his current job. He’s one of several dozen tried-and-tested entrepreneurs in our company of around 1,000 people. Some of them have been here from the beginning; others came aboard as part of acquisitions or joined our leadership team as the company grew. It’s safe to say we wouldn’t be where we are today without them.

    Growing from a startup to a global business over the past decade, I’ve noticed that there’s an overlooked “golden ratio” that applies to companies: the optimal proportion of past or current entrepreneurs to non-entrepreneurs in your ranks. Get this ratio right, and you’re bound for growth. Get it wrong and you either spin out in a sea of competing ideas or stagnate. Finding the correct balance is the first, and possibly most important, step to moving forward.  

    Entrepreneurs inside company walls

    Whatever stage they find themselves at, successful companies cannot stay successful without a quotient of entrepreneurs. For starters, they bring absolute accountability to the table. Because they’re used to operating in an environment where the buck stops with them, entrepreneurs often see the shortest path from point A to point B. And they’re consumed with moving the needle. Andrew is just one of many entrepreneurs in our ranks who exemplifies this — setting goals for new features for our social media dashboard, building a timeline and delivering, time and time again.

    At the same time, entrepreneurs often bring an exceptionally diverse skill set. They’ve done customer service, marketing and sales, in between running the accounting team, handling hiring and possibly even mopping the floors. They may not be subject matter experts, but they’re proficient in most every aspect of operating a business and appreciate how all the pieces fit together. Because of this, entrepreneurs can be slotted into diverse roles and handle new and unexpected ones as the need arises.

    Entrepreneurs are also wired a bit differently when it comes to assessing risk and identifying trends. What’s next is much more important that whatever’s happening right now. And understanding what will actually sell — the all elusive “product-market fit” question — is absolutely paramount. This constant looking around the bend and willingness to experiment means entrepreneurs drive an outsized proportion of innovation within companies. Close to home, one of our senior team members has been behind some of the biggest new ideas at Hootsuite in recent years, including a dedicated app to help employees share social media updates from their companies. It’s no coincidence that his last job was founder of his own company.  

    One clarification: intrapreneurs play a critical role in growing companies, as well: experimenting, finding efficiencies, developing new product lines. But, to me, current and former entrepreneurs are a little different. They know what it’s like to work without a net — to put it all on the line, day in and day out — which is precisely what makes them so special.

    Too many cooks in the kitchen

    But I don’t want to take this entrepreneur love fest too far. In fact, for all the same reasons that entrepreneurs are invaluable within a company, they can also be impossible. Perpetually chasing the next big thing is exhausting and oftentimes unprofitable. You don’t want everyone trying to start their own lemonade stand, so to speak.

    And while entrepreneurs are great at getting things done and moving the needle, their methods are often informal and ad hoc. The real challenge is turning their inspiration into something repeatable and scalable, a process that can be executed efficiently, time and time again. Ultimately, energies need to be harnessed and projects pushed in a clear direction. Plans need to be implemented and analyzed and refined. And entrepreneurs can be horrible at these core business tasks.  

    Finding your golden entrepreneurship ratio

    So what’s the proper ratio of entrepreneurs in a company? Is it one entrepreneur for every 10 employees? For every 100? There’s no fixed answer here. This proportion varies depending on industry, company size and stage of growth. In early stage startups, for example, a high ratio of entrepreneurs can be a blessing. Startups, by definition, are still figuring out product-market fit. A high entrepreneurial quotient means lots of minds probing the deepest questions about what will sell and what won’t, how to connect with customers and how to secure investment.

    This is, in some respects, how Hootsuite was born. A decade ago, I was running a small digital start-up with a team of creatives and entrepreneurs. We were continuously coming up with new products to sell to customers: tools to run retail websites, host video marketing campaigns, etc. All this entrepreneurial horsepower meant a stream of innovations, some of which found a foothold, most of which did not. To use a gold mining analogy, we were in the discovery phase: scouring lots of ground to find that elusive mother lode.

    Then, we struck it. We cobbled together a tool to manage multiple social accounts from one dashboard. It went viral. Realizing we had a potential winner on our hands, we spun off Hootsuite as a separate company. Suddenly, we no longer needed quite so many entrepreneurial minds to find the gold vein. Instead, we needed people who could mine it. We went out and found doers: executives who had experience scaling a company; specialists and managers who could put strategy into practice. Our golden ratio adjusted accordingly.

    With time, that ratio has changed further as we’ve refined our offering, but entrepreneurs continue to play an absolutely central role. They fight off complacency in our ranks. The help us tap into new technology and emerging trends. They get things done and slash through bureaucracy.  

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    Orginally published on Linkedin Pulse. 

  • Ryan Holmes

    About Ryan Holmes

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