In Part II of our Seedcamp Firsts series on customer operations, Rona Ruthen and Natasha Lytton delve into scaling – a phase when change is the only constant.
Rona shares her incredible experiences scaling operations across various roles, including VP of customer operations at Monzo, where she helped the company grow from 1 million to six, all largely over the Covid pandemic. With more than 15 years of experience in FinTech financial services and payment solutions in companies in Israel and the UK, she is a seasoned expert in scaling up customer service and operations.
“You want everyone to be fully aligned with the vision of the company priorities and what you’re trying to achieve. If you get everyone behind that, everything else gets easier. It sounds simple, but when you’re a company that, let’s say where you were 50 people three months ago, you’re now 75, you’re going to be 150 in six months – not everyone remembers the priorities or the vision or understands it in the same way. You have to say it over and over again.”
If you’re short on time, we’ve pulled some key learnings for you below, but we strongly recommend you to listen to the full conversation to learn how to first set up customer operations in your company.
- In the hyper-growth stage, change is the only constant. You have all the growing pains of a company that’s now growing super fast when you probably don’t have the right people to manage, or you have great people, but it’s hard for them to scale themselves up.
- Communication is essential. Be as open, transparent, and communicative as possible. You want everyone to be fully aligned with the vision of the company priorities and what you’re trying to achieve. If you get everyone behind that, everything else gets easier.
- It’s worth taking the time and building out business cases. Look at all the data, and understand or estimate how much work it would take and what impact it would have on different teams across the company. What involvement you would need from different teams? What is the benefit, and what is the cost of doing this? That helps prioritize against other things that you’re doing.
- Internally, you have to be really clear about what your goals are. Otherwise, how do you prioritize one feature against another or one change against another? It has to be prioritized against what you’re trying to achieve as a business.
- The company starts growing in terms of the number of layers you have to convince about doing something. You might have a senior leadership team or an executive leadership team, so it’s not just getting your own conviction that this is the right thing to do. You also have to convince and get buy-in from more people across the company.
- Have single-threaded leadership, very clear teams, ideally cross-functional, where they can actually get things done from beginning to end. Then just seeing how that all works together, in terms of sort of personalities, values, and interaction.
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Deep Dive Q&A on Scaling Customer Operations
Natasha Lytton: As someone who really had to embrace it, why is change the only constant in the hyper-growth, scaling phase?
Rona Ruthen: The key is everyone looks for the hockey stick growth, and that’s what every company is trying to achieve. It’s just that when you get there, it’s super, super painful, and you get all of the unexpected. You want to be happy about onboarding more customers than you plan, but actually, it’s super painful internally. You have all of the growing pains of a company that’s now growing super fast – from 50 to a hundred to 150, and sometimes to 500 and a thousand people – when you probably don’t have the right people to manage it that way. Or you have great people, but they don’t have the experience, and it’s hard for them to scale themselves up.
Basically, everything is moving up, and everyone’s required to perform at a very, very different level to what they’ve expected to be doing while you’re also trying to actually be really happy about it. So quite painful, and yes, change is the only constant.
Trying to balance urgent and important is a great scale-up challenge, but you have to embrace that. You just don’t know what it’s going to feel like and look like. Unless you get there quite quickly and get a lot of people to feel the same about change, it’s very, very difficult to do it.
Natasha Lytton: How do you recommend, or what great examples have you seen of how founders and executives can really bring everyone along for that journey and embrace change as you scale?
Rona Ruthen: First is communication – just being as open, transparent, and communicative as possible. Communication is difficult, especially when you’re scaling.
My tip for communication, by the way, is just there’s never too much of it. Repetition is everything in communication. If you said something so many times that you’re starting to get uncomfortable about it, then that’s probably almost good enough but probably not quite there. I can’t emphasize that enough.
You want everyone to be fully aligned with the vision of the company priorities and what you’re trying to achieve. If you get everyone behind that, everything else gets easier. It sounds simple, but when you’re a company that, let’s say where you were 50 people three months ago, you’re now 75, you’re going to be 150 in six months – not everyone remembers the priorities or the vision or understands it in the same way. You have to say it over and over again.
Also, having conversations when we actually say yes, startups and scale-ups are fun, they’re exciting, they’re the best place to be, but they’re also very, very difficult – you have to acknowledge that.
Warn people when they come in through the door or through the hiring process. Especially when you’re a high-growth company, tell people, this is hard, this is different, this is change all the time.
You sign up to one role, it may look completely different in a week, and it’s definitely going to be completely different in six months. You either have to get on board, or you’re just not gonna enjoy your ride. So I would say a lot of communication around what it feels like to work in a scale-up.
Natasha Lytton: I love that. And the idea of repetition because to become excellent at things, especially if you think about athletics, you train things, and you repeat, and you repeat and repeat. Whereas when it often comes to business or even personal life, you feel the idea of having to repeat yourself is a negative and you shouldn’t have to do it. We have to reframe that thinking, and repetition is helpful if it means that we’re getting the message across and bringing people along with us.
Rona Ruthen: A hundred percent. When I got the role of managing all our customer operations at Monzo, which was 800 people at the time, then grew to 1200 people that was my biggest learning. Communication was my biggest fear in a group as big as that. It didn’t matter how many times I said something, or my team said the same thing to their teams. It almost felt like it was never enough, even when we understood that that was the key.
You could have different channels, different people communicating the same message, different times, different mediums, whatever you think about. But just use that repetition because it does make a difference. And you know, you want that feeling where you wake up any team member in the middle of the night and ask, What’s our goal for this quarter? and they know exactly what you’re going to say. You want everyone to feel that way.
Natasha Lytton: What frameworks do you use or do you recommend for prioritisation, and how do you approach prioritising actual internal tools and efficiencies within an organization itself?
Rona Ruthen: I believe that it’s worth taking the time and building out business cases. Not necessarily to the extent that maybe some of us think of a sort of corporate business case that you spend six months building just to decide if we wanna do a thing, but spending a few days looking at all the data, understanding or estimating how much work it would take and what impact would it have on different teams across the company. What involvement you would need from different teams, whether that’s security teams or compliance? What is the benefit of doing this thing, and what is the cost of the business in different shapes and forms of doing this? That helps prioritize against other things that you’re doing.
It sounds like a lot of work, but actually, that’s also a really good way of getting conviction around how you decide to prioritize within the company. And then, when it comes to internal tooling or operational processes, that’s where it gets tricky. But also, that’s been my career, battle in a way.
I believe there should be product and engineering teams within operations because it is very, very tricky to prioritize across both the growth and revenue side of the business against operational efficiencies and customer experience. Separating them out to some extent makes a huge difference in being able to achieve all of these four goals because ultimately, if you think about growth, revenue, and operational efficiency, it feels like the faster, cheaper, better information that you can’t actually choose all three. Separating it out and having different teams prioritize different elements of that equation is a good way to go.
Again, it’s about making strategic decisions for the business in terms of what your priorities are. You have to be really clear about what your goals are because otherwise, how do you prioritize one feature against another or one change against another? It has to be prioritized against what you’re trying to achieve as a business, which, again, with communication and transparency, should lead to really good alignment across the company.
It all sounds great when we’re having this conversation. It’s a bit more complicated in real life, but that’s what I would start with – this sort of waterfall of company goals – How does that align to metrics that we want to achieve? How does that look like in terms of features? How do these features step against one another? And what would it take for the business to actually get all these things done? and how far you go with each of these phases? That could vary depending on where you are as a company. It could be a two-hour exercise or a two-day exercise, or a two-week exercise.
Also, when you consider that we’re talking about scale-ups, that’s also when the company starts growing in terms of the number of layers you have to convince about doing something. You might have a senior leadership team or an executive leadership team. So it’s not just getting your own conviction that this is the right thing to do. You also have to convince and get buy-in from more people across the company.
Doing the exercise is not just for you to get comfortable with it, but also how you then communicate to people across the company, whether it’s different teams or different stakeholders, that is the right thing to do and that it’s worth fighting for.
Natasha Lytton: As organizations grow and scale and there are more of those layers and hierarchies, how do you recommend that different functions and the leaders actually present ideas to the senior or executive leadership team? What are the best examples you can speak to of how people do that across a whole organization?
Rona Ruthen: Good question. I don’t know if this is controversial, but I’m quite a believer in OKRs. I don’t think it makes a huge difference if you call them OKRs or goals, but I think marrying a top-down and a bottom-up approach is where I see the most benefit. Where the top down is, I want to know or decide what the company goals are, and then I want to have the people on the ground or the people who are building the product come up with the best ideas for how we achieve them. That’s how you get this long list initially, that you can turn it into a shortlist and then eventually make those decisions and build it all the way up the ladder.
There are different ways of doing it. You could have product reviews where people present different ideas and then also review the progress in building them. You could have quarterly OKR or planning sessions where you just spend the time figuring out what we’re going to do over the next few months, the cadence of planning can change materially because it could be yearly goals, then six months planning, and three months for future planning.
For scale-ups, there is no one answer in terms of how you do this. The key is actually, every six months, you stop and figure out if the way you’re doing it right now is working: if the planning and the cadence are working for you, and if enough people feel bought in across different levels – whether that’s the executive team or the people who are actually building the features and products. So I think when you scale up, the key is, actually, not What is the right answer? but Is it working for us now? Do we need to change it?
Natasha Lytton: And I guess being comfortable with what got you here might not get you to that next stage. And it might have worked, but actually revisiting things because it may be time to think of something different.
Rona Ruthen: Even the change between having two products teams to having five or seven or 10 it’s a huge difference in terms of how the company should be run there are so many people to coordinate between, and there are so many decisions about staffing, and what to build, how to build it, when to build it, when to launch, and so many questions come up that you didn’t have to deal with before. Just figuring out what the process to get to those decisions is. It’s going to be different now than it was six months ago, and it’s going to be different in six months than what it is now.
Natasha Lytton: We know that in startups and scale-ups, hiring is one of the most difficult things, and finding the right people to take on the journey and help navigate those different stages of what the company needs. You have done a very exceptional job at building high-performing teams over your career. How have you gone about doing that? Any guidance on what you look for or the sort of people you’ve brought in to help achieve that?
Rona Ruthen: It’s a really great question – mostly because I don’t have a good answer. I think it’s a mix of when you think of scale-ups, you usually get into these positions where you have some team members already in place because either you personally inherited a team or you grew into a team, but there’s already something in place. And so I think the first stage is understanding the different skill sets and different personalities, what’s working well and what isn’t within a team, and then where do you need to get to?
I like personality tests. I’ve read some critical articles, but I think they provide a common language that can be used to understand how different people work and communicate. So, for example, if you know the insights workshop where you get different colours, and they represent different parts of your personality. For what it’s worth, I’m 97% red, which is very action-oriented and not surprising to people who work with me I cut to the chase. I’m very direct. It’s very clear in my sort of personality to test outcomes, but it actually helps in understanding how that affects people around me. And helps them understand how to communicate with me, and the same for people in the team who might be very yellow or very blue and want to create that language that actually helps in how you work as a team. That’s one thing that I do recommend doing, and there are different types of tests, it actually doesn’t matter which one.
I think it’s more about how you create a language to understand different personalities and how they interact. And then it’s about understanding, again, going back to company priorities, team priorities, setting really clear goals for your part of the company, and how it interfaces with other parts of the company.
Once you understand that, you can start asking questions around: Do we have the right skill set? Do we have the right capacity? Do we have the right focus on values or some of the softer qualities that actually create a successful, high-performing team? And then, you can start looking at job descriptions and how it all fits together. I also strongly believe in the sort of Amazon approach for single-threaded leadership. So ideally, you create teams where there is one clear leader. I also like being the queen of my own kingdom when I manage teams. It’s just easier for everyone when there’s a very clear hierarchy, not for the sake of hierarchy but for decision-making and structure. If everyone is owning different parts of what you’re building and then knows who to interact with, it’s just easier to get things done. So I do recommend having single-threaded leadership, very clear teams, ideally cross-functional, where they can actually get things done from beginning to end, and then just seeing how that all works together, in terms of personalities, values, and interaction. And then just spend time together. I like to mix very focused, agenda-driven meetings with some very light, no-agenda chats that could be either work-related or personal, vulnerability-based trust, as corny as it sounds.
These are really great exercises that get people to get to know each other, understand who they’re working with, and become a team. It’s worth the effort.
Once you create that high-performing team, you also have to assume that you may need different things in six to 12 months and that you have to be really mindful of their progression because, especially when you hire high-performing ambitious people – they want to know what the next stage is for them – you have to match that up with what’s happening in the company, with what’s happening in the product, and to always keep an eye on that. So it’s a constant focus.
I personally really enjoy it. I know not all managers do, but I think for most managers and leaders if you invest in that part, everything in your job gets easier because you have amazing people doing amazing things with you.
Natasha Lytton: That is so important, making sure that the people that you bring in can actually grow and have the room to grow alongside the business while also knowing there are some bits that are just not certain because you don’t know where the business is going to be in six months time.
Natasha Lytton: If there was a single learning one to take away from your experiences in scaling Monzo that you’d impart as wisdom to other people, what would it be?
Rona Ruthen: Great question. I’ve given this a lot of thought, trying to figure out what I would’ve done differently. I think we were always conscious of some of the fires that were burning. There was always a big one and a couple of small ones, but I think we didn’t always take the time to have a structured review of ‘What’s going to break next?’. Sometimes you have a gut feeling, and you know that that thing is not as robust as it should be, and it’s likely to break.
What I would do now is have a list of all the things that I should take a look at every six months or so, and that could be org structure, personal development, delivery-specific operational or other processes, and features depending on what the company does. And I would just say, ‘Okay, this is fine. This is on fire, but we’re on top of it. This is fine, but probably will break in a year. This is actually likely to blow up in three months, and I should do something about it now. So, I think just being able to have a more structured view of the different fires and the ones that are coming up that you may not have thought about would make things a lot easier.
Natasha Lytton: One eye on the fires that aren’t even there yet. Basically.
Rona Ruthen: Yeah, one of the examples at Monzo – and this is no one’s fault – we were hyper-growth, and there was Covid, there were so many things going on. We had an office in Vegas, and it was open for what seemed like a good decision at the time, starting with 80 people and quite quickly grew to 150.
And at that point, we realized that it wasn’t the right choice for us to actually have an office in Vegas, which in hindsight, I would’ve wanted to be able to look at and make that decision a year earlier. It would’ve been less painful, and it would’ve been more appropriate.
We didn’t make the right decision, and I’m very proud of the way that we handled it, we could have done it earlier, but there were other fires. And we just didn’t know.
If you missed Part I, where Rona talked about setting up customer operations in early-stage startups, you can read our Deep Dive here or listen/watch on your favorite platform here.
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