People & processes: the scientific art of scaling your business

October 24, 2023

The beginning stages of a startup are often fast-paced and unpredictable, and the moves you make early on are paramount to setting your business up for success. One challenge that every entrepreneur will face at some point in their startup journey is scaling effectively while maintaining a balance between arguably their two most valuable assets: the people that make the company, and the processes that drive it.

Rapid growth is important, but without the right balance between these two, even the most promising companies can falter. So, in this Think With Humi, we’re exploring the delicate dance between people and processes, between culture and structure, and between our teams and our operations. We interviewed Humi’s VP of Operations & Revenue, Chris, for this deep dive and to gain insight into Humi’s journey with this very challenge.

Before we get started - a bit of background on Chris and his role.

About the interviewee 

The title “VP Ops & Revenue” isn’t a common one. Generally speaking, these are typically represented by two different people at a business. And no, we don’t mean RevOps, we literally mean someone who oversees Ops, Data, and People, as well as Sales, Marketing, and Growth. It’s a role unique to our business, which is a theme you’ll find at the heart of this piece.

Chris doesn’t have a traditional business background –– in fact, he’s a Physicist by training. His path to get to where he is is a weird one, from working on atmospheric modeling in grad-school, to optimizing Cannabis sales in Canada. The point in telling you this? Because context matters - and this may give you a different lens through which to view the following interview.

And if this is your first time here – hey, I’m Will, Content Marketing Lead at Humi and the interviewer behind every edition of Think with Humi. 

Let’s begin!

Before we get started, define what being “people” vs. “process” oriented is in your own words. 

Being people-oriented means you build your business around the people in your company and their skills. You rely heavily on their expertise and your trust in them. Process-oriented means you build around steps and documentation that people can follow to replicate work with a clear strategy and clear way to measure the outcome. You rely less on people here because you’ve built a system where if one person leaves, someone else can come in and take over fairly easily.

Now that we have those definitions, what does the beginning of a tech startup look like? Does it start people-oriented, or process-oriented?

When a company is under ten people, everybody wears a bunch of hats (or pants, or layers… I’m unsure why people always say hats. I’ve literally never seen someone physically wear more than 1 hat…). There’s no redundancy anywhere – every single person is super critical to the business. Successful startups are typically formed by a strong group of skilled people, and you’re probably going to have at least one person who falls into these three main categories: technology, sales/marketing, and finance/operations. If you don’t have coverage in these areas, you’ll hit a wall pretty quickly and as a result, can’t scale your business.

In this stage, everyone understands what everyone else does and there aren’t enough people to make processes complicated. Startups actually begin in a place where people and processes both exist; you can have your cake and eat it, too.

And what happens as a business scales? Why might a company find themselves on one path or the other?

It’s inevitable that as your business scales, you’re going to move into either a people-oriented or process-oriented approach. The number one thing that determines this tends to be founder mentality – usually you’ll have a default starting point based on how those initial employees operate. 

If you want a market-based example instead, one factor to decide this is whether you’re doing something that exists in a competitive market or not. If you’re building something that nobody else has, you can be more process-oriented if you want to. You’re under less pressure to grow and differentiate yourself because you’re differentiated just by existing. 

On the flip side, in a competitive market, your growth targets are more aggressive and as a result, you’re trying to scale faster than you can build processes. You’ll quickly go from 10 to 50 to 100 employees. Companies like this almost always have a people-centric approach because you’ve scaled faster than your ability to build processes. Process is slower than people.

What did Humi’s journey look like? 

Humi’s situation is very unique. There are two factors that changed things for us. One, we scaled during the pandemic, which means we were working remotely. And two, we’re a company focused on people and people operations. 

Since we scaled entirely remotely, it was harder for us to rely on a people-oriented approach. We had to implement documentation to be able to work ASYNC. At the same time, since we’re in the industries of payroll, HR, and benefits, i.e. industries that deal heavily with people, we’re naturally pressured to be more people-focused. 

So, how did Humi balance the need for structure and processes with a people-centric approach, especially as the company grew?

With Humi, there was a push and pull. We tried to be very people-centric which pulled us away from being a plug-and-play, process-oriented business. But we were a growing company, and where you have more people, you need more structure.

Over the last year, we’ve identified the places in the organization where we can focus more on people and where we need to focus more on processes. What ended up happening is our larger departments, such as Customer Experience and Engineering, adopted more processes, but our smaller departments, like Marketing and Sales, operated more around the people. 

This push and pull is very common for many businesses, and it’s ok to let it happen as you grow.

What businesses benefit from being people-focused? Process-oriented?

It comes down to speed vs. efficiency. Especially in tech, the goal tends to be growth, and scaling is faster when you do it through people. As a founder, you can rely on a person’s expertise and your trust in them. You grow faster, but you also have less redundancy – so if you lose an employee and their expertise, you slow down. 

Software businesses tend to scale more through people because their margins are excellent and they’re trying to innovate and move fast. They can afford inefficiency to gain speed. On the other hand, a lot of service-based businesses are going to scale on process. Their margins aren’t as good and they rely heavily on efficiency. 

What advice would you give business leaders who are currently trying to strike this balance?

Talk to as many people at other companies as you can and ask them how they run. Don’t worry about whether or not the company is like yours; just go to people you trust. Then, go around internally and ask the people in your company what isn’t going well; ask them, if you had a magic wand, what would you change? 

Take all that information, map out the problems and challenges, and look at possible changes you can make based on what you learned from other companies. Then, trust your gut on where to start. 

Basically, get as much information as possible, tailor it to your company, and trust your instinct. 

There’s no magic bullet here – if there was, business would be a lot easier.

Quick – what are your rapid-fire tips for business leaders?  

Always be open-minded and adaptable. Business is unpredictable, so try to build a business framework that’s flexible, and something you’ll be able to ride out change with.

Plan for the things you can control, and don’t try to control the rest.

Stop comparing yourself to other businesses – you started your own for a reason. 

Be okay with 7/10 sometimes; you can’t always be perfect. If you have something in your product that’s only a 3/10, and you can get it to a 7/10, do it – don’t obsess over not being able to get to 10/10. Never shut down progress.

Any final thoughts?

Even though we’re talking about people vs. process, the truth is, people underlie process and even the business as a whole. Businesses are just their people: the personalities, motivation, hard work, emotions, and lives of the people that make them up. The more you scale, the easier it is to forget this – but the best business leaders will always find a way to keep the magic alive.

Wrapping up

So, there you have it: the balancing act between people and processes in the scaling journey of businesses, told from the perspective of Humi’s own VP of Operations & Revenue, Chris. As your business grows, its inevitable that you’ll shift towards one or the other – but take Chris’ advice: be adaptable, trust your instincts, and never forget that at its core, every business is defined by its people.

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