How to Scale

What a founder in one of the poorest areas in Kenya taught me about how to start and how to scale

The more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think that the same is true of human beings. We do not wish to see children precocious, making great strides in their early years like sprouts, producing a soft and perishable timber, but better if they expand slowly at first, as if contending with difficulties, and so are solidified and perfected.
– Henry David Thoreau

Many years ago I had the opportunity to spend a day with Jay Kimmelman who was, and is, one of the founders and CEO at Bridge International Academies. It was a fleeting moment. I’d be shocked if he remembers me. But he made a big impression. In just a few hours he totally changed my mindset about how to start and how to scale.

Like many founders I’ve spent time with over the years, he was excited to describe the process he was going through to validate the specific business opportunity he was working on and to demonstrate some of the progress he had made.

But, remarkably, his “venture” was a new private school system he was trying to setup in the heart of Kibera - one of the largest slums in the world on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, an area of extreme poverty, and one of the harshest business environments you could possibly imagine to start and scale a business.

Most people, like me, would find it exhausting just thinking about the challenges of doing something like this. Seeing it happening was both extremely inspiring and hugely educational.

Jay is a no-nonsense sort of person, and my notes from the day are succinct and to the point:

He talked about the curriculum he wanted to teach (effectively the product he was offering):

  1. Reading with understanding
  2. Maths
  3. Critical thinking 1

He talked about the unknowns he needed to validate to show that his ventures could work and become a viable business:

  1. Economics - can the service be delivered at the required cost point?
  2. Demand - will people pay?
  3. Quality - are the education outcomes good?

Finally, and most importantly, he talked about his plan to scale:

  1. Unit model - first school
  2. Replicated - second school
  3. Multiple - five new schools at once
  4. Many - so many new schools at once that it will only work if the systems are great - i.e. where a single superhero manager approach fails

The reason this last list is so interesting is because it describes a generic approach to growth, which we can apply to many other things.

First we need to show that we can solve a problem once. Often in the beginning this requires a remarkable individual and the brute force needed to ignore all of the valid reasons why what we’re trying to do is impossible.

Then we need to show that we can do that again. Mostly to prove to ourselves and others that the first time wasn’t an accident. The second time we start to see the patterns that are going to be useful in the subsequent stages of growth.

Then we need to show that we can do that repeatedly and at increasing scale. This usually forces us to build and finance a team of people to help us. These folks are typically going to be more specialists with specific skills, compared to the generalists who get things started from nothing.

Finally we need to prove that we can create a repeatable and self-sustaining system that doesn’t rely on a specific individual or set of circumstances. I loved his succinct criteria: prove you can do it at a scale where it is beyond the ability of one amazing person, or even a single team of amazing people, so it can only work if the systems are solid.

This is a well understood progression, actually, once we see the patten: first we learn to crawl, then walk, then run.

Often we’re tempted to skip the intermediate steps. We jump straight to trying to solve the problems of scale and repeatability, without first proving that we really understand what it takes to do it once, then twice. So it shouldn’t surprise us that the things we create tend to be brittle, prone to failure and seldom achieve their potential.

As impatient as we might be we need to take the time to really absorb the lessons from each stage, because those are what enable us to be successful at the subsequent stages.

  1. See: Critical Thinking Animations ↩︎