February 26, 2018

Growing from a startup founder to a scaleup CEO


 By James Johnstone, Investment Director at Bailador

Before becoming a VC at Bailador, I helped start Mozo, a leading Australian financial comparison marketplace. We quickly grew both the team and revenue, winning multiple Deloitte Fast 50 and BRW Fast Starter Awards in the process.

I know first-hand the difficulties founders face going from a start-up to a scale-up. Now in my work at Bailador, I spend a lot of my time supporting our portfolio company founders as they expand into global markets, multiply their teams and chase rapid revenue growth.

The evolving role of a founder

Founding a start-up is hard work. The initial phase of a founder’s life is riding on the caffeinated wave of defining the problem they’re solving, raising funds, building product, getting customer feedback and ultimately aiming to find a product/market fit.

In these initial days, founding teams are often small and work closely. This allows founders to lead and manage just by being in the same room. They set the direction for the team, but also roll up their sleeves and get things done. The power of small teams is what enables rapid progress.

After taking venture funding, the increased pace and scale of the business presents additional challenges to the daily life of the founder. Managing a team of five presents different challenges to managing a team of 50. To be effective, founders need to adapt to those challenges.

How to navigate personally scaling up

Whilst there are no right answers in the subject of founder development, there are some important personal development steps that I’ve seen the best founders take along their journey from start-up to scale-up.

Advice #1: Ask the question: what stage is the business at and what does it need from the founder?

Take the time to distil what is important for the business and effectively play that role. Early stage businesses require that founders get into the detail. Businesses that are scaling require founders to create and manage teams. Effective leaders recognise this and adapt accordingly. The role a founder needs to play will constantly evolve, so ask this question regularly.

Advice #2: Understand your strengths

Having self-awareness of your key strengths will serve you well in building a diverse and effective management team. When you build your team add positions that will complement your strengths and allow you to focus on the activities that really move the needle. This often means adding Head of Sales, CFOs and Head of Product. These senior team additions will help accelerate the business scaling up.

Advice #3: Seek and be open to outside perspective

Find a respected mentor who has faced the challenge of scaling up as a founder and can give years of wisdom over a coffee. Someone who is not involved in your business day-to-day, such as a board member or mentor, can offer insightful perspectives free from internal bias. It’s unrealistic for founders to have all the answers, so don’t be shy in seeking advice.


The professional and personal development of the founding entrepreneur is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome when successfully scaling a business. I have not seen a perfect recipe for overcoming this challenge, and founders will always bring their own unique personality to the challenge. This uniqueness is important and will be defining for the business.