Signpost, FareHarbor, ZenPayroll Talk Growth at Denver Startup Week

Water on Mars or not, it’s generally not advisable to jump ship after interplanetary takeoff. Just ask Edward Kim, Stuart Wall, and Lawrence Hester.

Though no member of that trio is headed out of the stratosphere any time soon, each one has commanded a successful startup—some would say “rocket ship”—over the past several years. For the uninitiated, that term for a fast-growing venture comes from a famed conversation in which Eric Schmidt, current executive chairman of Alphabet (née Google) told Sheryl Sandberg, now COO of Facebook: “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.”

Kim, Wall, and Hester spoke on a Denver Startup Week panel, aptly titled “Ground Control to Major Tom,” at The Chambers Grant Salon in Downtown Denver Sept. 30. Hosted by Denver Founders, the discussion was intended to highlight how to both adapt to and leverage rapid startup growth—two things the panelists have managed to do exceptionally well.

Since launching the payroll and benefits company ZenPayroll—which has recently made the transition to the name Gusto—Kim has secured about $75 million in funding and saw his venture bring on about 200 new employees last year. Wall’s funding tally for his marketing startup Signpost sits at about $36 million following a launch in 2010, and he hired about 150 people in 2014. Less than two years after starting the activity reservation site FareHarbor, Hester has raised about $1 million and has added about 60 people in the past 12 months.

Here are some of the do’s and don’ts gleaned from their conversation (and, yes, listening to Ziggy Stardust while reading is encouraged):

Follow the talent
All three of the founders who spoke at the event Wednesday night have recently opened Denver offices in an effort to capitalize on the city’s modest cost of living and tap into its blossoming pool of job applicants. Both Wall and Kim said that they were eyeing various startup hubs around the country, but were most impressed by the volume and caliber of talent in the Queen City of the Plains. “We posted the job here [Denver] and in two other cities…and the best team of five was clearly here,” Wall said.

Fake it ‘til you make it
When you’re growing at such a rocketing rate, a few logistical white lies may be necessary, according to Hester. That is, as long as you make good on them. Hester explained that for FareHarbor’s first year of existence, all of the “automated” e-mails produced by the site were actually being manually sent by him and his brother—the company’s only two employees. “We’d promise everything,” he said.

Don’t force it
Following trends and focusing on the sexy is what often leads to a flopped startup, according to Kim, who said that thinking became his own shortcoming earlier in his career. “When I look at the first company that I started, I started looking for things to do…and you kind of find yourself doing the sexy or trivial things—whatever’s trendy at the time,” he said. “Then I kind of matured a little bit and I started thinking about problems that foundationally existed in this world and [started] getting really excited about making a difference in solving that problem. The thinking was almost reversed.”

Don’t mistake values for culture
Quintupling in size can put a strain on any company, but properly scaling a startup’s culture isn’t impossible. Kim said it’s a matter of understanding what is part of a company’s DNA and what is malleable. “Values are kind of immutable and the culture is actually the implementation of these values,” he said. “The key to scaling that is understanding that culture will constantly change and evolve, but the values should not.”

Quincy Snowdon is a staff writer with the Aurora Sentinel, reporting on the arts, entertainment and business. He lives in Denver. Follow @QuincySnowdon

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