Operational Scalability: Zain Jaffer On How To Set Up Systems, Procedures, And People To Prepare A…

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Operational Scalability: Zain Jaffer On How To Set Up Systems, Procedures, And People To Prepare A Business To Scale

Be transparent. It will undoubtedly be exhilarating when you start to see your efforts pay off when your business begins to see more activity and grow into bigger teams. But bigger teams also mean more people involved in your success. A last reminder would be to ensure that everyone in your organization has access to all the information they need to operate effectively. At Vungle, we had a company-wide shared drive that housed a mother source of information, from processes to contact directories to updates on our financial performance. This transparency fostered collaboration and motivated individual employees to contribute their best.

In today’s fast-paced business environment, scalability is not just a buzzword; it’s a necessity. Entrepreneurs often get trapped in the daily grind of running their businesses, neglecting to put in place the systems, procedures, and people needed for sustainable growth. Without this foundation, companies hit bottlenecks, suffer inefficiencies, and face the risk of stalling or failing. This series aims to delve deep into the intricacies of operational scalability. How do you set up a framework that can adapt to growing customer demands? What are the crucial procedures that can streamline business operations? How do you build a team that can take on increasing responsibilities while maintaining a high standard of performance?

In this interview series, we are talking to CEOs, Founders, Operations Managers Consultants, Academics, Tech leaders & HR professionals, who share lessons from their experience about “How To Set Up Systems, Procedures, And People To Prepare A Business To Scale”. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Zain Jaffer.

Zain Jaffer is an accomplished entrepreneur and investor. He is involved in investments across real estate and VC as CEO of Zain Ventures and Partner at Blue Field Capital. He also founded the Zain Jaffer Foundation to amplify underrepresented social causes and advocate for solutions to the big-picture issues of our time.

Before this, Zain co-founded the mobile advertising company Vungle. Under Zain’s leadership, this venture grew from a team of two to over 200 employees, generating over $300 million in annual revenue across seven countries.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I broke through the web and video industry during my teenage years. I became one of Google’s top publishers at age 13, which paved the way for me to get first-hand access to the then nascent-stage Google video ad platform. I eventually worked my way to co-founding a startup called Vungle and building it to be one of the first and most prominent mobile ad network platforms.

Vungle grew to generate over $300 million in revenues and was acquired by the Blackstone Group for $780 million in 2019. Since then, I’ve refocused my efforts on investing in real estate and startups in the tech space through my family office, Zain Ventures, and Blue Field Capital. I have also established the Zain Jaffer Foundation, which I consider my investment in contributing to a better future for the next generation.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I also shared this story in my past interview with Authority Magazine on creating a “wow” customer experience. I was involved in a lot of business ideas and ventures from a young age. Although I was very enthusiastic and driven about growing my money, as a teenager I also tended to be imprudent with my financial decisions. When I was 18, I got into an emerging markets real estate deal without concerning myself with any risk analysis whatsoever. As soon as I invested, the market tanked, and all the money I put in evaporated into thin air.

I always look back on that experience now that I’m dealing with investment opportunities daily. It taught me that even though instincts are crucial in seeking out opportunities, decisions should nevertheless always be guided by research and solid data.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I’d like to answer this from the context of the work we do at the Zain Jaffer Foundation because it’s where I channel some of the most impactful and meaningful initiatives of my life. The Zain Jaffer Foundation is built on the vision of championing underserved communities and telling their unique stories. Often, philanthropy and charity work can become impersonal when it’s too focused on raising funds or doling out donations. Most of the work we do at the Zain Jaffer Foundation involves meeting and understanding the actual humans who are impacted by the social causes we support.

As an example, we recently produced the documentary series Forced to Adapt which tells the stories of climate resilience from three different communities in India. It’s humbling to come face-to-face with what these communities are grappling with. And that’s the kind of emotional imprint the Foundation tries to leave on people in the hope that they will also be moved to take action.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. Instinct. There are a lot of hard skills that you will need to learn to succeed as a business leader, but one that can’t be taught is instinct. That’s why when working with startup founders, I always tell them they need to be in tune with their business instincts. At the end of the day, the founder knows the brand best.

When I was still growing my previous startup, investors persistently advised me to focus our efforts in North America alone. But based on the research and data we had, my instinct was to lean hard into penetrating the market in China. It was the total opposite of what our investors wanted. We did it anyway. A few years later, our customer base in China was generating over half of the revenue for the business.

  1. Conscientiousness. Another rule I consciously practiced as a leader, especially when I was a tech CEO, is showing up and doing the dirty work as often as necessary. Some people may have the notion that when you climb your way into the C-suite, life becomes easygoing. Quite the contrary, effective leaders are always on the frontlines, always implementing or putting out fires with their teams.

While we were scaling our operations in China, I made sure I was actively involved in everything. I learned Mandarin and immersed myself in our customer base. Whenever there was a concern to troubleshoot or a client to close, I flew to China to personally oversee the situation. In effect, my team trusted that come good or bad I would be in the thick with them, which was a boost to their morale; and our clients saw how we valued their business, which earned us their loyalty.

  1. Passion. My last point is not so much a trait but a mindset. I credit much of my success to those early years when I put in the work because I was consumed by a passion. I’ve always loved tech, and the video format was of particular interest to me. I could not have known the kind of heights this interest would unlock when I was just a teenager experimenting with my computer to earn some extra money. But that passion eventually became my mission, and it drove me forward.

Even after building and exiting a massive company founded on video technology, I still invest in projects and initiatives related to it. From Vungle to the Zain Jaffer Foundation, video has been central to my success. So if you have a deep passion for what you’re doing or building, you already know you’re on the right track.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

This is actually an all too familiar challenge for investors like myself. When managing a VC fund, we constantly face a choice of whether to invest in an idea or a startup and often these startups have good potential. The dilemma is in turning down good potential for great potential. You can imagine how hard it is to decline a startup that can very easily turn in a guaranteed 3X or even 5X investment return. But it’s a necessary decision when your goal is to support the startups that can truly revolutionize an industry and turn a 100X return. Managing situations like this has taught me the value of anchoring myself on a clear goal. When faced with two seemingly good paths, it’s your conviction to a bigger purpose that’s going to set you in the direction of the better one.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Operational Scalability. In order to make sure that we are all on the same page, let’s begin with a simple definition. What does Operational Scalability mean to you?

At its core, operational scalability is really all about engineering your business to be more streamlined and process-driven. That means ensuring everything you do is efficient, documented, and duplicable. For me, other aspects like increasing profit or gaining more sales activity, or even driving business growth come as by-products of successfully nailing your business operational scalability. You know how they say that it’s all about the journey and not the destination? Well, as I see it, operational scalability is about perfecting the journey so that the destination will come with more perks.

Which types of business can most benefit from investing in Operational Scalability?

Any type of business! Investing in operational scalability helps your company become even more organized, efficient, and primed for growth. So, essentially any business that dreams of doing more and achieving more will need a plan for scaling. It just becomes more crucial — more a necessity rather than an aspiration — when your company is already on its track to scale and perhaps even attracting investors.

Why is it so important for a business to invest time, energy, and resources into Operational Scalability?

There will always be a ceiling limit to what you can do with only so many resources. There are two scenarios in this case: (1) your business hits a wall and you stop growing because you don’t have access to additional resources. Or (2) your business continues to grow, but so do the amount of resources you put into it — manpower, capital, time, and more. Investing in operational scalability will help you avoid the former — no business that’s smart enough to prepare a plan to scale could lose enough momentum to hit a full stop.

More importantly, operation scalability will safeguard your business in its period of growth. As I said, a growing business means a growing investment of resources. That can all very easily go to waste if you’re only putting in more and more without thinking about systemizing your operations. You can ensure that you’re getting maximum returns if you have efficient processes and systems for where you expend those resources.

In contrast, what happens to a business that does not invest time, energy, and resources into Operational Scalability?

I would say that not investing in operational scalability is counterintuitive to the act of doing business in the first place. I’m sure any business owner or startup founder has at least once dreamed of their product or service reaching people all across the world. Even beyond the profit and financials, what often fuels a company is the aspiration of making an impact on more and more customers. And this cannot happen if you don’t invest in your ability to scale. It’s like taking the first steps towards your dream, but then choosing to stay on that first step forever.

Can you please share a story from your experience about how a business grew dramatically when they worked on their Operational Scalability?

One example I can share is the impact we saw on sales after we implemented a system for operational scalability in my previous startup. We noted that some salespeople performed better than others at Vungle. So, we decided to record our best salespeople’s calls and eventually turned them into a sales script, which then became part of the sales training process. Our sales dramatically increased from $850K to $15M in just one year after implementing this. We then created email templates for our outreach which increased the size of the pipeline and helped grow our sales from $15M to $56M the next year.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the “Five Most Important Things A Business Leader Should Do To Set Up Systems, Procedures, And People To Prepare A Business To Scale”?

  1. Write things down. In preparation to scale, the first major step is identifying key processes and then documenting them. This can be a tricky one because leaders are often moving so fast and constantly putting out fires, but it truly is the defining pivot towards setting up your business for future success. When we were still in the early years of my previous startup, there was an overwhelming amount of things we needed to streamline and turn into processes, all while having to develop a kick-ass product. I always practiced putting pen to paper then to help me keep a grip on all these things that were happening at once. Those notes ultimately became our company’s guide in building out the foundations of our operational systems.
  2. Invest in tools. Identifying your ideal processes is one thing; effectively implementing them, over and over again, is another. Software systems will make this less grueling and more intuitive. With the wealth of AI-backed tools nowadays, there is no shortage of solutions that can help take the menial work off your team’s plate so you can focus on the more strategic aspects of scaling.
  3. Assemble and rally an effective management team. Engineering a business to scale is a massive undertaking and one that cannot be masterminded by a single individual alone. As a business leader, you must already know that success is dependent on the effectiveness of your management team. The same is even more important when scaling.
  4. Anchor on your core values. Your ideal organizational culture is intangible, so it can easily get lost when scaling. Having core values and making sure everyone understands what they mean will help you scale the culture itself. As you onboard more people, hiring based on your core values will keep your company true to itself and its vision.
  5. Be transparent. It will undoubtedly be exhilarating when you start to see your efforts pay off when your business begins to see more activity and grow into bigger teams. But bigger teams also mean more people involved in your success. A last reminder would be to ensure that everyone in your organization has access to all the information they need to operate effectively. At Vungle, we had a company-wide shared drive that housed a mother source of information, from processes to contact directories to updates on our financial performance. This transparency fostered collaboration and motivated individual employees to contribute their best.

What are some common misconceptions businesses have about scaling? Can you please explain?

Many business leaders are held back from undertaking a plan to scale because of the misconception that it “takes too much work.” Although planning for operational scalability requires careful thought and systematic implementation, it cuts down on unnecessary tasks and streamlines processes. So on the contrary, operational scalability frees up a business from the burden of inefficient work.

Another thing that I often encounter with startups I work with is the notion that they need to onboard senior advisors to even begin to consider planning to scale. This creates an undue pit stop for a startup. As I mentioned above, some steps can be taken even without senior guidance — from documenting your processes to exploring tools that can systemize your workload.

How do you keep your team motivated during periods of rapid growth or change?

Two of the five points I shared above come in very handy in this situation: to anchor on your core values and to be transparent. Firstly, when your team is deeply rooted and aligned with the company’s core values, they will most likely share in its vision to move forward. That means that although your operations are evolving — perhaps even changing drastically — your employees will understand the purpose of these changes and will nonetheless be motivated to overcome their learning curve and adjustment period.

Secondly, having a well-communicated plan of action and keeping your team abreast of your progress will create a roadmap for them. This ensures that they do not lose sight of the positive benefits of scaling for your business, and ultimately for their professional development.

Can you please give us your favorite” Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Failure is not final.” This adage is so close to my heart because of how much it resonates throughout my journey. From my time as a student to a young startup founder to now as an investor: failures and blunders are never out of the equation. When you’re young, it’s so easy to get disheartened by missteps and miscalculations. But if I’ve learned anything in my years as an entrepreneur, it’s that mistakes are temporary. In fact, they are a necessity to grow. So I no longer view failures as a symptom of ineptitude; I see them now as evidence of a drive to become better.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

One idea is for people to watch at least one documentary that would spur them to act and get behind a worthy cause. I’ve seen the impact of storytelling through our work at the Zain Jaffer Foundation and I’ve come to understand the power of documentaries in bringing about change. I think supporting them is an underrated form of philanthropy, and I hope more people will come to appreciate their worth.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can read more of my writing on the Zain Ventures blog. You may also find out about our non-profit initiatives via the Zain Jaffer Foundation website.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Operational Scalability: Zain Jaffer On How To Set Up Systems, Procedures, And People To Prepare A… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.