Told in 7 lessons, this is the story of how Universal Avenue, a Sales-as-a-Service startup, became ISO 9001 compliant to prepare for scaling. In our view, every startup can benefit from documenting processes and embedding a Quality Management System within the organisation. This article is for startups considering implementing a Quality Management System and project managers tasked with implementation. It is authored by Thom Iddon, Head of Operations, who managed the implementation process, and Jonatan Hedin, VP Analytics & Operations, the initiator and executive sponsor.
Startup your engines
In startups, things move pretty fast. Projects pop up daily, deadlines loom ominously, and resources are stretched continuously. In this environment, it can be tempting to view quality management as a luxury only large companies with large budgets can afford. Documenting becomes synonymous with dawdling, and each low-hanging fruit and quick-win pushes it further down the priority list.
We understand. We’ve been there. To some extent, we’re still there. But being in a startup is no reason to neglect quality; startups challenge incumbents precisely because they provide better quality products and services.
In fact, we’d wager this is already part of your company’s aims, just as it is ours:
To connect every local business to optimal business solutions globally, enabling them to thrive and compete
Universal Avenue Vision Statement
If quality management is central to a startup’s success, why then does it so often get neglected? The short answer is because it’s hard. Really hard. And it’s resource hungry, divisive, and (once started) seemingly never-ending.
Embarking on a quality management programme will reveal gaps between theory and everyday practice, uncover flaws in core processes, and incur the displeasure of more than one colleague. Nonetheless, these are poor reasons to delay, and shortly we’ll explain why.
Lesson #1: Find your motivation
At Universal Avenue, we’re developing a “sales-as-a-service” platform that connects sellers (world-class B2B brands) with buyers (small and medium-sized business) through sales partners. Read more here.
Universal Avenue model — infographic
We work with sellers ranging from streaming services to card readers, selling to buyers ranging from dentists to hairdressers, through partners ranging from retailers to banks. Each seller operates differently, each buyer has different needs, and each partner has different routes to market.
Our platform, therefore, needs to handle a lot of complexity. But accommodating complexity isn’t easy.
Unchecked, once coherent processes splinter into poor versions of themselves; serving small clusters of individuals inefficiently, rather large groups optimally. The resources required to maintain them grow, but the margins don’t keep up.
Early on it became clear to us that managing the processes we could control, and mitigating against those we couldn’t, would be key to our success and a prerequisite to scaling. Failing to do so, on the other hand, would create a vacuum of accountability.
We, therefore, agreed that implementing a Quality Management System to impose structure was the way forward.
Lesson #2: Where to start
Let’s begin with 3 definitions we’ll keep coming back to:
The standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something
The input of the Quality Management System. The requirements, specifications, guidelines, and characteristics to ensure that products, processes, and services are fit for purpose.
Quality Management System (QMS)
The output of the Quality Standard. The actual system that documents processes, procedures, and responsibilities for achieving quality policies and objectives.
A. Choosing your quality standard
There is no shortage of quality standards out there, nor consultants hoping to help you acquire them. Determining which standard is right for you will depend on your size, industry and objectives.
We landed on ISO 9001 for 3 reasons:
- It is the most common standard
- Because it is the most common, it is also cost effective to implement
- It fulfils the criteria of other standards we might pursue later, such as ISO 14001 (environmental management) and ISO 20000 (information technology service management).
Choose the standard that is most compatible with your business objectives
B. Choosing your consultant
Once equipped with ISO 9001, we looked for a consultant to advise on the implementation process. Depending on your time and resources, you have 2 options:
- Full service: those with deep pockets or urgent needs might opt for this. The consultant will train your company on all things ISO 9001 and build your QMS, as well as conducting the internal audit required for certification.
- Support service: those with shallower pockets or less urgent needs might opt for this option. The consultant will brief your management team and implementation manager, and conduct the internal audit, but they won’t build your QMS.
We opted for the latter, and not because our pockets are (particularly) shallow, nor our needs any less urgent. Rather, we felt that building the QMS ourselves, embedding it deep within our culture and routines, would make the process substantially more useful long term. We still feel the same.
In any case, opt for a consultant with strong credentials and an interest in your business area.
Many consultants are eager to add a startup to their credentials and may offer a favourable rate
C. Choosing your QMS
Deciding to build, buy, or subscribe to a QMS could be an article in itself.
There are many solutions available for purchase or on subscription, and most consultants will recommend one. These systems may be useful for new startups with little preexisting documentation, or startups with less complex business models, fewer stakeholders, and a smaller documentation burden.
We opted to build our own QMS by merging our company playbook into our company handbook, and positioning the handbook as the interface of our QMS.
Universal Avenue handbook
Utilising our existing assets in this way reduced both the time and resources required to establish the QMS, and reduced resistance across the organisation as a whole.
Colleagues are more likely to embrace changes to a system they already use than they are to adopt an entirely new one.
This is Part 1. Keep your eyes out for Part 2 and 3.
Thom Iddon-Escalante is a Stockholm-based digital marketer and entrepreneur. Formerly Operations Director at Universal Avenue, where he was responsible for scaling logistics and support teams, he recently became Marketing Director at Formulate. When he's not focused on growing tech start ups, he enjoys listening to podcasts, playing rugby, and spending time with his 2 year-old son.