How Universal Avenue prepared to scale with a Quality Management System – Part 2 by Thom Iddon

If you haven't already, please return to Part 1, to ensure you have the full understanding.

Lesson #3: where to focus

Selecting a quality standard and a QMS is just the first step. Next you need to consider where to focus your time and resources. If you’re working in a startup, it’s likely both are in short supply.

Start somewhere

Our best advice is to prioritise the biggest pain points. For us this meant strengthening processes for:

  1. onboarding sellers and partners
  2. delivering a growing portfolio of hardware, software and services
  3. providing best-in-class support to sellers, partners and buyers

Back to first principles

Though these priorities might change over time, they provide a vehicle through which to make sense of the standard, helping to translate its, at times, lofty language into concrete, real-world terms.

ISO 9001 challenges you to think broadly early in the process and focus in over time. This is actually tricker than it sounds. In most cases the strategic work has been done and revisiting it feels wasteful. You would rather tackle today’s problems — the ones that drove you to seek out a standard in the first place. Begin from first principles, however, and there’s a much greater chance you’ll solve tomorrow’s problems too.

Making sense of the standard

The 2015 revision of the ISO 9001 standard is designed to accommodate businesses ranging from trendy startups to conglomerates. As a result the standard’s requirements often feel remote, even alien, and require some interpretation. Here are a few examples:

A) The broad requirement

ISO quote: “Understanding the external context can be facilitated by considering issues arising from legal, technological, competitive, market, cultural, social and economic environments, whether international, national, regional or local”

On first inspection, this requirement feels impossibly broad. Novels have been written with a smaller scope.

The key here is to differentiate between those factors that are relevant to your business and those that aren’t. The Sino-American trade war, for instance, may affect firms with complex international supply chains, but how relevant is it to a Stockholm-based start up operating in Europe? Likely less so. Changes to municipal tax regulations, on the other hand, might directly impact your company’s future.

Only focus on what is immediately relevant to your business

B) The vague requirement

ISO quote: The organisation shall determine the processes needed for the quality management system and their application throughout the organisation

“How do I know how much detail to document in?”

This is a question we asked ourselves more than once. At first we answered it incorrectly:

“As much as possible”.

We drew up complex processes from sales through to support, brand per brand, partner per partner, allowing for multiple contingencies each time.

We got half way.

It was a useful exercise because it forced us to think deeply about our every step. But the process maps proved tricky to maintain, and unwieldy in practice.

The second time we answered it better:

“As much as necessary”.

We drew up high-level process charts for key functions, and left all edge cases in the hands of our capable operations team.

Document everything that adds value and nothing more

C) The unattainable requirement

ISO quote: Controlled conditions shall include … the evaluation, and periodic revalidation, of the ability to achieve planned results of the process for production and service provisions, where the resulting output cannot be verified by subsequent monitoring or measurement

Requirements like this may feel alien to your business. It could be because your start up simply hasn’t matured to the stage where your product or service can be validated, let alone revalidated. If so, perhaps you’re seeking compliance too early in the product cycle. By all means, develop your product with the standard in my find, but seek certification only once your product is ready.

You can only be as compliant as your product is ready for market

Lesson #4: getting everyone onboard


Lesson #4: getting everyone onboard

Startups attract people seeking the independence and mobility that large corporations fail to provide. Poorly communicated, however, imposing a standard can feel like an assault on these values. To prevent this, you should emphasise that a correctly implemented QMS will enable greater independence and mobility by increasing transparency across the organisation.

Management: getting buy in

If you’re the CEO then congrats; you’re already half way there. But note that there is a big difference between half-heartedly pursuing a certificate and deeply embedding a QMS within your company culture. A quality programme cannot succeed without the full management team’s full commitment, and should not be introduced to other members of staff until this is there.

If you’re not the CEO, you have more work to do we’re afraid. It’s key to get management actively participating in the process before you press ahead. Though you might make some headway without it, pretty soon key decisions will go unmade, colleagues will become elusive when needed, and the momentum will fizzle out.

Ensure the entire management team is onboard before communicating the quality programme throughout the organisation

Product: your MVP is not too sexy for my QMS

If you’re anything like us, product is your most structured team. This is because the development and design disciplines demand a higher degree of structure to function at all.

Product will be quickest to grasp the standard and the first to question it. This isn’t unreasonable. The more inflexible facets of the standard (take, for example, assigning owners to every process) run counter to the agile principles most product teams subscribe to. More positively, product’s propensity towards version control, testing, and analytics goes hand in hand with every quality standard under the sun.

Product will be the quickest to grasp the quality approach and the first to question it

Operations: the true beneficiaries of your QMS

Your operations team (and by this we mean teams like sales, logistics, support and billing), stand to benefit most from the QMS system. Outside management, they also bear greatest responsibility for its upkeep. This is because these roles typically interact with the most processes. And they’re the kind of processes that change most often.

If you’re too small to hire a dedicated quality specialist, we recommend you pluck your implementation manager from an operations role. They have more incentive than most to see the QMS implemented, and implemented well.

Operations benefit most from a QMS and outside management bear greatest responsibility for its upkeep

This is Part 2. Keep your eyes out for Part 3 and catch up on Part 1 here.


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.