Starting a new job can be a stressful experience, as you’re working in a new environment with new people. But it’s even worse when you’re not quite sure what you should be doing, leading you to ask for help from your manager -- the reason why employee handbooks exist.
But this is a lesson Sean Pour learned the hard way. The 25-year-old co-founder of SellMax, an online car buying service that evolved from his father’s local business, didn’t know the importance of standard operating procedures until his staff had grown significantly. He tells us how he fixed the issue in the Q&A, edited for length and clarity, below.
Inverse: In your own words, what does your company do?
We are a nationwide car buying service. Instead of trading in your car to a dealership or placing classified ads, we’ll come to you, pick it up and pay you. Our pricing model system breaks out cars into categories: If it’s an old car, we’ll pay you based on scrap price. For newer vehicles, we have data on what cars have sold for in your area, and that determines what we pay for it.
At what point did you scale up, and what did that growth look like?
I had been in college studying computer science and I started seeing the company as more of a career path. After seeing where I could work and things I could do, I became more interested in working on this business.
The company had a small team of four around 2012. We were a local company but started scaling up around 2013-14, when we started to bring on some employees. Around two years ago, we finally got out advertising right, after losing a lot of money on it. As a lot of people prefer to do things online, we also figured out a system that could give automatic quotes, which doubled our business. At that point, our staff count grew to the 30s and we expanded our customer service, marketing, logistics and engineering departments.
What went wrong when you scaled up?
Standard operating procedures are the most important thing you can have. I had thought it was just stuff you read online. We didn’t have good documentation. The typical day in the office involves our call agents logging in, putting on their headsets, taking calls and working out deals. When new employees came on, they didn’t know what they should be doing. That resulted in a lot of wasted time for the company. For a few months, I practically spent my entire days training operators and getting them up to speed, when my main focus should have been on marketing channels.
How bad did things get?
New hires came to managers with questions constantly, and the managers couldn’t get their work done. Also, when a lot of people don’t know what they should be doing, it becomes a stressful environment. People thought management didn’t know what they were doing and they lost faith in the company. It came off as unprofessional.
How did you fix the issue?
Getting the operating procedures in tune. We started shooting videos around 2017-18 based around if/then logic. For example, if the car is in this condition, do this. It was mostly, for these types of cars, we want to send to auction. These cars would be used for scrap metal. Everyone who was with the company for a while knew this process.
The videos showcased different types of cars and showed employees what to do. I appeared in a lot of the videos. I tried to break the instructions down into segments so they wouldn't be too long, about 10 minutes or so. There were about 20 videos that detailed the processes. Now, as people come on and they have questions, they could get their answers via these videos on Camtasia so they don’t have to ask their managers. The nice thing about videos is once they’re done, they’re done. If we bring on new agents, they have time to review those videos and then they have the chance to work with customers and learn on the job.
Where did you get the idea for the fix?
I don’t remember where, but I read about how videos could be a good medium for standard operating procedures online.
What do things look like now?
Everything’s going well since things have been streamlined. We’re growing faster than we thought we would, and we may soon be adding more staff.
What did you learn from this experience that other business leaders need to know?
When the company was small, I tried to put myself into everything, and when you’re growing, you need to learn not to micromanage everything. Even though your company is your baby, you need to not have your hands in everything. When you’re scaling, you need to work yourself out of the hands-on stuff so you can focus on the bigger picture.