Genius Exclusive: Tips to Stay Startup Scrappy

We sat down with SignUpGenius Creator Dan Rutledge to ask how a "scrappy" attitude contributes to fast and continual growth. Our team embraces the term "scrappy" to describe an attitude of being determined, innovative and resourceful.

Ten years ago, Dan built the first version of SignUpGenius so that he and his wife Angel could organize the groups they were leading. They were on a mission to get away from using time-consuming paper sign ups, reply-all emails and phone trees. What started as a side-gig then grew into the nation's largest online sign up provider. Today, up to 18 million monthly users utilize the site to plan volunteer shifts, collect payments and RSVP for events.

Enjoy a sneak peek into the culture of our company as we interview Dan.

Q: What initially inspired you about the idea of being scrappy?

A: The scrappy concept was ingrained in the company culture from the start because SignUpGenius was a bootstrapped side project that came out of a different company that [entrepreneur] Michael Vadini and I owned. When we started getting employees, Angel and I were running the day-to-day business and had to be scrappy to survive. So being scrappy was always assumed but not something we talked about.

Then when our team grew to 12-14 people, we moved to a new office with a number of nice office upgrades, including upgraded technology and furniture. We hired several more people at that time and Angel and I noticed that they had the impression that we were this big company with time and resources to spare. They didn't have the context that only a few weeks before we were in cramped quarters with refurbished computers sitting at simple IKEA desks!

So from then on, we decided to be intentional about sharing our history of growth and our philosophy of resourcefulness. We coined the term "scrappy" and talked about it in relation to all our projects and decisions.

Q: What were the most effective strategies for being scrappy?

A: We've always tried to communicate the value of time and money. With time we talked about "thinking like a freelancer" because I had worked for ten years as an hourly freelancer, where an hour of my time was worth a certain amount of money. Clients hated paying for even an hour over budget, so I learned that optimizing my hours was critical. So we emphasize that every employee's time is valuable and should be maximized. Sometimes new people would come in from large corporate settings and spend a week on a discussion about a concept or an idea, and not realize the extremely costly use of their time. After a short time being with us, though, we'd see them start to be more scrappy.

In addition to time, we talk about money. We say, "If it's expensive at home, it's expensive here." Often people get into a corporate environment and they think the company has a good amount of money and so they don't pay as much attention to costs. Being scrappy with money means being as responsible and resourceful with the company's money as you are with your own.

Q: Do you think companies of all sizes and stages can benefit from being scrappy?

A: I do. I think as you grow bigger, there's a tendency to bloat in areas like processes and expenditures, where you just keep buying things because they were bought before. And remember that scrappy does not mean cheap or stingy. My dad always told me that there will be times in your life when you have more time than money, and times when you have more money than time, and times where you're somewhere in the middle. So I think scrappy is about understanding what needs to be maximized in a given season. There are certainly cases where your time is so valuable that you need to just pay to get something done and get that moving. So being scrappy is constantly evolving as the company changes.

Q: SignUpGenius talks a lot about giving and taking care of their employees. How can that happen while still being scrappy?

A: At SignUpGenius, we want our employees to feel like we are generous. That can be a challenge as you scale, though, as there are escalating costs to providing exceptional value to your employees. There are ways to treat employees well without overspending. Just like when you buy a gift for someone, the amount of money in the gift is not necessarily what makes the gift special. The creativity, the heart behind it and the effort make an impression. So you can treat employees exceptionally well without making it problematic for the business.

Also, giving back is a big piece of our culture. Giving is what reminds us all why we work so hard to maximize our time and money. So we try to keep service and our giving partnerships with local and global nonprofits at the forefront of all our minds to keep us focused. Giving and treating employees well creates a culture where people want to work hard and stay scrappy.