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The leap: How to get out of the startup phase without collapsing

Here’s how Accion Systems’ CEO focuses on company growth.

By Dylan Walsh  |  March 9, 2017

2017-accion

Accion's TILE is a linear thrust electric propulsion system for satellites.

Founded in 2014, Accion Systems makes small propulsion devices for commercial satellites. Since first nailing down a few rounds of funding and developing a viable product, the company has begun to “move out of research and development and serve our early adopters,” said CEO Natalya Bailey, a 2015 MIT PhD graduate.

As every company must, Accion Systems is evolving from a startup — the world of theory — into a full-fledged business.

This is a delicate transition, placing new demands on both leadership and the enterprise. Bailey noted, for instance, the tricky balance of providing timely and reliable products for a historically risk-averse industry such as aerospace while simultaneously continuing to pursue cutting-edge R&D. But companies make this leap all the time. For other startups on the cusp, Bailey offered a few guiding principles she has learned at the helm of Accion.

Mind the horizon
Bailey earned her doctorate in aeronautical and astronautical engineering. This prepared her well for initial product development, but came up short when it came to stabilizing a young business. She planned accordingly.

“My job is to try to stay a few steps ahead of new needs,” she said. “For this transition in particular I identified 2017 as the year I would learn to sell and market these products.”

2017-bailey Accion Systems CEO Natalya Bailey

Keeping emergent demands front-of-mind — understanding the inflection points in personal responsibility and preparing for them in advance — helps Bailey navigate the growth of the company. This principle applies not only to her specific responsibilities as CEO, but for the needs of the enterprise as a whole.

Across Accion, Bailey is shifting the profile of people she hires away from the entrepreneurially minded folks who populated the early team and towards candidates with existing aerospace experience in business development and manufacturing. Likewise, more structured methods and processes are replacing the somewhat ad hoc approach that defined Accion’s early years.

“The tools we use at this next stage need to become more formalized,” Bailey said.

Anticipating these changes and acting early has been essential to making the transition as smooth as possible. Once budding demands are identified, Bailey recommends talking them through with mentors.

Lean on the experience of others
Nothing replaces the value of a network of experienced mentors, whether they sit on an advisory board or oversee work through a less formal arrangement. In her experience, input from others has helped with two critical needs.

First, Bailey said her advisors have aided Accion’s recruitment efforts and continue to do so as the company seeks new hires in business development and manufacturing. When the company looks to fill a role, especially one that demands aerospace experience, those who have already spent years in the industry know where to look, or even specific people to tap. “In the sourcing, interviewing and closing, my advisers have been key,” Bailey said.

Second, and more broadly, “they’ve done this before,” she said. “When they see that Accion needs to get from point A to point B, they know all the curved paths we might travel to get there, whereas I approach this assuming the most direct route.” In short, Bailey’s advisers ground her in their collective decades of experience. She offered the example of a last-minute push to develop a new part. Bailey assumed a six-month timeline and a healthy balance sheet. “My advisers said, ‘yeah, let’s remove all that revenue and assume it’ll take 12 months instead of six.’” Such reality checks are invaluable.

Building these relationships often begins with an informal introduction; Bailey might ask a question, get an answer, and then ask another question. If she keeps returning to the same person for information, it becomes clear that the relationship should be formalized. “If I’ve nudged the person enough times, it just makes sense to put something in writing,” she said.

Prioritize demands systematically
As Accion grows, so do Bailey’s responsibilities and the pressures on her time. Prioritization becomes increasingly important. One method she learned from an adviser is to think about growth and strategy in a framework defined by a set of questions: are the right people in the right positions? Are we doing enough to maintain our competitive edge? Is there enough money in the bank? If she identifies potential problems, those become a priority. (When a problem is flagged, Bailey also seeks input from advisers.)

To systematize this framework, Bailey reviews a different set of related questions each morning. On Monday mornings, she reviews one group; on Tuesdays, another group, and so forth. “If something needs attention, then we discuss that further,” she said. This method helps Bailey to stay abreast of the company’s development and future needs.

At the MIT New Space Age Conference on March 11, Bailey will talk in more detail about this transition away from the startup phase.