Growing pains: What core skills can fast growing startups learn from life

“Growing up is the next natural step after starting up.”

Saurabh Dubey 🙂

You did it – your startup was blessed by the investers and the customers, and for the first time in your life, you are chasing a B – your first Billion. As you go down this path, there is only one goal – growth. Grow the sales, grow the customers, grown the brand. And in order to do that, everything needs to be nimble. You can’t be stuck in the ways of the “legacy giants”. What slows them down, is not going to hold you back. You will move faster because you are going to keep things simple.

I find that the journey of a startup is very much like the life we live through. We are born as a cute baby, grow to a toddler (terrible twos and threes, anyone?), go through pre-teenage, hit puberty, become a teenager in all our glory, and then finally become adults. The lifecycle below is my pespective on the journey of a successful startup akin to growing up.

If you see something that makes you smile and nod, because you see my point of view, drop a message.

The Cute Baby

Almost every startup goes through the same lifecycle. They start off by making a great product, getting sponsorship (investment) for it, and then getting their first few customers. Usually, at this time, they are in their baby stage (ever heard the phrase – ‘in their infancy’) – usually 40 – 200 employees. They have encountered and overcome their first main hurdle – “prove that they were worth the initial investment”. They have customers, who are willing to pay for their product/service, and they are starting to build a reputation, and (a small amount of) revenue.

The Troublesome Toddler

Right when everything seems to be going fine, and revenue seems to be increasing, the regulatory requirements kick in. It doesn’t matter which industry you belong to, you have to start “babyproofing your house” – so that as an organization, you don’t make mistakes that can cost you. This is where you need to start growing up. You start by going through an internal audit and ensuring that you have a one-time babyproofing in place. But then you remember that you are still increasing the size of your house, and you need a process to continuously ensure that all parts of the house are baby proofed, till the toddler learns to not make mistakes, and not put his finger in the electric socket. You hire professionals to come in a baby proof the house, time and time again. When you take the baby out for a drive, you make sure that the car seat is correctly put, because you don’t want the cops to pull you over and find out that you didn’t put the car seat correctly.

I hope you are keeping up with analogies even though I am not explaining them. If not, leave a comment, and I will try to explain.

“We all need advice growing up and facing the big stuff life gives us. We all need the voice of a parent or a good friend who has lived through joy and suffering and has thought deeply about it.”

Richard Carlson

Back to the startup in a toddler age group. As a startup organization, you had pledged to not fall in the trap of the ‘grown ups’, but you realized that you need the help, because you don’t know this yet. (You think you know everything, but starting from picking up things from the high shelf, to learning why your magnets stick to the refrigerator, you know you need to rely on them.)

The Pre-Teen Genius

I have a 10 year old daughter, and I can’t tell you the number of times in a week that hear the phrase – “Oh, I know” or “Yeah, I knew that”. I am a hundred percent sure that she has no clue about what I may have just told her, but her answer is unwavering. More than once in a while, I probe further, “Ok – explain to me”.

“Explain what?”

“The stuff you already knew, that I told you about.”

“We haven’t learned that yet.”

“Then how did you know.”

Silence.

Confidence is ignorance. If you’re feeling cocky, it’s because there’s something you don’t know.

Eoin Colfer

As someone who works with technology companies as the primary target clientelle, my “favorite” phrase to hear is – “We can build it ourselves.”

I always wonder what would happen if I did the same thing that I do to my daughter – “OK, Explain to me.”

“Explain what?”

“That thing that you said, you can build it yourself. How will you build it?”

“We have really smart people.”

“And you want to put those people to work in your back-office? Instead of spending on your front office with that skill set?”

Silence.

If you really are the big boy company that you claim to be – just answer the following questions for me:

  1. What makes you think that you (whose product is completely different from a back office solution) can build a product better than those companies who have products that are targeted towards solving those very problems? That’s like Shopify telling Stripe that they don’t need Stripe’s products, and will write their own payments platform to use when I am running an online retail store.
  2. As a fiscally intelligent company, why would you spend your money on high skilled back office team, when you can easily spend that money on hiring front office professionals. Reduce the (high priced) spend in the back office and apply that spend on front office.

My mom still says this once in a while to me – you may know new technology, but our success wasn’t based on getting lucky. You can always learn some things from those who have done this before – both from their success and their failures.

The Teenage Rebel

The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.

Wilhelm Stekel

As an organization starts to understand that they can learn from some of their predecessors – both from their success and failure, they usually go through an eruption of rebellion. In my experience, this is the stage where the young CEOs start to hire seasoned and experienced leadership team, and the vibrant youth of the organization is forced to co-exist with the dependability of experience.

And you see the ‘rebellion’ from the middle management. Those who joined the company once thinking that they were gong to break the mold, and do things differently – react to this ‘growing up’, but pushing back.

“Why can’t we keep using the tools that we previously had? They are simple to use, and don’t create beaureucracy that will slow us down.”

Ironically, this is the same set of people who love to say, “The things that got us to this point, are not the ones that will help us double our business.”

That statement becomes more accurate as organizations cross over from being a 2000 employee pre-teen startup to being the 5000 employee organization that is growing so fast that onboarding 50-60 people a week is the norm. Because if you are worried about handing the core of the business, and can’t give your exployees a great experience, they are not going to be successful in making you successful.

Employee experience is more than just amazing lunches and high salary. Employee experience is about making sure that I, as an employee, have all things I need, to make me more efficient, and make me feel excited about my job. I know that feels like fluff, but it’s the fluffy truth.

So, when I join the company, and it takes me 3 days to get my laptop, I lose 3 days of productivity. On the flip side, if I don’t have the process to ensure that the laptop I gave my employees is tracked and secure, I may have just created risk for the company.

Do these processes need to be re-invented? – Yes. That’s why disciplines like agile, SRE, lean, devXops, etc. exist.

Do you need to re-invent these just for your company? – No.

The Adulthood

You grow up the day you have your first real laugh, at yourself.

Ethel Barrymore

By now, this organization is no longer a startup. It has grown into an established company. And it has started to look back (especially as they have learnt through their mistakes) to their decisions and started asking – “What were we thinking?”

They start looking at the decisions they need to make, and start behving like their dad or mom. They are still technically smart, and still consider themselves different from their parents. They try to learn new things, they try to play new sports, they experiment with new technology, and new business ideas. They do have a different outlook towards the world around them, than what their parents had.

Sometimes you have to grow up before you appreciate how you grew up. 

Daniel Black, Perfect Peace

The Lessons

The road to growth is filled with errors and mistakes (and those two are different). And the only true way to learn is by trying and failing, and then trying and succeeding. But you don’t really have to fail in everything to learn. Just like when you were growing up, you listened to what mom and dad were saying, and some things worked out just fine.

We are in the age where entrepreneurial excellence has given a way to more innovations than ever before, and startups are taking the market by storm. There is no reason for these startups to re-build everything. Look around you, you are an amazing company, you have an amazing product, but you don’t do every job in the company, because different team members have different skill sets. You rely on them to know their part, just like they rely on you to know yours. Look at the macro view – don’t try to solve every problem yourself from the start. Learning and growing, is way better than growing and then learning.

Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn.

Benjamin Franklin

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