Despite tech industry folklore, success is rarely found overnight, and never comes without periods of difficult change and adjustment. If you are among the fortunate few heading toward exciting levels of growth, how you and your team deal with that growth will determine if this success is fleeting or long lasting.
Stories of hubris-fueled startups who build too-large teams, overly complex software and byzantine infrastructure abound in our industry. But startups can also make the opposite mistake and allow scale-up to sneak up on them. It’s usually a case where growth in users or traffic exposes a technical bottleneck and causes a service to collapse. The fix may well, and often does, require dramatic shifts in technology and significant work. Dealing with scores of unhappy customers, seeing growth curves start to flatten and squeezing months of work into a few caffeine saturated weeks isn’t fun for anyone.
Fast growth is a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem that is best handled proactively.
For an engineering team, planning for scale-up mode provides you with the luxury of time to figure out what the next phase of growth means to your product and team. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still need to move fast. You just need to start breaking fewer things as you move fast. I recently went through this point of reflection myself. When I joined Invoice2go as its first VP of Engineering, we were in the midst of rebalancing our own mindset as we moved from doing things as a startup, to doing things right for our next levels of growth.
Here are some of the most important shifts your company’s engineering team needs to make when you move from startup mode, to scale-up.
1. The choices you make are longer lasting and farther reaching
When a company enters scale-up mode it means they’ve seen a great deal of success in attracting customers. The number they serve is greater, and the products the company creates will live on for a longer period of time. Be deliberate, thoughtful and explicit in making decisions and compromises. Be aware that when you have hundreds of thousands or millions of customers, releasing a product or feature is an implicit promise to support that product or feature for a non-trivial amount of time. Mitigate this by building an experimentation framework that allows you to get feedback from a smaller set of customers, ideally in an automated way.
2. Keep experimenting, but not when it comes to your tools
When you’re a small company, you can be more cavalier in your tool choices; you can select tools that don’t have much of a track record, have experimental features, or tools from companies that may not be around in the future. Think about what happens if a company you’re working with goes out of business. When you’re building for the long haul, select the tools that will support you for years to come or have contingencies ready. This approach is not only helpful should availability of tools change, but also with gaining leverage when it comes time to renew contracts.
3. You need people who’ve seen amazing companies scale fast
We have incredible people and engineering talent at Invoice2go that got us to where we are today. To scale-up our teams, we’re building on this existing knowledge by adding engineers who have seen and helped companies grow quickly. We’re adding engineers who have dealt with the good problem of hyper-growth not in the abstract, but in the flesh. Spend time and energy building your A team, so you can generally point them in the right direction and get out of their way.
4. Prepare your team for culture shifts, but don’t lose the elements that made you successful in the first place
Going from startup mode to scale-up is like going from being in a thriller, to being in a drama. The shift can feel sudden and jarring to members of your team. In a company’s early days, so much of what everyone does – and what ends up defining the team’s culture – is doing whatever it takes to keep your head above water; survival. Adjusting to the scale-up phase can be a tricky shift for people who thrive on a “life or death” mentality. Manage it explicitly by discussing it openly to guide team members, one on one, through the change.
For cynics, the shift can seem like a Kafka-esque parable come to life, where process and structure overtake purpose and innovation. Help the team understand that this next phase is actually no different in terms of purpose or innovation. I do this by impressing on the team that the choice between good and fast is not one of mutual exclusion. While startup mode is all about day to day, week to week, month to month survival, scale-up is about using those same muscles of innovation and purpose to build product that represents the quality that you want your customers to expect from you, without compromising on speed. Use innovation and talent to deliver great, high quality products quickly.
5. Expect communication to take more work
Staying in sync when everyone is sitting together in one room is easy compared to what’s needed when teams are spread across floors, buildings, offices, cities and continents.
Every project at Invoice2go sees our teams in Sydney, Redwood City and Jakarta working together as if all are under the same roof. This geographic distribution means we must work hard to make sure everyone feels connected. We bring people together to work face to face as often as possible and we rely on a host of tools from Lifesize to Slack, Confluence and Jira for collaboration across geographies and time zones.
6. Anticipating and planning for this extra effort is the biggest lesson from companies that do this well
Everyone is happy to find success, but too many find themselves in a reactive mode by not planning for the negative implications of that success. Most importantly, whatever changes do need to happen, don’t lose sight of what really holds everything together. If you’ve ever worked with people who genuinely share the belief that you’re doing something that truly matters, you’ll know that this is the primary driver of your ability to succeed in any circumstance.
Kallol Das is Invoice2go’s first Vice President of Engineering. He is responsible for leading engineering efforts across a global team that spans three continents, and driving software innovation for small business owners around the world. Prior to Invoice2go, Kallol served as the Vice President of Engineering at Path. Before Path, he was the Vice President of Software Engineering at Salesforce, where he led the teams working on the company’s Service Cloud and Sales Cloud product lines. Das’ career has also inluded software development management roles at Amazon.
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