The Startup and the 3 P’s: Product, Process and People
I will not pretend to know everything about startups and startup culture, but I will list the reasons why startup culture is exciting, at least for me:
You meet great people, people who have ideas and want to try things, people who have passion and want to make an impact, people who will challenge you to do better. There is passion for working together as a team, passion for building trust within the team and passion for collectively making an impact in other people’s lives; or sometimes, passion for just making something happen – to create. There is passion for possibly creating something that could go big – disrupt everything, all built from the ground up with the teams sweat, blood and tears where everyone is high on adrenaline. Suits? Offices? As long as you are connected with your team and are working well together, those things don’t matter. There is no red-tape, or big top-down structures, everyone and anyone has access to all. Anyone can start working on anything, there are many hats to choose from; wear all. You don’t get bored as things are evolving and stay fresh, there are new ideas, old ideas, odd ideas; anything can change anytime.
At the end of the day, a startup is defined by its growth; when a startup doesn’t grow, it dies; it stops.
There can be several growth stages for a startup, and startups evolve; once they start growing they are now “startedup” and will hopefully grow exponentially. In a perfect world, the cultural values that made the startup fun would remain and in some cases they do (depending on where the growth has lead the startup) but there are times where the culture itself that helped the startup grow and evolve starts conflicting with what is needed to grow to the next level.
Let’s say you follow agile and you end up with iterations, planned work, release schedules and a clear pipeline of what needs to be built. This all worked great when you had 2 products and a team of 10; since you have grown, the expectations of what you can or will deliver have also grown. Some brilliant folks in your team have discovered 2 more products that should be added to your portfolio; how do you grow your current 2 products (since they have a feature and defect backlog) and also work on these 2 new products without increasing your team size, changing delivery for current products or burning out resources? Before you grew, you may have had your own expectations of when and how you would bring on these two new products; now that you’ve grown, others may have different expectations from you and your team(s). Maybe you say “we need more people”, which brings me to the next point
With the growth of the startup, either through sales, funding or more investment and the need to create more product it is decided that you bring on more people, and you do. You end up facing the same issue, how do you grow people with the same 10 resources you had who are busy working the two existing products; some of the people you bring on may be self-starters and will figure everything out by themselves but what about the ones who don’t? So now you say “we need some process and automation to free up some of the manual work so that we can do more with the same resources”, which brings us to…
How do you focus on process and automation to free up time when the people you have are busy with supporting the existing two products, or are supporting the existing two products and are also trying to bring the new hires on-board?
A part of me says that the above three growth challenges are not really challenges and that they are part of what it means to be a startup culture and are expected. However; there are a few by-products that the 3 P’s create that can become toxic, stop growth and hurt the culture if they are not accounted for when trying to grow.
The Frat party & the first team
The first team consists of the people that built the startup; it was their teamwork and effort that made the startup grow; anyone who comes later is an outsider and “we need to be careful about who we let into our frat party” (once upon a time I lived on frat row). This one is not intentional, but when you work closely in teams and blur the line between friendship and co-workers, you end up creating an inner circle and make it challenging for an outsider to easily integrate and feel welcomed. This by-product is a blocker for People growth.
The golden simple process
At some point there was predictability and little chaos in what all needed to be done (smaller team, less products) so everyone starts expecting things to always be perfect. Even though you have grown, you have kept your process simple and did not optimize for KPI’s and other metrics that can help with predictability, complexity, risk and estimation. There will be times where things change, dates get reset and/or product scope creeps. If you had built a roadmap of what releases when, had committed the teams to that and put all these releases with their iterations back-to-back (because of all the product that had to get pushed out to show growth and maturity) and dates or requirements change on you (usually not for the better) the team and its happy culture will get disrupted as it will take effort to get things back on track; when/if this happens all the time, it gets hard to get away from the domino effect and people burn out, get disengaged and/or leave. This by-product is a blocker for Process growth.
When you were small, everyone knew what everyone else was doing, everyone shared and individuals had their skillsets. Now you have grown, 2 months ago you were 10 people, today you are 75, the 65 newer ones don’t understand the code base or the original design, there is some good documentation but they need more information and there are 3 key people who know different things about the original products; original products that you want the new 65 people to work on so that the first team can work on the two new ones; how do you distribute the knowledge known by the 3 key people, make them available to the 65 and allow the 3 key people to focus on their new projects? If they are constantly being pinged by others and cannot get their work done; their sense of accomplishment doesn’t scale much; especially if you did not plan for them to set time aside and help others. This by-product is a blocker for Product growth.
Each blocker is situation (just like leadership) and can be solved; we will examine and solve for each, before we move onto other “StartedUp” culture challenges. The next post goes into process KPI’s and metrics – addressing the golden simple process blocker.