Getting through the muck

It’s amazing how much a small team can get done. 

(Consider David and Marco during the earliest days of Tumblr)

The team is small, the balance sheet is tiny but productivity soars. Any and all decisions are solvable by getting everyone together in a room. That is because it’s literally easy to get everyone in a room as the team is small.

Small teams are durable, flexible and productive. Decisions by consensus works. 

But the company has ambition and needs more people for the mission. So the company starts to hire.

As the company starts hiring productivity slows down (or worse). All of a sudden the founder says, “Holy hell, how did we get here. We have more talented people than ever but we are moving so slowly.”


And while it’s painful for the founder(s), it can be beyond frustrating to the team. They left their previous job to work at a hot growing company only to find that the team is completely disorganized and people are now complaining.

So here is some good news and bad news:

The good news: you aren’t alone. The majority of growing startups go through this stage.

The bad news: it’s not fun and it highlights a number of things you need to watch out for. And if you don’t, companies can get stuck in this phase for far too long.

Things to consider:

-how good is your vp of engineering. he or she may have been an amazing developer when the team was small but can do great people want to work for them?

-how good are other members of the management team? 

-is the team organized properly. are the right people working on the right things. i love this interview with chris fry who runs engineering at twitter. 

-is the team bought into the plan. if not, why? are deadlines arbitrary? did the team have input? is it ambitious enough or too ambitious?

-on boarding process. it’s a tragedy to go overcome so many challenges to hire a new person only to have them join and not know what they are supposed to do. 

It’s seductive to convince yourself in the early days that all we need to do is keep our culture and hire more people and assume productivity goes up. Hiring without great management can be a full blown nightmare. 

But if you can build the right foundation with the best managers, you will have the opportunity to build something truly great. 

The “blah blah blah on steroids”

We often hear about new products that promise to beat the current market leader by being the “blah blah blah on steroids”

I’m not a big fan of this strategy

That doesn’t mean that the market leader isn’t vulnerable but it’s a question of the approach. 

Apple didn’t put a hurt on Microsoft desktop business by a better version of macos. They put the hurt by nailing a new category altogether with the iPad. 

By contrast Microsoft has adopted the “on steroid” strategy in many of their products. 

The Surface tablet is an attempt to be an “iPad on steroids”. It has a keyboard, it shipped with a pro and consumer model. It can do split screen. The list goes on. 

You know how well the Surface did. 

Google clearly felt threatened by Facebook so they tried to create a “Facebook on steroids” with google+ 

G+ launched with a sophisticated system to manage your contacts called Circles. The cognitive load was overwhelming. G+ came with as ton of other features like video conferencing, high res images and its arrivals cluttered up the rest of google web apps which had previously been light and pure. 

You know how google+ turned out so far. 

Over the years I’ve seen pitches for YouTube on steroids, Flickr on steroids, WordPress on steroids, yahoo shopping on steroids, google search on steroids and many many more. 

But here’s the thing. Steroids aren’t good for you. 

The best way to deal with YouTube is Vine and Snapchat. 

Flickr on steroids is a mistake. Instagram was the answer. 

WordPress on steroids. Nah, think Tumblr and Medium. 

Yahoo shopping on steroids. Nope, think about things like Storenvy. 

Google Search is vulnerable. Now more than ever. Try searching for a product review. It’s busted. The spammers and content farm won. But a google search on steroids isn’t the answer. A new approach is. 

Less is more is a powerful notion. But it’s deeper than that. Redefining an experience in a unique way is how you beat the market leader. 

And that’s when you put a dent in the universe.