Maturity and Scale

Startups are swapping talent, valuing the unknown over the known, paying more for the swap, and losing institutional knowledge for the hope of something better.

You hear it in every startup, “We need leaders who know how to scale.” Or in hushed tones when talking about an early employee, “I don’t think she can scale with the business.” Or worse, “We need to uplevel the team.” I love that one. These are high tech cliches which mask the fear many founding teams feel. “Are we good? Can we do better? What’s missing?

Depending on who’s talking, this idea of scaling or upleveling is a rationale for hiring expensive people who bring another experience. But “another” experience is not necessarily the experience every startup needs.

Here’s how it works. Person A begins working for Startup #1 right out of college. Somewhere in their second or third year as the business grows, the founding team decides Person A “can’t scale.” Person A disagrees, leaves, and immediately gets hired by Startup #2 with a much higher salary. Startup #2 celebrates, “This person has experience and can scale our business! We’ve just upleveled our team! Yeah!” Meanwhile, Startup #1 does the same thing: hires from Startup #2 and celebrates.

Startups are swapping talent, valuing the unknown over the known, paying more for the swap, and losing institutional knowledge for the hope of something better.

Sometimes the magic works. Most of the time it doesn’t.

People make careers out of this, their resumes riddled with one-year commitments. They do this upward dance, increasing their salaries by double-digits with every jump. Masters of the first impression.

So here’s my advice to startups:

  1. There are no silver bullets out there. No unicorn prospective employees.
  2. Other people’s experience, while helpful, is just other people’s experience.
  3. Institutional knowledge is impossible to replace. Invest in it. Develop it.
  4. When adding experienced employees, tell them: “Let your experience inform you, but don’t replicate it here. Be open to new ways of doing things. This is a new place.”
  5. Remember that every new leader or employee brings baggage. Find it, learn from it, and help them adapt.

Scaling, upleveling, maturing — whatever you call it — is important for any business. But don’t let it destroy what got you here. Don’t let it create another bureaucracy, another institutional block of inhuman behavior. We have enough of those companies. Create something new. Something that challenges norms. Something that incorporates humanity into the workplace. It’s scary because we so desperately need to be affirmed and confirmed.

“Am I doing it right?”

You are. Your people are. In your ways. Embrace it.