Complexity Is a Startup Killer. Don’t Grow Up

John Cutler
Aug 15, 2016 · 3 min read

Complexity is a startup killer. Like a giant anchor, it slows you down until you’ve lost the only two advantages a startup will have: speed and focus.

Credit: AMC (The Prisoner)

Complexity manifests when you target multiple jobs-to-be-done, elephant hunt, scale up, hire quickly, cut corners, and implement too many “good ideas” (which seem to ooze from every pore). The impact is exponential as you add more fuel (people, experienced people in particular) to the fire. Before you know it, no one knows what’s going on.

We’re not talking an autonomous ant colony here. Nor are we talking about a Company like Spotify or Intuit with its dozens of pod-like squads, guilds, and colleges. When you’re further along in your business — or have evolved since the mid-Cretaceous period — you can start to divide and conquer. With a startup, you are none of those things. You’re still building, measuring, and learning. Anything that constrains that is an antipattern.

Brazil (1985) — Director: Terry Gilliam

The problem here is that complexity is incredibly tempting to add! Let features reproduce. Get the contract management tool. Scale up sales. Close the deal. Pitch the next product enhancement. Add more people to your board. Find partnerships. Say Yes. Hire “experienced” people (in quotes because Company experience doesn’t equate to Startup experience). We’re eager, and there are a full 24hrs in the day. And you’ve always got those “good ideas”…

In creeps the complexity like a thick fog over the Sunset District. But the fog almost never clears. Once you’ve gone down the rabbit hole, it is nearly impossible to come back up for air.

Startups always flirt with a chaotic, existential breakdown. You’re on the precipice, even if you don’t know it. Complexity is a safety blanket. It feels and smells like momentum. The opposite — keeping it raw and focused — is scary as shit. And it looks nothing like Company work.

But you NEED to fight to resist complexity, even if it freaks you out. Not in the problem space — for sure, chase after complex challenges — but in the execution and organizational space. Keep things so small, nimble, and simple that it causes you near term pain (imagine you’re smelling your favorite dish in the world and have to walk away). Don’t be a mini version of a Company. You’ll have plenty of time to grow up.

John Cutler

Written by

Multiple hat-wearer. Prod dev nut. I love wrangling complex problems and answering the why with qual/quant data. @johncutlefish on Twitter.

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