The Weird Relationship Between Startups and Scalability

In the days before electric starters, drivers would need to crank their car’s engine before they were able to drive. Once it was going, it would keep going, but it was a laborious process to get it going. The whole activity of cranking the engine was dirty. It was manual and separated from the automated and efficient activity of running, but it was also a necessary component. Why am I talking about this? Because this relationship is analogous to the relationship between startups and scalability.*

Let me clarify — in the launch phase of any startup, we must do things that do not scale. Nearly all software companies have to recruit users manually in the beginning. That certainly isn’t the ideal growth model. At the same time, we must put the efficient processes in place that make growth scalable. That is, without impediments or bottlenecks. And, eventually, we must ditch these non-scalable activities altogether. It makes for a love/hate relationship with the whole thing.

That’s a strange concept. Our intuition tells us that people will beat a path to your door if you build a better product. If they don’t, it must be because the market doesn’t yet exist. But, this isn’t true. Companies take off because founders make them take off. It usually requires some sort of push to get them going — and it is usually something that is inefficient, not immediately cost effective and requires a huge amount of resources.

Even well-funded startups have this strange relationship with scalability. For example, Airbnb jumpstarted their growth by going door-to-door in New York for 30 days. Today, they boast over 6 million users with more than a 200% growth rate year-after-year. Incredible, isn’t it? For them, those 30 days were the difference between success and failure.

For some of you, that’s a breath of fresh air. You mean those unscalable things I’ve been doing are ok? Yes. For now. But, there comes a point when other areas of your business will require more intense focus. At that point, you need to be honest with yourself. If you’ve come to the point where you can no longer give every task your all and you have the ability to delegate, don’t hesitate. Implement those processes. Scale!

The reason we resist scale is because we are either trying to increase current profit margins or we do not trust others to complete tasks to our standards. Often, it’s both. At the slightest hint of amateur performance from our team, there is a tendency to say, “I’ll just do it.” And, instead of turning those moments into teachable opportunities, we pile on more on ourselves. Ironic.

There is no doubt that any startup founder wears a lot of hats but lack of delegation and process management can create an overwhelming bottleneck for any company. Without it, it can be difficult to focus on the big picture. Instead, our focus shifts to completing tasks and keeping the collective head above water. The result? Unwarranted stress and lack of growth.

At some point, you cannot be both a CEO and a janitor. It’s a necessary function at first, but delay in assigning tasks will hinder your company’s growth. Your role must switch from a doer to a thinker — you must become the strategic manager and the evangelist of your mission. Your team must carry the mission forward.

It is important to delegate. As an entrepreneur, the time you’ve spent wearing multiple hats has trained you for this. Your experience in virtually every department — sales, marketing, product development, engineering, etc. — has given you the experience to recruit the right team. You know what to look for in new team members because you know the skills required already.

We must evolve as leaders. Our inability to scale causes us to see less than the big picture. It keeps us from thinking strategically — for ourselves and our customers. It keeps us buried in work and not in growth.

*This analogy can be first attributed to Paul Graham.