Startup challenges and how they can differ from large companies: Team Work

In a two-person startup, roles and responsibilities are pretty straightforward.  Figuring out ownership, decision-making and how to manage projects from start to finish is almost a no-brainer.  For five years it has been pretty clear between John and me what each of us is responsible for and how we make decisions.  What typically happens is we might not realizing we missed something until we are done and then go back and address it (wishing we had realized it sooner). Now once a startup has found product-market fit it is probably time to grow the team to cover all these bases, go faster and make sure nothing gets missed along the way.

Clearly as the company grows not everything can be done by just two people, so new resources are brought on board.  Most of the time these new people will be hired in some area of functional expertise whether it is engineering, product management, sales, operations etc.  These people will allow the team to divide and conquer the different operational elements that drive the company’s success as the company tries to scale.

The challenge is that as the organization and product team grows, the amount of information flow, decision-making and synchronization of work becomes much more complicated.  This becomes even more apparent as different layers of management start to get created thus creating updates and decision making conversations occur at multiple levels. For example a product team can develop their point-of-view about a new release amongst themselves, but then need to review it with the founder, CTO, VP of Product Management etc. for final approval.  This is the kind of multi-stage team work that doesn’t exist in a tiny startup.  If you were one of the first employees of a startup this new amount of complexity in getting a product to market could be frustrating.

In fact, in my career I have seen that most people aren’t used to thinking end-to-end when dealing with a large team trying to get a big initiative into market.

Now I am going to use the dreaded ‘Process’ word.

It really drives me crazy when someone talks about there being too much ‘process’ at a company.  Process is usually just a symptom or an outcome. And in fact most of the time having a defined process for your go-to-market initiatives is critical.

Now I will grant you that as a company grows they tend to become more risk averse which then requires Legal, Regulatory and HR folks to become involved (the lawyers will tell you it’s to protect the assets of the company).  I can’t really argue that these types of added steps in a process aren’t causes of frustration.  Each company is different in terms of how much overhead they require from these functional groups. But this post is really referring to the core functions in a Go-To-Market project, some type of inititative that affects the main business operations of a startup.

What I have seen quite a bit (and occasionally been guilty of myself) are team members who do not think ‘end-to-end’ when working on a highly cross-functional team project.  For a variety of reasons, they focus primarily on their area of responsibility and have blind spots to other areas of the functional aspects of project.  An example is when product management decides to build a feature in a certain way which reduces the ability for Marketing or Sales to drive more revenue.  Or vice-versa where marketing ‘needs’ a particular feature for a release but it will come at the expense of other important user features.

As a company and its teams grow, complexity naturally increases.  More meetings start to take place, more sub-teams go off and work on specific issues and ‘report back’ to the main team.  Clarity of decision making responsibility becomes fuzzy unless special effort is made to define everyone’s role.

Team work in a growing startup is hard. Without using too many sports analogies, not everyone knows how to play their position.  Some people care more about themselves than the team.  Some people aren’t good at compromising and negotiating to strike the proper balance for the better overall good of the team than just their area of responsibility.  Some folks just completely ignore certain stakeholders on the team. And at a very basic level, some people aren’t comfortable with the amount of communication and interpersonal relationships necessary within a team environment.


Now here’s the interesting thing.  All the elements I just described about team work manifest themselves in a process to enable the team to perform at a high level. That is the only way to coordinate an important intiative and get it to market on time. There are more meetings, presentations, multi-functional decisions and collaborative compromises that these new processes are used to address.

In a big company, this amount of team work is absolutely necessary. And in well-run organizations not only do folks learn how to effectively work in large teams, they can also understand why the different steps in the process are (occasionally frustrating, but) necessary.

In a growing startup when I hear about people complaining that they long for the ‘old days’ when there wasn’t as much ‘process’ or ‘we don’t need no stinking process’,  I basically think to myself ‘here is someone who does not like to work in large teams’.