Startup culture is getting a bad rep, and the move fast & break things narrative is starting to unravel. The challenge, I discovered, is when startups turn to scale-ups.
Like many others, I assumed that the word “startup” connoted a mode of working, a state of mind, and that any change in startup philosophy as a company grows (and grows, and grows) is a betrayal of values, a sellout of some kind. But, as with people, companies go through developmental stages where change is necessary, not just to grow, but to survive and thrive. Startup is a stage, one of three.
Stage 1: Startup.
Startups are about experimentation and discovery. Kiss a lot of frogs to hopefully meet your prince/princess (product-market fit). Moving fast is critical so you don’t run out of cash. Breaking things is inevitable, because you need to find out quickly what doesn’t work. And when you find what does work, and you start to get traction, that’s when a phase change is needed.
Stage 2: Scale-up.
Scale-ups are about doubling-down and putting all your chips in. This is a frenetic, get after it type of phase, where things come at you faster than you can handle. VCs push hard for returns, profit is sacrificed for growth, the pressure is enormous. If you didn’t set it up right in the startup phase, then you’re going to be putting out a lot of fires and chasing your tail. You might fail. And not in a good way.
Stage 3: Enterprise.
You’re made it! The madness is over. Time to sit back, smoke a big cigar and let the cash just roll in forever. Deep down in your heart you’re still a startup, and the market knows and respects that, but let’s not take any actual risks. Let’s not go crazy here. Right?
Problem with this last part isn’t that a lot of risk is good, or even that Enterprise founders forget everything they learned as startups or scale-ups. It’s that they often forget about the need to change. Until it’s too late. I don’t mean move fast and break things, I mean move fast and change things.
Enterprise, remember – but don’t try to repeat – your startup phase. Move fast. Embrace change. Listen carefully to the market and, critically, listen to your people. Then you can move fast without breaking things.