All hands on deck sinks a startup.

At the earliest stages, startups are exhilarating. Not only do you get to see and know everything that is going on, you are relied upon to make everything happen. But what happens when your startup’s growth outpaces the abilities of the founders and early employees? Often, chaos and dysfunction ensue, if the team cannot adapt.

In the March 2016 Harvard Business Review Article: Start-Ups That Last, authors Ranjay Gulati and Alicia DeSantola contend:

Founders typically do a bit of everything—basically, whatever it takes to get the business off the ground. Through informal channels they hire fellow generalists, who cobble together their roles and responsibilities partly by pursuing their own passions and partly by looking around and seeing what needs to be done. This idiosyncratic “all hands on deck” approach can work fine in the beginning, when adrenaline is high and the company is small. But as organizations expand, they face new levels of complexity that require them to define and assign tasks more formally.

We saw this at SmartThings but were slow to react and change. We just tried to do more and more, each of us thinking that working all day and then going home and working all night, was somehow sustainable and best for the business. Sure, we eventually added specialized people who helped us tremendously, but even then, those folks had to come in and clean up processes and circumstances that had never gotten off the ground or had atrophied.

Founders often resist bringing discipline to their growing startup, for fear of losing agility and control. But then, ironically, operations become chaotic and performance suffers and that control and agility are lost to reflex and reaction.

The idea of hiring people better than you is given lots of lip service, but in practice, it is hard for many.  Some people when asked to hire their own bosses to supervise activities they had nurtured since the beginning, find the new reality hard to accept. We, like many founders, soon learned how much we didn’t know about functional areas such as operations, fulfillment, retail, and international expansion. We hired people who knew these things and had skills we did not. What we possessed in spades however, was an understanding of SmartThings and it’s customers. We understood our culture and how we wanted the organization to feel, but we weren’t sure how to imprint these values onto new employees—especially with the rapid growth we were experiencing, in some months adding 20-30 people.

Leaders of start-ups see strategy, the pursuit of a clearly defined path that is systematically identified in advance, as the enemy of entrepreneurship, which requires ventures to be opportunistic and quickly shift course as they learn what customers want.

But what I am now coming to understand is, by applying lean startup practices around a common purpose and core set of values, to some more traditional strategic planning activities, a company stands a better chance of weathering difficult growth periods and pivots. Stated more simply, startups should “combine deliberate and emergent strategy”.

You can think of the iterative and incremental daily choices as the gunpowder providing the propulsion of the entity while the strategic vision and planning is the scope, aiming at a target. Without the two methods working together, we are just firing randomly or simply watching a target in our sights.

Agile design

At the MinneBar conference in May I presented a session titled Agile Design and a great discussion ensued. The talk centered around the concepts and ideas of the Agile Method, but, you guessed it, as it related to information and visual design. I have had a great opportunity in my current role to help to define and evolve our process and practices surrounding software design and development. I love the team I work with and hope to continue breaking new ground with them.

I also wanted to post a bit about some ongoing and upcoming projects I am involved in so you know what I have been up to and what to expect.

First, I am planning to launch a new site with some peers of mine that will be focused on the agile method and particularly how it pertains to the development of “web 2.0” apps. You might think of it as a Signal vs. Noise type blog with less of a marketing spin.

I am also helping to plan OpenBar for the fall of 2006. OpenBar will pick up where MinneBar left off but its entire focus will be on open source software, using open source in your business, and is aimed at developing, enriching, and bringing together Minnesota’s large but disjointed open source community.

I also have a Minnesota blog aggregation site brewing slowly, but my decision to write in Ruby and on the Rails framework (as my first foray into such technologies) is retarding my progress. Hopefully, I will post more on this soon.

Lastly, this site is on the verge of another facelift. I really like the new visual design a lot, but am more excited by some of the ways the new site will be organized as well as some of the additional features and content I will be adding. Not sure when this will happen, but I am hoping for a June launch.