Lowering the Barrier

Making programming (everything) more accessible

13 Oct 2021

How to Grow Without Losing Your Soul

The most common question candidates ask me is, “how quickly do you plan to grow the team?” What they’re really asking is, “am I going to be a key part of something special or a cog in a machine?”

I get it. There’s prestige in joining a founding team early. Employee number five can shape the trajectory of the company more freely than employee number fifty.

At a company that’s growing it’s userbase consistently, the bulk of the users lie in the future. Same thing for jobs. Most of the work lies in the future. No matter when you join, you’ll have direct influence over millions of future users and your future coworkers as well.

If your userbase doubles every six months, the company is going to feel like a whole new company every six months. Infrastructure and process that work now won’t work when you double or quadruple. If knowing for certain what you’re going to be working on a few months from now bores you, joining a growth-stage startup is the cure.

Projecting recent growth into the future is a great way to look at the impact you can have. There is, however, a fundamental law of nature to consider: as companies grow bigger, they get lamer.

That law applies to all groups of people. Quirkiness can thrive on a small team. Largeness pushes you toward conformity, homogeneity, the lowest common denominator, cheese pizza.

How do you sidestep the lameness?

Grow the size of the company as slowly as you can. There’s a limit to how fast busy teams can interview, sign, and onboard new employees anyhow. That speed limit is on your side. Doing a job with the team you have before hiring for that job will slow things down as well (and you may find out you don’t need to hire for the role).

Also, and most crucially, carefully watch the incentives to grow a team. Hands-on individual contributors will spend most of their time building and some of their time recruiting. People hired straight into management will have every incentive to grow their teams. That’s why it pays to have everyone who joins your company start out hands-on. Even if they move quickly into a leadership role, they’ll have built the habit of doing work ahead of hiring.

Incentives matter a lot, so it’s worth finetuning them. Praise people for shipping, especially for shipping gnarly behind-the-scenes stuff that no one asks for but everyone needs. The inflection point for lameness comes when talking or telling people what to do garners more prestige than actually doing work. Getting this right requires constant attention. At least one person has to bring order out of chaos on each team. The clarity that comes from getting organized is valuable. But no engineer should spend one hundred percent of their time organizing.

Write down what makes your culture special and fight to keep those things. We’re going through this exercise with the whole Replit team right now. It sounds corporate but if we don’t do it we’ll be leaving our company culture to chance.

I’ve worked at startups of various shapes and sizes over the past two decades. At each one, I’ve had moments when I look around and say, “gee, remember when we only had X people?” I’ve also consistently felt like there’s too much going on, that if we could stop the world for three months we could catch up. Those two feelings share the same root cause: growth. You can look forward and try to grow deliberately or you can hang out awash in nostalgia, but in the end growth is what you sign up for.