Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe. Follow @RianVDM
Startup growth is ok, career happiness is better
If you’re at a company where the next step up the ladder means managing people more than managing the quality of the design the company is producing, get the hell out of there. There’s way too much design to be done to be losing good people to idiotic corporate structures that take our best designers out of commission.
– Mike Monteiro, Design Is a Job
Those are some harsh words from Mike. But it’s a topic I’ve been thinking about quite a bit. I’ve now spent about an equal number of years at small companies as I have at big companies. And I’ve come up with a theory that I probably shouldn’t even write about yet, because I might be wrong. But in the spirit of thinking out loud, here goes — as long as you know I’m open to being convinced otherwise.
My theory is that as soon as a company grows to a size where the people who make the strategic decisions aren’t the same people who actively work on making the product, it becomes very hard for that company to continue to serve the needs of its customers. Not impossible, just much harder. We recently did some work with a startup where the founders are also the people who write all the code for their product. They were passionate, engaged, ego-less, and interested in only one thing: how to make their product better for customers.
But in bigger companies, what often happens is that once you enter the management career path, priorities start to change. You need to learn how to play the game so that you don’t become irrelevant. You need to watch your back. You need to figure out how HR works so that you can get to the next step on the ladder. Directors need to know how to become VPs. VPs need to know how to becomes Senior VPs. Senior VPs need to know if there is any growth left for them. And sooner or later, you spend so much time caught up in the politics of the organization that there is simply no room left to worry about customers.
I am not saying that all managers are like this — I have been in these situations myself, and I know how difficult it can be to stay sane, and I know many people who are managing the pressures extremely well. But it doesn’t help that we tend to measure business success by the size of a company, and personal success by the seniority of people’s roles within that company. In his much-praised post Startup = Growth, Paul Graham said the following:
Eventually a successful startup will grow into a big company.
Mark Suster responds to this particular idea in a very interesting post called Is Going for Rapid Growth Always Good? Aren’t Startups So Much More?:
Some entrepreneurs can make a dent in a smaller world. […] It’s ok to build a company that stays small, has a few million dollars in revenue and builds careers, bank accounts and enriches client experiences.
A poster child for this kind of startup is 37signals, whose CEO Jason Fried has repeatedly stated that they deliberately stay small. From an interview with Fast Company:
I’m a fan of growing slowly, carefully, methodically, of not getting big just for the sake of getting big. […] There’s a great quote by a guy named Ricardo Semler, author of the book Maverick. He said that only two things grow for the sake of growth: businesses and tumors. We have 35 employees at 37signals. We could have hundreds of employees if we wanted to — our revenues and profits support that — but I think we’d be worse off.
My point is that each of us needs to think carefully about the kind of career we want to have. If the title at a big company is what you’re after, that’s great, but make sure it’s because that’s what you want, not what the system makes you think you want.
But if you find that a company focus on growth is making it harder to make customers happy, or that you’re no longer able to do the things that you love so much that you decided to make a career out of it, it might be time to consider working at a company where the decision-makers and the doers are the same people. You might make less money, but you’ll also be happier.