What happens to startups when they grow up?

You’re not going to like the answer.

Truth is, most startups die.
– 9 out of 10 startups fail (according to Genome Project)
– 1 out of 200 become a scaleup (according to THNK & Deloitte Fast Ventures)
It’s the elephant in the room.

Everybody talks about startups, and celebrates entrepreneurship, and so we should.

But “getting our ecosystem to produce a greater number of scale-ups is more ambitious and challenging than producing a greater number of start-ups or celebrating entrepreneurs.”

“UK boasts a host of successful businesses and starts more companies per capita than the US. Yet, the main stumbling block to growing a global tech empire is the country’s current inability to “scale-up” these startups into larger companies”
(Sherry Coutu, ScaleUp Report)


This is the reason why I find most advice given to entrepreneurs useless:
– they are obvious (e.g. don’t hire bad developers. Thank you, I was planning to do that on purpose)
– they are contradictory and subjective (qualifiers as good/bad, slow/fast are only determined as such in retrospect)
– they form aspirational quotes that everybody repeats without truly understanding what they mean (move fast and break things, anyone?)

More importantly, they failed to address what successful scaling looks like,
and what it takes to grow in size and complexity in a sustainable way.

Scaling comes with predictable challenges:
Yes! Pretty predictable.
As companies of various sizes and industries grow, they face similar crisis at each stage of their evolution. Scaling successfully requires to recognise the early signs of each phase and proactively design the following one.


a. the leadership crisis: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”
Designing a product or a service and building a business require different skills.
– the creative, organic and informal ways of working are not effective anymore.
– the attention moves from people to processes, from product to customers.
– Founders are forced to pass the hat, create new functions to divide the tasks for greater efficiency.
– Culture is diluted as new people join the company. Early joiners find it difficult to articulate and institutionalise the “tribal knowledge”

b. the autonomy crisis: “Why so serious?”

As a functional organisation is put in place with clear and separate roles and responsibilities, hierarchy of titles and position builds, work standards and incentives are adopted.
Yet Founders and managers are disconnected from the coal-face while teams feel torn between following procedures and taking initiatives on their own.

c.the control crisis: “Ground control to major Tom”
As greater autonomy is given through a decentralised structure proves useful to gain expansion (e.g. market territories), a serious problem appears. The top executives are losing control over a highly diversified field operation. It becomes difficult to coordinate plans, money, technology.


d.the red tape crisis: “Brazil”
As formal systems are put in place to achieve greater coordination (planning, reporting, procedures for allocation investments across groups), the proliferation of systems begins to exceed its utility.
Coordination is useful to achieve growth through a more efficient allocation of the company’s limited resources, but procedures take precedent over problem solving and innovation is dampened.

In order to scale successfully:

  • know where you are in the development cycle:
    you need to be aware of these stages and recognise when the time for change has come
  • be prepared to dismantle your current organisation
  • plan your next stage, and consciously design your new structure, it will not form automatically.
  • realise that each solution breeds new problems. predict future problems and coping strategies

My recommendation to scale up founders and executives, as they dismantle and design a better version of their business:

  • favour social control and self-discipline through cross-functional task groups and teams.
  • align individual and collective efforts around simple, unified and multi-purpose metrics and systems
  • invest in real-time information platforms and integrate them into daily decision-making
  • reward team performance rather than individual achievement
  • experiment and reward new practices
  • invest in education and training to develop the appropriate behavioural skills in your company

The only way to do that is to articulate and solidify the core components of your company: your purpose, your culture, your decision-making process and communications flow,
– and to define the appropriate people skills and processes to deliver the capabilities you need to win…. with built-in flexibility.

It’s hard to do it alone.
Have the courage to ask for help.

sources: Greiner highlighted these stages back in 1994 in his paper “Evolution and Revolution as organisations grow”. Oldie but goodie.
I have worked in companies of various sizes, across various industries, and am finding his analysis still very contemporary and relevant almost 20 years after.
Photo Credit: John Atherton – Kindergarten graduates, San Francisco, California 1945

The opportunity awaits in your blind spot

Allegory of Vanity

I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard that phrase: “think like a startup, act like a startup”… I guess you stopped counting too.

But this imperative calls for a deeper question, why is it so hard for existing businesses to do so?
And aren’t we underestimating the harshness of being a startup?

You need to start with the definition of a startup: A startup is an organization formed to search for a scalable and repeatable business model (according to Steve Blank, in “The four steps to Epiphany”)
Read it again. The startup is formed to seach…
The establish organisations isn’t formed to search – it’s designed to execute.

Startup entrepreneurs undergo tremendous pain and agony through the growth process between idea and product/market fit and revenue generation.
They will have to go through  the hard questioning, doubting, hole-poking and criticism inside an accelerator to make the venture even stronger.  I haven’t met any manager or executive in established businesses willing to go through such pain… because they don’t have time to do so, and they have no incentivized to do so.

So maybe for established businesses to think and act like startups, they need to institutionalise some time to doubt, to assess wrongful assumptions, challenge their limiting beliefs, articulate their intuitions, raise questions (see leads of belief change in one of my previous posts).

Continue reading The opportunity awaits in your blind spot

#Accountability – Looker

Analytics is something that’s easy to put off. When you’re actively building a company and trying to figure out your value proposition, collecting and splicing data can seem non-critical or premature. But then, all of a sudden, you hit a point where things get complex, you need to understand your customers much better, and you have lots of unusable data because you captured it the wrong way — or didn’t capture it at all.

via FirstRound