Many startups follow a similar narrative arc. A few friends working after hours start a company to build their app. Fueled by ramen, energy drinks, and enthusiasm, they scrape together a minimum viable product and convince some angel investors to back them.
When they get accepted into a top accelerator, things take off quickly. If all goes well, within a couple of years, they have paying customers, a couple of dozen employees, and a shiny office. The startup is featured in tech magazines and is a rising star.
But under the glossy surface, problems were starting to bubble up. As the team grows, the early hires who have worn many hats can no longer keep doing so many things well. Yet they are reluctant to bring in specialists, fearing it would dampen the startup passion. Technical founders are pulled into management roles they aren’t suited for. Communication gets spotty across locations and departments. Egos clash over architectural decisions and competing priorities.
Meanwhile, the product roadmap keeps expanding beyond what the current team can handle. Exciting new features take a backseat to client customization requests and bug fixes. There is no transparent system for prioritizing projects, so people work in silos on whatever seems urgent that day — progress stalls.
The tipping point comes when a significant app update leads to a high-profile outage right before a big product launch. Customers are outraged; finger-pointing ensues, and morale plummets.
The Inflection Point
The course of action changes if the founders realize they have reached an inflection point. They admit that a scrappy garage startup stage is over, but they aren’t yet operating with the discipline needed in a scaling company. Something must change quickly, or this rocket ship can come crashing down.
They thoroughly assess the skills gaps, process breakdowns, technical debt, and misaligned priorities. There are some hard conversations, but ultimately, the team rallies together around a plan to upgrade their talent, get rigorous on planning and process, eliminate distractions, and stay focused on the product vision.
The Growing Pains
The growing pains are tough but necessary. They make teams more assertive and get them back on track for sustainable growth. Here are a few examples of these pains and some suggestions for addressing them.
The skills gap
It’s common for engineering teams to have a mix of very strong developers and those who are just okay — a well-balanced team needs both. As the team evolves and product complexity increases, more skilled engineers can work harder to keep up with the demands, creating bottlenecks.
For example, a senior engineer can spend over 30 hours rewriting a complex feature after a more junior developer couldn’t implement it correctly, significantly delaying the feature launch.
Significant skill level gaps are problematic because they bog down your best people with fixing subpar work. Investing in training and mentoring for less experienced developers can help close these skills gaps. Being selective in hiring also ensures stable skill levels across the team.
With distributed teams and competing priorities, keeping everyone aligned requires a lot of diligence. Many companies lack the processes for managing communications between teams like product and engineering.
At a quickly growing startup, the product team may promise customers a new feature by next month without looping in engineering. Engineering is not aligned on the timeline and may not have the capacity, forcing the startup to delay the launch and disappoint customers publicly.
Collaboration tools, standups, product requirements docs, and proper sprint planning can help align distributed and fast-moving teams like product and engineering to avoid miscommunication.
Lack of clear priorities
As engineering teams scale, it becomes increasingly difficult to prioritize tasks, leading to confusion about what to work on first. This creates an imbalance between building new features and maintaining existing infrastructure.
A CTO may push his engineers to rapidly build and release new features but neglect existing technical infrastructure and bugs. Soon, the product becomes unstable and buggy despite many flashy new features. Customers become frustrated.
A clear prioritization process and roadmap can help teams focus an maintain the right balance between new development and technical upkeep if they have the capacity.
Scaling up often leads to insufficient developers to build new features and maintain existing infrastructure. This often results in overemphasizing shiny new features at the expense of technical maintenance.
At a growing team, a complex backend system can be maintained by just one or two engineers. As the product grows, eventually, the company will hire more people. If the new hires focus solely on building new features that customers can see, the backend may become unstable, causing system failures even as new features are rolled out.
Adding engineering headcount strategically and designating capacity for maintenance can help balance resources between innovation and technical upkeep. This problem and its solution go hand in hand with sorting out the priorities.
Overcoming Growing Pains
The growing pains experienced by startups as they scale are difficult but necessary rites of passage. Addressing skills gaps, communication breakdowns, unclear priorities, and resource constraints will strengthen the team and get the company back on a healthy growth trajectory.
With some self-reflection, planning, and tough conversations, founders can guide their startups through the challenges of this stage. They must be willing to look honestly at what is not working, rally their team around solutions, and stay focused on their long-term vision.
If founders use this inflection point to upgrade their people, processes, and communication, their startups can thrive through the growing pains. They will emerge as more mature organizations, ready to continue growing sustainably. The early stage scrappiness served its purpose, but discipline and rigor are now needed to build something enduring.
Originally posted on Medium.com