Growing up without growing old: How to keep the startup spirit as you scale

When you’ve launched your product, raised a round or two, and scaled the business beyond the early days, inevitably things start to slow down.

You used to speak in hours and days, and now it’s months and quarters. You used to obsess about innovation and being at the front of the market, and now you’re feeling bogged down shipping table-stakes features. It feels like the world wants you to slow down, to become boring, and to take your place alongside the incumbents.

This talk I gave at Web Summit 2021 is about pushing back against that. I dive into how to remain a startup, the main pitfalls businesses should avoid as they scale and how, even 10 years in, we go about growing up without ever growing old.

“You grow into the big, bloated company once you stop being a startup”

If you’re short on time, here are some takeaways:

  • Never compromise on speed. Don’t overthink it – it’s best to ship fast and early and iterate as you go than waiting for the next month, the next quarter, or the next report to tell you you’re ready for launch.
  • Every step you add to a process is a potential improvement and a guaranteed slowdown. Be mindful of the steps you’re adding, especially as you hire people from larger companies.
  • It’s tempting to compare yourself to the leader you’re trying to outsmart, but resist the urge to go and copy bits of their strategy. You won’t beat them playing by their rules.
  • Employees lose motivation with every hurdle, every stressful launch, every friction between departments. Keep the optimism alive and show them that the work they’re doing matters.
  • Don’t sleep on your relationship with customers. You might be tempted to ignore a complaint or a nasty tweet, but showing you care about their feedback goes a long way in making things right.
  • As you scale, it’s really easy to find yourself working on filler projects that add no value to the business. Make sure people stay laser-like focused on what really matters.

But the absolute key takeaway, if you ask me? You don’t stop being a startup because you grew into this big, bloated company – it’s actually that you grow into the big, bloated company once you stop being a startup. Watch the video above to learn how we try to prevent that happening at Intercom.

Intercom on starting up book