The Founder’s Paradox: How to Add Complexity and Avoid It

Founder's Paradox complexity

More customers, more people, more process, more technology — leading to more success. And success leads to financial gains which can be reinvested to grow more customers, more people, more process, more technology. If you are fortunate, this merry-go-round continues. But at times, it can be a bit dizzying the more spins you complete.

The cycle of success, challenge, investment, and more success is every founder’s aim — it means the business is growing.

From the product to the team — with tremendous growth, a new paradox emerges. Because the thing you need to increase (complexity) in order to achieve more of what you want (growth) is exactly what you want to avoid.

And let’s be clear: Even the most streamlined companies become less so as there is more of everything. So, what do you do? You acknowledge it. Sure, there is more that is truly essential than there was in the past, but that does not mean that it needs to weigh you down. You continue to distill ideas and the organization to its essence.

It is a balance I have learned during my experiences founding and leading technology companies over the last 20 years. We have used these learnings at Aha! and intentionally put frameworks in place to support added complexity as our company has grown rapidly over the past five years.

We know that what worked for us when we were a much smaller company does not necessarily serve us well today. This is especially true as we approach 100 teammates and serve more than 5,000 customers.

Here are the insights I have gained when simultaneously adding complexity and simplicity:

Do not fear success
I have always been fascinated by how many teams focus on what might go wrong if things go exceptionally well, rather than pouring their energy into achieving greatness first. If you have a responsive and capable team, do not fret over too many “what if” scenarios and start investing in “scale.” Instead, plan for what you know and welcome opportunities to discover what you do not know along the way. If the value you create results in an overwhelming demand that stretches you and the team, great. I call this a “success disaster.” Do not fear it, embrace it.

Consider all the alternatives
When it is time to scale, consider your options. You have to be curious about every viable approach when you are making changes to your process or structure. For example, would changing how you route support tickets mean you could not serve a certain group of customers as quickly? Ask yourself how the change might impact customers, the team, or the business. Maybe you would be better off organizing your support team differently instead of asking customers to change their behavior. The obvious answer is not always the best approach.

Understand the impact on people
Once you know the alternatives, you need to focus on the people who will do the work. How will the new process or technology change how the team operates? Is that acceptable or are you better off without it? Document what you did and why and what the new goals are. This is not just so that you can best understand the impact, but so the team has clarity too. Distilling complexity for the team is some of your most important work.

Incrementally improve everything
If you consider all alternatives and the impact on the team, it is possible to incrementally improve everything. The key is to add what will have the largest impact with the smallest effort and ongoing maintenance. This way, you can make changes over time that cumulatively allow you to deliver what is needed to keep growing without getting in the way of it.

Throw away the old
Imagine you have a bucket for complexity that you can keep adding to. Most companies keep shoving more in — but you can also do what most never consider and throw some out. So throw away what you no longer need or want. For example, we had an ambassador program at Aha! that took a lot of effort to administer. So, we decided to end the program a few years after we started it. We emptied the bucket of complexity that did not serve us well.   

Growth and simplicity do not have to be mutually exclusive — you can strive for clarity even as you increase complexity.

Explosive growth will undeniably strain the organization at times. You may feel that more of everything is what the organization needs. And sometimes your team will be the ones arguing that more people, process, and technology will cure all. But more, more, more is rarely ever the solution. 

Consider what the team needs to keep creating real and lasting value. It is often a lot less complex than what you first imagined.

Read more of The Founder’s Paradox.

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product roadmap software — and the author of Lovability. His two previous startups were acquired by well-known public companies. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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