As of 2020, startup founders or early members are regarded as iconic individuals that people and media are enthusiastic about. This is why even the growing pains behind the scenes are often romanticized.
If you’re in a fast-growing startup, after attracting a large round of funding and working as a founder or early member, I think you will most likely have (and continue to have) growth pains. I also dealt with growth pains with great difficulty, and I am still trying to handle it nicely by soothing the growth pain, as if I were exercising with a muscle pain that I am accustomed to.
Keep in mind that it’s not just your fault that you’re going through those pains. That being said, even if growth pains haven’t come yet, or you’ve already overcome certain growth pains, it may not be because you handled the situation as well as you thought.
The Law of Startup Physics
The growth rate of a hyper-scaling company starts to hover around 50% per year and can go up to 200%, 300%, or more. SendBird has achieved an annual growth rate of over 300% during our early stages. To drive that rapid growth, you, as the executive of the company, would have poured everything you own. It could be through a continuous working day, where you stay up all night until 3 am every day, or it could be utilizing all your existing experiences and connections.
Unfortunately, you can’t pour more than 300% of everything you’ve poured out so far. It’s difficult enough to keep pouring the corresponding 100% over the last 5, 7 or 10 years. There is an obvious limit to what you can keep up with when it comes to the growth rate of a company that has entered a hyper-speed growth phase (assuming that you are repeating the method of previous success).
Discontinuity of The Growth
The growth that lies ahead of your expectation is not a single line of succession, but a discontinuity.
SendBird started as a B2C service called Smile Mom in November 2012, and in early 2015, we pivoted towards the current B2B, Enterprise Software model. Working with Y Combinator in 2016, and after attracting Series A funding in December 2017, our Korea-centric headcounts and cultures were rapidly replaced with operations and go-to-market strategies centered around the U.S. and the rest of the world. The company, which was simply operating with a product team and sales/growth team, has now been diversified into countless teams with more than 200 employees working out of about 7 global offices.
These changes evolve into the different stages of growth, and it requires the new rules of the game to respond with completely different characteristics of each growth stage. Therefore, there are clear limitations that existing talents cannot overcome unless they break the boundaries of their own experiences and strengths.
Psychological Injury and Inability to Recover
Most of the advice you get in this case is probably similar to the following:
Unlearn what led you and the company successful and Learn new what requires to scale yourself and the company
However, this advice does not take into account the psychological anxiety (and potential reality) that you had feeling like you could be replaced at any time when you were experiencing a stagnant period of growth.
That psychological injury will make you perceive yourself as a victim and tragic hero of this situation. It will then hinder you from all the rational judgement and strategic thinking that will allow you to objectively grasp the situation and explore the necessary changes to accommodate your challenges. In my experience, at least, it seems to have taken a year to heal from the injury, get out of the dark, long tunnel, and walk on my own two feet again.
In October 2018, three years after introducing the first Chat API product, the company broke through a long period of Death Valley and just closed $17m of venture funding. We also hired a VP of Sales and a CFO to lead the company into the next stage of growth. I remember it as an autumn Sunday night; the CEO called me and suggested a dinner in the lobby of the Pullman Hotel in the San Francisco Bay area.
Mark. You said you want to do your own business one day, and you don’t want to grow as a marketing executive. Right? The company now needs marketing executives to help us grow to the next level. So I want you to focus more on the company’s Operations than on sales or marketing roles from now on.
No matter how kindly he tried to elaborate, the explanation sounded like a death sentence to me saying I was ineligible to drive our company to the next level. We began exploring a new CMO the next day and it, starting with this Sunday evening that acted as a prelude to all of my negative experiences and perceptions, wounded me and left scars in my mind that needed a deep and long-term recovery. I don’t have to list all the details here, but surprisingly, I’ve been able to get a glimpse of the experiences that many other successful Silicon Valley leaders have had moving on from their past failures, since I’m not the only one who has gone through these tragedies.
Inevitable Losses That You Have to Face
Here’s why advice like growth or change doesn’t work for you right now, when psychological injuries have stopped growth. After all, you must have been adaptable to changes and had an intense desire to grow and place your startup on the track of the up game during all this time. Therefore, while you may understand in your head what kind of change is necessary, I can fully empathize that you might feel like it is difficult to accept this rough situation with your heart.
Who wants to lose their place from being devoted to their time, passion and dedication? And, if you had known that this loss was coming from the start, would you have been willing to dedicate everything that made you and your company what you are today?
In the past, when many friends shared their emotional pains from when they left startups that they had grown as early members or co-founders, I simply thought that they weren’t good enough or that they could not cope with the changes. But over time, when it finally became my turn to face the pain, I could understand why they had to express their emotions in such an explosive way.
One Ultimate Question You Have to Ask: Will You Continue the Game or Will You Leave?
Suppose your baseball team was stuck at the bottom of the league. After recruiting a new club owner, and strengthening players with financial support, your team is finally about to make it into the playoffs. You used to be a clean-up hitter, but due to a sudden injury, a new player is swiftly brought in to replace you. The communication about this position change was not smooth (because it was in the middle of a fast-paced season). The newly formatted team, created without having consideration of how you feel, has bonded together impressively and is looking forward to working towards the goal of winning the league.
Will you retire or move to another team? Or would you rather stay as a benchwarmer and win the league with this team?
This is a question that I constantly asked myself to heal my emotional wounds and focus on taking the next step for growth in early 2019. This thought came as a result of objectively analyzing the overall situation from a variety of different perspectives in order to prevent my own biases from influencing my understanding of my current reality.
If it’s more important for you to wear the champion ring as a member of the team, you should no longer question whether the process was fair or who gets the bigger spotlight. Unfortunately, this is the principle of the game of startups. There are some people who play the game once again, even after knowing these rules nonetheless.
What we need to expect isn’t the absence of the changes that might hurt me badly, but to pray that the wound can heal as soon as possible. I encourage you to take the time to take care of your current wounds and be bold to yourself and ask deeply about what you really want in mind, rather than neglect the wounds in order to simply move on. Only then can you take a step with sincerity and move forward towards the next phase of your startup’s growth.