This is the ugly truth about scaling startups

That startups grow is fantastic, but it has an ugly side. You won't like it, but you will learn to accept it if you want to expand it

A founder just came to my office to ask me about a complicated problem. The entrepreneur's company, a phone app in a craft niche, managed to create a passionate user base. Now, she and her team are growing beyond that core of early users, and to accommodate all those new people, they've had to release a feature that's causing problems for some early users.

According to the founder, the majority of the company's users don't seem to mind, but there is a small but vocal group that doesn't like the change. They are threatening to leave the platform, and the founder asked me what I thought about what to do. “Honestly, we didn't think it would be so controversial”he told me after explaining to me what had happened. “Do you have any advice?”

“Do you believe that the change you have made is for the good of the business and for the good of the community?”asked.

“Yeah”answered. “We have done many tests and we believe it is the right step based on the results we have obtained”.

“Then don't do anything different.”I told.

«But how are we going to let the early adopters get angry? “Won't we lose a lot of customers?”

“It seems”, I said with a shrug. «But that's success. The more successful you are, the angrier you make people. “It's a very strange and uncomfortable phenomenon to deal with, but it's actually a good thing, so you better get used to it.”

A professor recently asked me a similar question. His classes have become so popular that the department wants him to open them to more students, and he's not sure how to do it successfully.

At first glance, increasing demand for a class – like the increasing demand the founder I met with was trying to manage – is a positive thing. It means you are providing students with significant value. However, scaling the class to accommodate more students requires some changes that will inevitably damage what makes it special for certain types of people.

My advice to him was very similar to what I gave to the founder who was expanding her company: “Accept that it's just not going to work as well, and because of that, you're going to make more people unhappy.”

To explain why this is an inevitable reality, think about the simple logistics of having more people using something. For example, if you were teaching a class with 20 people participating and 5% of them complained, that's just one person complaining about the class. Now imagine you expand the same class to 100 people. If the same 5% complain, that's five people telling everyone how terrible the class is. Even if, percentage-wise, the proportion is identical, hearing five more people complain is going to seem like a lot more. And to be fair, it's a lot more… 5 times more!

And what's worse, those five people are also going to seem louder to others, which could even poison more people's opinions.

The result is a fundamental reality of scaling: The more you scale something, the larger the group of people you're going to piss off. This means that escalating something inevitably means receiving more complaints.

Often the biggest challenge in scaling something from a small group of users to a large group of users is not that the features and services can't be scaled to more people.

The biggest challenge is that serving more clients means opening up to the uniqueness of people. Simply put, everyone is different, and because everyone is different, having more users means having to satisfy an increasingly complex set of needs and expectations.

The solution to addressing these increasingly complex expectations is, paradoxically, to do the opposite of what most business owners think. That's why I told the founder I had met with not to do anything.

Instead of trying to placate everyone in the hopes of serving some kind of imaginary “perfect customer,” learn to accept the diversity of your user base and the simple reality that pleasing everyone is impossible.

“Instead of backtracking on the new feature”I told the founder, who was dealing with angry early adopters, «keep iterating on it. Use feedback to refine and improve it, but don't expect perfection. Does not exist. The best thing you can do is communicate openly with your community about why these changes are necessary and how they align with the company's broader vision. Remember that transparency is crucial. It's the transparency, more than any specific feature, that's really going to mitigate the reaction because it will show that you're trying to be receptive.”

“But what if it's not enough?”she asked, still nervous about alienating too many people.

“It has to be enough”I told.«Because you can't do anything else. And you certainly can't please everyone. The only thing you can do is reinforce the core values ​​that your brand represents and let users respond how they need to respond.

“This is going to be very hard, right?”sighed the founder. “I really hate how it feels when people say bad things about my company.”

“It is”I agreed. «But remember that it is an essential part of expansion. The more success, the more detractors. The key is to stick to the strategic vision and be adaptable in execution. Although you will never be able to please everyone, you can show them that you are willing to listen to their concerns and, at the same time, make the best decisions possible.