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Companies grow at different paces. Individuals as well.
When your company grows faster than you, you quickly aren’t a fit anymore. If you grow faster than your company (rare), maybe you shouldn’t be working there.
In this article, I will share my own story and how I rationalize personal growth in a hypergrowth company.
We were 2 when we started Alan in 2016. Then 8 in 2017. Then 14 in 2018 Then 40 in 2019. We are now 473 Alaners.
This is exponential growth.
And as we use the Lake Wobegon strategy, we have ever better people joining us.
Which means everyone needs to leverage themselves, where they have unique value, especially myself as co-founder and CTO.
With blitzscaling, you have to constantly reinvent yourself and your role. The scopes expand, there are always new things coming up, and my time is limited, so what was in my scope cannot keep on expanding. What was easy for you in a 30 people environment may be much harder with 200 people, and you have to keep learning all the time.
This is the tyranny of exponential growth.
As we are doing Distributed Ownership at Alan, I don’t want to be building a classic hierarchy to handle my increasing scope. I prefer to find strong owners who are going to do the job better than I did.
As a result, I try to fire myself every six months. To do so, I’m refocusing on my unique value in the company, and find where I can have the biggest impact :
I know well the important topics for the company
I learn fast and I’m scrappy
I make strong mental models in messy areas
I like to go deep on topics
On top of that, my role requires me to know the intricacies of important subjects for the company.
That is why I use what I call the accordion technique. I split it in two phases, which come with a zenith and a nadir.
I take on a new project, put on the first brick, I spend more and more time on it, until I get too much run and I am not the best person to run it anymore.
Once my scope has expanded too much, I am overworked, I tend to have diminishing returns in the work that I do.
If I continued for a while in there, the company wouldn’t scale, it would be bad for my mental health, and people around me wouldn’t grow (I’d hog on the topics).
So I’m shifting to the compression phase.
I automate, close topics, I find people who are better than me at running the topic, who have more interest and experience.
It can be through hiring, giving more ownership to people on the team.
It’s totally possible to also decide that the topic shouldn’t be taken over.
I’ve fired myself from my job. That means I have free time. It’s a bit frightening, as I feel a bit useless, I’ve given up on my scope.
But that gives me time to explore, to plant new seeds, to look at what others are doing, and ramp up on what I had neglected.
Thanks to this Accordion technique, I have an intimate knowledge of the topic (helped kickstart it), and I can better work with the people who are going to run it. I can frame better the needs later for the rest of the business.
Ultimately, it leads me to never be bored out of my role, as it’s ever refreshing (self-actualizing, would say Maslow).
I end up as a T-shaped leader: I can share ideas and expertise throughout the company while going deep on my own focus.
It also gives me the bandwidth to jump on new opportunities as needs arise.
It gives space for other leaders to emerge, build up their role, while having a good mental model to lean onto, as well as a resource (me) who can help coach them or be used as a sounding board for their ideas.
It also strengthens the idea of distributed ownership, as I literally distribute my ownership to others.
It creates cross-pollination by making it easy in the company to share mental models from one area to another.
Last, it also emboldens the company: as a founder, I can take radical choices that others may not feel like taking. Being at the beginning of the reflection also allows for these radical ideas not to come too late (we’d have to redo everything).
Taking a step back, we strongly believe that ‘Alaners are people not roles’, because we believe that creating this fluidity is beneficial for the company as a whole, giving new opportunities, and providing fresh thinking in new areas.
As I like to say, at Alan, your territory is infinite, we just ask you to focus, in order to optimize your impact.
Thanks to this technique, I have been working in the past years on (each for more or less 6 months, sometimes overlapping):
Defining the culture
Defining the first version of Alan (through coding and product)
Creating the first engineering community (see how we did it on the blog)
Spending >50% of my time hiring for that community and more
Upgrading the processes for the community
Focusing on Privacy
Defining our Work from Anywhere policy
Focusing on our Care tooling
Focusing on Fraud
And now improving our Machine Learning practice
I am also seeing myself continuing to find challenge and enjoyment for the next 10 years and more! (I had never had a job for more than 2 years before!).
I believe that this technique is replicable by manager types and individual contributors alike in their own high growth companies.
Fire yourself, leave the place cleaner than you found it, and grow the next leaders!