How High Growth at a Startup Feels Like

Written on 18 July 2021

I have been lucky to experience several phases of above-average growth in my career while working in startups in the past six years. They came in different forms:

  • Company growth: When I joined Buffer in 2015, we tripled the team size from about 30 to 100 in about six months. We grew our ARR by four times to $20+ million ARR in the following five years.
  • Skills growth: I had almost no "professional" skills when Buffer hired me. I did community engagement and customer support for a year, content marketing and SEO for two years, and product marketing (and a little product management) for two years.
  • Role growth: I switched from an individual contributor role at Buffer to a managerial role at ReferralCandy.

I hope this doesn't sound like an arrogant brag, especially since I know people who have grown way faster than I did. Furthermore, I'm still early in my career.

It always feels hard

This might sound ironic:

Even when I am constantly learning and getting better, things always feel hard.

You would assume things would feel easier as I get better. That will be true if I'm doing the same things at the same level. But if I'm taking on new or bigger challenges, it would always feel hard.

At Buffer, I wrote one article a week on the topics that my manager suggested, then two articles a week, then came up with topics on my own, then also looked into SEO. At ReferralCandy, I started with some marketing work, then also started managing and coaching, then started hiring, then started thinking about budgets. After every one-on-one with my CEO, I always feel I have something to improve.

Being humans, we can get quite frustrated or demoralized because we are always thinking about how hard things are. The way I cope with this is to focus on the progress. As long as I'm not stuck on the same challenge for too long, I know I'm growing.

This reminds me of my triathlon training. The hard sessions never feel easier; I just get faster.

It's never done

You are never "there". I'm never "there".

In startups, it's almost impossible for anything to be in the perfect state. If the company is growing, most systems and processes will break eventually. What works for a team of 10 doesn't work for a team of 100. A marketing team of two works differently from a marketing team of 10.

At Buffer, our marketing team setup changed probably every year I was there. We combined the marketing and community teams, formed a product marketing team, formed a website team, and so on. At ReferralCandy, I just reorganized the team a little as well.

It's like how airplanes are never perfectly on-course and are constantly course-correcting. Startups are always a little wrong and constantly trying to fix the problems.

Again, this chaos can be quite annoying for many. If you can't see the forest for the trees, you will get upset about the constant changes without realizing changes are the only constant.

To deal with this, I adopt the mindset that the current state of things is not the best it can be—and it's fine! If we learn about a better way of doing things, it's most likely worthwhile to change.

But it's satisfying and enriching

Over the years, I have shifted from chasing happiness to chasing satisfaction.

Happiness is a nebulous concept. Something that makes me happy at this moment might not make me happy when I look back a year later. For example, watching Netflix all weekend might make me happy for the weekend but when I realized I could have made better use of the time, I would be unhappy.

On the other hand, satisfaction feels more "stable". Working hard on something I chose feels satisfying, even if it was hard. And I would more likely feel the same looking back later.

Also, I learned so much in a short period. Working in a fast-growing startup is like compressing a career into a few years. To give you a glimpse, these are some of the major things I experienced in my six years at Buffer:

Tripling team size. Cashflow crisis. Layoffs. Restructuring. Acquisition of another product. Launching new products. Sunsetting products. Unbundling then bundling of our products. Leadership misalignment and co-founder departure. Investor issues and buyout. Four-day workweeks. Radical transparency.

Sometimes, they feel like a lifetime's worth of experiences.

Experiencing high growth at chaotic startups is hard, for sure. But I would choose the same path even if I could go back in time.