In the very early days of any startup, the matters of company strategy, structure, culture and leadership are rarely formally addressed. They are allowed to develop organically which, unfortunately, can have some negative consequences well into the future.
These days, one of the decisions that startup owners make (or at least should think about making) is whether to be an agile company from the very start, to try to adopt it later or to do things the more traditional way.
The goal of this article is to look at this decision from a number of viewpoints and to try and guide startup founders towards a decision that will make the most sense for them.
Most people are already familiar with agile principles to some extent, but just in case let’s go over the basics. As informed by agile software development, some of the basic ideas behind running a startup the agile way include:
- Welcoming change
- Improved adaptability
- Putting the product/service on the market early
- Adding to product/service in small, frequent iterations
- Constant evolution and improvement
- Importance of communication and feedback
- Strong, self-organized and cross-functional teams
As you can see, most of these are quite common for the startup ecosystem, either due to the specific realities of the marketplace or due to the progressive mindset that most startup founders exhibit.
However, to truly make your startup agile, you will need a conscious and unwavering commitment to these principles, which can sometimes be difficult.
Hence, this article.
What Are You Doing?
The first factor when deciding how agile your startup should be is what kind of a company it is, in which industry it is and what kind of a product or service you will be offering to your customers.
If you are a software startup, i.e. you plan on developing a software solution to sell, you will almost inevitably be agile. Pretty much no one develops software the old-fashioned way any more, and especially not small teams who want to get their product out fast, get user feedback and then improve it iteratively.
In fact, if your start is going to sell any product that does not entail a superbly expensive and complex (e.g. due to regulatory requirements) development and manufacturing process, you will be better off as an agile company.
In case your startup will offer a service that is too reactive and chaotic for any useful estimations and iterative delivery, you may find an agile approach less useful and impactful. The same is true for services where people work as individuals as opposed to teams (sales is perhaps the most cliche example) which are at the core of any agile experience.
How Big Are You? And How Do You Plan to Grow?
Most startups are tiny which makes them perfectly suitable for the agile approach, even if we’re talking Scrum which (recommends) limits the number of team members to 9. Of course, one or two-person startups will probably not require any kind of a structured agile approach as they will operate as a tightly-knit unit by default.
What you need to consider here is the future. How do you plan to grow? Are you going to be introducing a new team member every now and then or do you envision a case where you have to take on a dozen people at once? How quickly will this happen? Will you be hiring seasoned veterans or only young, hungry people? Will you be creating an HR position at your startup? Will you be taking on partners or even outsourced help?
These are all important questions to answer because nurturing a truly agile culture requires a lot of work and a specific way of hiring people. Hiring for agile and onboarding for agile are very sensitive, which means you will most likely need someone to help you with this if you start hiring plenty of people.
Things are even more complicated if you are planning on partnering up with someone else. In such situations, even the most stable agile companies can experience disruptions to their way of doing work and overall agile culture.
Are You Able to Let Go?
Much of today’s startup culture venerates founders and CEOs who work 24/7, sleep at the office and handle every tiny aspect of running their companies (Musk, anyone?). If you feel like this is the right way to do things, agile might not be the right choice for you.
Because agile is centered around self-organized and mostly independent teams that are not micromanaged and that are given a wide berth when it comes to doing their work. They take on a responsibility, they estimate when they will be done and they make their own decisions on how to deliver value to the product and the company as a whole.
Of course, this does not mean you should not get involved and stay on top of things (agile emphasizes the importance of aligning all efforts to the business side), but agile does not tolerate a despotic authority figure that does not trust their team to do their stuff.
Now, a bit of good news…
If you decide to run your startup on agile principles, here are some additional facts to get you excited and keep you inspired as you do it.
For one, it can take a while to really find the right agile approach for your startup. But that is the great thing about agile – it is about trying and failing, adapting and trying again. You should not get discouraged if you fail at first. Most agile teams and companies do.
Also, there is an abundance of resources on agile – from websites, personal blogs, trainings, meetups and anything else that comes to mind. Whatever question comes to your mind and whatever problem you encounter, the chances are someone has experienced it before you and has already shared it in one form or another.
Finally, don’t be afraid to take advantage of agile tools. Agile should never be reduced to tools and processes, but if you can find a tool that will support your agile efforts, it would be unempirical of you to not use it.
And that wouldn’t be too agile.
There is a lot to gain by ensuring that your startup is truly agile. However, it is just as important that not all startups are best-suited to be run as agile companies. If you do choose to be agile, keep at it, learn, adapt and find your own way.
About the Author
Jug Babic is a marketer at VivifyScrum, a company that developed the agile project management software by the same name. He has been writing about the intersection of tech and business for the better part of the decade, currently focusing on agile.