Startup culture and org charts

For startups in their first phase of building product to find the market fit, organization design is a unique challenge. Typically between two and ten employees, the organization in this phase is evolving fast and often (mostly) there isn’t a structure stable enough to be expressed in an org chart. For the founders, it is important to understand that in this early phase your org is a form to embody and express your culture. Saying “we have a flat org” is a cultural statement but may not convey much useful information to your early employees trying to find the boundaries of their work and decision making flow.

Culture in this early phase is an expression of founder DNA melded together with the DNA of early employees and undergoing evolution as a response to its environment. In fact, evolution is a very useful analogy to understand startup orgs. Startups are not products of creationism by a single supremely gifted founder or investor.  They evolve continuously influenced by the source DNA but are not limited by it if they build the right culture and communications as they add employee DNA to the mix. Added to this starter set of conditions is the DNA of all other key employees. This organism responds to market conditions, competition, technology, and is trying to find a way to survive and thrive and grow.
Culture = Founder DNA + Employee DNA + Environment + Adaptation
A critical factor in early org design is the requirement that the founder(s) understand their own skillset – in a brutally honest way and then recruit + surround themselves with people skilled in everything the founder(s) are not. Doing so also ensures that hierarchical structure and thinking does not set in early. The right hierarchy in organization is required at some point but likely not when a startup has less than ten employees. As I have written elsewhere, there are four canonical horsemen of successful startups:

The eternal optimists (usually the founders) – these folks have an uncanny ability to freeze everything except their vision of the product in a future time.
Grumpy ass kickers (usually the early employees) – bound  to create reality, they crave reality and making things vs. dreaming them up, and
Intuitive humanists (sometimes the founders, usually later employees) – they care about the human emotional needs of employees and the collective org. They will build links where none exist and are a much needed part of care and feeding of startup employees.
Chameleons (sometimes tech-founders) – these are the folks that can play whichever roles are required (dev, production, design, …) for a short duration to get-stuff-done. Finding a stable, long-term role for them in a large startup on its way to becoming a company is typically quite hard. Chameleons love startups and will hop to another one vs. scaling/changing with a single startup.

Org charts are also a proxy for communications in a startup. Silos of information appear when the charts are not heavily interconnected. An early sign of such dysfunction is the onset of process in a startup. Process != communications and when used as an excuse for not communicating usually leads to an early demise for the startup. In addition to communicating product, technology, mission, and their vision for a startup, the founders must also ensure that everyone understands the ephemeral nature of their organization and org-charts. They need to have everyone understand that:

  • The org is going to change.
  • The org is going to be flat with identified decision flows. Information must flow everywhere.
  • If you cannot look back and say what you did last week, something is not right.
  • Responsibilities assigned to everyone enables them to operate out of their comfort zone – you, the founder is likely already out of your comfort zone.
  • The org chart helps delineate responsibilities – especially for decisions.

Does your startup have an org-chart? Do you think you need one? Help me think more about this topic – @rohit_x_


Brands, Advertising, and Relevance

What is a brand? I think the answer to that simple question has changed in complex ways over the past decade. I think a brand is a proxy for a collection of attributes of their products and services. These attributes include quality, competitiveness, uniqueness, and any other property of the product that can be experienced or communicated to potential and current customers. In its simplest form, advertising is communications from the producer of products to potential and current consumers of that products as well as anyone else who may influence that purchase decision.

The nature and flow of such communications used to be largely asymmetric (brand to customer) and non real-time (days/weeks in print media).  As forms of media change in a fundamental way and becomes not only symmetric (Twitter) and real-time (push), but also pervasive/cheaper; the power of brands to hold its customers captive also undergoes a fundamental change. Artisans and guilds producing goods or providing services now have the ability to communicate attributes of their products as effectively as traditional brands. For the set of customers seeking information about attributes of potential products in order to make purchase decisions, communications from established brands will be on par with artisans and guilds.

In this context, two lessons emerge:

1. Online brands with a focus on leveling the information playing field will compete on product attributes… and win where deserving, and

2. The nature of communications becoming symmetric will bring profound change on advertising form and means of delivery.

Online-only brands not only seek to address the inefficiencies in the various manufacturing, logistics, fulfillment, and inventory practices, they also leverage new communication media to level the playing field versus their traditional competition.

Another observation is that screens we use to communicate (smartphones, tablets, connected consumer widgets) will drive advertising to change its form. Mobile advertising in particular needs to evolve beyond the traditional draw-attention (disruptive?) formats of banner ads and interstitial videos towards a straight up communications when/where the consumer wants information. As a trivial example, I may be much more likely to read and perhaps respond to a direct @reply from a relevant producer or a rich, contextual push on a smartphone vs. a banner ad sliding in on the screen.

Determining ‘relevance’ is the key to making such communication be effective and invited and not disruptive. This is where Prismatic and newer startups like Relcy can play a crucial role. They are not merely delivering news and information ‘relevant’ to me, they will one day be the pathways connecting new online brands to me and communicating to me what I don’t want to see as “ads”.

Why Enterprise Matters

At the beginning of this century in year 2000, the average enterprise worker was using technology at least on par with anything else available elsewhere. By 2010, consumer technology had surpassed enterprise technology and products in just about every conceivable way. Google empowered every consumer to access information faster, cheaper while Facebook delivered a worldwide platform capable of handling a Billion users with few tens of milliseconds of latency, composite apps, and capable of ingesting tens of terabytes of new data every day. iPhones, Android, and iPads brought mobility to media, web, and apps while Twitter was on its way to becoming the messagebus of the world. Consumers could store and sync across devices and locations with Dropbox or Box, or stream movies on demand direct to most screens with Netflix. It is clear that 2000-2010 was the decade of consumer computing.

Looking forward to the next ten years, there is increasing excitement about the Enterprise market in silicon valley. I think we have seen waves of innovation form and deliver change in enterprise: the first big wave was the introduction of computing, the second was the Internet, and the third is a combination of cloud, big-data, and mobility. 

There are some clear reasons for this enthusiasm:

First, for about a decade and a half, technology startups have tried to sell solutions that can be broadly classified as either faster, cheaper, or more efficient. Touting ‘lower TCO’ or ‘lower opex’, these products aimed to save money for their customers but never really enabled new products or revenue for their customers. Today, for the first time since the arrival of Internet as a business reality, startups are creating products for the enterprise that enable the enterprise to create new lines of business and new revenue in addition to being faster/cheaper. This is particularly true in Enterprise Infrastructure where consumer platforms have already demonstrated scale, ability, and innovation never seen in enterprise products. Today, there is no reason why the technology stack in use at Twitter or Facebook should not be leveraged for GE or Walmart or the next 5000 enterprise IT operations – not merely to save them money, rather to enable new lines of business and revenue so that they can compete against new online businesses.

Second, software-as-a-service is now the dominant mode of delivery of most new applications for enterprise. While enterprise CIOs are changing over to this service-driven app consumption model, they are also facing a simultaneous change across all their resource layers – Computation, Storage , and Networking. Amazon and to some extent Google have proven you can leverage resources available anywhere (Cloud) across the Internet for your business operations whether you are a startup or the largest enterprise on the planet. This dual change presents most enterprises with perhaps the most complex challenge since the arrival of desktop computers for their workforce.  Solving this challenge will create large and long lasting opportunities for many startups and established vendors (IBM) alike. As if this challenge wasn’t enough, mobility is now a potential standard feature across all applications and requires deep changes to presentation, logic, and database layers. Startups targeting this particular field must remember that the “S” in SDN or SDDC must stand for “service”, not software.

And finally, the ability to manipulate, transform, and store unprecedented amounts of data (Big Data) for enterprise enables them to derive real-time intelligence and actionable information for their customers, partners, and suppliers. This Data-Intelligence segment alone has the potential to create a market as momentous as the Enterprise Software market that began with the founding of Systemanalyse und Programmentwicklung (“System Analysis and Program Development) in 1972, Software Development Labs in 1977 and Gupta Software in 1984.

Taken together, these innovations promise to deliver productivity gains that will rival those delivered by the first two waves (computing, Internet) in the enterprise.  Such productivity boost, coupled with new business capabilities has the potential to increase revenue and boost profit margins for enterprise customers that can leverage these advances. This is the beginning of a great new enterprise market for startups.

It is time to build the future of enterprise – starting now.


Notes for Infrastructure Post

Notes for Infrastructure Investments blog post:

This is a list of points from my notebook over the past year collected over various meetings and conferences.


  • Consumer mobile behaviour matters – leading indicator broadly for mobility
  • Think beyond current devices (3-5″ smartphones, 7-11″ tablets) – what devices/screens matter in 2015 ?
  • Pay attention to the rise of infrastructure apps (How mobility connects information silos)
  • Composite Apps matter more vs. individual apps (IFTTT + hardware + ambience awareness)
  • Role of data in mobile architectures (Virtual cell definitions, moving beyond ‘circuit’ connections to a single base station). Multiple radios (WiFi, 4G/LTE, …)
  • Offloading mobile traffic to data-centers vs. core-networks.
  • Mobile is not a “second screen”
  • Think “Interaction” when you think of mobile screens, not “presentation”

Cloud & Control

  • Management & Control frameworks for heterogenous hardware
  • Service-to-service information exchange with policy/compliance
  • Stupid simple ways to deliver app-aware performance (no QoS please), solve by sufficiency/availability of resources, not strict reservation.
  • Cloud-to-cloud resource signaling/advertisement/reservation
  • Software defined networking v1.0 was MPLS (remember Ipsilon), pay more attention to protocols vs. systems/boxes. Global knowledge neither required, nor assumed for optimal/practical TE.
  • Data-center to network boundary+Control matters.

Custom Hardware

  • Software defined hardware (is there any other kind?)
  • Processor controlled modules for specific workloads (across consumer/enterprise/ServiceProvider/DataCenters)
  • Software-defined Networking hardware required: backplanes, Top-of-rack switches, Data-center fabrics, DC-to-DC core networking vs. CO-to-CO (Flows/mobile-traffic/…)
  • IO bottlenecks need to be solved – scale (Users/apps) begets throughput problems.

Data Intelligence

  • New BI stack on Google/Amazon infrastructure vs. specialized warehouses
  • DI stack = presentation/visualization + Infrastructure-smarts (SW, HW) + Federated DI warehouses + DR/HA + flex-scalable db + Caching + …
  • Optimize cost per bit/byte of [store, manipulate, move, serve]
  • Infrastructure apps play a big role here, as does custom hardware (workload specific compute/store/network)
  • 2000-2010 was v0.1 (MapReduce), think Dremel, Cassovary, Spark & Shark,…