Working with Startups: 4 Common Growing Pains

Kevin Powers, Former Senior Digital Strategist

Article Category: #Strategy

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A solid portion of Viget's client base falls into the startup category. Projects in this area range from simply designing the UI of an app to complete platform development; and they offer quite a bit in terms of new opportunities and interesting subject matter. They also bring with them excitement in process and a project's day-to-day, primarily stemming from the growth and change intrinsic to these companies. If you're working with a startup now or in the future, this list of typical “growing pains” is good to keep in mind. The following events, while disruptive, don't have to derail your project. (We won’t name names, but each example is from an actual Viget client, so we’re pretty familiar with how these events play out.)

1. Outside Investment

Emerging companies are often actively looking to raise funds to make their idea a reality. Financing during the course of the project can usually bolster the resources available for the work at hand (great!); have no effect at all; or shift the priorities and focus of the company to something entirely different. The latter means your project may stall or the client may simply become less engaged. If an infusion of cash happens during your project, it’s a good idea to be open and direct with your client about the expected impact.

2. Change of Leadership

Being new companies, startups often don’t have their leadership team completely filled. It’s not unusual for new members to join the client team, individuals to get promoted, new positions to get created, and sometimes as a result, have your lead point-of-contact (or their boss) change mid-project. These switch-ups can be disruptive to a project if said new person isn’t versed on the work completed, the work ahead, and all the decisions and expectations therein. A couple good ways to head off questions like “Why did we do that?” are (a) useful and appropriate documentation (of course!) and (b) a focused meeting with the new team member to step them through the project and its current state.

3. Pivots

In the harried adventure of “making a go of it,” some startups may suddenly decide to go in another direction; and after your project has already started. Interestingly, we’re sometimes the advocate for this change and often approach startups with this open mindset. This new path can sometimes have a similar bearing as the original, which means, depending on the timing, your project can adjust its steering well enough. If you’ve already completed a critical mass of design and development, however, then the focus likely turns to salvage -- of the work already in the can, what can be used and adjusted to fall in line with this new direction. Sometimes it’s a lot, sometimes a little. Clients are usually understanding as to the disruption this change may cause and are willing to adjust your scope in a commensurate way.

4. Acquisition

Similar to a pivot, outright acquisition of your startup client is highly disruptive to your project and can even spell the end of your work. Building that new app or redesigning that site, for example, has a hard time competing for attention when your client is purchased by Facebook. What typically happens is that your project -- most active work with vendors throughout an organization, for that matter -- is put on hold until the dust settles. Few people, your client included, likely understand the full effects of being acquired. If this happens during your project, it’s a good idea to start immediately devising stopping points and reconciling that with your client’s expectations. While you’re usually able to see the project through to the end of a particular deliverable/phase, it’s certainly not uncommon for your project to stop completely until the organizational changes are sorted. This obviously upsets your project, but it’s often a time for celebration as well. Many startups intend for acquisition, so whenever we’ve encountered this scenario, it’s usually with a smile.

Startups grow up fast, and that can sometimes rattle the project you’ve carefully laid out over many months. The net of these  “growing pains”, however, is often positive, most certainly never boring, and likely results in some of the most satisfying work you’ll come across.

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