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How to stay grounded as you scale

At some point during your product’s evolution, you have to do more than just build technology. Your product has to “grow up”—and you have to create a full-fledged company around what you’ve built. And with that comes a slew of necessary systems and support: hiring staff, growing a sales team, ramping up marketing efforts (or starting them for the very first time). And don’t forget HR, too.

The simultaneous need to meet business objectives and get new team members up to speed quickly emerges. Many times in disciplines you’ve never had in-house before.

This growth creates increased complexity—and an increased probability that your now-larger company may lose sight of its original purpose. Your ultimate why. Too often the core beliefs the founders started with fail to scale as the company does. It’s easy to get sidetracked by new initiatives that don’t fit the core focus of the company.

By the way, this is all normal. Expected, even. 

Open source companies are particularly familiar with this healthy tension. Two interests—often at odds with one another—between a growing enterprise and its ability to remain true to its original guiding purpose. Which is precisely the time to keep common ground front and center.


Applying First Principles

You’ve probably read about Elon Musk’s use of first principle thinking. If not, check out his 2:48 minute interview with Kevin Rose. While this thinking is often used in product innovation, it can also surface the basic beliefs of the enterprise itself.

First principles are the fundamental building blocks of a company’s perspective.

They’re true to how an organization sees the world and their role in it. Your beliefs and ethos are often most evident in the technology you’re creating. But are they integrated into the culture of your scaling company? They could be.

Let’s move through what a company’s first principles might be, starting with some of the basics:

Vision — A vivid description of the new world you want to see.

Mission — Your role in creating that world.

Values — The way you’ll act in fulfilling that role.

Purpose — Your core reason for existing, beyond making a profit. The first time we saw this idea work was in our early days at Red Hat—where a purpose (a raison d’être) could crystalize common ground across many people in a way that inspires a movement-like belief.

Customers — Who you serve, including both your target customers and your open source community. If your offering isn’t continually grounded in your customer’s needs and theirs job to be done, it can be hard to get traction.

There’s one more principle that’s almost always underutilized:

Story — The narrative describing who you are, why you exist, what you do, where you came from, and where you’re going.

For tech-driven leaders, story can sometimes ride sidecar to product development. But when done correctly, story can actually be a powerful tool to  package, humanize, and spread the benefits of your product to the people who need to hear it.


First Principles As Strategic Filters

Not only are these principles key fountains of belief and meaning for your leadership, employees, customers, and community—but they can also guide decision-making. They can serve as a strategic filter. Think about it this way:

We need to do X. Based on our principles—does X make sense? Or would Y work instead? Or do we need a third path?

Take a look at the current state of your company’s first principles today. Are all six present?

If not: Define your vision. Outline your mission. Identify your values. Articulate your purpose. Clarify your customer. Craft your story.


The risk of *not* doing it

These principles may all feel so obvious that they’re not worth codifying. But this thinking can be kryptonite as a company grows and communication becomes infinitely more complex. Ignoring your principles also means overlooking a key source for guiding your employee experience and marketplace differentiation.

Your principles should be basic ideas that your company never wants to lose sight of. When they’re integrated culturally, then there’s a common mind—which provides a touchstone during growth stages.

Your principles may change slightly over time. And with company pivots, sometimes they have to be drastically overhauled. But at their core, these first principles are usually directional and instructive. They communicate where the company is going and how it will get there. Together, they represent the brighter future you hope to create.

Organizations that embrace their first principles often find they help form a sense of rootedness and direction. Cultivated by committed people, a company’s first principles are continually shaped throughout the organization’s growth.


Further reading: 

Farnam Street overview

James Clear’s take on it

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