The Age of Exploration: Toddlers and Small Startups

Published Jun 8, 2018

This is part two of Growing Up is Hard: a series on the stages of startup evolution and how they mimic human development stages. You can read the first part here.

I ended my last post with learning to walk: the hallmark of becoming a toddler. This post is exciting for me to write, as my youngest son is just starting to walk, so it’s been on my mind. Being a toddler is all about exploration: mobility brings a new level of independence that literally opens up doors (and cabinets and drawers). Parents spend time “child-proofing” their homes to protect toddlers from themselves. This is the stage at which you realize your house is just full of disaster potential: the chemicals under the sink or large flight of stairs, your toddler can do a lot of damage.

For startups in this phase, having graduated from infancy to “pre-success,” this is also a time of great exploration. Customers are starting to give you feedback that influences your product’s direction, and there are tons of doors that you can open. As with toddlers, behind some of the doors lie dangerous external obstacles. It’s certainly a good time for experimentation and learning. The key is to understand the safety of the experiment and weigh it against the potential reward. “Is this experiment equivalent to falling down a flight of stairs” is a good question to ask while running experiments.

Getting Up and Talking

The next major milestone after walking is talking, which opens up a whole new level of exploration. Communication accelerates learning. Talking reduce frustration for the child because people are no longer guessing his or her needs. Now, of course, you’re stuck with those needs, well-articulated, for the rest of time.

For startups, starting to communicate with real customers is also exciting, as you evolve from guessing the needs in the market to actually listening and reacting to articulated needs. Like toddlers, careful what you ask for. Once you start getting customer feedback, it’ll never end. You’ll start compiling a list that you’ll feel like never gets smaller — and trust me, it doesn’t!

A/B Testing Boundaries

With talking can come “talking back,” and soon you find yourself with what parents recognize as the “Terrible Twos,” followed by the “Terrible Threes.” I can say from experience that these times are challenging and exhausting, but critical. Challenging because the toddler is testing boundaries, and determining what’s right and what’s wrong, which critically dictates the years immediately following. Doing a poor job of setting boundaries will only cause pain later in life. Parents use “no” to help set boundaries, and children learn to throw it back in the parents’ faces when they are dissatisfied with the boundary.

Setting boundaries is painful for a startup as well. Now that we have a few customers, we’re starting to go from an idea to a company. What are our values and norms? In product, there are many norms to set:

  • How do we value design in our product?
  • How do we value quality in our product?
  • Do we prefer to get features perfect before shipping them, or do we ship early and get customers to shape our features?

The reality is that these boundaries are important, and you should be intentional. If you aren’t paying attention, you’ll have to undo bad behaviors later, which is far more expensive. Of course, “bad” is relative. You don’t have to have the same values as everyone else; a unique style is fine, and there are many ways to create a successful company. But, if you’re not intentional, you may end up with a company that doesn’t reflect your values, and that will deeply frustrate you.

Getting from Walking to Running

For me, toddler time is over once the child starts elementary school. At that point, they gain a lot more independence. Hopefully, the kid is well-prepared to succeed in their environment sans parents and is ready to begin a new chapter in his/her life.

For startups, this phase is over at product-market fit, at which point your company can (somewhat) operate on its own. You’ve found some repeatability with a segment of your market. You’ve got something. Hopefully, you can raise a Series A (if you’ve gone the funding route) to scale it. That should get you at least up to adolescence when things really get gnarly. More on that in the next post.