Growing Up from Tribal Mode into an Organization

In the early days of a startup, it’s always all hands on deck. There are a set of founders or founder(s) with an early team, and the roles of who does what and when is often decided by whoever has free bandwidth to address it. These individuals apply their skillsets to whatever needs to be taken care of today with little (if any) thought to process. Results are paramount. Accordingly, people’s roles become fluid and partially interchangeable. They get things done in small ad hoc groups or “tribes” that form and dissolve in lock step with the necessary tasks at hand. And that’s a good thing – in those very early days, it’s imperative that the organization is nimble and flexible to react to the marketplace as it commences in building both a product and a corresponding business model.

At some point, however, a startup team needs to evolve from building a small-team endeavor into building a company with a strong organizational structure. A number of events could serve as a catalyst for this transition: a round of institutional investment, the introduction of a new senior person on the team, or significant growth in the number of people within the company. But maturing from a tribal mode into a healthy functioning organization is often a very challenging process.

Changes in responsibilities and how people relate to each other (especially when process is introduced) is difficult to digest, especially when it seemed to be “so much easier to get things done in those early days.” No longer is a jack-of-all-trades individual supremely valued, but rather those who are concentrating and performing on a specific role. A salesperson cannot be heavily involved in product management process, nor a product manager spend much time on (or be apt to) sales. Everyone used to do a little bit of everything, but that becomes no longer desirable, let alone feasible.

The first key for handling this transition is for everyone in the organization to realize that this process is happening. Startups go through growth, and with that growth comes change. Period. The difficulties in this transition usually arise as cultural ones, and that affects everyone in the company. While some growing pains are inevitable, once there is consciousness as to what is happening, people are able to more effectively communicate about it. I think it’s incumbent on a startup’s leaders to understand this dynamic and address how it affects both specific individuals and the company as a whole.

A question I like to ask early stage startup CEOs – are you in tribal mode, organization mode, or somewhere in between? The only bad answer to this question is “I don’t know.”

David Beisel

David Beisel is a co-founder and Partner at NextView Ventures. He has been focused on early stage Internet startups his entire career, both as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. As an investor in the digital media space, David was most recently a Vice President at Venrock and previously a Principal at Masthead Venture Partners. Prior to becoming a venture capitalist, David co-founded Sombasa Media, an e-mail marketing company best known for its flagship product BargainDog. Sombasa was successfully acquired by where David served as Vice President of Marketing. David holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and an AB in Economics, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, from Duke University. He also founded and leads the Boston Innovators Group, an organization which holds quarterly entrepreneur events drawing a thousand attendees.