I learned early in my career that on a healthy startup team, everyone needs to pull for all the many elements that make a company successful. Sort of.
On a small team, everyone works with everyone else: you have to care about and be able to communicate with every part of the business. So everyone: PMs, engineers, designers, the sales team, and marketing folks have to care about everything: shipping the product, maintainable code, a great user experience, and honing the business model. But each role has the one thing they’re more responsible for than anything else, so when push comes to shove, what are they quickest to compromise on? Sales people often care about a great user experience until it gets in the way of making deals quickly, and designers are sympathetic to the engineers’ architectural concerns until it threatens to delay their pet interaction.
How this plays out on a macro level across the organization can be a result of who’s in charge, or it can be a conscious decision about what the organization should value, appealing to the part of every startupper that values each of these things.
This leads to five different types of companies:
The Engineering-led Company Above all, engineering might (even above a coherent product strategy.) In this type, engineers are given free reign to work on whatever is fun for them, both because great code is ultimately what the company wants to produce, and because that kind of culture attracts other great engineers. Early Google was most famously this type of company: although they made a number of compelling products, many were engineered without central oversight, making it difficult to do things like standardize a design, integrate different products with each other, or roll out global features like multiple sign-on.
The Design-led Company Great ideas know no constraints. These teams value great design brainstorms over shipped, maintainable code. You most often see this type of thinking at design agencies: they have to prove their value to the companies that hire them by presenting radical, completely new ideas. They pursue questions like “what product would be most compelling?” blind to whether the necessary engineering cost and timeline would be as compelling.
The Ideology-led Company Live free, or don’t ship. This is the type of organization that characterizes the Free Software Movement. Companies like The Mozilla Foundation make product decisions based not on what is most pragmatic for their users, but rather what fits their immutable values. Firefox still doesn’t support playing the most popular format of web video (H.264) because of a philosophical aversion to the licensing conditions of that format.
The Sales-led Company The customer is always right. Strong sales are important to any business, but this type of company skews their product and strategy decisions based on feedback from their sales team. The sales team primarily communicates with executive customers making purchasing decisions rather than daily users of the product. Salesforce is this type of company – they have well-selling products with feature sets and complexity (in the name of customizability) that appeal to those making buying decisions, but not the ultimate users.
The Product-led Company Balance in all things. I started this post talking about this type of company: where the rubric for decisions is based on people in every role stepping back and understanding how to best make a product that makes their users happy and productive, generates revenue, and ships.
At Asana, we seek to balance our roles to create a superlative product for our friends, collaborators, and the world. It’s not that we don’t value fun engineering problems – our Luna framework performs tremendous feats behind the scenes to make development of user-facing features both faster and more consistently polished.
It’s not that we don’t value our business, but investing in a large sales team is only a Plan B for us. We believe that a great product aided by just the right amount of compelling marketing and sales touch can gain the financial momentum we need to keep growing.
It’s not that we don’t value our values – we go out of our way to articulate these on our jobs page, our blog, and on Quora. Our first principle, however, is pragmatism – the understanding that we must be sure to reflect on how well our most cherished processes have stood up to time: do they still support our goal of growing a superlative product that makes our customers more productive?
And it’s certainly not that we don’t value great design ideas – we’ve been devoting more resources than ever to growing our design team and thinking critically about our major design directives: Are we the command center for your work life? Are we accessible to those without a Master’s degree in task management? Do we reflect the humanity of your teammates as well as a tech product should?
We write code, design new UIs, grow our business, and hold to our principles for the purpose of enabling people to do great things. And that doesn’t happen without shipping. You won’t find our engineering team going off in a thousand different directions, our design team digging its heels in for something beautiful but infeasible, or our business team telling us to rewrite the entire product to make a mid-sized deal happen. Each of us does different work here at Asana, but no matter the role it’s in service of shipping a great product.