Scaling businesses: how I learned to embrace the growing pains

8 min read
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Artwork by Tiago Baptista

In the 1990s, the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar introduced the concept of the Dunbar number. After noticing a correlation between primates’ brain sizes and their average social group size, he proposed that humans can comfortably maintain no more than 150 genuine, stable relationships. Or, as he puts it, “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”

This number isn’t limited to bibulous gatherings or settlements of anthropological interest. In fact, something weird happens to companies when they hit 150 people.

Teenage Kicks

Thanks to our tireless teams and amazing partners, the last few years have been amazing for Unbabel. We’re now servicing customers in 20 countries around the world, our total funding topped $30 million US earlier this year, and our headcount has just reached Dunbar’s fateful number. And while this means we’re one step closer to becoming the world’s translation layer, we also started to brush up against some limitations. 

In August, we conducted our Employee Engagement survey, which laid bare a number of issues. Friction was building up between teams. Employees felt that they weren’t getting enough feedback, career guidance, or clarity regarding processes, visibility, ownership, and accountability, which prevented them from doing their job effectively. We also realized there were some top-down communication issues we were previously unaware of.

It’s only natural: we’re hitting the business equivalent of puberty. The infamous growing pains. And as we can all recall with varying degrees of affliction, puberty is a pretty thorny period. Everything is changing, awkward feelings abound, things matter when they didn’t before, and suddenly you’re expected to behave in a certain way, all while you’re trying to find your place in the world.

Moving towards cross-functionality

When you’re starting a company, it can feel like you’re a band of goons with big ideas about disruption and taking over the world. You’re moving fast and “getting shit done.” If you’re lucky and all goes according to plan, you’re scaling, building new products, serving more and more customers, bringing new people in, and it’s nothing short of chaotic.

When each team creeps up to double digits, people start having trouble knowing who to go to to solve a particular problem, and decisions can get bottlenecked at each department head. So the company needs to become a matrix organization, moving from a functional model to a cross-functional one.

What does that look like? Instead of assembling traditional teams such as marketing, sales, or engineering, you create project-based teams, where you have an assorted collection of designers, product managers, developers, and others working towards a goal or project, while still maintaining their functional tribes and managers.

In the Amazon circle, this is known as the two-pizza rule, the theory that teams shouldn’t exceed the number of people that two pizzas can feed. This number is debatable, but the reasoning is sound. Getting to that cross-functional organizational chart, however, is going to be messy.

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Implementing thoughtful processes

Once you begin to make that shift, you realize that you can’t possibly do it without implementing structure, hierarchy, processes, codes of conduct. The problem is that a lot of those early employees don’t necessarily want that — you might even argue that’s why they joined the band of goons in the first place.

And I get it. I’ve always had an aversion to process — not because I doubt its usefulness, but because the extra layers of complexity can end up creeping up on you, and even seem to be at cross-purposes with your business. And on a micro level, it’s true, processes do slow you down. But when you look at the bigger picture, it’s the only thing that allows you to scale. No more gentle tapping on the shoulder, asking for a bug to be fixed. Every change, every request, documented, visible, across the entire organization.

With hyper growth, this transition becomes even more agitated. Most people can’t follow the speed at which the organization is scaling, which can lead to a lot of frustration. Things are moving pretty fast, and by comparison, you don’t seem to be making as much progress. You don’t feel like your work has the same impact it did when the company was just that merry ol’ band of goons.

And so, typically overlooked HR processes such as career paths and career growth become critical, because people need to have a sense of their role within the company, as well as where they can go and how they can get there. For instance, not everyone needs to go via the typical manager route. There are other parallel career paths with fundamentally different skill sets, where employers can be empowered to grow as individual contributors instead. Such processes are not exactly foolproof, but they give people a sense of something to work toward.

This is why structure is so important. It’s not just about the process in itself, but how transparency and clarity emerge from it.

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Scaling culture, one All Hands at a time

There is no shortage of literature studying the links between corporate culture and long-term performance. But culture is not kumbaya stuff. It’s not just about happy hours or beer-fueled All Hands meetings, nerf guns and ping-pong tables, or quarterly surf retreats. Companies are finally starting to realize just how important it is to think about culture in order to scale.

It really doesn’t matter what kind of culture you have, whether it’s conservative or progressive, team oriented or performance-driven — as long as you have one. Consistency is key. The more consistent you are in your communication, both internal and external, as well as in your actions, the more people will embrace the culture: your employees need to feel connected to the mission, be aligned with your core values.

In the beginning, it’s easy not to think about it. It’s just half a dozen people working longer hours than most care to admit, trying to build something amazing, so culture grows somewhat organically. But sooner or later (preferably sooner), you need to sit down and codify your values. Who are you? Who do you want to be? How do you want to do things?

We did this at our second yearly retreat in Pedrógão Grande, where the 30 of us gathered to draft the Unbabel Declaration of Interdependence  and spell out the three core values that would end up guiding us over the next few years.

Build understanding. Get focused fast. Challenge and be challenged.

This trio reflected what we wanted to achieve, and what we needed to do in order to get there. And got us there it did. But values aren’t a static piece of text you can frame and leave to gather dust on your company walls. As you grow, your values need to grow with you. After conducting a survey with our employees to get a sense of what they think the values should be, we ended up refreshing ours just a few weeks ago.

Why is this so important? Because as you hire, it becomes crucial to assess cultural fit. People act according to their own values. When faced with a situation for which there is no specific guideline, and there will be plenty of those, they’re going to act according to whatever their values are. If their values aren’t aligned with the company’s, they’re going to act differently from what the company expects of them. The more an employee is aligned with the company’s values, the less oversight they need. That’s a clear win-win for everyone involved.

Paying off the emotional debt

From the very beginning, I’ve thought a lot about the idea of emotional debt, and how we should aim to spend some time together, away from the formalities of office life.

There’s always a certain level of unintentional dehumanization that happens in the workplace, especially when the headcount starts rising. Suddenly you’re thinking about your colleague as that guy from accounting. That’s when communication starts crumbling down. For communication and collaboration to take place, you need vulnerability, and you need trust.

And that’s why this idea is so powerful. Something so simple as taking the afternoon off to go surfing provides respite from the frictions and growing pains that feel so overwhelming during these times. But if there’s any solace to be found it’s that, much like puberty, this is just a phase. As long as you acknowledge these issues, keep working at it, and luck is ever so slightly in your favor, at some point, you’ll emerge from adolescence and become a normal human being again.

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