Scaling from the Start

By Adriel Sanchez, Chief Marketing Officer at Newsela


Imagine you woke up tomorrow, and this business was ten times the size it is today. What would break?

I’ve posed this question countless times when encouraging teams to embrace a growth mindset. It intentionally starts by challenging the way things are done today, rather than beginning with more abstract questions of how we might do things tomorrow. Rather than limit innovative thinking, I’ve found it inspires creativity by giving people permission to question the decisions of their colleagues, peers, and leaders. It’s not personal. “That might have been the right decision for a 20 person company, but if we were a 200 person company tomorrow, it just wouldn’t work.”

Imagining 10x growth overnight has been largely a hypothetical question; an exercise intended to stretch thinking rather than a business planning effort rooted in reality.

Except it’s not so hypothetical anymore.

From March through August of this year, some EdTech companies saw usage soar up to 15x. Those with great product-market fit translated that usage spike into more customers. But growth was not a foregone conclusion for every EdTech company living through the massive migration to remote learning. While 70% of companies in our space gave away their products for free, hopes of increased sales in the fall haven’t materialized for everyone. For some, it’s a foundational issue of product-market fit.

For others, the inability to scale their go-to-market or product capabilities have been to blame. As an industry, we’ve seen individual features or entire products go down under increased load. Data privacy and security issues exposed. Companies struggling to capture increased market demand, or effectively service a spike in customers.

Sometimes, these issues are rooted in poor decisions made by inexperienced leaders. But more often, it’s the result of well-intentioned, well-informed, smart decisions that simply don’t work at scale. Years ago, a colleague said to me, “We’ve spent the last ten years making really smart decisions that collectively make no sense.”

Years ago, a colleague said to me, “We’ve spent the last ten years making really smart decisions that collectively make no sense.”

As someone who’s inherited decisions at large organizations that were made years before without adequate consideration of scale, I’ve come to appreciate the value of building scale from the start. I’ve found that scalability issues manifest most vividly in people, processes, and systems. Below are the pitfalls I’ve encountered most often in each of these three key areas.


Don’t just ask yourself who can do something, ask who should do it. If the person who should do it can’t do it, that’s a sign of trouble.

Break the addiction to the go-to generalist as early as possible. When you’re small(er), it’s natural to rely on that handful of individuals that can solve just about any problem. But as you grow, centralizing too much decision-making among a small group can mask serious deficiencies in the organization. Eventually, the go-to generalist becomes a bottleneck, runs out of steam or runs for the hills.


The rule of thumb I use with my team is, “Someone joining our team should get 80% of what they need to know to do their job by reading something, before speaking to a single person.”

Organizations of all sizes struggle with documenting who does what and how work gets done. Don’t let this information live only in people’s heads. Find the will to establish a culture of documenting roles & responsibilities, engagement between teams, and processes early on. The hidden cost of not doing so grows exponentially over time. You won’t know just how expensive it is till one or two key players depart the organization, taking all that knowledge with them.

In every organization I’ve worked, I’ve always wished we’d established a centralized Project Management Office (PMO) function earlier; one that can serve as a center of excellence for documentation and process best practices, in addition to helping lead major cross-functional initiatives.


Conventional wisdom says that tools and software should adapt to the way you want to run your business. That’s true, to a point. But overly customized systems are the enemy of scale.

Select the tools and software you need to run your business thoughtfully, configure them well, integrate them into your technology stack with care, and use them as intended.

That is, avoid system customization that will power mission-critical business processes. Software is pretty good these days. Most of it will do 80% of what you need out of the box, and the more robust applications offer configuration options that will get you 90%+ of the way home. Given the choice between adapting your processes and customizing software, adapt your processes if you can do so without compromising your core value proposition.

Most of my experience is on the go-to-market side, so most of the system complexity I’ve seen has been in CRM, sales, and marketing technologies. Software like Salesforce, Marketo, Eloqua, and a host of their competitors have powerful customization options. But if not customized judiciously and properly documented, you could wind up with a Frankenstein monster that works just enough to get by for now, but is nearly impossible to untangle when you need to scale.

Building for scale from the start means being ready to scale. You don’t need to compromise pragmatism or speed, or over-engineer solutions to simple problems. But you should be thinking about scale as early as possible in your decision making. If you choose a solution or make a decision that won’t scale, do so intentionally. But also recognize that inhibitors to scale tend to compound over time. Revisit these decisions often to ensure you’re not creating a bigger problem that’ll be infinitely harder to unwind when you reach that inevitable inflection point where scale matters. If you think it’s too cumbersome or expensive to consider scalability early on, just wait till you’re 2x, 3x, or 10x the size you are today.

The best time to start thinking about scale is when you first make a decision. The second best time is today.

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