Must You Choose Between Vibe and Scale?

When did it happen? That group of carefully selected, clever high-performers you hired that have gladly followed you, many from day one – when did the culture change? When did “we” become “us” and “them”?

That growth will change the office vibe is a scary eventuality of many successful start-ups. At some point standing in the chill-out space to speak to everyone is met with Joe, one of your 40 engineers calling out, “I can’t hear back here!” And no, everyone doesn’t know Joe’s name.

I was reminded of this challenge by a recent article entitled “Something weird happens to companies when they hit 150 people”. 150 relates to the “Dunbar Number” principle developed by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar:

[blockquote] “The number of people with whom you (can) have a personalized relationship, one that is reciprocal (I’d be willing to help you out, and I know that you’d help me) as well as having a history (we both know how we came to know each other).”[/blockquote]

A Guardian article, “Friends to Count On” describes how Amish populations and W. L. Gore and Associates, makers of Gore-Tex, use the Dunbar Number when determining the idea size of their community (the former for fear of needing a police force) or office (when 150 parking spots are full the latter opens a separate building).

Why should you care about the number? Once individuals don’t feel connected with other employees on a personal basis, engagement drops. Different cultures form in different offices. Teams focus on their own silo and lose touch with the whole. Couple that with a common start-up habit of working 24/7 with no end in sight and things get tense. And overloaded CEOs don’t have the bandwidth to manage strife. As much as they strive to maintain culture through interviews with every shortlisted candidate, they’re juggling product scaling challenges, a funding series or a potential sale – due diligence and auctions take time and are secretive by definition.

But, you say, you’re running a start-up with remote workers and odd hours, so what number of employees will more likely affect you? Actually – in today’s tech start-ups in particular – I’ve seen these issues with a lower number of employees, from 80 to 100.

Fortunately as you approach the number you needn’t choose between culture and size. Compromise isn’t necessary; it’s not a state you must live with. You can achieve both and use this to build deeper foundations for a successful business people want to be a part of.

So where should you start?

Start by taking time to determine what cultural and management traits are fundamental to your business’ success, then identify what needs to change to support scale. The following five steps can help:

1. Accept that increasing scale requires adjustments. You will need to adapt your leadership approach and the way things are done. This can be uncomfortable, worrying (we’re doing fine so far) and uncertain (what to adjust?). It can also be an opportunity to build renewed energy, demonstrate belief in your people and grow as a leader.

2. Proactively have conversations. Don’t wait until conflicts happen on their own and become untenable or overwhelming. Plan for the changes needed and the points at which you will make them. Build in ‘early warning systems’ – measures and signals that give you insights into pressures building before they escalate. Regular pulse surveys and executive meetings with small cross-functional groups; deep-dives into customer service issues; tracking of voluntary leavers – these can help highlight issues before they burst.

3. Focus on the North Star. Keep “your eyes up” and look ahead to ensure organizational purpose drives change. Focus on key questions. What do we stand for? What culture is needed to reflect and reinforce it? What behaviors do we as a leadership team need to live, demonstrate and model in everything we do? Are we doing this?

4. Get help. Don’t be a martyr and feel you have to shoulder all the decisions and the workload. Involve people across the business; realize it can be part of their opportunity to grow and learn from the change as well. Sometimes an external perspective can be extremely helpful, e.g. mentors or a leadership coach. (Related reading: 4 Key Parts to a Successful CEO’s Network)

5. Use the framework that brought you early success. The approach you used to build the business can help move it forward. You tried things out, iterated fast and made improvements from the insights. Be agile and prepared to adjust and adapt. And do this with your employees and not to Those great people you hired can be instrumental in defining the solutions and a successful future.

So you’re scaling up. Plan carefully for change and retain the vibe of your start-up while you create further success. And yes, everyone won’t know Joe. But, with a strong culture, they’ll know he’s part of their tribe.


Gavin Pommernelle helps leaders solve business problems, develop their teams and reach their potential. You can find more information on his executive coaching, talent assessment and HR solutions at