More Is Less? The Minimalist’s Approach For Startups

Kari Lachmi
Written by Kari Lachmi

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Through my experience of working with engineering teams and throughout many other aspects of life, I’ve learned that more is actually less. It is even true when assessing engineering teams in tech startups.

When I see companies like Google and Facebook with their thousands of engineers, I can’t help but wonder: Is there really a need for such a huge engineering team? Is that the most efficient way to become a meaningful, large and successful software company? Don’t you lose contact with your product with so many engineers simultaneously working on it? And how fast can you really make changes with the bureaucracy of such a large organization?

I recently learned about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s “core philosophy” in which “every team needs to be small enough to be fed by two pizzas.” According to ‘Inc’., this mentality “has allowed Amazon to be agile while many other companies have struggled with growth.”

The now-famous two-pizza team rule means that teams shouldn’t be larger than what two pizzas can feed and that small teams lead to significantly more productive and communicative teams when this rule is abided by. If we compare the idea of a pizza team/small team to a large meal/large team, it becomes exceedingly clear how hard it would be to have a significant conversation with all the people in the latter.

This is buttressed when considering the efforts required to solely initiate a change or a move or to get a consensus for a product feature. Suddenly, the small team — where you can actually speak to each person and get a consensus on something — and Bezos’s pizza team rule make so much sense. This resonates very well with the way startups operate and the history that we see here in Silicon Valley where “slow” and “bureaucracy” are almost considered bad words.

WhatsApp is an example for smaller startups

Only a few years ago, it was WhatsApp that showed us all how with only 50 engineers you can build an amazing, scalable tech company. Facebook acquired the company for $19 billion, which demonstrates that even an acquisition price doesn’t directly correlate with the size of an engineering team; rather, it syncs up with the value that your product brings.

WhatsApp became a role model for me and for many other entrepreneurs. The WhatsApp team, even post-acquisition, continued to run things almost entirely on its own. In many ways, news of how small of an engineering team it employs was a game changer. It changed the perspective of many CEOs and CTOs who need to build their engineering teams. It proved that it is not about quantity but about quality. It showed how, in many ways, the minimalistic approach can be much more effective, especially for startups that are shaping and changing the world and doing so rapidly.

I strongly believe in this minimalist approach, but additional parameters need to be considered, such as having a strong focus on sales. Most importantly, your small team of engineers must be the brightest and sharpest and also fully hands-on. There can’t be any compromise here.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has noted how it’s important to have “a culture that supports effective teamwork of high-performance people.” Taking this into consideration, it’s important to choose your employees wisely and to remember that more employees do not necessarily translate to more productivity.

In fact, I feel like many companies make the mistake, after raising a series A/B/C funding, of aggressively hiring to add manpower. But the problem with this is that the burn-rate becomes extremely cumbersome. The training of new hires also takes significant time and effort, which distracts current engineers from their work. In the end, you realize that you could have progressed faster with a much smaller team.

If your startup is young and hectic, I recommend that you choose your engineering team wisely — and keep it small.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.

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About Kari Lachmi
Co-founder & chief scientific officer of Bioz, the first search engine for life science experimentation. Former Stanford cancer researcher.