SXSW: Entrepreneurs debate growth versus scale

Blurb's chief product officer and Dell's Entrepreneur in Residence share tough lessons learned from the startup trenches

At a panel on Day 4 of SXSW Interactive, Dell’s Ingrid Vanderveldt talked to Blurb’s Donna Boyer about her experiences leading tech-related companies.

As entrepreneur-in-residence, Vanderveldt oversees entrepreneurial initiatives through the Dell Center of Entrepreneurs. She identifies how Dell can use its global resources to connect with entrepreneurs and help grow and scale their businesses.

Boyer is chief product officer of Blurb, a platform for making, printing, and publishing store-quality coffee table books. She has seen the company’s evolution from its early days, testing every version of its software.

Dell Entrepreneur in Residence Ingrid Vanderveldt at SXSW 2014

Credit: Dell
At a SXSW Interactive session on March 10, Dell’s Ingrid Vanderveldt, left, and Blurb’s Donna Boyer advised startups to make sure that their infrastructure can support their goals and to balance long-term goals with short-term clarity.

Learning tough lessons

Vanderveldt: I was building a data mining company and the investors came in and the mentality was “grow, grow, grow.” As a young CEO, I found myself investing in infrastructure and hiring people when we weren’t even through our development. It almost blew up our company. We nearly ran out of money and we had more infrastructure than we needed.

Growth vs. scale

Boyer: Growing and scaling a company are two different things. If you think about it differently, it prevents you from getting into the situation where you are growing and the wheels come off and then you realize you need to scale. If you think about growth at the same time as scale, you avoid those situations and create something that is sustainable.

Looking at the small picture

Vanderveldt: A long-term plan is important, but you also have to take a step back and think about what’s going to happen over the next 30, 60, 90 days. You have to communicate that to the whole team and make sure there is buy in across the board. On the technical side, you need modular architecture that can scale with that growth.

Boyer: Often you talk about what you are going to achieve, but you don’t talk about what it means. In a past company, we set a revenue goal that required a certain number of customers. We forgot to think that if we have that many customers, we are going to need more support people and more engineers. You have to understand what a goal means to the rest of your company.

The perils of a big break

Boyer: Tell your engineering team the day before you are supposed to go on “The Martha Stewart Show”! You get that big break and you are so excited and you might forget to mention (how you are going to deal with it) to your team. You get spikes in activity and its not as exciting for the people who have to clean up to the mess.

If you can remember to mention you are on TV the next day, you can prepare for it.

Conservatives or cowboys?

Boyer: Often in a company, the growth people are not the same as the scale people. The growth people tend to think that scale people are risk averse and too conservative. Scale people think that growth people are cowboys. To some extent, both are true. If you find a team that thinks of really innovative ways to deal with the “what ifs?” That’s where you solve the problems.

Mind the gaps

Boyer: Define the goal in a concrete way. Not just, “we’re going to be No. 1 in this market,” but what does it mean from the technology all the way through to things like office space? You think about big pictures and you have detailed plans, but somehow we forget to connect the two. If you start from the top down and work backwards, it’s a lot easier to find the gaps.

World domination

Boyer: Starting a company, there’s a lot you don’t know. You want that market to be there, you believe it’s there and you take a leap of faith. The hard part is the not the “leap of faith part”, it’s the “figuring things out” part. Don’t think on a world-domination scale. If you can’t be profitable on a unit of one, you can’t scale. You’ll always be on the back foot.

There is no perfect formula when it comes to growing and scaling. You have to find what is right for you.

Priti Ubhayakar

Priti Ubhayakar

Assistant Editor at Tech Page One
Priti Ubhayakar is a digital media expert with a background in writing and editing for the Web, print, TV, and film. Her work has appeared in Offshore Magazine, Time Out Magazine (Mumbai and Chicago), and Hybrid Magazine.
Priti Ubhayakar
Tags: Business,Business Management,Entrepreneurship,Technology