Small Teams are Beautiful

Does the number of employees imply success?

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Ever since I founded Coraid in 2000, customers have asked, “How large is your company?”

“Why do you want to know?” I reply.

Without hesitation they explain, “I want to know if your company is big enough to take care of my needs.”

I’ve never quite understood the assumption that only large companies can provide solid services. In fact, I’d argue that in many cases, the opposite is true: small companies are positioned to provide better service.

Efficiency is easier with a small team, for example. In the tech world, smaller companies are certainly able to be more creative. It’s easier to remain focused too.

But more importantly, communication is easier in a small business, and communication is vital to keeping customers happy. The professional friendships that develop in small businesses foster conversations that may be impossible in massive organizations.

Let’s say a developer has some feature ideas but isn’t sure what would be most useful to users. Who knows clients the best? Sales! So the developer heads over there to get feedback. The right features are then added in the right order, orchestrated by the people who know the users and the people developing the product, all because those communication channels were open.

This means a small company makes decisions faster. I’ve seen many tech firms get bogged down with management boards and endless committees in which meaningful conversations are few and far between. This inertia can bring a company to the brink of ruin. In the early 90s, IBM almost collapsed from it. Cisco did too--just ask anyone who tried to get things done there in the early 2010s.

Large companies can sometimes become so unwieldy that different functions start to act like divisions. Each part then becomes convinced that they are the linchpin of the entire operation, the true reason for the firm’s existence. As egos inflate, the divisions begin to compete, cutting off communication channels. This is a tremendous waste of time for everyone, and is frustrating to the end users.

(That’s not to say companies can’t have divisions. Under the management of Alfred Sloan, General Motors became the original American distributed management company. Sloan was a master at ensuring decisions were made by the right people. This turned what was once stand-alone companies--Buick, Chevrolet, Cadillac--into one working company. Divisions by function, however, become a problem.)

Of course, not all jobs can be done with only a few people. I’m fortunate that my industry and product allow Coraid to operate with a small team. In fact, many of my decisions focus on making sure Coraid doesn’t fall into one of the many technology traps out there. If a product evolves with ever increasing complexity, it will require ever larger groups of people.

The points above are true for many small companies but not all. It’s so important that there is the passion about the product and users at the top of the company. This enthusiasm sets the tone of the organization and guides the team so that each member is able to grow professionally, resulting in a stronger whole.

Occasionally, large companies keep small company qualities. Edwin Land’s Polaroid comes to mind, but the best example might be W. L. Gore & Associates, Inc. They don’t let any single operation grow more than about 100 people. They have 10,000 employees and a revenue of over $3.2 billion. These are excellent examples of people focused on keeping a small company culture.

For technology firms, small can be beautiful. This is especially true at Coraid. We’re a small, focused group of dedicated people with open lines of communication that allow our small team to provide an excellent storage product to customers in need.

About the Author

Brantley CoileInventor, coder, and entrepreneur, Brantley Coile invented Stateful packet inspection, network address translation, and Web load balancing used in the Cisco LocalDirector. He went on to create the Coraid line of storage appliances, a product he continues to improve today.

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