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High Tolerance for Imbalance

Adapt or die.

3 min read
High Tolerance for Imbalance
Before Growth is a weekly newsletter about startups and their builders before product–market fit, by 3x founder and programmer Kamil Nicieja.

Everyone has their methods for looking smart in meetings. Drawing Venn diagrams. Suggesting to take a step back. Some always ask, “Will this scale?” regardless of the actual context. Over my career, I’ve observed another common tactic: saying “We need a balanced approach.” Everybody loves balance! You just can’t go wrong with it.

Except this approach falls short in startups, as they inherently demand a high tolerance for greatly unbalanced environments. Let me explain.

In the early stages of a startup, the focus should be intensely on achieving product-market fit, which means skewing everything towards product development and growth. This includes hiring, setting priorities, allocating resources, and discussions in meetings. Things like policies, perks, consensus-building across departments, structured order, and stability are not priorities—those are concerns for larger companies. Ignore them; if you don’t, you’ll die.

If you’re a gamer, this concept is similar to what’s known as min-maxing. Min-maxing is a strategy where a player maximizes a specific desirable trait, skill, or power in a character while minimizing everything else as less important. The result is a character extremely powerful in one aspect but significantly weaker in others. This is a deliberate choice for gamers; for startups, it’s often the only way to survive. It’s natural selection—they simply don’t have enough people, resources, funds, or time. The stakes are high. If you can’t min-max your way to the next important milestone, you’ll die.

The milestones change at each stage of a startup’s journey. Once the product-market fit is achieved, the next objective is scaling. After scaling, the priority shifts to making unit economics viable, followed by preparing for an IPO. Throughout these stages, one constant remains: compared to an average mature corporation, a startup at any given point in their lifecycle will seem unbalanced. Every startup, even the generational ones, appear almost dysfunctional at some point. Take major success stories from the past, like Uber, for example—there were skeptics who doubted its profitability even long after its IPO.

To thrive in a startup, whether as a founder or an employee, you need to grasp this reality. Employees, while having less at stake compared to founders, often face a tougher reality than their peers in larger companies. Consider a scenario where your CFO announces that the company is less than 100 days from shutting down unless it becomes profitable, as securing another bridge round is no longer feasible. This is a challenge many startups are currently confronting, especially with the shift in funding conditions following the end of the ZIRP era.

Or imagine being an employee at Figma, a startup that has achieved remarkable success by any standard. The excitement when news of Adobe’s $20 billion acquisition offer came in. As an employee with equity, you might have started imagining ways to spend your share—a reward for your hard work. The situation took an unexpected turn when Adobe called off the deal in December, citing uncertainties in obtaining antitrust approvals in Europe and Britain. What was once a real valuation turned into paper value once again; your profits, illiquid again. Despite no fault of your own, the next day requires you to return to work and refocus on another big exit opportunity—possibly an IPO. This path could take years and is not without risk. (WeWork, anyone? Not that it can be directly compared to Figma, of course. But the risk is always there.)

This isn’t a balanced situation.

It’s simply a min-maxed outcome of min-maxed work.

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Kamil Nicieja

I guess you can call me an optimist. I build products for fun—I’m a startup founder, author, and software engineer who’s worked with tech companies around the world.

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