I’ve spent my entire career at start-ups. I’m use to small. I once worked at a big table with everyone else employed at the company, resulting in pure bliss. One company that I started with three other guys got up to eight people before we were sold to a company with close to 7,000 people in 40 countries. I am most comfortable working side by side with my colleagues; unfortunately over the last 10 years it has not really worked out that way.

Ten years ago I started Corzen with my partner Bruce. Our first office was the Starbucks on 6th and W 57th street in Manhattan. We got geeky pretty quickly and moved to meeting in my apartment so we can huddle around my desktop (this was before Starbucks had free WiFi). A few months later we took up space in what was probably the first (and at the time only) co-work space in Manhattan down in Union Square.

Very quickly we hired Bob, our sales, marketing, production, ops, product, project manager, and all around nice guy. Overnight we went from Bruce saying “Steve, the web site should have more blue over here and here it should be more red” to “let’s have a meeting and discuss this with Bob.” We went from one communication interface to three.

As you increase the number of people you work with, you increase the number of communication interfaces pretty quickly. As you increase the number of communication interfaces, things start to get bogged down, since the human brain can only keep track of seven things at a time. So the optimal size of a company is apparently four, since there are only six communication interfaces. (You can calculate the number of interfaces by taking the square of the total number of people minus the total number of people divided by two.) You are not going to build the next billion dollar business with only four people; even Instagram had 13 people, with a communication interface of 78.

In year two of Corzen things expanded rapidly (it didn’t hurt that we were mentored by the future rocks stars Fred and Brad over at Union Square Ventures.) We hired some programmers in New York with five more in Pune, India. After another year we had added a few more people in Cairo, Egypt. Altogether the company was around fifteen people, not only having 105 communication interfaces, but also multiple locations in three time zones.

A tiny company of fifteen people had some of the same communication problems of a global conglomerate. We had to learn on the fly. What did we do?

  • Every Friday the whole New York office went to lunch together. Even though we all worked at the same co-work space, it gave us time to clear the air on any issues and then talk about whatever was on our mind. Was also a great way to catch everyone up on your last trip. We also talked about non-work stuff too. (Usually baseball, politics, the attractiveness or whoever new started to work at the co-work space, etc.)
  • Monday morning New York staff meeting. We did not do many meetings at the company, however, we did do one staff meeting once a week.
  • I traveled to Pune and Egypt. A lot. I went to Egypt so much I was put on the TSA watch list. I learned a lot about doing business overseas, other cultures, and a distributed environment. For example I had three young, Muslim, female programmers working for me in Cairo. I had to have multiple meals with each of their families before I made any progress. (Lucky for me, the food was delicious and their families would try to “force feed” me.)
  • We did a tremendous amount of on-site, customer visits. We sometimes brought everyone in the office. We shared the results with the remote teams.
  • We instituted Agile methodologies, since Agile, and Scrum in particular, stresses communication.
  • Skype, Skype, Skype. More Skype.
  • Any document that we created was shared on Google Docs
  • We had an intranet and internal Wiki about many things (and posted funny photos of co-workers)
  • Stressed the importance of face to face meetings as part of our culture

While we still had some communication issues, we did pretty well as we continued to grow. A few years later, we were acquired by a company based in the French part of Canada with about 50 people. Overnight our communication interfaces went from 105 to 2080! (Plus I don’t speak French.) Luckily for me, the acquiring company was impressed with what we did both with Agile development as well as with our remote offices (the buying company was all located in one office), so they put me in charge of leading this effort during the transition. After about six months and going to Quebec City more often than any American should have to, eating too much poutine, and countless meetings and sessions, we all were very happy with the new combined company’s communication.

As you start your new business, or are working at an established company, big or small, make sure communications are part of your corporate strategy. You’ll be better off for it.

About the Author

Steve Forte

 sits on the board of several start-ups including Triton Works. Stephen is also the Microsoft Regional Director for the NY Metro region and speaks regularly at industry conferences around the world. He has written several books on application and database development including Programming SQL Server 2008 (MS Press).

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