If you have even a passing interest in the tech industry and start-up culture, you’ve certainly heard about the unfolding crisis at formerly golden start-up Zenefits. The company—a producer of web-based software to help small businesses manage their human resources operations—made big news last year when they raised $500 million in one round of funding, at a valuation of $4 billion. The growth of the company over the past couple of years has been astronomical: they went from a total of fifteen employees at the end of 2013 to a reported sixteen hundred late last year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the growth has caused some serious issues, and CEO and founder Parker Conrad was asked to step down two weeks ago amid scandalous reports of employees being encouraged to cheat on their insurance broker licensing exams (even being given software to help them do so), overimbibing during the workday from company-provided kegs, and having sex in the stairwells of the office building.
Conrad’s resignation from the company allegedly brought tears of relief—not sadness—from beleaguered employees, many of whom are wholly unqualified for the work they’ve been asked to do (a reported 80 percent of Zenefits’ Washington transactions were claimed to be unlicensed). Strangely for a technology company, Zenefits seems to have attempted to solve its woes by adding even more employees to fix problems manually, rather than fully debugging systems when breakdowns took place.
Some of the details of Zenefits’ (and Conrad’s) downfall may be shocking—drinking on the job as a company norm, disregard for regulations in a company that handles something as sensitive as health insurance—but to anyone accustomed to working with entrepreneurs, especially those operating in the high-stakes pressure cooker of Silicon Valley, this outcome is anything but a surprise.
Certainly Zenefits’ rise and crash was helped along by the trend of outrageous VC funding for Silicon Valley start-ups, but the heart of their problems is nothing new. This is simply what happens when there is not an effective, embedded vision at the crucial juncture where scaling meets speed. Zenefits began as a Software as a Service company devoted to helping small businesses combat the onerous red tape of HR issues, health coverage in particular. An honorable enough mission. But as they scaled with lightning speed, they began taking on businesses with hundreds of employees, long before they were equipped with the culture necessary for handling them and the organization’s scaling to that level. Growth became the only imperative, at the cost of quality, employee morale, and even lawful practices.
The current climate in Silicon Valley prizes the “get big fast” mentality, but it’s worth asking, is growth always the ultimate goal? David Packard, the cofounder of Hewlett-Packard (HP), wrote in his memoirs that over the years he and Bill Hewlett had “speculated many times about the optimum size of a company.” They “did not believe that growth was important for its own sake” but eventually concluded that “continuous growth was essential” for the company to remain competitive. One reason growth was a matter of survival was because HP “depended on attracting high-caliber people” who wanted to “align their careers only with a company that offered ample opportunity for personal growth and progress.” Growth for the sake of attracting and keeping great people would become a factor for virtually all firms in technology-driven fields. When the firm introduced “the HP way” in 1957—essentially a manifesto for its future—it emphasized growth “as a measure of strength and a requirement for survival.” While Carly Fiorina trash-talked the original culture and called it an adorable artifact of an older time, she was no paragon of leadership during her tenure there, and the company suffered under her watch.
Most companies understand that growth is essential for survival for the very reasons Packard put so succinctly above. But few know how to reconcile the need for growth with the external and internal pressures to grow very quickly—especially with a group of big-time venture capitalists breathing down one’s neck. Building any large and sustainable corporation requires a considerable organizational transformation rather than a predictable set of linear stages. Building it quickly diminishes the odds that it can weather the growing pains of that transformation, as we can see so clearly in Zenefits’ unraveling. “More businesses die from indigestion than from starvation,” Packard said.
Start-ups are not just large businesses in miniature, and their trajectories do not necessarily point to either size or longevity. Rather than relying on opportunistic adaptation to exploit niche opportunities, their existence depends much more on formulating and implementing ambitious strategies that prepare the firm for the longer term. Put another way, the transition of a fledgling business into a large, well-established corporation requires nothing less than a series of fundamental yet relatively seamless transformations, nearly impossible to pull off in a period of eighteen months or so as Zenefits attempted to do.
Well-articulated visions guide these transformations so they are not experienced as traumatic surprises. Unfortunately, there are relatively few exceptional entrepreneurs with the capacity to conceptualize, articulate, and relentlessly manage with a vision and survive the steep challenges wedded to accelerated growth.
Maybe—just maybe—there’s a degree of maturity, insight, and future focus that’s not just about EBITA growth. Zuckerberg got that in his twenties, and he turned Facebook into a growth machine. The Google guys got it too, in their youth. They were smart enough to turn the reins over to Eric Schmidt, who would successfully guide the firm’s growth.
But perhaps the real lack of maturity rests with shortsighted venture capital firms and boards. They’re the ones who drove the wild growth and then kept Mr. Conrad in place until the shooting star was crashing back to Earth.