Once upon a time you were a bunch of folks (hopefully with complementary skills). You decided to build a company together. You worked on the product - designing it, building it and selling it.

And then you started growing.

You needed more people to help you out in specific areas and you started hiring. Probably your backend systems didn’t hold up and you hired a few backend engineers. Or perhaps, you wanted to build iOS and Android apps and you got people who had experience with that. You got a few product managers too.

You continued growing and you continued hiring.

And then you noticed - your shipping speed has slowed down.

You started comparing shipping speed with the early days, and attributed the slowing down to lack of intent or commitment of people in your team. However, if you had hired right, amongst other reasons there may be a few genuine reasons that can’t be immediately fixed. These genuine reasons are often ignored.

Some of them could be

  1. You had made certain assumptions while building your pre-customer and pre-revenue product and those assumptions are no longer valid. You didn’t (rightly so) focus on building a generic system. With existing product & code you are now trying to handle a myriad number of cases, and that is slowing down your development of new features.
  2. You had less number of customers and their needs were also confined to the initial product you had built. Now with a growing set of customers with varied use cases and workflows, each release requires more & extensive testing.
  3. You might have also acquired users across the timezones and your team now can’t afford to bring systems down for maintenance activities. They need to write extra code, devise a predictable sequence of steps that doesn’t impact any customer across any timezone.
  4. You didn’t invest in automating or/and building documentation early on (perhaps rightly so), however, now onboarding each new member in the team is getting costlier. They demand energy from existing team members and at the same time, still may not get productive quickly. In the worst case, they might also make a lot of mistakes because of this and that keeps your team busy.

I classify these genuine reasons as Growth Debt. Every company that grows (in terms of business and/or age) will have it.

Analogy wise, growth debt is like life-style diseases you get as you grow old. Some companies have a higher propensity of acquiring it early on.

If you don’t spend time regularly to identify and pay, it can soon start damaging your company and its growth.

In the next part, we will cover another heavily discussed but often misunderstood term - Tech Debt.