Why Everyone Is Talking About “Scaling”

When the smart kids say they’re trying to do something “at scale,” what exactly do they mean?

Why Everyone Is Talking About “Scaling”
[Image: Flickr user Ocean]

If you spend enough time in startup land, you’ll hear about “scaling up,” “needing to scale,” “funding to scale,” and, perhaps more formidably, the question of “but at what scale?” Still, for all the import that word carries, it can be tough to parse what it really means.


Luckily No Asshole Rule author Bob Sutton recently tipped us to the scales.

In his own words:

Scaling challenges nearly always comes down to the same problem: the difficulty of spreading something good from those who have it to those that don’t–or at least don’t yet. It is always, in other words, the problem of more.

But the “more” challenge can come in many forms.

Sometimes it’s people.

Sutton tells the story of baby-goods startup Citrus Lane. When the company was a fledgling six-person affair, the whole team would have lunch together every day and sort out whatever problems were at hand–a classic case of productive lunches.

However, the team soon grew to 20 people–and gone were the homey team lunches. Instead, they were in plain ol’ offices. And suddenly the lunchly knowledge sharing that helped them so much went away. So without meeting by way of midday meal, Sutton says “they had to learn to articulate something that had been tacit: a shared understanding of goals, culture, and what it takes to succeed at Citrus Lane.” Which allows for some happy babies.


Sometimes it’s replication.

When a giant company wants to get more giant, that’s also scaling, Sutton says. Like when UPS started shipping between just 13 states, then added nine more, then went even further. Or when IKEA opened stores in China. Or when Home Depot failed to.

Sometimes it’s sharing ideas.

A nonprofit called the Institute for Health Improvement rallied around a cause called the “100,000 Lives Campaign–the idea was to educate folks on how simple things like washing your hands well can reduce infection rates. The results of the meme-spread were staggering.

As Sutton notes:

Ultimately, some 3,200 hospitals comprising over 70% of U.S. beds participated in the campaign. There is compelling evidence (including analysis done by members of a Stanford doctoral seminar that Huggy Rao ran about five years ago) that the number of preventable deaths in the U.S. dropped by about 120,000 during this period.

Other options for scaling: getting acquired, mastering push notifications, and figuring out how the hell to work together.


Hat Tip: Work Matters

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.