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Scale is Poison

It's March 9th 2021 and Google Calendar still doesn't have a dark mode. The iOS app update notes for the Just Eat app are still boasting about the app now supporting contact-free delivery, and have done for all 25 releases in the last 11 months that I can see on the App Store. Twitter's TweetDeck still doesn't support creating or participating in polls.

The Problem

I've worked for a wide range of companies throughout my career. From a big US tech giant to a small Norwegian SaaS platform, with some bits in between. To me the problem is clear: big companies can't afford to give a fuck.

Why is it that companies paying Google $100,000 a month for GCP get ghosted by support staff, yet Jason Fried regularly answers questions about his company directly on Twitter?

The answer is scale.

When you scale, you automate. This is good and bad. It's nice to be able to get a refund automatically when an item is missing from your order. It's frustrating trying to figure out the right incantation to trick a chatbot in to connecting you to a human. It's terrifying when we encode racism into national approval processes.

The problem doesn't just apply to customers. Staff suffer as well. When I worked in a big US tech company, as soon as I stopped being a model employee I got stonewalled and pushed out. Exactly no effort was made to sympathise with my side of the story (my boss was bullying me), it was much easier for them to do nothing and hope I'd leave.

Conversely, small companies have treated me exceptionally well. When my 2020 tax filing told me I owed the governemnt 10,000 GBP because of an unfortunate cocktail of mistakes both myself and the company accountants had made, the CEO couldn't do enough for me.

The Solution

Easy. Don't scale.

Gasp.

I'm serious. Don't scale past the number of users you can excellently serve. Don't scale to a point where you can't excellently polish your software. If it's becoming difficult and slow to implement new features, or react to new platform updates (e.g. widgets in iOS 14), stop. If your customers spend more time on hold than using your service, stop.

This works in reverse, too. Annoyed that the only person you can get to listen to you is a chatbot? Move to smaller companies that give a shit. Here are some moves I made that I'm really happy with:

In almost all cases, moves like this will cost you money. One of the reasons companies scale is because it's economical to do so. Being small costs more, and I appreciate not everyone can afford that, but if you can it's worth it.

Have you made similar switches you're happy with? I'd love to hear about them. Tweet me.

The Aside

You might be thinking: "Sam, you're being unfair. I know loads of people that work in large software companies, they give lots of fucks and they're doing their best."

I don't doubt it. I've got a lot of friends in these companies, too, and I know for certain that they're good people.

In the end, though, they end up getting dragged into the miasma. Priorities are set by people 3-4 rungs up the ladder and there's minimal wiggle room. Performance reviews eat a month of your time per year or more, and make sure you're only working on exactly what they want you to be working on. The fetishisation of "impact" ensures that details are ignored forever.

But they pay you a butt-load of money, so it's hard to leave.