Alex Payne is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

since 2001, has served as his online home.

A Thought on Business Size and Happiness

We take for granted that startups tend to be small, productive, and fun, and that behemoth companies are usually bureaucratic, dreary, and slow to produce. What’s frequently left unexplored is the growth stage between these polar opposites. The small-to-mid-sized company transition process is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.

In some sense, the middle stage between startup and established business is the hardest in an organization’s growth. Startups may be just barely scraping by, but they can have fun doing it. Big businesses may not have fun, but they have security and stability and process and usually enough money to sort most anything out. Mid-sized businesses, though, seemingly have the potential to be both animals: fun and stable, profitable and agile, and so forth. But clearly, given the culture of most large businesses that were once mid-sized businesses, having your cake and eating it too is a clearance shelf management book pipe dream.

Consensus seems to be that any business larger than about five people won’t be a “fun” place to work in the purest sense. That doesn’t mean it won’t be successful, profitable, exciting, etc. But the shared sense of goals, culture, aesthetics, and velocity that makes an infant business exciting seems to cap out at around five bodies. Bigger than that and you’ll never again be without the sort of communication problems that eat away at employee happiness and overall productivity.

This is clearly an unfinished thought. What I’d like to figure out is how to achieve that balance in a growing company. What I’ll more likely end up figuring out is how to mitigate the uncomfortable transition from small to big on a person-by-person basis.

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