12 January 2022 Back to Articles

How to Organise Startup Teams for Growth

Growing your startup beyond its founding team requires parallelising effort, maintaining your culture whilst growing, avoiding unhealthy competition between teams, ensuring each team knows what its role is, all whilst continuing to delight your customers. I'll show you how to structure your teams as you grow to avoid common pitfalls and set yourself up for success. up for success.

Product management  |  Culture  |  Startups  |  Growth

How do I best organize my team for growth?

This is a question I hear a lot, it’s usually accompanied by one or more of these symptoms.

  • Difficulty parallelising effort (e.g. adding multiple teams or people).
  • Cultural problems whilst growing (e.g. teams disliking new structures, staff churning).
  • Unhealthy frictions between sales and product (e.g. bickering, blaming, slow conversions).
  • Unhealthy competition between teams.
  • Lack of ownership within teams.
  • A product failing to delight..

What I learned (the hard way) about team structures

When I was scaling my startup from 25 to 150 people I encountered all of these problems. It took me about 18 months to diagnose and fix the underlying issues and our growth took far longer than that to recover.

We eventually solved the problems - leading to growth, far less stress for founders and teams, and a far better product.

In this article, I’m going to show you how to organise your team to make it easier to add layers of management, enable fast growth through parallelising your team’s efforts, and ensure that you deliver high-value products, on-time, to your customers.

Start with your leadership

As you grow your team, your startup needs to evolve its org structure. The vast majority of startups and businesses coalesce around the same organisational functions:

  • Line manager: someone who’s responsible for the personal development, wellbeing, and career development of the employee.
  • Squad leader: responsible for a cross-functional team’s mission. This might be a product manager or tech lead in a product team, a growth lead or a marketing manager in a growth team. This is also called a squad leader.
  • Guild master: responsible for the skills development of a particular skill set (e.g. React Native developers, growth marketers, product managers) and the integrity of cross-team functionality. Guilds are also called domains, tribes, service lines, and so on.

Let’s deep dive into each of these roles and their teams and find out how to make the structures work.

Line managers - developers of people

The purpose of a line manager is to enable the personal development, wellbeing and career development of a team member. The line manager usually has the call on firing under-performing team members, with inputs from their team lead.

Line managers make a particularly useful counterpoint to team leads. Team leads (e.g. growth manager, product manager) are typically focused on the outcomes of the team (running experiments to drive growth). They may be less focused on the well-being of the team member.

Image a particularly tough growth meeting or product strategy meeting, in which truths are spoken and data is dissected, leaving another member of the growth or product team feeling upset.

Growth and product meetings need to be direct and to the point. But people are people and particularly more junior team members might need picking up, listening to, occasionally consoling after tough meetings.

A good line manager will do this expertly.

Guild master - for skills and consistency

Your solutions architecture guild leader won’t allow code to go into production that could cause defects or threaten service quality. But she is also experienced enough to spot a quick, neccesery hack that delivers valuable learning but looks ugly, and allow it through.

Guilds have two goals. Firstly they maintain consistency of approach and learning across different teams or verticals.

For example, the data science guild will make sure that each squad implements the startup’s data science the right way; the design guild will ensure consistency of UI/UX across all parts of the app, and so on.

Guild masters are experts in their domain (data science, solutions architecture, React Native, product management, growth, etc) who enjoy developing peoples’ skills and who are both bold enough to push back and experienced enough to know when to push back when they see things that threaten consistency of the product.

For example, your solutions architecture guild leader won’t allow code to go into production that could cause defects or threaten service quality. But she is also experienced enough to spot a quick, neccesery hack that delivers valuable learning but looks ugly, and allow it through.

The second function of a guild is to ensure team members have the skills needed to achieve their goals. Because the guild owner is also responsible for consistency across all teams, she knows the breadth and depth of challenges faced by her guild and can provide access to training accordingly.

Squad leader - focus on the mission

Your squad leader is the person who’s best equipped to lead you towards your mission

The squad is the unit that your people will most strongly associate with and will spend 95% of their time inside.

The squad needs to have a clear mission (an outcome) with a single metric that determines their success and lets them focus on the goal.

Your squads’ missions sit under your north star metric - so make sure you have one.

Your growth squads typically focus on things like traffic generation, customer acquisition, customer onboarding, etc. Your product squads typically focus on things like activation and engagement. Both have the same structure. This makes it easy to parallelise, to give clarity of objectives, and (when needed) to move people from one squad to another.

Your squad leader is the person who’s best equipped to lead you towards your mission. They are obsessed with and assessed on the performance of their mission.

The squad leader is part line manager; they have a lot of say in promotion, they should be the first to notice poor performance, they’ll ideally notice the signs of burnout before anyone else. But do not tie the two roles together or you greatly reduce your flexibility when it comes to organisational design.

Squads in a startup

Squads in a scale-up

Team structure checklist

I’ve run through the key leadership roles (line manager, squad leader, guild master) and show how these three units work together. Now it’s over to you.

When you’re building out your organisation, keep the following ideas in mind.


✅ Look for different personality types, experiences and skills to complement each role.

✅ Mix and match line managers and employees from different teams and skills. Your line manager needs to be passionate about developing people, and seeing them succeed, they do not need to be an expert in each of their team’s domains.

✅ Keep the org as flat as possible as long as you can. For example, a pair of CEO and CTO co-founders can manage 14-16 people comfortably.

✅ Assign people 100% to teams wherever possible. This gets easier as you grow but avoid at all costs fragmenting people between different teams. It’s a massive productivity killer.

Do Not:

❌ Expect anyone to line manage more than 8 people (it’s too much work).

❌ Ask anyone to line-manage less than 4 people (it’s in-efficient.)

❌ Have guilds with only one person in.

Give it a go

Good organisational design is key to faster growth, adding more people to your organisation, curing many cultural / team growth problems, and to delivering high-value products that your customers love.

To give it a go, try approaching the problem in this order:

  1. Get clear on your north star metric
  2. Decide what customer behaviours and other outcomes you need to achieve to drive your north star metric.
  3. Narrow down #2 above so you focus on a handful of the most impactful outcomes.
  4. Assign one metric to each outcome
  5. Choose your best squad leader for each outcome
  6. Assign her/him a team to work with
  7. Identify a guild leader who has the strongest domain skills and a desire to share their skills and knowledge
  8. Inspect your line-management structure to make sure you have the flattest org possible

Let me know how you get on.

Photo by Laura Ockel on Unsplash