Scalable Simplicity

A cup of tea

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”

Leonardo Da Vinci

Before writing this post I began jotting down a brief plan for what I would write on the topic of “scalable simplicity”. I soon realized that my post was going to amount to thousands of words, and that I’d be pulling in references from art, science, technology, and politics. Not very simple, right? Hence, I shall simplify, not wanting to contradict myself.

The word “simplicity” has many connotations – when applied to a product, it would be one which is easy to use, ergonomic, intuitive, and likely of a simple uniform design. When applied to business, it would be a brand which speaks to its customers clearly and purely, a business which is perceived by its customers as being understandable and uncomplicated, and one whose internal systems and processes allow for streamlined decision making, employee clarity, and unbridled creativity.

So what is scalable simplicity?

Scalable simplicity is my understanding that if you have something which is simple, and you intend to scale it (grow it), then the end result should retain and reflect the initial intention of simplicity which was brought forth to begin with. In short, “Grow your simple things so that their growth preserves their simplicity”.

In internet startups, most of us understand the need to simplify. Where possible we all embrace rapid development languages and frameworks such as Python, Django, Ruby, Rails, CakePHP…(the list goes on). We deploy our sites onto low cost, scalable servers such as Amazon Web Services and Google App Engine. In user interface design we opt for simple rather than complex. In startups, our goal is to launch early, usually on minimal capital and with a handful of people, and iterate, build, and in time, scale. We set ourselves up in simple and creative work spaces, with a mission statement on the wall which reads “Build a product that people love to use!”

 “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”

Albert Einstein

So how do we retain simplicity, and scale it after the product has launched, the money starts rolling in from investors and customers, and we start hiring more and more people? To paraphrase Paul Graham from Y Combinator, you’ll never be as productive as when you’re a startup who has received their first injection of seed investment.  This is likely true because of the innate simplicity of startups. But how then do we prove Paul wrong? How do we ensure that productivity is replicated and retained as a startup grows, and that simplicity itself is scalable? I wish I could insert a tried and true law of scalable simplicity here, but alas, there is not one which exists. Instead, as internet startup entrepreneurs we’re forced to navigate the seas of simplicity using our internal compass.

We’ll focus on why we do what you do, because people don’t buy what you do, they buy WHY you do it. We’ll assess decisions based on the value they add to the company, as well as the accompanying complexity, because if complexity outweighs value, then the decision to proceed should be forfeited.

We’ll keep managerial layers to a minimum, ensuring that decision making never needs to travel across more than 1 layer for approval. And if it does, then we’ll empower the people at lower layers to make decisions.

We’ll nurture creativity, and then assess the appropriateness of integrating new product features in relevance to the company’s vision. Sometimes a new feature is best spun off as a separate product rather than being added in an attempt to enhance the existing core product.

We’ll be brave, and apply Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s concept: “It seems that perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”.

Whenever and wherever possible, we’ll have fun, and KISS!


  1. Sherry

    Well-said. Very good article Scott. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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