Colin Nederkoorn

Duct Tape vs Building Systems

Your approach needs to change as you scale

August 16, 2019

Originally posted internally to Customer.io

In the early days of a company, it’s really valuable to just be able to get things done with duct tape and glue. A critical mistake a lot of businesses make is they build an elaborate system for how things will work when they have customers …. before they have any customers.

If you’re lucky, duct tape will take you to a degree of success without over investing in that don’t matter. The challenge with that approach is durability. Duct tape can paper over a lot of what you’re missing but it’s not a long term solution.

At one point we were running our business using duct tape and it was hard. Companies built with duct tape aren’t fun and they’re not sustainable. Everything was always on fire and John and my stress levels were turned up to 11 🚨.

  • Duct tape is Matthew jumping in to handle an outage because we don’t have an SRE team or well defined roles and processes for outages.
  • Duct tape is Colin (me) jumping on calls with customers whenever people have complex needs and want to talk strategy because CSMs don’t exist.
  • Duct tape is running around like chickens with our heads cut off whenever an IP gets black listed and we’re scrambling to get un blacklisted because we haven’t trained Mike and Joe.

For us to improve the way we work, we need to build systems — not computer systems, but rather ways of handling the work that we do across the business. Systems make that work more predictable and sustainable for the people who do it.

  • System building is Brian testing out squads before rolling them out to the whole company.
  • System building is Jon evolving our approach to paid marketing by isolating each part of our funnel and running experiments to build knowledge and experience as we ramp up our spend.
  • System building is our CSMs testing success interactions, and learning from initial customers before formalizing how we’ll work with the rest.

Building systems forces people to think methodically. It turns you in to a scientist. You run experiments. First, you build a foundation usually from a place of experience that will support the system. You’ll see system builders creating their system in layers. They try something new here, or evolve a process there. Very rarely do they tear everything down and start from scratch. It requires focus and dedication and it’s different than duct tape and appropriate for a different stage of a business.