← Back to the blog

The Big Bang Query: career challenges in hyper-growth start-ups

Lifen’s CHR Maria Santamaria and CTO Dali Kilani offer advice for young professionals and managers navigating hyper-growth.


The big bang theory - the astrophysics one, not the sitcom - is a model that describes how the world as we know it came to be. In the 1950s, a clique of crazy-haired, fluffy-moustached, gold-rim-bespectacled mad scientists imaged the universe as a very tightly coiled hot mess of energy and undefined potential. Just like you on caffeine on a Monday. Flying particles, gluons and quarks circled each other like friendly goldfish. They somehow knew where to go next. And they were driven by a strange desire, unseen by the human eye.

For unknown reasons, things went wild after that. The proto-universe experienced a sudden and unforeseeable bad case of cosmic inflation. Maybe all that caffeine was taking its toll. What happened next is the subject of much debate. How fast did it go bananas? Was it a good thing? Was the matter vs. antimatter worth a Hollywood adaptation starring Russel Crowe?

What we know is that at some point, the number of natural laws operating in that rapidly expanding environment multiplied tenfold. There were now multiple variants of the same force acting under different rules. The universe was expanding, and the more it did, the more it cooled.

Now, It doesn’t take an astrophysicist to see the parallel between this and a fast-growing startup. The caffeine probably gave it away. It all starts with an idea, and if it just so happens to be a good one, you can expect it to expand at an ever-accelerating pace.

The Quark Era

In a startup, the original team - say, the first ten to hop on board - usually carve out what needs to be done organically. Everybody contributes anywhere they can to keep hope alive. They quickly earn titles such as Lead Engineer, Senior Engineer, Principal Engineer, and Head Of All Things. Titles they might not have earned so easily had to be chosen to join a more mature work environment. This is part of the implicit contract when joining a buzzing, pre-big bang startup: you take a risk but earn title inflation as a reward.

An early-stage startup is a high-octane environment were creating value against all odds comes at a very high cost — emotional and physical. And as humans, we all seek reward to make up for it - après l’effort, le reconfort. In our world, the ultimate reward comes in the form of the much-coveted start-up Holy Grail - the promotion.

Fast-forward to the moment when the number of quarks and gluons multiply. They were once so close and the environment so hot, matter and energy were not just theoretically equivalent - they were practically the same stuff. Now, there are more of them. By the time you can no longer count your team members on the fingers of both hands, you can also expect the complexity of the tasks they carry out to increase. Skills that were but an extra string on your bow now prove critical.

Browse our open positions

Join Lifen

The Hadron Era

Say, you join a startup as a new grad and earn your first promotion in just over a year. You’re thrilled! At only 24, your old man has a silver pen engraved with your new title - Senior Engineer - and lovingly drops it in your stocking. Better work even harder, you think, because by Christmas next year I’ll have a new title to earn that gold pen.

But lo and behold. As the team grew in size, the natural laws grew more complex. The pace of iteration significantly increased. New people joined the team, often at a similar grade as you. This is when you start feeling that things are getting harder — woah, these people are smart! Smarter than you. More experienced than you.

There is so much catching up to do and so little time.

The Opaque Era

Your confidence levels slowly drop as the ever-expanding universe cools down. What happened is that as it expanded, new galaxies formed. And they were bigger and stronger, effectively dwarfing the original ones - who, by the way, are considering jumping into that black hole by now.

Performance review day comes, and your sights are set on that gold pen with your new title. After all, you’ve been there since day one. You deserve it. Or do you?

Much to your chagrin, you are told that expectations have changed and that while you’re on the right track, you won’t be getting your gold pen this year. It’s like watching the finish line move further and further away at the end of the marathon… how could this happen?

The Dark Age

The answer can be found in the Big Bang theory. If the corporate ladder now has N levels, the gap between levels increases as the proto-company expands. This is particularly true for rapidly expanding start-ups.

As the universe’s expansion accelerates, the speed of expansion becomes much faster than the pace of people’s progress, leading to a perception of standing still or even going backwards.

Advice from the cosmos - for employees

We’ve got good news: your feelings are valid. And you’re far from being the only one. If the Great Resignation is any indication, the vast majority of people believe that they need better reasons to go to work than just company expectations.

This is where you must take a step back and weigh your options:

Option 1: Keep at it

Accept that promotion is off the table for the time being and focus on developing your hard and soft skills. If your company offers quality mentoring and growth opportunities, you can envision the possibility of committing in the long run and seeking the guidance of more experienced newcomers. The hard skills you will learn from them, coupled with your in-depth knowledge of the product will help you progress faster by adding depth to your skill set. In any company, regardless of its size, steady team members with excellent knowledge of both the product and the company’s vision make valuable mentors - regardless of their seniority. You’ll become a pillar of strength, which is no small feat.

Option 2: Try a different team

If due recognition is a vital aspect of your work ethic, you may consider making a lateral move into a different team - from Engineering to Product, for instance - where your previous experience in the company will be more valued and where you can acquire different skills. Your coupled experience in both positions, along with a more diverse skillset, will make you a highly coveted candidate to lead new, high-responsibility projects.

Option 3: Space travel

It might not always be the wisest move. Still, under some circumstances, it might be doable: invest your time into progressing fast enough to keep up with the expanding universe. This might require that you make use of your off-the-clock time to go back to school, earn certifications and learn new skills by yourself. If you choose this option, remember to set attainable goals and aim for realistic progress - space sickness is very real!

Option 4: Check out other galaxies

If none of the options above sounds reasonable, you might consider using the skills you have acquired (both hard skills and your knowledge of operating in a rapidly growing company) to find a position in a different one. If the latter is in its early stages, there is a very real possibility that you can leverage your experience to obtain a position that aligns better with your ambition. Remember - it’s okay to aim high!

Advice from the cosmos - for managers

As a manager, it is important to be aware of situations where a team member sees their confidence levels rapidly drop. It usually manifests in the form of decreased enthusiasm (i.e. working to roll.) Seeing one’s expertise and performance passed over - even in the early stages of one’s career - is an arduous test. Employees may begin questioning their worth, even more so if they’re ambitious and high-achieving individuals. Don’t take their plight lightly, and make sure to offer tangible solutions. Mentoring programmes, in-service training, or a change of management style might be worth considering.

Also, prevention is better than cure: educate yourself on the challenges of navigating a fast-growing start-up and prepare your staff accordingly. This will soften the blow and help your team feel recognised and stay driven regardless of potential career progression lags.

Hyper-growth is hard on all fronts. The toughest part remains the human cost of it. But if navigated properly, it’s also when stars and galaxies begin to form.

Maria Camila Santamaria

Maria Camila is a multilingual Human Resources professional with a decade of experience in both large-scale multinational companies and start-ups alike. Recognised for her outstanding leadership and management skills, she specialises in talent acquisition, talent development and coaching teams during transition phases.

Dali Kilani

A seasoned leader and technologist with extensive hands-on experience leading both small and large engineering and product teams, Dali has set himself the challenge of raising health data security to the most demanding levels. His experience covers a broad spectrum of technologies, from architecting and building complex high-performance hardware systems to massive web-scale applications like social gaming. Dali spent a significant part of his career in Silicon Valley, in technical leadership roles at household companies such as Nvidia and Zynga, helping them deliver their exponential growth.

Read our posts

Get in touch

Book a chat with our team and discover how Lifen's solutions can be tailored to fit your needs