3 steps to deal with silos in your high growth startup

Aaron Asaro

9 minute read

The human instinct to find a "tribe" seems inbuilt. It's no surprise then that as startups grow silos form naturally. Silo's form around any number of galvanizing factors, for example:

  • time zones, for distributed teams
  • functions, e.g. marketing geeks banding together
  • world views and personal preferences, e.g. software engineers - vim vs emacs
  • product initiatives
  • language spoken at home

In and of themselves silos aren't always a problem. Within a silo knowledge is deepened (great for specialized areas), closer bonds are formed (reducing staff turnover), and hierarchies collapse (quicker decision making). Unfortunately silos can isolate and disconnect the "tribe" from the wider company.

The risks of silos for startups #

"...there are risks with rapid growth that include creating silos, diminishing user impact per engineer over time..." - Raylene Yung, Head of Payments at Stripe

When people in silos become disconnected from the rest of the company some problems arise:

  • efforts may be duplicated across silos
  • information travels more slowly between silos
  • within silos customer communication becomes inconsistent with the company "voice"

As a startup founder (the intended audience for this post), you must make teams want to collaborate, and also make it easy for them to do so.

How do you fix silos in your startup? #

Any big group of people coming together will create silos. Fortunately history teaches us that you can bridge silos with stories. Yuval Harari[1] found that stories allow Homo sapiens to collaborate in large numbers.

In modern society, stories are told to us from birth. In the UK for example: people study the same story books at school, watch Back to the Future at Christmas, etc. These stories give people in a society a common thread to transcend their town, family, or religious silos. You too can leverage stories in your startup to bring people together - here are 3 ways you can do that.

1. Don't cast Batman as one of Snow White's seven dwarves #

High growth startups mean lots of hiring. Careless matching of a candidate to your company values can tear apart the team[2].

To start with you need to codify your culture (as far as possible). A great example of a very mature version of this is the Netflix culture handbook. If you're still early stage, just give a few examples (or stories) describing actions that are consistent with your culture.

When you're reviewing a job candidate, think about whether they can be part of your startup legend. Can you imagine their behaviour aligning with the other characters in that story? Or is it like Batman making an appearance as one of Snow White's seven dwarves?

2. Keep your romantic comedy from becoming a tearjerker #

Imagine a writer working on the sad scene for a new romantic comedy (rom-com). After a time they'll be writing in the voice of a tearjerker. That's fine. But when they switch back to writing the wedding scene they need be to consistent with the rom-com tone. Writers have plenty of tools to do that. As a founder you need to give similar tools to your people.

As with the rom-com example, people working in a silo gradually become less consistent with the company ethos. You can circumvent this by reinforcing your cultural outline (values, mission and vision) at every decision point. What does this mean practically? Well, if initiatives are presented to you be sure that people explain how the initiative fits in with your cultural outline. Do the same thing yourself when you present to others.

Your cultural outline needs to be more than words on a page. As the founder you need to shape it into a tool that your team can use in their professional lives. That way, people can regularly realign themselves with the rest of the company.

3. Connect the 3 Marketeers to The Accountant [3] #

Have you ever spoken to someone in the company and been surprised that they don't know about a new direction or decision that's been taken? If you're in a big enough team you must have (and of course you're self-selecting by reading this post). It happens because people become hyper-focussed on their own work and sit in an echo chamber with those they work most closely with.

So what's the solution? It's easy. Just connect people to others outside of their immediate team. Why? It'll be easier for them to maintain a broader business context. They'll see that other people in the company are similar to them in values - and have a similar professional story guiding them. There are great apps you can use to facilitate this e.g. Donut, and of course Chinwag.


  1. Harari, Yuval N. author. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. New York :Harper, 2015. ↩︎

  2. It's happened many times before as a quick google search for blog posts will show you. The presence of someone that doesn't work well in the culture also makes it way harder to hire someone that does fit the company values! ↩︎

  3. Funny because "The 3 Marketeers" sounds like The Three Musketeers, and The Accountant is a very different, but fun to watch film. (Yes, I'm explaining my own joke...) ↩︎