Crawl, Walk, Run, or Sprint? The 4 Phases of Fluid Startup Scaling.

How to keep it simple — and solvent.

Written by Joe Procopio
Published on Jun. 01, 2022
Crawl, Walk, Run, or Sprint? The 4 Phases of Fluid Startup Scaling.
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Every entrepreneur and product leader has big dreams of massive scale. We all want to create the next-level, game-changing, industry-disrupting product that’s going to etch the name of our company (and let’s face it, our own name) on a plaque in the Product Hall of Fame.

(I know. There is no Product Hall of Fame. There should be, though.)

But you get my drift. Very few of us set out to create something that’s just slightly better than what’s already out there.

Here’s the problem. A lot of those big scale dreams are ever realized. Even those of us who have already experienced more success than we deserve understand that success is hard to come by. And it definitely doesn’t happen overnight.

The truth is, most of those big product dreams of scale die for one of two reasons:

  1. The product falls over as it scales — either production, performance, or delivery fails at high levels of demand.
  2. The product is built for a scale it never achieves. In other words, production and delivery are too costly to sustain at low levels of demand (like most mobile services), and/or performance and value only exist at a critical mass of demand (like a social network or a digital marketplace).

It’s a frustrating startup catch-22. Selling to millions of customers is a good problem to have. Fulfilling millions of orders and managing millions of customers is not a good problem. It’s an actual problem.

But there’s a solution, and it’s one you may have already heard of. When you’re attempting something that’s never been done before, you have to learn to crawl before you learn to walk before you learn to run.

No one starts marathon training by trying to run 26.2 miles on the first day. Here’s how to crawl, walk, and run your product and company to scale speed. 

Joe KnowsWhy Startups Make Major Pivots Before They Succeed


The 4 Stages of Startup Scaling

Move Your Startup Through These 4 Stages to Scale Up Effortlessly

  1. Crawl: Get to a point of minimum viability.
  2. Walk: Automate what you can to focus on the bigger picture.
  3. Run: Accelerate what’s working.
  4. Sprint: Fine-tune your product or offering.


Crawl Is About Viability

When I think about the crawl phase, the mantras I like to stick to are:

  • Minimum technology
  • Minimum automation
  • Maximum profitability

I want to reduce technology and automation because technology and automation are always expensive, especially at first when you need to build a foundation on which the entire operation will be executed — whether that’s an app, a delivery process, a payment process, or even a communications process.

So I don’t write code when no-code or low-code will do. I don’t construct elaborate revenue and metrics reporting when the results won’t yet be statistically significant and can’t help me build a model to help me make decisions. I don’t invest in flow management when Zapier and email will do.

I want to maximize profitability because I know that when I move from crawling into walking, as customer volume increases, my margins will take a hit as that volume produces more unexpected outliers — customer demands I’m unprepared for and workarounds I need to make to accommodate use cases I hadn’t thought of. With so much manual work going on at this stage, I don’t want those margins reduced to zero or below zero before the tech and automation in later stages can right the ship. 


Walk Is About Automation

The great thing about crawling is that within a short period of real time in a real market, you quickly develop a prioritized list of what needs to be automated and how expensive that’s going to be.

In fact, a lot of products, projects, and partnerships don’t survive the crawl phase (and shouldn’t) and it’s usually due to misguided expectations or assumptions on one side or the other. But for every potential obstacle that lurks in the crawl phase, there’s also a potential pivot that can open up avenues that weren’t clear before. Sometimes those avenues result in a larger market share or higher margin.

You won’t know any of this, positive or negative, until you understand how the market adopts the product and what you can automate. The goal of the walk phase is to get the top 20 percent of tasks automated in order to save 80 percent of the time and costs associated with those tasks.

If you can’t make that equation work, then a pivot is probably in the product’s future.


Run Is About Acceleration

You’ve got two paths you can take to the run phase, and they’re not mutually exclusive.

When you’ve got a good thing going and growing, you can pull the levers to grow market share with reliable customer acquisition costs, customer lifetime value, margin goals, and profitability expectations to fall back on. Or you can start packing more functionality, features, and value into the product to serve a wider swath of the market and/or generate more revenue per customer.

Not every task and function needs to be automated at the run phase. You’ll always be improving and expanding your product’s value proposition. In fact, you can extend the crawl/walk/run metaphor with the term “sprint” — a release process that happens every two-to-six weeks once you hit the run phase. 


Sprinting Is About Tuning

Once your product is in a dedicated development cycle of updates and fixes, anything that’s more than tuning the performance or UX should fall back into a crawl/walk/run model to bring whatever new plans you have to the product or the market.

Not only will this help your company manage scale and growth, but reverting back to a crawl/walk/run mentality for riskier moves will help you prevent the seemingly spontaneous (often disastrous) pivots that no customer actually asked for or needed. 

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