Startups are like fighting forest fires

Published on in Engineering by



“There’s never enough time to get it right.”

That is by far the most frequent frustration and form of burn out I see inside startups.  It feels like your team is perpetually failing, when in fact it might be succeeding wildly.  Because startups are constantly growing, you never reach a comfort zone where everything runs like a well oiled machine.

This happened just last week at Mattermark when one of my team leads came to me saying we needed to delay shipping a new investor search interface we’re working on.  The interface included thousands of investors, and it seemed like it would take weeks to make all the data 100% accurate.  This would have delayed a marketing initiative the team had already worked hard on, but our data and engineering teams were exasperated.

It occurred to me while talking with them how similar our situation is to what forest fire fighters face.

How to fight a fire

When dealing with a forest fire, one of the first tasks is to size up the situation and figure out what is actually on fire. Next, prioritize saving areas where lives are at risk, where the fire is heading, and how weather will affect the situation.

For us this meant figuring out the most broken and worst looking parts of our new investor list feature about to go out the door, and separating those issues from gaps that annoyed us, but would be very unlikely to show up to customers.  In the forest fire case, strategic areas will be directly attacked, often by dropping water from the air.  As you can imagine this doesn’t work the same way as a conventional residential fire where you can bring more than enough water to cast upon the situation.  In startups, there is a temptation to get stuck wishing you could put out all the flames perfectly with bails of water.  Instead most forest fires are defeated by drawing up firebreaks, essentially destroying a thin stretch of the forest to stop the fire’s path of destruction.

Fires inside startups

Working on projects inside a startup often comes down to strategizing about where to draw up firebreaks.  Once a startup gets going and has any kind of product market fit, customers will start complaining about all the things that could be better.  Developers will build up long lists of technical debt that need immediate attention.  Everywhere you turn, it seems like things are on fire, and there’s not enough water to put it all out.  It can become disheartening, and the natural temptation is to want to pause and slow growth. This rears its head as building in scalability, putting polish on the features, or fulfilling more of the customer’s goal.  In the meantime, you’re losing chances to grow and aggravating your current customers that don’t get the benefit of your best laid plans.  The forest is on fire the whole time.

The best engineers and leaders in startups find where they can make smart trade offs.  They know what they are working towards long term, but they make strategic decisions about where to draw firebreaks.  Draw the line too close and you risk shipping something that alienates customers and makes your ops work harder.  Draw it too far out and you risk sabotaging your growth while customers fatigue and give up.  Going back to the story of the investors search interface, we decided that the right fire break is to focus on making the data for the top 200 investors 100% accurate, shipping only with a few days delay.

Bottom line, it is normal to feel like things are on fire.  Never let that stop you from engaging with customers to learn and move forward.

Join our team of fire-fighting, unicorn-riding cool cats! We’re hiring for DevOps Engineers, Machine Learning Engineers and Full Stack Engineers. Check out our jobs page:



Mattermark Daily – Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

Published on in Mattermark Daily by

From the Investors

Jonathan Drillings of Comcast Ventures details why he believes we’ll continue to see companies that use ‘mobile dynamics and cloud services / APIs’ to deliver whole products that scale in “Rapid Ascent & the Whole Product Paradigm

Ali Rahimtula of Cue Ball Capital offers his thoughts on ‘the most exciting applications of blockchain technology we may see in major industries in the future’ in “Beyond Bitcoin: Commercial Applications of Blockchain Technology

Christian Claussen of Ventech encourages founders to ‘see through the marketing hype and ask VCs the questions ‘that really matter’ in “I’m Calling Bullsh*t On These VC ‘Value-Add’ Platforms

Mamoon Hamid of The Social+Capital Partnership and Nick Moran of Moran Capital Partners discuss what a SaaS company is, how to pitch a SaaS product, and how VCs evaluate early-stage SaaS companies in “Ep36: SaaS Startup Investing” (podcast)

Mike Chalfen of Mosaic Ventures says, ‘what matters today [in SaaS products] is usage’ and adds his perspective of why this is important in “Where is the Value In Your SaaS Startup?

David Norris of Forward Partners outlines different types of marketplace liquidity factors and advises founders to understand the type needed to grow their marketplace in “Online Marketplace: What Kind of Liquidity Do You Need to Grow?

From the Operators

Balaji Srinivasan of 21 announces his new role as the CEO of 21 and how they intend to ‘establish bitcoin as a fundamental system resource’ in “A Bitcoin Miner In Every Device and In Every Hand

Sukhinder Singh Cassidy of Joyus shares how organizations can increase the rate of progress for women in tech entrepreneurship in “Tech Women Choose Possibility

Serial Entrepreneur Steve Blank guides founders in understanding how to recognize and ‘refactor’ people/ culture compromises made in the early stages of a startup in “Organizational Debt is Like Technical Debt – But Worse

Camille Ricketts of First Round Review features Tiho Bajic of Nitro to uncover why diversity, loyalty and balance are important to the life of a startup in “Fixing Engineering’s Loyalty and Longevity Problem

Joseph Walla of HelloSign finds it more useful to ask job candidates about what they have done, rather than what they could do in “Focus On Specifics When Interviewing

Eric Jorgenson of Evergreen expands on advice from ‘some of the world’s best managers and companies’ about the process, emotions, and impact of firing in “How to Fire Someone: How to Decide, When to Do It, and How to be Guilt-Free

From Mattermark 

Mattermark Webinar: Join our Mattermark 101 webinar on Wednesday at10am PST. We will do a quick and fun overview of the Mattermark platform and history of the company.

Submit content for us to consider by emailing us:

Subscribe To The Mattermark Daily

Mattermark Daily – Monday, May 18th, 2015

Published on in Mattermark Daily , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , by

From the Investors

Josh Elman of Greylock Partners and Paul Berry of RebelMouse dive into how media products create ‘front doors’ and the three audiences for any online property in “Media Companies: Don’t Let Your Traffic Run Out the Side Door

Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures lays out the differences he sees in private equity vs. Venture Capital investing and what he thinks works well for private equity in “What VC Can Learn from Private Equity

Aaron Harris of Y Combinator uses data to better understand the trend of startups raising a ‘party round’ with angel investors in “Party All the Time?

John Greathouse of Rincon Venture Partners offers startup employees seven questions to ask in order to estimate what their options may be worth in “What the Heck Are My Startup Options Worth?

Hunter Walk of Homebrew and Anne Dineen of Hamilton College discuss how and why an LP allocates capital, ‘modern portfolio theory’, and how to ‘break into venture’ in “Who Invests in Investors: Homebrew LP Shares VC Performance Goals, Importance of Diversity & What They Look for in New Funds

Brad Feld of Foundry Group shares his philosophy of building a startup community and why he encourages ‘humans to pick where they want to live’ in “Build Your Life Where You Want To Live

Arsham Memarzadeh of OpenView Venture Partners describes why ‘empathy is key to improving the customer journey’ and how to practice empathy in “Using Empathy to Improve the Customer Journey

Jeff Carter of Westloop Ventures explains why he doesn’t believe the ‘sharing economy is destroying America’s middle class’ in “Does the Sharing Economy Destroy the Middle Class?

From the Operators

Joanna Lord of Porch expands on what ‘intellectual honesty’ means to her, the team at Porch, and the role it plays in building a great company in “The Correlation Between Intellectual Honesty and Great Companies

Sangeet Paul Choudary of Platform Thinking compares the definitions and characteristics of virality and network effects in products in “Virality vs. Network Effects

Paul Burt of Rainforest outlines the recommended amount of time and money needed to invest in Quality Assurance at different stages of a startup in “QA = Money + Time. But How Much???

Nellie Bowles of The California Sunday Magazine profiles a diverse group of young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to shed light on the startup world from their perspective in “The Real Teens of Silicon Valley: Inside the Almost-Adult Lives of the Industry’s Newest Recruits

Matt Sundstrom of Instrument gives context to the evolution of the user interface, how VR will change interactions with content, and the future of digital experiences in “Immersive Design

Kavi Guppta of Strategyzer tells his personal story about how he failed to innovate with startup principles inside a big company in “Innovation Shouldn’t Be Career Suicide

From Mattermark 

We analyzed Acceleprise SF’s Cohort 2 startups, and ranked them based on our Growth Score in “The 10 Acceleprise SF – Cohort 2 Demo Day Startups – Sorted By The Growth Score

Mattermark Webinar: Join our Mattermark 101 webinar on Wednesday at10am PST. We will do a quick and fun overview of the Mattermark platform and history of the company.

Submit content for us to consider by emailing us:

Subscribe To The Mattermark Daily