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Outlier’s Path

Awkward Adolescence

This weekend, my son Atticus officially joined the ranks of a teenager and started his journey as an awkward adolescent. Reminiscing on my teenage years, adolescence is a time of peculiar physical, emotional, and mental misalignments, where I was trying to find my place and identity in the world. Front and center is the discrepancy that I am no longer a child and want to be treated as an adult, yet societal norms do not grant adolescents full adult status.

The awkward adolescence for companies feels no different. In the early days of company formation, friends and family are encouraging. Everyone you meet has only constructive advice for you as you start your journey. Other companies in your industry, big or small, cheer you on as you get started because you validate the industry. Everyone smiles at a baby or a young child.

When a company joins the realm of awkward adolescence, in some ways, it becomes most vulnerable. You are not young, cute, and beloved anymore. Yet, you aren’t a fully mature business with the heft to defend against a full-scale assault on your business.

As your company scales through adolescence, it develops unevenly. Your product and engineering teams might be strong, but need a stronger go-to-market team. You figured out go-to-market, but your pricing doesn’t align with the value delivered. You’ve fixed your pricing and now face the fact that your initial product does not have enough surface area and you need a second act to your product. You are trying to create your category, but everyone still refers to you as something else.

At Zappos, in our push to define our category, we tried “service and selection,” “powered by service,” “a service company that happens to sell shoes,” and “delivering happiness.” However, naysayers would call us the “Amazon of shoes,” which we especially wanted to avoid. All this is taxing on you and your team as you determine your company’s identity and place.

Larger companies take notice of your scale. Instead of cheering you on, they consider whether one of their products should replace yours. Smaller companies take note of your fast success and think about how they might come from behind and outrun you. Zappos didn’t face much competition for about five years because conventional wisdom suggested you can’t sell shoes without trying them on in a physical store. Competition arrived from startups and Amazon when it was clear Zappos had a business. While Zappos was growing fast, it was still unprofitable and vulnerable.

Awkward adolescence carries a negative connotation, but remember the many challenges you faced during your teenage years contributed to personal growth, resilience, and a stronger sense of self. In the same way, embrace the awkward adolescence of your company. You will likely find that the crucible or refounding moments during these periods will define your company for decades.