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The power of Agile in startups

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Above: Matt Rooda, CEO, and intern George Elossias, in front of a Scrum board, in 2015

A few weeks ago, I sat in on SwineTech’s sprint planning meeting. They had been in Iowa Startup Accelerator’s 2015 cohort, and have been steadily making progress ever since. At the sprint planning, the entire team of seven met to discuss and finalize the plan for the next two weeks of work. They asked me to sit in and provide some advice and feedback.

Here are some of the observations that I shared with them. (I asked Matt Rooda, their CEO, if I could share some of the observations in this post.)

  • The group was remarkably candid: discussing complex issues in a very healthy way, while under severe pressure to deliver the next version of their product on a mission-critical deadline.
  • The work was completely visible using Asana. They did a good job setting up the software to meet their needs, something I’ve personally found to be challenging.
  • The previous sprint — filled with highly uncertain hardware and software work with a variable supply chain challenge — was completed almost perfectly. That’s often hard for even experienced teams on stable products to do.
  • They were measuring velocity, and doing sprint estimation in a reliable and mature way. This is uncommon on startup teams.
  • The conversation elicited the right level of leadership from the Product Owner (Matt, who is also the CEO), and still allowed for emergent leadership from several team members. In other words, the team shared the responsibility for delivery of the next product version they’re aiming for.
  • One of the team members seemed a little skeptical of some of the Agile practices, yet acknowledged that so far they’d been able to deliver what they said they would, and it was “miraculous.” Perhaps there is some divine miraculous intervention, but in my view they’re just using Agile to do exactly what it’s designed for: to deliver value rapidly to the market, and maximize the team’s learning for a rapidly evolving product.

They got the big picture right; I did give them some constructive feedback on a variety of items, but they were mostly pretty nuanced details.

Why Agile matters for startups

Agile should be a core educational element of accelerator programs

Agile is fundamentally teaching entrepreneurs how to iterate and learn rapidly, and is the underpinning of The Lean Startup. We designed Iowa Startup Accelerator from the beginning to teach entrepreneurs how to use Agile, and how to use Agile as a strategic weapon. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there’s a strong correlation between the startups in our program that leverage the Agile mindset with those that are the most successful.

Great startups take what they’ve learned, then adapt and expand it

Like a proud parent, I’ve seen our startups take the core concepts they learn here from us, and create entirely new ways of using them. Another of our startups, HowFactory (ISA 2014), is now teaching classes here on how they’ve used Scrum and Agile to better incorporate customer feedback into the product development cycle in ways we’d never envisioned.

The use of Agile practices changes as startups grow

In the beginning, when a startup is a team of two people, some of the formalities are less critical than on a larger team. Most of the literature around Agile is based on larger, stable teams, so teams have to adopt what’s practical and appropriate for their size and capabilities. And sometimes they have to learn for themselves why some of the practices matter, and why the mindset shifts need to happen, the hard way. As they grow, they adopt more and more of the Agile concepts.

They can use Agile as the basis for a high-performance culture

Many well-meaning mentors encourage entrepreneurs to adopt company cultures that were designed for large, complex organizations: strict hierarchy, disciplinary systems, and formal top-down communication methods. We have to actively counteract this tendency to help entrepreneurs see that traditional command-and-control cultures:

  • slow their progress by keeping power and knowledge siloed at “the top”
  • increase the risk of their endeavors by slowing the team’s ability to learn in short iterations
  • saddle the CEO/entrepreneur with a drama-filled, unhealthy culture.

Agile provides the framework for a high performance culture that distributes knowledge, speeds organizational learning, and frees the CEO to focus on strategic objectives. Doing it this way gives startups:

  • healthy team relationships, based on real candor and business transparency (something that’s rare in most companies today)
  • a method and mindset focused on collaboration with customers, to deliver value as quickly as possible
  • prioritizing the ability to be flexible and adapt to new information (which is, by definition, critical to startups as they learn their markets).

Startups learn to use across their organizations

When large companies adopt Agile, they often start (and stop) with software development teams. Startups — whether they build software or not — use it across the entire team, from the get-go. This provides a huge advantage, in that it creates common language and a set of practices that help them build the company over time. While Agile is certainly most common in software, its tenets are frequently used in other disciplines from marketing to human resources to leadership. Startups that begin from this perspective have a huge advantage over their larger, probably slower, competitors.

Have you seen Agile work in your startup? Interested in learning more about Agile for your business? I’d love to chat: hit me up at


Eric Engelmann founded Geonetric in 1999, and presently works as the Executive Director of NewBoCo in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a board member at Scrum Alliance and the Technology Association of Iowa.


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