Organizational Orders of Growth
September 2014 (perspective of an assistant professor)
I'm familiar with three major types of work environments:
As Paul Graham described, what differentiates a startup from a “regular” company is rapid growth. A “regular” company could be small or large, but it's not designed to grow rapidly. Expanding on that idea, the main difference between these three work environments to me is their order of growth in size:
A startup is dictated by exponential growth. If it doesn't keep growing exponentially until a successful exit event (e.g., acquisition or IPO), then it fails.
A “regular” company that is healthy will grow linearly, with varying rates. Yes, there are a rare few healthy companies that sustain a constant size, but given the brutal nature of the open market, many companies that stagnate are usually on the verge of death, or at least drastic downsizing. Once downsized, then hiring resumes again at a linear rate, thus returning to linear growth.
At a university, a professor initially starts with zero staff and then gradually builds up their lab to some constant size. For some fields, a lab might have only 2 to 3 members; other labs might have 8 to 10; and giant labs, maybe 25 to 30. However, regardless of size, once a lab reaches a certain size that is appropriate for the needs of its projects, it usually remains constant-sized for a long time until the professor drastically changes the nature of their research direction. Students, postdocs, and research staff will come and go, but lab size is relatively stable over many years.
Having worked at all three types of organizations, I currently prefer the university research lab model because there's the possibility of a sustainable career while keeping a relatively constant number of staff. In my field, this is one of the only work environments where people can successfully do business over many years without worrying about constantly growing their organization.
Given my lack of experience in growing organizations, I would feel super-stressed if I were responsible for either linear or (I can't even imagine) exponential growth to be deemed as successful in my career. I can't imagine needing to tack on one, two, three, or more layers of middle management in my lab. And the continual responsibility of growth shifts focus more toward short-term deliverables (fundraising, recruiting, hiring) rather than sustained, longer-term creative visions that are critical for making research innovations. Professors already spend a lot of time fundraising to sustain a constant-sized lab ... imagine how insane it would be if we had to do fundraising to maintain a lab that is continually growing in size! We are expected to bring in M grants and publish N papers per year (roughly), for some constants M and N. It would be nuts if M and N were expected to grow every year without bound.