There are two common ways to scale a system – horizontally or vertically. If you are a software engineer, you probably get this instinctively. If you don’t know what this is, let’s work with the simple Wikipedia definition which is pretty good.
- Scale Vertically (or “scale up”): Add resources to a single node in a system, typically involving the addition of CPUs or memory to a single computer.
- Scale Horizontally (or “scale out”): Add more nodes to a system, such as adding a new computer to a distributed software application.
Think of vertical scaling as building a bigger monolithic machine and horizontal scaling as add more machines to the system. Or, if you want a business construct, vertically scaling would be adding more people in one location while horizontal scaling would be creating a bunch of new locations, optimally with a similar footprint to the previous locations.
These two concepts are not mutually exclusive. You can scale vertically and horizontally at the same time. But while many contemporary technology approaches embrace scale horizontally, many business approaches are limited to primarily scaling vertically.
If you’ve spent any time with me, you know that scaling horizontally is a huge part of how I think. My entire world functions as a large and wide distributed network. However, for the past eight years, my partners and I at Foundry Group haven’t once scaled vertically (we haven’t added any partners since 2007 when we started) until we added Lindel Eakman as part of Foundry Group Next.
Our reach, network, visibility, and impact has grown significantly since 2007. As part of this, we’ve done many things to scale horizontally. Co-founding and helping build Techstars is an example of that. In addition, embedded in the Techstars growth model is a horizontal scaling strategy.
If you reflect on one part of Techstars – the accelerator programs – we’ve added the following new programs in 2015.
- Techstars Mobility (Detroit)
- Techstars Berlin (Berlin)
- Techstars METRO (Berlin)
- Techstars IoT (NYC)
- Barclays (New York, South Africa and Israel)
- Techstars Healthcare, in partnership with Cedars-Sinai (Los Angeles)
- Techstars Retail, in partnership with Target (Minneapolis)
- Virgin Media Accelerator (London)
- Techstars Atlanta, in partnership with Cox Enterprises (Atlanta)
Each of these accelerators is based on the same model that we use to run all of the Techstars accelerator programs. We feel that we have mastery over an approach to a mentor-driven accelerator, run by a small team, in any geography around the world, that is another node on the ever expanding horizontal network that is Techstars. These programs don’t run in isolation – rather they are part of a horizontal scaling strategy based on a premise that you can build startups, and a startup community, anywhere in the world.
When you ponder Techstars’ acquisition of UP Global, especially if you think about how horizontal scaling and geography intersect, you get a glimpse of another layer of functionality that we just added to the horizontal scaling model. In addition to adding a bunch of new nodes, we also added new functionality to each node.
Remember that horizontal and vertical scaling are not mutually independent. Techstars growth from 55 employees at the end of 2014 to 131 employees as of today is happening on both horizontal and vertical dimensions. But the horizontal leverage that we’ve created, and figured out how to replicate, is as powerful as anything I’ve ever encountered in business.
I’m looking forward to 2016 on both dimensions.