How dangerous is over-engineering for a start up?

23 July 2023 ยท Updated 23 July 2023

Hey Vadim, I hope to tap into your CTO experience. We're building a startup and are constantly grappling with the balance between creating robust, future-proof solutions and delivering value to our customers in the most efficient way possible. Basically we're over engineering and preparing to scale to billions of requests from the get go. So i'm very interested in understanding the potential dangers of over-engineering in this context. To what extent does over-engineering pose a risk to the success and sustainability of a start-up, considering factors such as resource allocation, scalability, and customer satisfaction? How might an overemphasis on perfecting our technology impact our ability to adapt quickly, meet customer needs, and maintain a lean operation? Should we focus more on delivering what is needed now, rather than what will be needed in a few years? We do have VC funding.


Hey there, I appreciate your questionโ€”it’s a complex one that many startups, including those I’ve consulted with, grapple with. I remember, there was a time when we were building a product for the Swiss market, and we spent months perfecting a feature that, in the end, our customers didn’t even use. It was a hard lesson in the dangers of over-engineering.

Since then I always stop myself whenever I say “we might need this”, if there’s a “might” in the sentence, you’re not going to need it.

The Risks of Over-Engineering

So regarding the over-engineering โ€” it can pose several risks to your startup. Firstly, it can lead to wasted resourcesโ€”time, money, and talent spent on building features or capabilities that aren’t needed yet. Why would you want to waste resourced in such a way? I mean, yes you have VC money, but why invest time and energy into probabilities when there are way more important things to build. There’s always something.

Secondly, it can slow down your time to market, which in a fast-paced startup world can mean missing out on key opportunities. While building perfect future-proof features, a competitor might come in and conquer your share with a not-perfect feature that was released earlier.

Lastly, there’s a risk of losing sight of what your customers actually need right now, as you’re too focused on what they might need in the future.

Being adaptable

In my experience, one of the biggest dangers of over-engineering is that it can hinder your startup’s ability to adapt quickly. Startups operate in a volatile environment, and customer needs can change rapidly. If you’re too focused on perfecting your technology, you might not be able to pivot quickly when needed.

Balancing Scalability and Immediate Needs

Balancing scalability and future growth with immediate customer needs is a delicate act. While it’s important to build a product that can, theoretically, handle just enough of the future growth. Focusing too much on this can lead to missed opportunities in the present. I’ve seen startups build for a scale that they never reached while neglecting issues that were impacting their customers in the here and now. Sad story.

The Role of VC Funding

VC money can complicate this balance. On one hand, VCs often expect fast growth and scalability. On the other hand, it’s important not to let these expectations push you into over-engineering in a startup. Remember, funding should enable your strategy, not dictate it.

The Lean Approach

I’m a big advocate for a lean approach. This means focusing on delivering value to your customers now, while keeping an eye on future needs. It means being agile, customer-focused, and ready to adapt when needed. Means building the product one step at a time, but also knowing what the next step will be. It also means being mindful of your resources and not wasting.

Disclaimer: There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. It’s about finding the right balance for your context, customer needs, and business goals. The goal is to deliver value, whether that’s through an over-engineered, scalable solution or a simple, efficient one.

Hot! The last couple of years I've been writing about CTO / Tech lead job. I've compiled all my knowledge into a printable PDF. I called it "256 Pages of No Bullshit Guide for CTOs". So if you're interested, take a look.

New! If you're a software engineer looking for a job, I started a Roast my Resume service, where I record a personalized video of me "roasting" your CV, which basically means taking a hard look at your resume as a CTO and commenting on all the good and the bad parts.

  • Sky

    I totally get the pain of overdoing features. In my projects, I’ve learned to shoot for what’s actually needed, kind of like using just the right legos, instead of dumping the whole box. Keeps everyone from tripping over pieces nobody wanted in the first place.