How many employees do you have?

People often ask startups how many employees they have. I'm not entirely sure why they do or why I care, but something about this perpetually asked question bothers me.

Yes, there are real organizational differences as you grow significantly, but most of the time when it's asked of small startups the answer is pretty obvious, i.e. somewhere less than 30.
Instagram having thirteen people should be evidence enough that this question is pretty irrelevant. Other famous acquisitions bear this out as well. In certain markets, you can accomplish so much with so few people (if you have the right people).

For us (DuckDuckGo), it is even more complicated because there is no straightforward answer. Yes, technically we have a (very small) employee count, but it doesn't convey the full time equivalent (FTE) number at all. 

That's because we have a lot of people who contribute on a part-time, contractor and ad hoc basis. This method is by design and is working out great so far, but creates a situation where the employee count belies what's actually going on.

I think this disconnect is only increasing generally. When you consider that most software startups increasingly rely on APIs and open source, and more and more people are available as freelancers, then I think you're going to see more and more of instagram-like type situations. That is, where a small number of employees can create something of tremendous value. 

The subtext there is that they're relying on a much greater number of people in the background, either directly or indirectly. I know we do.


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I'm the Founder & CEO of DuckDuckGo, the search engine that doesn't track you. I'm also the co-author of Traction, the book that helps you get customer growth. More about me.