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26 January 2023 - 7 minutes

Start-up Methodologies: Waterfall 

In order to be successful in the cutthroat world of start-ups, it’s crucial to arm yourself with the knowledge of various project management methodologies. 

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Not just anyone can simply get a successful start-up off the ground. Those who have been successful are often well versed in business strategy and project management methodologies --areas of research proven crucial to start-ups who want to secure the competitive advantage in the cutthroat world of business. 

The waterfall methodology is one of many project management models utilized by start-ups and businesses alike. It’s a software development model attributed to computer scientist Winston W. Royce. Since the 1970s, the sequential approach to project management has been crucial to the success of countless software development projects and remains relevant today. 

What is the Waterfall Methodology? 

In short, the waterfall methodology, or waterfall model, is a project management strategy that uses a linear 5 step process to carry out a project from beginning to end. The model requires detailed planning, regular documentation of progress, and proper completion of tasks before the next phase can begin. The work is sequential, unlike other start-up methodologies; the success of the methodology highly depends upon proper planning and quality work done at the front-end of the project. Ultimately, the methodology works best if parameters are clear from the start and project managers know how to navigate the relatively complex phased approach to project coordination. 

The waterfall methodology follows a sequential pattern and is reliant upon knowing the specific requirements or expectations for a project, setting deadlines, and having clear objectives or outcomes. 

Traditionally, the model has 5 phases:

  1. Requirements and analysis: The waterfall model assumes that all project requirements are understood upfront. Normally a project manager meets with customers or stakeholders to get a detailed understanding of their expectations or requirements for a project. From there, the project manager works out the plan for completion. Ideally the requirements are understood such that the customer does not have to be consulted again until after the project’s completion. These requirements include everything from the costs, risks, assumptions, success metrics, and timelines for completion. 

  2. Design: The design phase is typically broken up into two phases: logical design and physical design. The logical design subphase is used to theorize possible solutions to solve the project’s requirements. The physical design subphase transforms those possible solutions into a concrete plan. In other words, software developers agree on a programming language, creating layouts and data models in order to design technical solutions to the problems set out by the project requirements. 

  3. Implementation: Using the designs created in phase two, programmers code applications based on the project requirements. There is minimal testing in this phase which may result in revisiting the design phase, but the bulk of the testing comes after. 

  4. Verification or Testing: Tests are run to check the software for bugs, confirm that all requirements have been met, and that the product is ready to be released to the customer. Often project managers will prepare user case scenarios and design documents to help with the testing process. 

  5. Deployment and Maintenance: Once the completed project has been released to the customer, the maintenance phase begins. Project managers will stay tuned for feedback from users, respond to potential defects in the product, and release additional updates to ensure customer satisfaction. 

Advantages of the waterfall methodology

Clear: The waterfall methodology is straightforward, has very specific sequential steps, and is a great way to clarify roles and expectations of designers, programmers, and other team members from the beginning of a project. 

Consistent: Customer expectations are known from the beginning, meaning customers will not change requirements mid production. 

Simplicity in training: The waterfall model is reliant upon documentation and clearly outlines the expectations of the project. That said, if someone new joins the team, it’s easy to read through the project requirements and get up to speed on the project. 

Easy to manage: The linear structure allows for easy management of the project because the steps are outlined upfront and once completed they rarely need to be revisited. 

Total cost and Deadlines: Knowing the requirements allows for an accurate total cost estimate from the project’s initiation. Similarly, having a clear timeline from the beginning of the project allows team members to effectively plan their time and complete their clearly defined tasks. 

Disadvantages of the waterfall methodology

Flexibility: Once the project begins, it’s difficult to adapt to new customer requests or changes in the market. A commitment to a steady plan compromises the speed and agility of a product and makes changes costly and more time-consuming. 

Requirements are often limited: Customers do not always know what they fully want on the front end of a project. Likewise, the requirements outlined may not reflect real user needs. However, that feedback will not be received until after the product’s deployment. 

Delays: If one phase becomes delayed, the entire timeline is offset. This can lead to rushed decisions at the end of the project.

One phase at a time: The waterfall methodology requires that each phase must be completed before the next phase begins. This could become limiting if there are tasks from different phases that could be happening simultaneously. Thus, the sequential structure could lead to projects taking longer than necessary. 

How to Decide if the Waterfall Methodology is the Right Choice for your Startup 

The waterfall methodology works best in situations where project requirements are understood upfront and clients have a clear understanding of the scope of the project. In other words, this methodology is best used to manage projects that are simple, predictable and straightforward. These projects should be short term and be carried out in areas where expertise is widely available. 

Similarly, the waterfall methodology and its usefulness depends on the culture of your start-up and the scope of the projects you’re typically working on. First and foremost, if your start-up doesn’t have a project manager who wants to manage a controlled timeline in a focused way, then the waterfall methodology is not for your company. The model requires someone who can really analyze and understand their customer’s needs, hold their team to deadlines, and move the project along in a relatively strict manner. If your workplace is more collaborative, likes to build reflection and adaptation into everyday work, or if the tasks you normally work on require a more user-centric focus, then this methodology may not be for you. 

Additionally, the success of the waterfall methodology depends on the stage that your start-up is in and the resources that you have on hand. For newer start-ups or for ones looking to deliver a very specific or complicated product, the waterfall model is great in that it provides predictability. That said, predictability is undoubtedly something investors look for in a start-up. Showing that you have the resources, control, and clear plan to execute is important in pitching your business and securing customers. 

On the other hand, if your customers are unsure on their specific needs, if collaboration and flexibility are crucial to your team, or you’re looking to work in an unpredictable or constantly changing field, then the waterfall methodology may not be the model to choose. Luckily, there are many other project management methods that can be utilized.

Alternative start-up methodologies

The Agile start-up methodology: The agile start-up methodology was developed in order to address the shortcomings of the waterfall methodology. Unlike the waterfall methodology, the agile methodology allows for regular customer input during the process. It’s a cyclical methodology that insists on repeating development and testing phases in order to achieve greater customer satisfaction.The agile methodology emphasizes teamwork and collaboration, prioritizing flexibility and adaptability over a strict timeline and control over the project.

Design thinking: Design thinking is an approach that’s utilized in situations where problems are ill-defined or unknown. It’s a 5-step nonlinear process that fosters deep thinking to better understand users, redefine potential problems, and create innovative solutions that are then tested before implementation. 

Lean Start-up: Lean Start-up is a data based approach to developing and analyzing product ideas. Its goal is to manage or reduce the risk inherent to start-ups. Their approach is speed: the faster the product is released, the faster we’ll gain valuable user feedback. The insights provided by users will determine the necessary changes in the business strategy. Thus, the lean start-up approach is one committed to adaptability, user input, and data based evidence. 

Determining the development methodology 

Undoubtedly in the world of software development today, flexibility and adaptability in the face of user feedback is crucial. However, there are still many situations in which the waterfall methodology has proved useful. In projects where there are clear requirements, distinct structures, and unsurprising outcomes, the sequential model provides clear benefits to start-ups. In situations with higher uncertainty, one might opt for an alternative methodology. Thus, it’s upon us to better understand the methodologies at hand and utilize them to increase our competitive advantage in order to thrive in the competitive world of start-ups.

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