For the last 2 to 3 years, about every day, I would wake up, open my laptop and type the letter “g” into the Google Chrome bar and hit enter. Chrome would auto-complete it to “growth.bufferapp.com”. It was like a daily ritual to check on Buffer’s growth numbers from a number of different angles. Revenue, new users, daily actives, monthly actives.
Growing—increasing our monthly revenue, our traffic, our user base—was the No. 1 priority in my mind. It only hit me very recently, about four months ago now, to pose a very simple question: Why grow?
Learning about growth in Silicon Valley, aka “Traction”
When my co-founder Joel and I first arrived in San Francisco, in the summer of 2011, we were absolutely clueless about how startups work in Silicon Valley. It was a fascinating time filled with a huge amount of learning. One of the most intriguing concepts that I picked up very early on was the idea of “traction.”
It meant that you couldn’t say a number to an investor, a partner, or anyone you were talking with about your early stage startup without mentioning a second number: growth rate. We have 100 users, and it’s growing 50% every month. Our revenue is $1m per year, growing 20% every month. Not mentioning the growth rate almost makes the first number meaningless.
When we entered the incubator AngelPad with Buffer, we internalized the concept of traction even further. We were prepping for talks with investors and the single thing they’d care most about was whether we had a graph that was steeply growing up and to the right. If we didn’t have that graph, then we should create one. If we had too few users, we should try and find another metric, maybe time on site or something to show our traction. Traction was the one measure that would show investors that what we were building was working and not just an empty idea.
Growth with and without limits
In the last few months, my understanding of growth has moved from an obsession to seeing it more as one part of the many things that we observe and create.
When we look around ourselves, we see that almost all living things grow and enlarge over time. Trees are one of the best examples I can think of. They start as a tiny seedling and can grow into something like these gigantic redwoods.
One thing that’s so fascinating about everything that grows is this: It has a limit. Organically, nothing grows forever. A tree eventually stops growing, our body does too. There is one natural exception that occurs, in which things keep growing without limits: cancer. From my limited understanding of how this works in detail, it’s when cells keep splitting and multiplying, somehow “forgetting” to stop growing.
An amazing quote on the topic that has started to make a lot more sense to me comes from Seneca:
Natural desires are limited; but those which spring from false opinion can have no stopping-point. The false has no limits. When you are travelling on a road, there must be an end; but when astray, your wanderings are limitless. Recall your steps, therefore, from idle things, and when you would know whether that which you seek is based upon a natural or upon a misleading desire, consider whether it can stop at any definite point. If you find, after having travelled far, that there is a more distant goal always in view, you may be sure that this condition is contrary to nature. Farewell.
Especially the line “If you find, after having travelled far, that there is a more distant goal always in view, you may be sure that this condition is contrary to nature.” is what I found so incredibly telling. With your startup or any type of company, it seems that no matter how big you’ve grown, you’ll always want to grow bigger. It seems completely unthinkable today, to say that for example Apple or Google would announce “We’ve grown enough, we’ll stop here.”
What’s fascinating on top of all of this is that in most cases, we try to manufacture growth. Governments want to “kickstart GDP growth again,” startups want to “move the needle” on monthly growth,” I personally wanted to do everything possible to have Buffer grow faster each month.
What’s become clear to me now is that whenever I’m trying to create growth, I’m not focusing on the “stuff.” I’m not doing the things that actually matter. Everything becomes a means to an end. A new feature, a new product, another A/B test, more marketing, more hiring. Everything is destined to help the one and only purpose that is “more growth.” Building a feature to induce growth is one of the most subtle forms of self-sabotage in today’s startup world. Only when we talk about products having become “monsters” (which is surprisingly similar to the idea of “tumor” or “cancer”) do we realize this.
Slowly turning away from the endless road of ever-continuing growth has been a fascinating challenge. I feel like I’m slowly releasing a grip on something that I never wanted to hold onto in the first place.
I still believe that growth is important and that it will always occur naturally. Making it the central focus and for it to not be able to “stop at any definite point”, is where I’ve gone wrong largely in the past.
PS: There are two incredible resources that have helped me shape my changed thinking on growth: The book Reinventing Organizations and the documentary “The Economics of Happiness.”
How do you think about growth at your company? I’m keen to hear your thoughts!