The term “startup” is overused. Too often, we causally connect “startup” with any newly opened organization. I get it, too: startups are exhilarating. Saying you opened a pizza shop or wrote a fledgling business plan just does not pack the same punch. Startups scream sexy and romanticized business; but in reality, a startup is just one thing: growth.
Enter: Paul Graham.
Paul’s definition of a “startup” is the most honest I have ever heard: “startup = growth.” While startups can involve developers, designers, investors, etc., none are requirements. The only requirement for being a startup is growth. So, if good old-fashioned rapid growth is the only requirement, then why does prioritizing growth sometimes take a backseat?
If you are serious about growth, you should let it penetrate every facet of whatever it is you are building. From gauging market potential to coding to hiring, welcome growth with outstretched and open arms.
“I need a programmer, designer, marketer etc.” should not be the mindset. Instead, hire folks who have mastered these skills as tools to drive growth. Writing pristine code, building beautiful applications, and being a great storyteller are all extraordinary skills. But unless you harness them for growth and create something people earnestly want, startup status will be extremely difficult to attain.
While it is impossible to offer up a one-size-fits-all plan for growth, or even hacks for driving growth that are conducive to any early stage venture, there are strategies for making growth your foremost priority. Here are some of my favorite habit-forming tactics for baking growth into your company’s DNA:
1. Centralize growth
If you want to be a startup, you need to have at least one person dedicated to the trade. If you have more than a few employees, a growth team is probably in order. Just like anything else, priorities get lost without focus and commitment. Ownership of growth is key if the goal is to make it a habit and let it infiltrate your culture.
2. Test ruthlessly
If you happen to be part of a technology company, you have the luxury of precise measurement. Quit wasting time with “meetings of the minds” and roundtables about the next big thing for your business. Build your test, measure, learn, and repeat. You should have objective, measurable logic for what you are testing—along with actionable steps once the test finishes, but no need for further speculating. Let the test do the talking.
3. Celebrate failure
If you are not failing often, you are not testing hard enough. Figuring out a hypothesis is wrong is progress. So long as you are learning and applying these learnings, you are moving forward. If you really want to embrace growth, make velocity of testing a key metric. So in addition to focusing on conversion rate changes and statistical significance, actively keep track of how often you test and are recording new learnings.
4. Stop defending lore
We all have biases about the way a business works. Biases and assumptions should be cast aside early on. Do not be so attached to your own ideas that you are afraid to test their validity. I meet entrepreneurs who are afraid of putting their idea to the test because deep down they are afraid to admit failure. Other times, people are beyond the initial build phase, but reluctant to stop a broken process due to escalation of commitment. Figuring out not to build something or deciding to pivot when it is clear a process is broken is far better than spending your precious time creating something with demand absence. Failure makes us wiser.
5. Focus, damn it:
Every few weeks, our growth team takes stock in what is on our plates. Ideas are a dime a dozen, and product pipelines overspill quickly. Just as you have your “to-do” list, embrace the “not-to-do” list and be conscious of the things you choose not to prioritize and why. Executing on 1-2 things extremely well will always trump a pile of half-baked projects.
6. Look for the un-sexy
Oftentimes, the big gains are where most do not look. After all, there is nothing glamorous about adjusting fields on a sign up form or killing an email verification process; these tasks do not have the same bragging rights as building a responsive design or mobile app. Since we naturally shy away from less sexy tasks, these items often receive less attention and maintenance despite their criticalness to growth.
7. Find your 80/20
Inputs and outputs are very seldom equal when it comes to growth; hence, the term “hack.” Perhaps your company is considering a re-platform or revamping the design of its application, but unless you have exceptional reason to believe this is what it takes to truly scale, your time might be better-spent optimizing copy, call-to-actions, sell pages etc.
8. Understand leverage
Keeping with the 80/20 rule, remember: not all growth hacks are equal. Start with the most leveraged parts of your funnel, meaning, “If you have a decent shot at getting either 20% more people to click your signup button (funnel step 1) or 20% more people to give you their credit card (funnel step 2), these will have drastically different outcomes assuming the rest of your funnel step conversion rates stay constant. Choose what to hack wisely.
While “growth hacking” has no doubt become one of the latest and greatest buzzwords within the startup space, its criticalness to any startup’s success is undeniable. Remember though, growth is bigger than any specific department. Rather, it is a holistic way of thinking about how to focus your limited resources. If you are on the cusp of building the next big thing or trying to figure out how to most efficiently scale, embrace growth. Your road ahead will be far more rewarding if you let growth guide your path.