14 steps to scale exponentially

If you have a 10-year plan of how to get [somewhere], you should ask: Why can’t you do this in 6 months?”, Peter Thiel.

Let’s start by saying I am not a fan of Thiel, but this quote sums up a way of thinking in the tech start-up scene that is missing from strategies and campaigns from environmental groups and business networks.

I’ve spent the last decade thinking about exponential scaling (the fruits of this noodling can be found here, here, here, here and even here). Scaling is less about digital know how and more about applying start-up culture, practices and processes. The ideas presented here mostly come from discussions with entrepreneur friends like Johan Falk, Maja Brisvall and Nate Calhoun.

Exponential idea generation

1. Singular focus — have one idea and love that idea more than anything else.

2. The idea must be sticky. If it takes 5 minutes to explain and your audience looks confused then it is unlikely you have an idea that will scale exponentially.

3. Don’t think about how to make something a little better; think about how to completely reinvent it. If your idea is about incremental improvements to a business network for sustainability, then delete it. Start from scratch.

Exponential business structure

4. Exponential businesses are organised radically differently from traditional businesses. Exponential companies apply specific organisational techniques to accelerate progress: agile methodology, lean start-up culture (test, iterate, pivot), KPIs, real-time performance metrics, self-organised teams, flat hierarchies. But most of all they hire driven, creative, networked people with brilliant communications skills. By the way, if you are not holding daily check-in calls with your team, you are unlikely to be scaling exponentially.

5. Bring in advisors with start-up, entrepreneurial and exponential mindsets from local tech hubs. Established organisations or networks that have remained stagnant or stuck with slow growth are hardly likely to scale their networks exponentially. The existing systems, processes and cultures probably won’t allow it — even if everyone in the organization really wants it.

6. Design an innovative business model for your idea. Google’s search algorithm is brilliant. But it was the innovative business model to rethink advertising that made them unbeatable.

So you have the idea and the organizational structure. You are ready to launch your product. Now you need an exponential marketing strategy.

7. Create a positive network effect. Does your system give users more value if more people join? No? Make it so. Create feedback loops. Think through ways users can sign up other organisations or companies in their networks. Are there incentives for companies to sign up more companies? Promote audience/consumer loyalty, empower your audience (“prosumers”), create ways to make your audience market your ideas for you. This needs to be baked into the design of the idea.

8. Set exponential targets. How do you grow x10 bigger, then x100, then x1000…? And work out how your organisation needs to scale to meet those targets.

9. Lower the bar to entry. Think through all barriers to stop an organization from signing up. Expensive? Time consuming? No consumer demand? Weak idea, complex to explain? Remove these barriers. Sometimes price is a positive. Clean stoves in India hit scaling barriers when given away for free. People did not value them so left them unused in yards. Allowing families to buy clean stoves using micro credit increased uptake.

10. Make life better. If your idea makes life a little harder (even if it is the right thing to do) then it will not scale (without regulators intervening). Saving the world has to be combined with rising prosperity, and little moments of pure joy.Use behavioural psychology. Encourage addictive behavior (ethics is a different article), think about group bias (we love our tribe more than other tribes).

11. Collect a lot of data and act on this input. If the data says you are not scaling fast enough with your plan to scale then figure out a new plan. Fast. If your idea to reach one billion people is limping along with a just a few thousand “likes” and little engagement, then it has as much chance of reaching one billion as my dog has of going in to orbit.

12. Product cycles need to come thick and fast. Fortnite, with 250 million users, is updated weekly. Some products are updated daily. This is an essential part of user engagement and feedback to improve products. Products to encourage deep emissions cuts need to use the same psychology.

13. Deep pockets build large networks. Companies that scale fast invest in growing the user base at the expense of profits — at a frightening scale.

14. Luck. All of the above will help reduce your reliance on luck but you’ll need some. Good luck.

This article came about after I joined a two-day strategy meeting on international policy and campaigns for climate and biodiversity*. The idea was to bring together 40 people from maybe 20 organisations committed to scaling up action from businesses, cities, investors and the public. While a lot of people talked about ideas that will shift hearts and minds it seemed that the strategies to turn these ideas into global movements or campaigns lacked the business models that would allow them to scale fast.

*Organised by Mission2020 and held at the University of Oxford.

Further reading

Blitzscaling (This book came out a while back. I have not read it because the authors seem to have lost their moral compass, but you haven’t, right, so check out the slidedeck and apply some of their ideas.)

How to Think Exponentially and Better Predict the Future

Exponential Climate Action Roadmap

How to create an exponential mindset



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Owen Gaffney

Owen Gaffney

Anthropocene writer and analyst.