Designing for Growth

Once your start-up is on the upward trajectory you either keep going or you explode

When is a startup no longer a startup? Can, for example, a company with significant revenues, tens of million in funding and a full-service cafeteria be a startup? The best answer to this question comes from Paul Graham: “A startup is a company designed to grow fast.”

The promise of growth is the fuel that powers venture-backed businesses. You will not raise your next round based on yesterday (or even today’s), results. Tomorrow is everything, and your work is never done. The hardest thing about growing a startup is that it can always grow some more.

Likewise, a lack of growth is the one thing that cannot be explained away or covered up. It’s painfully obvious when things start to slow. The essential component of Amazon’s business philosophy is the view that the day they stop growing is the day they start dying.

Sounds logical, right? yes, except that growth can be something of a panacea. It’s the only thing that will hide almost all other problems — problems that can fester and grow, to rear their heads when the slope starts to flatten.

In recent years this thinking is increasingly being applied to people. Swap out ‘startup’ for ‘infinite learner’ and you get the same result: a person and career geared to grow, endlessly. It sounds crazy, but if you ask a person like this when they intend to stop, the answer is straight out of the Amazon playbook. “When I die.”

My last two major moves as a founder, and then as the employee responsible for growth, ended in a crash landing followed by a spectacular explosion. Both experiences had dozens of highs and lows. As a founder in college, I built a product used by thousands of other students daily.

Watching these students use this service was exhilarating; staring down a 12-month sales cycle into other universities, however, was draining. When I was running growth, I pulled off a viral campaign that scored the product its first 1,000 users in less than 24 hours, only to realize that the product was a leaky bucket and they were all gone three weeks later.

In both roles, I’d become excited when the growth machine began to fire, but it was also blinding. The ability of growth to hide other issues in businesses is remarkable — until it doesn’t. Critical thinking and review are even more important when things start to take off. They’re the things that will keep you from hitting the ground.

Growth in your career, like in business, is a trade-off; places, where you’re likely to learn most, are also likely to be the most precarious. When you optimize for growth, you take on an element of risk. This level of risk creates binary outcomes in business: you’ll rarely see businesses optimized for hyper-growth do just ok — they either implode or do incredibly well.

But this is not the same for growth-optimized people. While businesses can always return back to zero (or worse), people are different. Every time you grow, you reach a new base level. A fixed point that requires a complete lack of engagement to fall below.

Some of the most successful people I know prioritize growth above all else in their careers. You could look at these people as risk takers. I don’t. To me, they’re people who know that they’ll end up in a better position than they started.

My own journey of ups and downs led me to a dream job helping to find and fund the most exciting people; those willing to take on enormous levels of risk to go all-in and become a founder.

So if you’re at a turning point in your career or you’re about to start your next venture, you should ask yourself: how do I design for growth? How do I make sure my startup remains a startup for years and years to come? If you’re thinking more about personal growth, consider whether you’re in the place you need to be; should you be somewhere else?

At Frontline we’re always looking for founders with a growth mindset. So get in touch if you’re ready to start moving.

I’m on finn@frontline.vc now :)

Thanks to everyone who read, edited and who’s patient feedback helped this come together. I’ll be diving more into the camouflaging effect growth can have on problems, both personal & company related, in my next piece so follow @frontline if you’d like to read more.