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Why We Stopped Trying to Manufacture Growth at Our Startup

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.”

Inducing growth

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!

  • Timothy Johnson, VA

    This was a great post to read, being that I just ran through Thiel’s Zero-to-One and came to a lot of the same “should I be focusing on short term growth all the time” kind of epiphany. Granted, it is probably the founders that need to set strategy pace and how much focus goes toward short term vs. long… but reading that book made me re-think what kind of organization I want to sign up with.

    • LeoWid

      Thanks Timothy! You’re absolutely right, I think if you trust your intuition and do great work every day, in the long run, this is an unbeatable strategy for growth. Also agreed that it has to come from founders/leadership team, otherwise change might be very tough.

  • alejandrorigatuso

    Recently I read a quote, which I couldn’t agree more, on a book called Systemantics and it says:”As systems grow in size, they tend to lose basic functions.” Couldn’t agree more. Adding new features (especially, those which are growth-inducing), is very tempting, but the essence of the product gets diluted since new problems and requests arise -problems and requests that were induced by the “growth-inducing” features-.

    • LeoWid

      Ah, love the quote!

  • Ryan Vanderbilt

    Thanks for sharing those thoughts Leo, it’s definitely a fascinating topic. You may have already read these books, but in case you haven’t; I think you might like ‘In Praise of Slowness’ and ‘The Slow Fix,’ both by Carl Honore.

    • LeoWid

      wow, thanks for sharing Ryan, I haven’t come across either of these books, excited to check them out!

  • Thanks for writing this. I often find myself annoyed by the attitude (or assumption?) that growth should be the end-all, be-all of all things. Growth to what end?

    Without the answer to this question (or understanding what our growth serves), we work in service of Growth the Abstract Deity, not in service of the customer whose problem we’re solving with our products, or in service of providing a healthy wage to our employees, or in service of whatever else we need money and products for. It seems like you always have your employees and customers in mind at Buffer, and I really admire that.

    • LeoWid

      thanks Megan, yes, we try to do our best to do that!

      And yup, recently I read a quote that blew my mind, it said “things should be a means and an end”. I always thought we had to pick one, either make it a means or make it an end. Combining both in one and finding a balanced approach to it, seems like a great middle way, that’s of course more easily written as a Disqus comment than lived by! :)

  • piotry

    Learning is the one good thing that grows limtelessly. Think of Buffer who spends most of his time reading.

    I like how u changed ur view of the canceric hunger to growth. Makes me think of Levels.io and how he’s building 12 ‘startups’ in 12 months. Each startup is a product / feature.
    I think, instead of going in one long road, its nice to have many smaller roads that can somehow converge but eventually, each ‘grows’ separately.
    I’m experimenting with the same approach with hashtagreaders.io and then readinglists.io

    That being said, while you did a wonderful job describing your ‘aha’ moment on growth, I was hoping you’d have a “what’s next” plan. Do you think having separate modular entities growing each at its pace better than all in one?

  • Eric Agnew

    I have always found that if you are focused on adding true value to the customer first, then growth will be the natural result. I think that you are doing well in that area!

  • Cyril Pepito

    Great article as always!
    The fact is that growth is somewhat an obligation to companies in the current economy – we are “condemned” to grow. But how can we grow indefinitely in a definite world? I’ll let philosophers/economists answer that question.

    If we consider a company as a living being, then from the moment it is created, growth is indeed the main concern until a certain point is reached (big/strong enough to defend and sustain itself – maturity). Then what is the purpose of a living thing? Huge question but I guess that reproduction is the norme.

    How about a world where a company has a “natural life expectancy” and whose core purpose is to become an incubator breeding the next generations of startups? I’d like that.

  • Fernando

    It is an interesting discussion, perhaps most interesting that
    the discussion is open and out of the working group.

    First I would like to note the conditioning from some variables
    interacts.

    The company, service quality, innovation, innovation in function
    of time.

    From the point of view of the company is governed by the laws of calculation, depending on the effort and the return of that effort, leaving other less optimized variables in the pursuit of money, leaving aside quality.

    From the point of view of creation which references is true and the company can be viewed as a biological unit or a physical system etc.

    These systems have their own rules or harmony of creation, such as a flower petal quantity, measures of human bones, a car, where the movement of the pistons has harmony between them and together with the wheels and each wheel a relationship in your direction, some call harmony of creation.

    If you want a faster car automatically would have more consumption and pollution, increased risk so changing one variable changes the other.

    As corporations have to be small operation to be larger one, and undermine their conditions of creation.

    As a product has its cycle of growth and decay naturally.

    We can also see innovation and what the foundation of the company is its product.

    For example, the phone, a device created for the transmission of voice information, evolved without major contradictions himself, now transmits
    a written information, visual, etc. And it is close to our body.

    In the near future it may transmit other signals of interest and information to the user, biological signals, interaction with the reality of security etc.

    Formulation remains the same device that transmits information.

    Like the foundation of the car, in the first patent described it as a self-propelled
    system. A system that can go from one point to another, on its own power.

    I see innovation buffer app and its grounding in both directions,a tool of integration and interaction with social networks.

    Generating the formulation and not create conflict with His creation is moving in that direction.

    It also generates a path to new potential like the branches of a tree grow some others dry and there are also new.

    There are systems that are naturally growing, eg. the adventure of knowledge. As manages energy and technology, as a civilization that
    adventure and its application we have come without seeking harmony of natural resources, energy and harmony.

    For example electromagnetic waves were always there
    as resources from creation but had to give a lot of cognitive and interaction time for us to achieve use to transmit information.

    As an artist dissatisfied with his creation you can always improve, clearly must see harmony and beauty, and we cannot have an arm that is three times
    longer than the other to avoid creating dysfunction in human
    biological form we have the same about any creation is a business.

    Thanks.

  • In the spirit of questioning everything, it is often easy to overlook certain principles because they are so entrenched in our thinking that we can’t gain the distance from them to even recognize them as something that CAN be questioned, let alone as something that should be questioned. I think growth is one of those principles. This article makes me think – what other startup fundamentals can’t we see clearly enough to question?

  • Chamath Palihapitiya, former VP of growth at Facebook gave a great talk on focusing on sustainable user growth by building a great product, rather than focusing on short term growth. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=raIUQP71SBU

  • This is fascinating article, especially from the co-founder of a start up. I love the attitude and perspective. I love reading and documentaries so I can’t wait to check out the items you mentioned at the end.

    Love what you guys do and the culture of transparency you’re working hard to create and perpetuate!

  • “Building a feature to induce growth is one of the most subtle forms of self-sabotage in today’s startup world.” So true my friend.

  • Ankit Jain

    Hey Leo,
    That was a great post. As a person responsible for Growth at my organization, gives a lot to think about.

    I am fascinated when I read this post in conjunction with Buffer’s announcement of Series A funding. Curious how you think about holistic growth after an investment round; very different from usual pressure I would expect.

  • Great post, uncontrolled growth is called cancer…

  • Emily Campbell

    Thanks for your always transparent insights! On a white water rafting trip, we use the saying “slower is faster”. When everyone is moving around quickly with no facilitation or organization, efficiency goes through the floor, people get injured, and nothing really gets done. Taking the time to pause, plan, delegate, and move forward with direction makes the whole process safer and generally faster as a whole. I’ve introduced that same idea into my design teams, and can absolutely see how it can be reflected at the product level as well. Growth that does not result in longevity and progress ultimately does not move the *product* or its value forward any faster.

    In metaphor terms, it’s better to grow as a redwood, slower but more stable over time, than to scatter our efforts like weeds on the ground, growing quickly but ultimately destined to be pulled and restarted.

  • This is a great article Leo, it reminds me of the Gross Domestic Happiness movement which is very exciting.

    I am downloading the Reinventing Organizations right now, it looks great!

    One of my favorite quotes on growth comes from Bobby Kennedy,

    “Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

    More on GDH: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gross_National_Happiness

  • J. Michael Probert

    Wonderful message here, Leo. That’s quote hit me and got me thinking back on the past 6 months as I’ve been running a lot of experiments in the name of growth. I like your point of when you’re trying to “create growth” you aren’t working on the stuff that matters. A sobering reality.

  • Marieke van der Laan

    Hi Leo,
    Thanks for your clear and interesting insights. It seems to me Leo, that trees have time before bearing fruits. Most start ups are not given time to mature, before producing returns on investment. Did you realize you could take more time now, when getting your insight?
    Companies that are allowed to take a long term view are much better able to concentrate create customer delight and earn profits and growth as a logical consequence.

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