Why Do Startup Founders Fear Growth So Much?
The truth of the market is, no matter how good a product you have built and even if you have super strong user feedback or if you have strong sales, you need to show hypergrowth to interest VCs and for that, you have to embrace it yourself
Disclaimer: this article is only for folks who are building a tech startup and are inspired by the growth stories of the Swiggys and Paytms of the world. If you are looking to build a sustainable business, choose carefully what you adopt.
Growth is a state of mind (no pun intended towards Mr Gandhi). As startup founders who are looking to conquer their market quickly, growing fast need to be a violent obsession.
We should chart out where we went wrong in our growth journey and along the way lay a framework to build a growth focussed mentality in your startup.
1. Growth vs product building: it's not one or the other
Building a startup is a constant cycle of building the first version of your product, going to market to identify gaps, iterating on the product and going back to market again and so on. This cycle is natural and it's understandable to not focus on growth while you are figuring out the initial product spec.
However, over time, you can't continue to ignore growth. Every time you release a new version of your product, it's important that you roll it out to a bigger market than before. Otherwise, there is no learning as you are shipping the features to the same user base.
As a startup, you have to prove that your product works at continuously increasing scale. Therefore the notion that "I am focusing on the product right now" is supremely flawed. You have to build the product as you are scaling and that’s what achieving product-market fit means.
2. Set Aside Your Own Fear of Growth
We can quote all the reasons in the world to not grow fast - funding, resources, fear of bad ratings, etc. But the truth is, subconsciously (or sometimes consciously), most founders, like me, have an inherent fear of going for explosive growth.
Everyone wants it, but we are too far stuck in our comfort zones to actually act on it
We know what we have to do but the thought is so unsettling that you almost freeze. It's like the feeling of losing control if you were driving a car at 150 kph+.
If you want to build the next Airbnb, you need to get a grip on yourself and consciously start going down the road you are afraid of. There is no formula to this. It's the mental strength that separates great founders from the good ones.
3. Figure out What is Really Stopping You From Growing and Solve for it
Paul Graham in one of his amazing essays described a startup as a new company designed to grow fast. That element of design separates a startup from a regular business. The first step you need to take is to figure out what is stopping you from growing.
Usually, it is either of two things: your product isn't open for enough users OR even if many users reach the product, you won't be able to service them.
For us, it was both. We were catering to only two countries and we had a small team of travel planners helping travellers out. Only when we were almost shutting down did we snap out of it and started obsessively working towards making growth the centre of the organisation.
To solve it, we fundamentally changed our model and started building a community of travellers and while it took months to go live, it instantly opened up the product's reach.
4. Onboard Your Team to this Obsessive Growth Thinking, Use Shock Therapy
It's hard to get your team to adopt this mentality. Especially if they have gotten used to the slower pace you have set a precedent for. It's not their fault. Everyone has a fear of the unknown and usually your team is thinking about the impact on your product and service quality if you grow at an insane pace.
The only way to solve this is to continuously talk about it. Show them the end result you are trying to achieve and the path to get there. One thing we have tried and has worked wonderfully for us is the Growth Shock Therapy.
Set an ambitious target to achieve in a really short timeline. Usually, if you are still an early stage company, doing this isn't that hard. So we set a 2x growth target for a six-week period. Unsurprisingly we made it pretty easily and it helped the team realise they have the potential to do this constantly.
5. Adopt the "this isn't ambitious enough" mentality, instead of "this is too ambitious"
Once you are done warming up to start on your growth journey, you need to set yourself scary goals. Figure out what you can do in a year's time. Then double that target.
Work backwards from the targets you have set. Analyse what in your current system will inhibit the path to this goal. Then set a roadmap to solve them first.
A few one stars are fine. Some customers not getting the best possible product experience is okay too. In the larger scheme of things, this won't matter. But you have to grow fast and grow now.
These are just a few things we did wrong and we are continuously trying to get better. Each startup’s context will be different but broadly the above 5 point framework should apply to your case as well.
Most startups are dependent on external capital. The truth of the market is, no matter how good a product you have built and even if you have super strong user feedback or if you have strong sales, you need to show hypergrowth to interest VCs and for that, you have to embrace it yourself.
Stop procrastinating growth. Your startup needs it.
Rahul Singh is an IIT Bombay, 2012 grad. Worked at GulfTalent, a Dubai based market leader job portal for the Gulf region with over 1 million users a month. He started off as an Analyst and worked across Product, Operations, Sales, Marketing before becoming the first Product Manager there.
This gave him massive exposure on running a business and he is also specialized in building great products. He was CPO at Ithaka till March this year, when I took over as CEO when Ameya, my co-founder left.