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The Trick to Achieving Rapid Growth The secret is to identify impending 'surges,' or shifts in customer behavior and adapt quickly.

By Dorie Clark Edited by Dan Bova

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Nintendo of American

It's great to build a steady, profitable business. But how can you break through and achieve rapid growth? That's the question serial entrepreneur Mike Michalowicz tackles in his forthcoming new book Surge: Time the Marketplace, Ride the Wave of Consumer Demand, and Become Your Industry's Big Kahuna.

The secret, he says, is to identify impending "surges," or shifts in customer behavior and adapt quickly. That might sound like a mysterious or complicated form of trend-spotting but Michalowicz says the signs are actually easy to spot if you know what to look for. Unlike predicting what will happen five to 10 years in the future, "A surge is an imminent wave. What that means is that there's an already measurable movement in the market from the early adopters," he tells me.

Related: 3 Factors Holding You Back From Massive Growth

To spot it accurately, all you need to do is listen and search for it online. "Early adopters are vocal and will speak out in forums or interviews or videos, and others -- journalists, bloggers, etc. -- will write about what early adopters are doing," Michalowicz says. If you can't find much information about the trend or a consistent uptake with early adopters, it may be a future trend, but it's not a surge (an imminent wave)."

Related: How Looking Backward Can Help Companies Move Forward

It's important to discern the difference because being too early with a trend may mean wasted time and energy -- and ultimate failure (compare the early social network Friendster to Facebook). For instance, Michalowicz notes that electric cars are currently in surge mode, while self-driving vehicles (a possible future trend) are not imminently upon us, and therefore don't qualify as surging.

How else can you tell when a surge is coming? One clue, says Michalowicz, is the use of the word "traditional" appending a phrase, like "traditional PR" or "traditional publishing." He notes, "When we see the word traditional, it means that the market has achieved an expected standard. When something is expected and consistent, that market is perfectly positioned to see a disruption."

Another useful trick is doing an online search for the phrase "the history of [your industry]." The reason, says Michalowicz, is that history repeats. By understanding past variations on a theme, you're poised to recognize when new variations are emerging, such as the vogue for early 1960s fashion inspired a few years ago by the success of the television show Mad Men.

Of course, there are tradeoffs that come with riding a wave. One is that some of your earliest advocates and true believers may be turned off when your company hits the mainstream. "When you start to serve the majority of the niche," says Michalowicz, "that initial minority who took the risk on you will consider you a sell out. You will no longer be cool to them." That was notably the case with the footwear UGG, which broke through in the U.S. with surfers who valued the boots' ability to keep their feet warm and dry after a dip in chilly waters. "Surfers loved UGG until UGG sold to teenage girls," he notes. Your early adopters won't always revolt, but it may be a necessary trade-off as you expand and grow.

What remains most vital as you seek to capture the wave, however, is difference. "'Better' is invisible to customers," says Michalowicz. "Do you really care if your accountant answers the phone on two rings and that the competitor answers on one ring? One ring is better, but better doesn't get noticed. What does get noticed is different." If your company can identify a distinct, unique advantage that you can provide, such as an accountant helping clients not just with taxes but also with developing growth strategies for their business, then you'll thrive under any conditions.

By following these steps, Michalowicz lays out a clear process to help your business take advantage of changing market conditions in order to grow dramatically.

Related: Don't Try to Maximize Growth and Profitability at the Same Time. It's Impossible.

Dorie Clark

Speaker, Marketing Strategist, Professor

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You. 

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