We're so damn distracted by "growth" that we rarely ask ourselves what it is about growth that even matters.
You know who cares about growth? Our investors. The media. Our sewing circles of other Founders.
You know who cares about quality? Our team. Our customers. Our partners. You know, the people that we should be solely focused on.
There's a time and a place to focus on growth, but all too often our focus on growth comes directly at the expense of our focus on quality. And that's a dangerous place to be.
We need to have a discussion around making our startups better, not just bigger.
A couple of years ago, Basecamp Founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson said something that always stuck with me when talking about how big Basecamp could be.
They said, "Harvard doesn't try to be the biggest university, it tries to be the best university."
Students aren't killing themselves to get into Harvard because of how much growth it's had. They want the product because it's been eternally optimized to be the best. Basecamp wants to be the best company, not the biggest. I have to believe I'm not the only one that would prefer to be the next Harvard over some giant state school.
If we're going to "grow" anything, let's grow our quality. And if we're going to grow our quality, let's talk about where we want to grow quality.
You'll never hear a staff member say, "This company is so much better now that I don't know who half the staff is anymore!"
Growth rarely improves culture.
More staff means less personal connectivity across the organization. It means we ball into tighter individual circles. It makes it harder to create highly-specialized benefits because the cost of them becomes so great.
Our real challenge isn't adding staff — anyone can hire people — it's improving the connectivity amongst our staff and the feeling of inclusion. It's becoming better at listening and faster at responding to concerns. It's about creating more personal freedom, and, imagine this — more personal time.
Can we really say that in the past year we've increased the quality of our culture dramatically? That our staff is happier? That we have more freedom and personal benefits than ever before? If not, we're not really growing.
Our customers don't care how much we've grown our company, they care how much we've improved our product. They care about whether or not we're making their lives better.
When’s the last time you said, "Oh man I can't wait to get the new iPhone since Apple grew 20% year-over-year."
As customers, we don't give a shit about a company's growth. We care about how the company creates great products for us.
Sometimes that requires growth to bolster customer support or increase the throughput of new features. Customers care about how much time and attention is being placed on the products they've come to care about.
Can we honestly say that our product has gotten dramatically better in the last year because we "re-organized the reporting structure of our management team?" Those things are important for structure, but let's not confuse them with having improved the product.
Our customers are still waiting for features they requested a year ago!
Has our happiness grown Year-over-Year? Has hiring all those new staff members helped us sleep easier, exercise more, or spend more time with our loved ones?
Chances are, probably not. In fact, it's the opposite.
The reality is, our growth probably isn't making anyone happier. We're more stressed than we have ever been. Our staff is making more sacrifices and losing more of themselves by the day. We want to tell ourselves that it's toward some greater goal (the big payday!) but as every day goes by there's no concrete proof that we're getting closer to anything but our peak weight on the scale.
Imagine if we had said, "This year these are the 3 things that would make us dramatically happier." And then at the end of the year we could say, "Holy shit, you know what, we're so much happier than we were a year ago!" Wouldn't that feel like growth? How is that goal not critically important to us? Like, seriously, WTF are we doing here?
Our own startup creations, and the growth that comes with it, should be an engine for our happiness, not the root of our demise.
All of this talk about growth overlooks one massive point — what if we're already the right size? Why can't we be 2 people in a room and be good with it? What does having 100 employees do that we absolutely cannot get done with 50?
How are we aligning our growth objectives, and do any of them map to us truly being a better company?
There's no reason we can't be the best company at the size we're at now, or heaven forbid, smaller. Maybe our goal should be getting to an equilibrium that allows us to maximize all of our goals without having to incur the "burden of growth."
Maybe it's time for us to change the answer to the question "How is your startup growing?" to focus on how it's becoming a better startup, not just a bigger one.
Wouldn't that be a fun update to share?
Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes Bizplan, Clarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.