Growing up

Note: This article is the concluding post in a four-part series about growth.
Following World War II, the United States enjoyed unprecedented economic success as a victor of the war and the only major nation that did not suffer homeland infrastructure losses. In the US, the post-War period included an expansion of worker rights but hit a turning point in roughly 1968 which began the dismantling of those same rights. We now refer to the dominant monetary-economic philosophy of the past 30-50 years as “neoliberalism.” Among other things, it included a commitment to private sector deregulation, financialization, elimination of worker protections, and globalization of the labor economy.

In the UK and the United States, this paradigm was embraced whole-heartedly by the major political parties of the right and the left. As a worldview, it was in other words “hegemonic.” Envisioning alternatives outside a neoliberal paradigm was undiscussable if not unthinkable.

This paradigm has stopped working. The built-in error of neoliberalism was that it allowed capitalism to eat through vital social, political, and natural resources to such an extent that life became unlivable or unlikable for too many people within and outside the Western system. Voters on the left and right are increasingly voting the neoliberal establishment out, and activists and terrorists are attacking its built systems and moral authority.

Neoliberalism lives on, of course, but although it still controls attention and investment in some spheres, it is no longer a functioning paradigm or hegemony. The worthy debate at this point isn’t whether neoliberalism is good or bad, but what will replace it.

When an ideology breaks

Thomas S. Kuhn wrote a seminal treatise about this back in 1962. He said what scientists do when a paradigm fails is… (guess what)… they carry on as if nothing had ever happened. If they don’t have a paradigm, they can’t ask the question. So they say, ‘yes, it’s wrong, but supposing it was right’… and the only other option open to them is to stop asking the questions.” – Elaine Morgan

In a democratic political system, society holds the state in check via elections, and the state holds the private sector in check via law. When the state ceases to set limits for the private sector, the private sector will innovate in ways that are massively disruptive to society (for better or worse). As the private sector begins to exert soft or hard control over the political process—and through it, society in general—democracy will give way to corporate oligarchy and corporate feudalism.

The danger as companies grow in search of new fuel—ever upwards, ever to the right—is that they begin to eat away at the social, natural, or political substrate. If they don’t, their competitors will, so it’s illogical to think that the private sector will police itself. Private sector organizations are not inherently benevolent: some government regulation, taxation, and basic social protections are essential to ensure that private sector growth is healthy for society in general. Unchecked capitalism does not lead to prosperity.

This should in no way be a surprise, as unchecked growth is bad for any complex system: it’s fatal for the original species if not the ecology as a whole. The word “growth” calls to mind for me not just a noble oak tree or flourishing forest, but also a cancer cell, the non-native ice plants that choke the shorelines of California, and the monster in John Carpenter’s The Thing that mutates through one grotesque incarnation after another. It’s both intelligent and moral for us to treat the word “growth” with a bit of skepticism and sensitivity to context.

Many people these days believe (with very good reason) that the world is falling apart. An alternate perspective, to borrow a phrase from Mark Epstein, is that it is instead “falling together”… in the sense that we are re-cohering and falling into place, a renewed sense of place.

The illusion of neoliberalism has collapsed, not just for those who protested it, but for everyone. With one illusion gone, we are able to see a bit more of reality, a bit more clearly.

What do we see?

A riddle resolved

The trilemma of the world economy, Dani Rodrik. All rights reserved.

Dani Rodrik first argued back in the year 2000 that democracy, deep economic integration, and the nation-state can never be equally sustained, and our tough choice is to pick which two we care about most. The end of the neoliberal era has knocked hyper-globalization out of the running, reverting the dominant paradigm to the “nation-state + democracy” axis that governed Western policy after WWII. This is in fact our only available option, as there are no current mechanisms to combine global democracy with a global labor force—nor, as Rodrik notes, would this be a win for social justice. (In a global democracy, minorities would always lose; the North American population would always outvote the Maldives.)

But this axis shift is only part one of how we are “falling together.” The current backlash against globalization has meant not only the rapid dissolution of trade agreements and other international ties, but also intranational disintegration into all-vs.-all social competition. We see this playing out in Brexit, in U.S. race relations, in Facebook’s turn towards private filter bubbles as its core design strategy, in the carving-up of the mediasphere and built environment, in myriad migration and refugee crises, in our politics in general, and most crucially in the widening gulf between the 1% and everyone else. For the private sector, this fragmented economic-social-political-physical landscape jeopardizes global supply and distribution chains, so ignoring or waiting out the storm is also not possible.

The freedom to make idiosyncratic, local choices also means that individual countries are free to abandon democracy or fail to embrace it. In an authoritarian political system, the state directly controls the private sector and society at large (for better or worse). Unchecked power in any system leads to fast, dislocating changes, whether that looks like Facebook, the Three Gorges Dam, or the recent purging of Poland’s Supreme Court.

The given of where we are right now in 2019 is that the riddle posed by Dani Rodrik can no longer be answered: the nation-state, democracy, and globalized labor are threatened increasingly (though not fatally) by transnational and intranational tribes. We can see, with a more subtle reading of history, that this has always been the case. What’s “really going on” in any event is weirder and bigger than what one can see through the lens of any one sector, discipline, industry, or subjective perspective.

We’re gonna need a bigger framework.

Believing what we know

“And so I knew. And next, of course, came believing it. Knowing it — knowing it’s true is one thing. But believing what you know… well, that’s the tough part.” – Edward Albee, The Goat, or, Who is Sylvia?

“Upton Sinclair wrote that it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it. How does this work? Not as a direct psychotic foreclosure of a part of the subject’s knowledge but more in the guise of a fetishist denial: while the subject understands the thing very well, he suspends the symbolic efficiency of his understanding.” – Slavoj Žižek, The Courage of Hopelessness

I mention all of this as an ambivalent conclusion to my blog series on growth in general.

In a world that’s splintering into tribes and localities, we must assume that all actors in the system will make contextual, subjective, imperfect choices. We all participate in the current neoliberal system to varying degrees as consumers, workers, voters, citizens, protestors, investors, and community members. Imperfect human beings working in imperfect human situations make imperfect choices.

At the same time, I personally care about and want to work towards a new era of collective, positive social change. Today’s tribes and splinter groups may realign—quickly—in novel and socially positive ways, within and across sectors. New technologies hold enormous potential. I believe the most inspiring organizations in human history have yet to be created.

Inspiration, in fact, is a word that I think about a lot. In its etymology, it suggests both the breath and the divine. I always think of inspiration as connecting a person with their own breath, dropping them deeper into their own grounded reality. Inspiration, in other words, is not about filling another person with your own expelled air. (When I’m exposed to adrenalized, gushy marketing around “growth”—or really, anything else—I always pause and think: “What is this person or entity trying to sell me? What are they trying to sell themselves?”)

Many people struggle daily with the pain of believing things they know to be untrue, about their own moral goodness, their families, their workplaces, the world in general. This is understandable and very human, but ultimately, it’s much more efficient and effective to believe what we know, rather than believe things we know to be false.


Every new subscriber to The Next Us newsletter receives the following message from me…

I recently had reason to remember the following definition of “intelligence” from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy text adventure game, created by Douglas Adams and Infocom:

“Thirty million generations of philosophers have debated the definition of intelligence. The most popular definition appears in the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation android manuals: ‘Intelligence is the ability to reconcile totally contradictory situations without going completely bonkers — for example, having a stomach ache and not having a stomach ache at the same time, holding a hole without the doughnut, having good luck and bad luck simultaneously, or seeing a real estate agent waive his fee.'”

May we all be able to navigate contradictory realities with grace.

Hypergrowth basics

Note: This article is part three in an ongoing series about growth.
The past twelve years have seen major changes in how Silicon Valley startups talk and think about growth.

Around the time of the 2007-2008 financial crash, a set of integrated technologies (mobile, wifi, cloud, open source, HTML 5) reached what Carlota Perez calls the Deployment phase of maturity, sparking a new, long boom of technological innovation and VC investment. The FANGA companies and their children—AirBnB and Uber, and dozens of SaaS startups—have been the most obvious beneficiaries and leaders of this new phase.

With this change in the hardware and software environment came a shift in language. “Innovation” suddenly was out; “growth” and “hypergrowth” were in. When the startup community talks about growth these days, they don’t typically mean growth-in-general, they mean the specific opportunities and practices associated with this new technological infrastructure. Within the startup ecosystem, Andrew Chen, Brian Balfour, and David Skok in particular have contributed detailed, nuanced thinking to this conversation.

In an earlier article, I shared my own take on how I see internal org structures evolving in the coming years as they continue to absorb these new technologies. In my general, future-state diagrams, there were no growth marketers, growth teams, growth designers, or growth hackers in sight.

This was deliberate. I think today’s proliferation of “growth” roles and titles is part of a genuine and important transformation but one that is still in progress. As these waves crest and alter the landscape, we will be left with org structures that assume and facilitate ongoing growth rather than restrict it to certain individuals, teams, or moments in an organization’s history.

My prediction, in short:

The new “growth” thinking will become a pervasive and assumed part of all product, relationship, and operational strategy—across industries and sectors—but in doing so it will cease to be an independent or unique skill set.
“Growth” will thus join a long lineage of successful management paradigms. As I wrote a few years back:

“[Art Kleiner in The Age of Heretics] describes an almost-linear progression of 20th century heretical ideas— from balanced scorecard and scenario planning to quality management and lean manufacturing to re-engineering and knowledge management— each of which was absorbed, metabolized, bastardized, and discarded by the general business culture… These ideas are all worthy, but what’s notable of course is that they all have expiration dates. Once the intended clients have grokked the essential concept, and incorporated it… there’s nothing for an idea-centered consulting firm left to sell, perhaps other than simple training.”

Before we write the epitaph for hypergrowth, however, let’s look at what it has contributed and is still contributing. From my perspective, the new thinking around “growth” has emerged in several distinct, overlapping waves:

Let’s look at each of these one by one.

1. Growth hacking

Following the 2007-2008 financial crash, a general ethos emerged in Silicon Valley that the best way to work with and within the new media ecologies was to iteratively test small experiments and then scale the successes. Sean Ellis, Tim Ferris, agile development practitioners, the chaos engineering movement, Lean Startup, and design thinking all came to this conclusion at essentially the same time.

The trend became dominant, and in doing so, ended. Growth hacking became the default paradigm for managing data-driven hypothesis testing in a VUCA environment. For example, today a “growth hacking” mentality is implicitly woven into all digital marketing, online attention arbitrage, evidence-based social sector work, and AI-related product development. Growth hacking in 2019 is neither a formal role nor an Area of Responsibility: it’s just a general job expectation.

Five years ago, Mark Suster wrote a good article summarizing the debate at the time as to whether growth hacking was really a “thing.” Depending on your perspective, everyone involved in this conversation either lost the debate, or won it: good growth hackers must understand marketing in general or else they make painful errors, and good marketers must understand growth hacking or else their skills aren’t contemporary.

Growth hacking is dead. Long live growth hacking.

2. Growth marketing

“Growth marketing” has been a stronger and more enduring wave than growth hacking. “Growth marketer” jobs today are everywhere and in high demand.

Definitions vary, but in general growth marketing involves hypothesis-testing new product ideas and customer funnel refinements to (a) increase short-term sales and retention and (b) inspire new, sustainable business models. Growth marketing, in a way, is “growth hacking” grown up and turned into a repeatable playbook and driver of strategic advantage.

Growth marketing was at first highly associated with two specific GTM strategies: (1) low-touch acquisition at the top of the funnel and (2) built-in virality at the bottom of the funnel. Self-service, freemium SaaS products understandably have been the big winners and drivers of the “growth marketing” trend—Dropbox and Slack are just two of many, many examples. Once this marketing/product handshake or “growth loop” is figured out, it is easy to scale it quickly.

And yet…

If growth marketing sits at the intersection of Product and Marketing, how is it different from just product marketing? My belief is that there is no difference. There’s only one skill, one discipline here.

Freemium SaaS companies and their investors have driven the grittiest, most repeatable playbooks related to growth marketing, but its lessons are applicable and urgent to businesses of all kinds, sizes, and GTM strategies, since we all share the same economic and technological context. For example, the NYT recently profiled symphony conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen and his ideas for shaking up the current programming and distribution of live classical music… connecting this “product” to audiences and donors in new ways, with new business models, in the current economy and mediasphere, with real-time feedback loops.

Sounds like growth marketing to me.

At this point, growth marketing and product marketing—no matter what we call them—are essentially the same thing.

3. Growth teams

It’s become common these days in Silicon Valley to have designated “growth” teams. I have seen many variations, including:

  • Independent units within Product
  • Independent units within Marketing/Sales
  • Independent units that bridge Product and Marketing
  • Independent units that run entirely separate funnels
  • Separate business units

Notice that a pattern is repeating here. First, across companies, “growth” heretics emerged, advocating for a new way of doing things. Now, within companies, growth teams are being established to incubate and leverage these heretical ideas. This is how new thinking often spreads. Creating a separate, designated team is the typical and probably necessary first step whenever a business finds it must disrupt itself to survive.

This first step though is never the last. GM eventually re-absorbed Saturn; the instantiation of DevOps overwrote legacy job descriptions for both Dev and Ops; acquired companies infect their host parents and then subtly or not-so-subtly change them. It’s unsustainable long-term for a company to have disjointed or adversarial internal teams, not because it’s uncomfortable but because it’s inefficient. As corporations get very large, they develop strategies for balancing conflicting priorities. The stepwise progression is always from separation to synergy.

If you have a Growth team today, fantastic—that might be just what you need. Here though is how that team will likely evolve, as you evolve:

  • A sub-functional Growth team within a larger function—e.g., a “Growth SEO” team within a larger SEO team—will over time merge back into the SEO team as internal processes and tools related to SEO get more efficient, and as arbitrage opportunities related to SEO become harder to find.
  • A Growth task force made up of cross-functional leaders will become indistinguishable from the leadership team itself.
  • A Growth team that is effectively playing the role of Product Marketing will take over Product Marketing or merge into it.
  • A Growth team running an independent funnel will either become a separate business unit or absorb the legacy funnel team. Penetrating new markets often involves important synergies with existing markets, and having duplicative resources spread across multiple funnels is often operationally unsustainable.
  • A Growth team that functions as an ongoing incubator for new thinking will slowly become indistinguishable from R&D, a center of excellence, or some other standard entity that in today’s large organizations already plays this role.

SaaS tools like JIRA, Asana, Slack, Airtable, and zillions of others make it very easy to atomize tasks, each of which theoretically can then be handled by an optimally allocated, precariat specialist. But over time, an army of specialists requires a higher allocation of management oversight, and any task that’s purely executional can eventually be codified as a process if not automated away. When new roles and teams proliferate within an organization, there is usually soon after a culling. Decentralization is a precursor to centralization.

“Growth” teams can be essential in the short term, but they are not permanent structures.

4. Growth phases

The so-called “growth phase” of a startup can be a source of great excitement. The organization is succeeding and scaling, huge piles of money are showing up, the team is rapidly expanding, and a big payout is on the (long-term) horizon.

Hockey stick growth, however, is also a strong signal that an organization must begin disrupting itself and creating an engine to go after a new and bigger TAM. In today’s competitive markets, Product Market Fit is becoming a day-to-day ground war, not a watershed moment. Early-stage investment is getting more complex and complicated. The overall economy is a bit frightening. In other words, the exponential growth curve crashes back into the sigmoidal one pretty quickly.

If you’re fortunate to be at a stage of organizational growth where you’re suddenly hiring new people, building new systems, chucking old ones, and raising your visibility, this is all new and a strain on attentional resources… but also entirely expected. It’s like childrearing or marriage… it’s only bewildering if you haven’t been there before, or had unrealistic expectations.

I usually choose to believe that there is no spoon (i.e., hockey stick). There’s just work that gets increasingly complex and complicated. Treating this phase as enchanted or unusually stressful is often less productive that adopting Jeff Bezos’s mindset that every day is “Day One.”

5. Hypergrowth business models

In this article, I’ve suggested that most trends related to “growth” are either cresting or receding. But there’s one particular wave left, and although it’s been building for a long time, I suspect it’s just getting started.

Way back in 2006, Umair Haque wrote frequently and intelligently about the differences between networks, communities, and markets:

  • Networks scale as a function of the number of nodes in the network. They thus tend to grow very fast. Facebook and Google both started as networks, and many SaaS businesses grew quickly due to network effects. It’s relatively easy to layer communities and marketplaces on top of networks, as both Google and Facebook have done.
  • Communities scale as a function of the size and depth of the conversation. They thus scale more slowly than a network, and are more difficult to maintain. Digital communities create noteworthy social value—Wikipedia, Reddit, 4chan, Twitter, Second Life (RIP), Quora—but so far, limited economic value for the private sector company that creates them. This no doubt is due in part to the slower growth rate.
  • Marketplaces scale as a function of the number of buyers and sellers in the market. Many successes of the Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 eras like AdWords, Amazon, iTunes, and eBay were marketplaces, as are the leading companies of our current era: Uber, AirBnB, Lyft, etc.

Networks and marketplaces have business models that inherently lead to hypergrowth. It feels like everyone got the memo a decade ago with regards to networks, but there is enormous untapped potential in marketplaces. Andrew Chen in the past month, for example, has been writing passionately about the future potential of marketplaces. And the intense, widespread VC interest in crypto is in part driven by the desire to create new marketplaces… and also to finish installing and deploying a next-gen layer of technological infrastructure that can inspire a new boom of innovation and creativity.

Hypergrowth startups can have negative social consequences. Marketplaces built by the private sector are concerning because they disrupt existing businesses and ways of life so quickly, and because the house always wins: the company (whether it’s Uber, Amazon, or eBay) privatizes a significant percentage of the gains to the detriment of the buyers and sellers on the platform. This is intrinsic to how capitalism works. Rather than expecting these companies to police the ingrained consequences of their business models, society and the political system must ensure that all the companies of the hypergrowth era are appropriately taxed and regulated.

Although marketplaces are changing our lives and our communities in sometimes-scary ways, they still hold bright promise. The book Radical Markets by Eric Posner and E. Glen Weyl, for example, is full of intriguing ideas for how marketplaces could be applied ambitiously to property rights, democratic voting, cross-border migration, data ownership, and other complex challenges in ways that could be socially positive and revolutionary.

Regardless your sector, org size, or political views—or whether you’re an investor, entrepreneur, citizen, or worker—there’s still time and reason (potentially) to be excited about hypergrowth.
Next article: Growing up

Growth basics

Note: This article is part two in an ongoing series about growth.

Let’s start with some timeless principles.

All businesses grow like this:

Geoffrey West has modeled this curve mathematically, and per his research, it’s consistent for all SMBs, all startups, all nonprofitsall businesses.

Organizations are not perpetual motion machines, of course. They are complex systems. If they don’t respond to new stimuli and find ongoing sources of fuel, they expire. Once an organization has avoided its problems for too long, the slope changes:

This becomes a transition moment where new goals must be set, and internal systems must be refreshed or replaced to go after a more ambitious vision:

I sometimes refer to these as “oh shift” moments because (a) my sense of humor is questionable, and (b) typically the internal culture, external conditions, brand, website, technology systems, and business model are all changing at the same time.

Here is what these moments can look like for different kinds of organizations:

  • A startup saturates its initial Total Addressable Market and must now penetrate new markets to secure the next round of investor funding. Otherwise, it becomes a zombie company (alive but unable to grow) or else collapses outright.
  • A small business, after coasting successfully for a few years, hits a bad patch where internal relationships and existing technology systems break down. Investing in new infrastructure and staff requires a pool of assets. If this pool doesn’t exist, the company collapses.
  • A nonprofit opera company finds that it needs dramatic increases in donations to compete with new entertainment options like Netflix and to make its programming relevant to a new generation of potential ticket buyers. This requires an overhaul of the board to bring in more “rainmakers,” but the board is resistant to seeing that it must replace itself.
  • An enterprise engages in value extraction and management theater for years to distract investors from the flagging business. After a few really bad quarters, “suddenly” the shareholder trust is gone, and the CEO is out. The new leader must cohere and execute a new vision quickly or else the company faces bankruptcy.

I’ve been a consultant for almost 25 years, and so I know these transition moments very well: it’s when a consultant is usually called in. An outsider who has “a missing or dismantled sacredness module” (h/t Venkat Rao) can act as a midwife to effect a safe transition to the next phase.

These reinventions and turnarounds often feel hopelessly unique and specific to the internal teams caught in them, but at the level of dynamic complexity, the patterns are all the same.

An experienced CEO or management team who has been through this evolution once before typically never wants to do so again, and so they wisely and proactively invest in the future and don’t wait for the existing systems to break or the current market to mature. Jeff Jordan of Andreessen Horowitz draws a sequence of continuing advances that doesn’t include fumbles and fails, and indeed, these transitions can be managed gracefully if and when the company is prepared.

Similarly, in The E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber advises small business owners to resist throwing themselves into service delivery and instead focus from day one on the operational health of the business. In my experience, this can be unrealistic because businesses are human organizations, and therefore complex. Anticipating and weathering transitions tends to be something that can’t be taught, only learned. Most businesses focus at first on doing one thing, become optimally efficient at it, and then realize they really should have been doing something else.

The “oh shift” moment could come in year one of a business or year ten—and it will always come again. That’s just how it goes.

There is no hockey stick

A pervasive myth about startups is that they constitute a fundamentally different kind of business. Theoretically, unlike an enterprise, SMB, or nonprofit, they experience “hockey stick” growth when they’re successful, and managing this wild ride from seed stage venture to colossus is a unique and ineffable experience. And true, VC investment acts like steroids, giving young startups access to reserves that allow them to grow by leaps and bounds. (Startups that ignore the mandatory growth expectations of VC investors do so at their own peril.)

But the growth curve for startups is the same as the one I drew above. My diagram above showed a hockey stick, too: did you see it?

Spoiler—it was just turned on its side:

The graph in the original version showed value creation over time; rotated then flipped, it shows market penetration. And if we keep the latter, “portrait” orientation and add Jeff Jordan’s follow-on phases of hypergrowth, we get something like this:

This, in fact, mirrors exactly the graphs that Geoffrey West has built, showing mathematically the fate of all companies. And if we assume these transition moments as “givens” and connect them, our curve once again becomes sigmoidal.

You can’t escape fate.

This video is exceptional. I also recommend West’s 2011 Long Now talk, “Why Cities Keep on Growing, Corporations Always Die, and Life Gets Faster.” The answer to all three questions? Math.

I talked about all of this years ago in a blogpost entitled “Built to Leap” which emphasized that all businesses must master “leading while leaping”—i.e., maximizing the current opportunity (execution risk), while actively pursuing the next one (strategic risk). Practically and day-to-day, this involves constant tradeoffs between short- and long- term revenue.

All businesses, from barbershops to Google to the March of Dimes, go through this. Startups may have more data, money, people, and publicity than SMBs or some nonprofits, but these superficial differences mask a fundamental, shared reality. Size matters not.

Incidentally, if you want a real-time check of how well an organization is managing this balancing act, I recommend that you join the Marketing department. Marketing is often where the tradeoffs between short- and long- term revenue are most obvious and acute. I’ve written several articles that underline how the relative prioritization of short- and long-term TAM dictates an organization’s marketing approach, determining everything from goal-setting to positioning to funnel design.

I’ll have more to say about Marketing, and how marketing roles are changing, in my next post…

Next article: Hypergrowth basics

Growth by any other name

“All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.”
Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas

Anyone working in the startup ecosystem today is well aware that the word “growth” has become ubiquitous, leading to the rewriting of many former job titles and the proliferation of new ones.

For those promoting or seeking these jobs, there is an exciting sense that something new and important is breaking into view. A lot of the new thinking around growth has in fact been smart and timely.

If you’re working outside of tech, or outside of the private sector, you might be unaware of the volume and nature of all this “growth” related discussion and commentary.

Here’s a taste:

The memetic spread of the term is happening now, for a reason. That said, Silicon Valley has gone through many memes like this in the last twenty years. The challenge is that when any meme becomes dominant, it also loses all its specificity and expressive vigor. It’s an example of a complex system becoming efficient, which in turn kills the (semiotic) system. When we all use the exact same words, and take certain values for granted, we lose sight of what we’re taking for granted.

Aneel Lakhani writes:

“Growth is a somewhat nebulous term that comes down to growing, or increasing the velocity of, the funnel… Growth is oftentimes considered its own discipline and, sometimes, its own line of business with it’s own marketing, product, engineering, and operations staff that experiment with and A/B test all aspects of the user experience leading to conversion and expansion, as well as things like referral marketing. In my decidedly old-man-shaking-fist-at-sky mindset, this isn’t a discipline. It’s a dedicated funnel team that’s usually led from product and run like an independent operating unit. But every generation needs to feel special. So have your mantle.”

I have no need, desire, or ability to stop a meme: if “growth” is the word that startups and VCs are using now, then let’s use it. But while appreciating what’s legitimately new, interesting, and #winning about “growth,” I want to also disturb the earth a bit to see what’s been lost or obscured by this trend; to predict where it might be heading; and to connect this startup-specific phenomenon with the rest of the private sector and the current overall economy.
Next article: Growth basics

Drawing the owl

Some job descriptions ask for many years of experience in a particular field on the assumption that understanding that industry is very difficult for a newcomer.

Often this belief is false. Advanced skills like heart surgery or singing German lieder take a long time to nurture. Ditto virtuoso creativity. But raw understanding of how an industry or field works, or how a particular company works, can come together fast, particularly if one makes a point of finding a good teacher or being a good student.

I mentioned in my last post that I have a few simple procedures I use to ascend steep learning curves for topics that are neither simple nor complex—but rather, complicated.

Here are those tips and tricks.

1. Industry know-how

When I find myself working in a new industry, one of the first things I do is find an expert craftsperson in that industry and I ask them what they do and how they think. I ask dumb “beginner’s mind” questions and I check in to make sure I’m following everything I hear. I also ask them every book and blog I should read, every publication I should subscribe to, and every influencer and competitor I should seek to understand. I then create a custom Twitter list and reading list that includes all the above, and I read it every day, adding to it and pruning it as I go. I repeat this process with as many experts as I can find.

Monopoly tech ecosystems and media companies are direct or indirect players in almost every industry, as well as the social sector, so I stay up to speed about them as a matter of course no matter what.

2. Industry know-who

Only an expert in a particular industry will have connections to and credibility with all the “right” people, but a newcomer or outsider can quickly discover who the right people are.

After reading five books, and scanning Twitter for twenty hours, I start to have an informed sense of what I know and don’t know. For any information I don’t have, I have a good idea of where to get it. My goal as I learn who’s who is to be able to visually segment the relevant external stakeholders and the market in general. For technology companies, I always check out CB Insights, Crunchbase, and the major analysts.

If and as relevant, I try to identify for every segment the market leader, the thought leader, and a handful of interesting niche players, and then I prioritize following them first and foremost.

3. Industry lingo

When I am playing marketing roles—as a consultant or acting head of Marketing—I am often trying to make a highly arcane or technical concept relatable to multiple audiences, many of which are themselves highly informed and technical.

Subject matter experts often fear (rightly so) that a marketer will make everything fluffy, and indeed, simplifying a complex topic distorts it (turning our semiotic rainforest into astroturf).

At the same time, every complex topic also has an underlying theme, and every complicated particularity has a specific edge to it. Good writing distills—it doesn’t dumb down.

Usually within a month of hyperdrive, “beginner’s mind” absorption, I’ve picked up enough knowledge to—if not speak at a conference for a particular company—at least be able to write all the conference materials in a way that supports a distinctive and ownable positioning.

4. Current events, trends, and conversations in any given industry

After an hour of scheduled time, every morning, reading the media streams I created above, this comes naturally. Within a month, I usually feel like I have a solid enough grasp of a space to have an intelligent cocktail conversation with real experts, or to populate a cross-channel editorial calendar, if that’s my role.

I know where to inject a particular company’s voice into ongoing conversations, or how to start a new conversation that promotes our unique story.

5. Weird quirks of (otherwise complex) software applications

Although most tools in the same category work similarly, they each have their defining quirks. I also find that any tool I stop using for a while grows and changes quickly. Google Analytics and Google Data Studio are good examples—their capabilities change dramatically every six months.

When I am trying to learn or assess a new tool, or re-engage with one that’s changed a lot, I give myself a series of tasks: (a) understand the basics, (b) understand the maximal limit case possibilities, (c) talk to at least three expert practitioners to learn their personal tips and tricks, and then (d) learn what appear to be the most important shortcuts.

The learning curve here can be pretty steep, but SDRs and customer success managers are invaluable… I’ve gone from zero to sixty quickly with some tools thanks to the boost of an excellent webinar, tutorial, Q&A call, online training, or demo, which of course is exactly what these things are for.

If I am trying to stay up to speed with a general class of tool, I often pick three in a given space to follow closely… once again, the market leader, the thought leader, and a handful of quality niche solutions. This gives me confidence that I’m staying abreast of important commonalities (simple), differences (complicated) and dynamic trends (complex).

For example, for CRMs these days I’ve chosen to follow Salesforce, SugarCRM, and Tessitura; for web design, the Adobe suite, WordPress, and Squarespace; for collaborative task management, Asana, Airtable, and dirtworld scrum best practices.

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Learning things that are complicated is not that fun and takes a lot of time.

On the plus side though, the process for learning complicated domains is refreshingly simple. It just takes work.