When you talk about explosive, profitable startup growth, a few darlings come to mind. DropBox is one.
Hubspot is another. I mean, just look at their growth (published on SEOMoz):
Was it always so powerful a growth engine? Was it always so clear that this was a company with a bright future?
Looking back on stats they published in 2010, the curve is identical, just a different scale on the y-axis:
Or in 2009, when they published this to boast about how their revenue juggernaut is recession-proof:
Even going back in time, they seem unstoppable, their future inevitable.
But it was not always so. I’d like to zoom in on this point in the graph:
What was going on during those first six months? Was the future bright and shiny even when there was no impressive customer curve? When half the customers were just personal favors called in and new signups didn’t happen daily?
Or was it barely-controlled chaos, not able to sleep at 2:43am for worry about how to make payroll in seven months or whether the numbers would look good enough by next spring to raise another round? Unsure which products to double-down on and which to kill, and worried the wrong choice would tank the entire company? Staying bright and cheery on the outside for the press, customers, and even employees but with Damocles’ Sword hanging overhead?
Of course it was. It always is.
FreshBooks is another example. Here they are in 2007, justifiably proud of getting 138,000 sign-ups in 3 short years:
Founder Mike McDerment showed us the update at Business of Software 2011 — it’s identical in shape, except they just passed 3,500,000 users.
As an aside, they mention that “we didn’t have our first paying customers until month 2.” How do you think they felt before then? Or even in the six months after?
Of course the story is the same when the company “runs off a cliff without leaving skidmarks,” never having extracted a single dime from a single person. The same struggle, same uncertainty, same near-impossibility.
So how do you tell the difference between the chaos that leads to unthinkable success and that which leads nowhere at all?
I’m not sure you can.
Objectively, what’s the difference between Basecamp v1.0 and any number of knock-offs? All of them simple, all of them usable by relatively non-technical people, all of them web-based.
Objectively, what’s the difference between StackOverflow and the twenty copycat frameworks and thousands of copycat websites and forums? Why was Quora still able to stand out? Could you measure this difference? Could you put it on a chart?
You could say StackOverflow was fueled by giants of the technical online world, but that doesn’t explain Quora.
One thing you know for sure — what doesn’t explain it is a standard “feature comparison chart.” If it’s a feature at all, it might be something subtle, like the exact game mechanics of StackOverflow or the boogers on my diff viewer.
But even that doesn’t explain it. Take Peldi, founder of Balsamiq Mockups. He blogged too, but unlike StackOverflow he didn’t have a head-start with an online presence, and English is his second language. He lives in Italy, not surrounded by an American startup culture to feed off. Prior to entrepreneurship he was a lifer at Adobe, so that didn’t especially prepare him for running a company from scratch.
Guess what his growth chart looks like? It’s like Hubspot and Freshbooks, but what’s more interesting is what it looked like during year #1:
How do you think Peldi felt during those first six months? Do you think the anguish subsided quickly? Or ever? Do you think Peldi was still sure his ideas and execution were good in June?
It’s not just startups. Here’s a letter George Orwell sent in 1948:
… The book is fearfully long, I should think well over 100,000 words, possibly 125,000. I can’t send it away because it is an unbelievably bad MS and no one could make head or tail of it without explanation. …
… I am not pleased with the book but I am not absolutely dissatisfied. I first thought of it in 1943. I think it is a good idea but the execution would have been better if I had not written it under the influence of TB. I haven’t definitely fixed on the title but I am hesitating between NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR and THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE. …
His book Nineteen Eighty Four is one of the most popular, most-quoted, most influential English-language books of the the last hundred years.
Of course your struggles might indeed be in vain; only time will tell. But this I do know:
The fact that you’re in over your head, that you almost cannot will yourself to continue, that you’re completely in the dark, that you’re working yourself to an early grave, that you seem to slide two steps back for every one forward, that nothing’s ever good enough, that that your friends and family can’t understand why you’re turning yourself inside out with no apparent progress, that you yourself doubt whether you’re even capable of this…
These things don’t mean you’re failing. It’s always like this, until it isn’t.