Every entrepreneur thinks he can relax a bit after his business model is proven, funding is in place, and revenues are scaling as projected up that hockey-stick curve. Unfortunately, the market is changing so fast these days that any upward climb can level off quickly, as the core business growth begins to stall. This S-Curve, with no correction, can quickly lead to disaster.
I’m not talking here about a small pivot. I’m talking about the kind of change that moved Apple from personal computers to music distribution to consumer electronics, and Amazon from books to e-Commerce to cloud computing services. On the other end of the spectrum are companies that fell behind the curve and may never recover, including MySpace for social networking, Yahoo with online ads, and maybe even Groupon with discounts for group purchasing.
To sustain long-term growth, every company needs to build a repeatable process for innovation and finding new opportunities before their core business growth disappears. The reasons for this requirement, and some practical guidelines for how to prepare, are outlined in a classic book “The Curve Ahead: Discovering the Path to Unlimited Growth,” by Dave Power.
Power has been guiding growth companies for 25 years, and now teaches innovation at the Harvard Extension School. He has helped many companies with this problem, and as an advisor to startups, I see the same common themes leading to growth slow-downs. These are appearing earlier and earlier in emerging companies, as well as in mid-sized and mature companies:
Your original market becomes saturated. Initially, all companies sell to customers who are the easiest to reach and most excited about the new product. As a company begins to penetrate its market, it begins to work hard and harder, often in new geographies, to find more prospects. Marketing costs and time go up, and the growth curve flattens.
Competitors see the same opportunity. New players jump in, and existing players broaden their offerings to cover the same territory. They steal a share of your market, slow down customer buying decisions, making it harder to close new business, and put the brakes quickly on your exponential growth.
Prices begin to decline quickly. The first customers are early adopters who are the least price-sensitive. Unfortunately, the mainstream customers who can really drive revenue care more about price. Thus even if unit sales keep increasing, revenues can lag due to the need for lower prices as the mainstream market takes over.
Customer acquisition gets harder and more expensive. Scrappy guerilla marketing based on personal contacts and word-of-mouth campaigns gives way to more expensive customer acquisition using advertising, trade shows, and a marketing agency. You suddenly need to enhance your in-house social media efforts with a public relations firm.
An expanding customer base demands better support. Serving a growing customer base – with a great customer experience – requires more time and dedicated resources. In the early days, your product engineers could handle customer support. Over time, however, a continuous growth company needs a trained and dedicated support team.
Management overhead and skills required go up. In the beginning, your entire team could meet in your office. As the company grows, functional leaders need to build and manage larger teams, recruit and develop talent, and manage remote offices. Managing the scale and complexity requires more formal processes, which slow the momentum.
Your first objective should be to stretch the S-Curve, which can buy you a few months or a few years. Among the most common ways to stretch the curve include deeper penetration of current markets, expanding into new geographies, new market segments, optimizing pricing and packaging, and driving consolidation through acquisition of competitors.
Ultimately you need to find the next S-Curve, and then the next, and build the process into your strategy, for unlimited growth. This means you need to find new sources of revenue growth to offset a slowdown in the core business. It means finding a large underserved market and addressing this market with a product or service innovation, often with a different business model.
Successful entrepreneurs and successful companies never stop re-inventing themselves. The alternative of not anticipating the curves, and not building the navigation systems into your core engine, is likely to be a long and painful fall off a high cliff. Do you have a plan in place yet?