When I was in my digital marketing infancy (I now consider myself somewhere between digital marketing adolescence and living-in-the-basement adulthood), I had an unhealthy fascination with the numbers.
If you've ever worked in a startup context, you know which ones I'm talking about: the key metrics that flash in and out of your peripheral vision, proudly displayed on a large dashboard or screen somewhere in everybody's vicinity.
Paul Graham once said that a "startup is growth." Whenever anybody asks me what a startup is, I always refer to the essay's main point: a startup is a special, mad kind of organization that builds itself around growing a set of numbers as quickly as possible. It is engineered to make those numbers as large as possible, no matter the cost.
Startups that succeed at this are the ones you hear about every day. Instagram, without its initial rush of a million users in three months, is a fun little photo-editing app that sells for nearly nothing. Facebook, without a healthy compounding of user growth, is a social network that bleeds more users out than it receives. It starts becoming a viral phenomenon that kills the host.
You want to avoid any stall in growth. For most startups, that means keeping a laser-eye focus on the numbers and for most teams that means an individual appraisal of return on investment with every single action they take.
Here's the catch though: growth isn't about the numbers.
It's about knowing when you can, no, should ignore the numbers. No number should tell you to alienate your customers and go against your brand promises. Don't put up annoying popups and ad screens everywhere just because you think it'll increase the "numbers." Don't go into areas where you can't focus just because there is a marginal increase in the numbers. Learn to say no to the numbers.
It's about knowing how to pick the right numbers. If you're focused on user growth and acquisition, that works until you realize none of the thousands of users you're spending money and/or time to get are staying for long--if you scale your staff too early to get more people than you can handle or give value to, you will fail. If you're growing the wrong set of numbers, that can be fatal to your business.
It's about knowing that innovation is discontinuous and exponential. Your competitors will be working on teleportation while you try to squeeze extra mileage out of a car if you focus just on optimizing what you have by narrowing every number. Think that's an exaggeration? Ten years ago, you could have never read this on a cell phone, and I'd be writing to you in the world where "social networks" were just starting to emerge. Think of creation, than measure the effects.
It's about picking your spots with numbers and knowing exactly where they come from. Two users may give you a 7/10 rating and they may mean exactly the opposite. There may be different reasons and experiences that led to that rating--and what a 7 means to one person could be entirely different to another.
It took me years to appreciate that the numbers weren't all there is to growth and I'm still working on getting down to this simple truth: growth isn't about the numbers. It's about knowing when to ignore them, when to build things without them, and when to delve deep into what they actually mean.
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