We all love to talk about the companies experiencing massive user growth in a short period of time, generally referred to as hockey stick growth. Twitter experienced it. Facebook saw it happen. Of course Google did as well. All great companies at one time went from a small unknown startup with no users to a well known company with a massive user base.
A few startups currently experiencing meteoric hockey stick growth are Instagram and Tumblr, incidentally interviewed at a recent Techcrunch Disrupt about managing hockey stick growth.
As fascinating as the hockey stick growth can be, something intriguing happens immediately before the growth period. Not talked about because it’s not as sexy, Something must be happening before the massive uptick in usage or the uptick wouldn’t happen at all.
So what is it?
I call it the blade. As you can see, the hockey stick on the right has a flat section (the blade), an angle (the inflection point), and the rising handle (growth phase). The blade is the most critical point for any startup because if they get over it alive they move on to the crazy hockey stick growth phase.
Although the Techcrunch Disrupt interview is great and both founders offer a number of insights as to what its like to go through the insane hockey stick growth periods, they don’t really talk about the blade. My guess is because it’s not as exciting as hockey stick growth. In fact, it’s tough. So tough it will make or break a startup.
Blades Require Heat
When referring about a hockey stick, deciding on a blade may be one of the most important decisions a hockey player can make. The makeup of a hockey stick blade will determine how durable it is and how much stress it can withstand. A blade — the bottom portion of a hockey stick that may be curved or straight — can help determine the way a player is able to control a hockey puck. Wood blades today are frequently covered with a composite material, such as Kevlar. Kevlar is a strong, fiber substance that is designed to be used in high stress situations.
Being made of composite, hockey stick blades are malleable and can be shaped to a players advantage. All it takes is heat. When a player heats a blade, they can curve it and shape it to their liking.
As if you didn’t know… startups are situations of ridiculously high stress and immense pressure. It’s almost like you sign up saying ”let’s see how hot it can actually get.” As part of a startup, you are trying to create the most with the least amount of money, which leads to tremendous financial heat. You feel heat trying to force the product down people’s throats, working towards product market fit. The pressure is on to prove a specific customer for your product before time runs out. Lots of late nights, pivots, redesigns and tough conversations will create friction and heat amongst the team.
The blade period – the period of time after launch but before massive usage growth – is one of the most challenging times a team can go through. Yet, therein lies the test. The blade test for a startup team involves a number of points: to observe reality that the product is not an overnight hit, listen to feedback, watch available usage metrics, identify what is working and what isn’t, agree on changes to be made, make the changes, reposition the product, polish the messaging and many many others.
The key is to do all this without losing your mind and going crazy.
This situation is extremely difficult for a young team to get through, and that is why most startups don’t make it. Failed startups don’t ever get to the position of hockey stick growth because they could manage the heat on the blade. It’s like a right of passage. Show me a (successful) company that did not get over the blade. The only way to get from launch to hockey stick growth is to get through the heat and over the blade.
Blades Are Short
If done correctly, the blade is just a phase in the life of the company; the shorter, the better. Flat growth actually shouldn’t last very long if the founders are quick to make needed adjustments to the product, positioning, messaging, and user acquisition strategies. When great products hit the market, people take notice and users are attracted.
It may be all relative, but some startups only last a few months on the blade, some last years. Most are somewhere in between. What does it take to get off the blade? As I was researching about hockey stick growth, I found this article about the internet and how it finally hit hockey stick growth. Interesting to note:
The Internet served an important role for a limited number of users, but it had serious barriers to entry. It displayed its messages in monochrome text; no color, no pictures. The Internet had to become pretty and easy. Lessons to be learned include that ease of use, attractive displays, entertainment value, cost-effectiveness, and genuinely new utility are the keys to type-one hockey stick growth.
The goal is to shorten the blade and reach inflection as soon as possible. Notice how the above statement clearly illustrates the internet grew quickly once it became easy to use, was cost effective, entertaining and useful (of course this is referring to the world wide web.) These characteristics are what every startup is searching for in their product.
A lot of the blade comes from not knowing what to change, but a few major points come to mind. Correct positioning in the market will allow for your product to actually be found by the right audience. Finding the correct messaging will help the right people/customers to understand your value proposition and start using your product. As your user base grows, features that help current users share your product will lead to new users. And the correct distribution model will aide all other aspects and amplify growth. As these are fairly general, it is for the fact that each action will be unique to your specific offering.
Not to be overlooked, part of putting yourself in the right position for hyper growth is building the right team. It’s not about hiring, it’s about finding the right talent. The correct people in the right positions at the right time will only help to shorten the blade and get a startup to hyper growth.
Blades are Remembered
Although any founder or early employee will tell you growth is what they are looking for, the times on the blade is are always the ones the remember the most. Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO recalls the early days when they almost didn’t make it…. many times over in his book Delivering Happiness. It’s a great read for any startup founder or early employee, as he re-lives all the challenging (and fun) times Zappos endured. You can almost feel the sharpness and heat of the blade they got over.
Microsoft co-founder and fellow Seattle resident Paul Allen spends the majority of his book recalling the Early days of Microsoft, the struggles and challenges they faced on the blade. I was not aware of all the times he and Bill were scared, feeling little hope for the future of their company. Can you imagine Paul Allen or Bill Gates fretting over $100? But… we all know the rest of the story. I’m just glad they went through it at one time in their life as well!
So the blade is a fact of startup life. The only questions are: how much heat can you take? What will you do to shorten it so you can get on with growing your company? And what crazy stories will you be telling when you do make it over the blade?