Most companies start when someone has an idea, and they start making something: a product, a consultancy, a SaaS app, or whatever.
In the early days, the founder is really involved in making the product. If you are a technical founder, you write a lot of code, build your website, setup email marketing and other tools, etc.
As your company grows, your role changes, and you have to take off your “maker” hat to work on building your company. This is a difficult transition as a technical founder, because the only thing you know is making products.
For example, AppPresser has 8 extensions, and I just built a new one. Now we have 9 extensions. That’s easy to quantify, and it’s easy to feel good about. It makes me feel like I’m building my company, and in a way I am, but it’s not scalable.
The difference between building a business and making a living is scaling. If you have are making a good living, but your growth is flat, then you aren’t building your business.
That’s the difference between Google and a barbershop. A barbershop doesn’t scale. – Paul Graham
If a founder never moves beyond the Maker role, then all he can hope to do is sustain his business, or grow slowly through organic channels. What the founder really needs to do is stop making the product, and start making scalable systems for growth.
Seth Godin talks about this in his wonderful Startup School Podcast (I highly recommend listening to this). Building a system that can scale means you can remove yourself from the equation and your company keeps growing. It also means that you can iterate on your system and grow your company faster and faster.
The concept of growth is great, but it’s abstract. How can we apply this to our businesses in a practical way?
Setting Up Growth Systems
How do you find a growth system?
Seth Godin talks about “breaking your business,” which means that you put your resources into new things that might not work. For example, you put a bunch of money into advertising, which might not work, but if it does it becomes a scalable system for growth.
Getting More Sales
Making your company money should be your #1 goal.
Ways to do that include making your product better, advertising, content marketing, partnerships, and anything else you can think of.
Advertising is an easy one, if you can figure out a way to spend $1 and bring in more than $1, you just refine the process and throw more money at it.
I haven’t had much luck with ads, but some people do crazy retargeting that gets really involved. The thing with ads is that if you don’t put a ton of time into it, you’ll probably fail. You need to spend a good amount of money and time figuring out what will work, and it will require you to dedicate most of a team member’s time for a while.
You can’t just run a Google AdWords campaign, you need targeted keywords, negative keywords, custom landing pages, retargeting, conversion optimization, etc. It will never work the first time you run your ads, it’s a constant process of iterating and figuring out how to squeeze profit from it.
Content marketing is a much more worthy investment of your time early on, because it brings in organic traffic forever.
However, scaling content marketing can be difficult because writing good content is hard. It’s one thing to write good content as a founder, but it’s really time consuming, and hard to stick to regularly.
The obvious way to scale is to hire guest writers, and create a process for them. Some businesses have a lot of success with this, I’ve heard Neil Patel mention that the Kissmetrics blog was initially built entirely on guest writers.
This is not as easy as it sounds, depending on what you want on your blog. If you are selling to advanced web developers, it’s almost impossible to find a guest writer that has the technical chops to write good articles. That means that much of the early content lies on the founder.
Many founders never stop writing content, such as Alex from Groove, Rand Fishkin from Moz, Neil Patel, and others. Content marketing is won in the margins, so many times the way you win is by doing things that don’t scale. That includes having a founder make content regularly.
Scaling product development means that as a technical founder, you have to take a step back from writing code.
This is really hard to do, especially when you enjoy it. The truth is that you have to make the transition from Maker to Manager, as Josh Pigford puts it. You need to think about high level goals, and plan them out so that your team can execute them.
Of course if you don’t have a team, you have to hire one. This is a whole other issue, where you have to take money that would have gone into your pocket, and put it into someone else’s pocket. It goes back to the issue of building a business or making a living. Do you want to invest in the future of your company, or invest in your savings account?
Sometimes the only way to find these growth opportunities is to try something that might not work, that temporarily diverts your business resources. It’s hard to commit to this, since you only want to go up and to the right all the time. The problem is that’s not reality.
If you waste your time on 4 tactics, but the 5th pays off, it’s totally worth it.
What are you doing to break your business, and create scalable systems? Let me know in the comments.