The Evolution of Growth & Why Growth Always Wins

“A good product with great distribution will almost always beat a great product with poor distribution.”  ~ Reid Hoffman

I think about this quote a lot. 

It seems like common sense, but as an industry, we’ve grown to believe that a “great product” always wins. Trust me, if Salesforce’s growth was based on its product and usability excellence, you wouldn’t know who Salesforce is. And don’t forget, for the longest time, you couldn’t even zoom in on an Instagram picture or use it on Android. And don’t get me started on WhatsApp. 

I’ll take a good product with great distribution any day of the week.

The one company that has actually mastered both is Disney with Pixar. Pixar makes exceptional products (films), and Disney has distribution through their digital and physical channels (theme parks, etc.) 

This “great product is all that matters” theme started with Steve Jobs and his insane ability and passion for building great products. Apple’s growth strategy in the Steve Jobs era was to build great products.

Now, I’m not saying Steve Jobs was wrong. He was 100% right. But, I will say that things have evolved in terms of business model innovation and growth. Just building a great product isn’t enough to sustain a business in this digital age.

Competition is at an all-time high. The growth channels we have are the same channels that everyone has access to, and how we differentiate ourselves from competitors becomes tougher and tougher every day.

Here’s how it’s evolved.

Growth wins

The four phases of digital product growth starting from 2009 to today (2020)

 

Phase 1: Build it and they will come (Introduction of iPhone + SDK)

When I started Vokal in 2009, we started as purely a mobile development company. You have an idea, we can turn it into an app. We didn’t say anything more than that, and the demand for our services was extremely high. 

Build a great product, get featured on the app store, and you’re good to go. The barrier for this phase was simply the technology that powered the apps. I started Vokal to solve this problem. And of the apps that were built, many of them experienced initial growth simply because they were the first to market and had an app. 

None of our clients ever asked how the app would grow or for additional growth marketing help. They had a problem, and we solved it. This worked for everyone.

Phase 2: Make it beautiful and easy to use (Steve Jobs Era) 

Steve Jobs became an icon for many and introduced design principles that were foreign to most software creators. The UX and “experience” of the app or software must be beautiful and easy to use.

This phase is when app usage grew rapidly, and more people were downloading new apps. If you made something visually stunning, people flocked to download it. But for app and software creators, growth was a small consideration—more of an afterthought. 

Phase 3: Solve a unique problem (Product/Market Fit) 

During this phase, we started asking the following questions before building a product:

  • Why are you building this? 

  • What is the demand for this product? 

  • Who exactly do you solve this problem for? 

  • How do you plan on solving that problem? 

  • Is there a product/market fit?

We got smarter with how we built products. Building it and making it nice was a step in the right direction, but again, not enough for consistent growth. 

Phase 4 (Current Phase): Build a growth strategy into everything you create (Uber, Airbnb, Instagram)

This is the current phase, and I don’t see it changing for a while. It started with the “growth hacking” days of Uber and Airbnb and is now a much more disciplined phase that we need to adapt to. 

We focus on a singular question: “How does this business grow?”

Note, I didn’t say, “How does the product grow?” The business needs to grow, and the digital assets—whether they are apps, websites, ads, or viral videos—the business growth is what matters.

We ask these four questions to evaluate growth opportunities, which is inspired by Reid Hoffman and his book Blitzscaling. 

  1. What’s the market size of the problem/industry? (The bigger, the better.)

  2. What are the distribution paths to growth? (How do we get our initial set of users?)

  3. Does the solution have high-gross margins? (Or will you end up in an Uber/WeWork, lose money and be unprofitable at any cost situation?)

  4. What are the network effects? (Will a single, engaged user invite five engaged users to the platform? How will we sustain continued growth?

GROWTH CURES ALL

“Sales cures all.” ~Mark Cuban

Growth cures all is a play off of Mark Cubans’ famous quote, “Sales cures all.” If you're growing, life is good.

Here’s what we’ve uncovered about growth and what growth isn’t.  

  • Growth isn’t a single tactic. It’s a collection of experiments to uncover what growth tactic works the best. What works for company X will rarely work for company Y, even if they are competitors in the same industry.

  • Growth isn’t a collection of unconnected tactics. Growth is compounding. Each tactic builds on top of each other.

  • Growth isn’t just a marketing question. It’s a cultural growth mindset from senior management to engineering, product, and marketing. Growing is winning. Anything that doesn’t have a direct or indirect impact on growth should be eliminated.

  • Growth isn’t about best practices or playbooks. It’s about next practices and adapting to your current environment.

  • Growth isn’t an afterthought. It’s built-in to the product before a single piece of code is written. Analytics strategies and implementations are set up on day one.

  • Growth isn’t about who has the most money. If it was, Quibi would have been the talk of the town. Instead, it became the talk of the town because of its lack of growth, considering it had a $2B initial investment. Product/market fit should always come before massive investments.

  • Growth isn’t about automation and scale. “Will it scale?” is an exciting question to ask, but in terms of growth, scale is the last thing on our minds. We’re asking how we can achieve predictable growth.

  • Growth isn’t about luck. It’s about a disciplined approach to filter out what’s working and what’s not.

Growth, in the end, is about winning. How you get there is through a discipline of consistent experimentation, learning, and evolving quickly.

In the end, here’s what you need to know about growth in 2020 and beyond:

  1. Building a digital product is a step in the right direction, but won’t guarantee traction or growth.
  2. Making it beautiful and an easy-to-use product is helpful, but still, not enough for growth
  3. Growth strategy wins. Get product/market fit, find a distribution path for traction, and experiment with new product ideas and business innovation models until you find the set of compounding tactics that make your business grow.