Grow, Grow, Grow and Then What?

05/27/2015 01:30 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016


The pervasive thinking for VC-backed start-ups for the past 20+ years is to launch and grow quickly. Then they need to grow and grow and keep growing forever. For present day Unicorns, the growth is in the form of revenue growth (profitability is so 1979) and thus valuation growth (that mythical number grounded in a hope of some future outcome. Yes, it is very scientific!) that reaches $1BN.

The dream company is therefore one that grows fast forever. And yet if we take our cues from the natural world we live in (and we should given we live in it) this is an insane notion. Nothing in the natural world grows forever accept weeds that devour fields and cancer that consumes our bodies and extinguishes life.

The system in which we live is made up of seasons and cycles. There is a time to plant, a time to grow, a time to pause, a time to sow.

No such time is relevant in the business world. It is quite simply grow or die. I'd love to be in a board meeting where the CEO says, "well, we have grown a tremendous amount so we think we might pull back this quarter and take a breath".

There are more dimensions to growth than simply revenue and valuation. Profitability would be nice. But it needs to go further than that. My company, gDiapers had lean years after the Great Recession of 2008 when the world stopped spinning and the terms "green" and "sustainable" died a quick death, never to recover. Middle America had no time for planet saving, they were and are still focused on simply saving, saving.

But we did in fact grow in those years. We grew immensely as people. As a team, the rough times actually delivered more growth, more revelations, more clarity than anything we experienced in the preceding years when we had very high rates of revenue and profit growth. We saw a new world, new opportunities, and a new way to run the company that has seen us set a new course. 2008 was a blessing but like many things that are painful in the moment, it is only after the fact that you get to look back and go "Oh, now I see the purpose of that event".

Paradoxically it was in the high growth years when things were moving way too fast that as people we probably slid backwards in terms of personal growth. Who had time when revenue was surging? On reflection I laugh at how much of our success we attributed to our own genius, not realising that much of it was dumb luck.

Is it possible to consciously run a company with a broader definition of growth and move away from the demands of the "grow forever" paradigm? The human toll of attempting a never-ending growth strategy are obvious and all around us every day. It's akin to trying to run a fast marathon over and over again. No amount of salary, options and benefits can rejuvenate a team of employees that are pursuing such a shortsighted goal. The more evolved approach including things like becoming a B Corporation allows companies a legitimate way to grow in way that is more aligned with the natural world we live in and how we are wired as people. Growth isn't bad. But a focus on just one area of growth and requiring it to do so continuously is unrealistic and frankly inhumane.

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