On a run yesterday, I started reflecting on the San Francisco Marathon I completed in 2015. After a day at GrowthHackers helping teams focus on sustainable growth, I started drawing parallels.
Training for a marathon isn’t easy.
I remember the days I would wake up at 5am to get to the track before work and run 10 miles of intervals (jog, sprint, repeat). Oh thank goodness that workout is done. I would say as I headed into another work day. But oh wait, tomorrow’s workout is going to be even harder. And next week? Even harder.
Everyone that signs up for a marathon wants to finish it and put a new shiny 26.2 sticker on their car. Just like everyone working on a startup wants to be to the next unicorn. I see it day in and day out. Smart people wanting to grow their users and hockey stick growth, with the finish line filled with unicorns and puppies in mind.
Unfortunately, this perception of reality is far from the truth of what it takes to sustainably grow a company.
Growth isn’t easy.
In reality, not everyone understands the diligence and hard work that goes into both running a marathon and unlocking sustainable growth for a company. I know I didn’t when I signed up for a marathon on a whim.
There are some days I don’t want to run. There are also some days I feel like banging my head against the wall when it seems like nothing is working. It’s in those moments that define you and your success. Do you keep pushing on through the discomfort and frustration? Or do you give up?
For anyone focusing on growing a company, I think there’s a lot to learn from the approach it takes to get to the finish line of a marathon. Let’s dive in.
1. Develop a habit
In order to make time for training and ensure your body is getting the nutrients it needs to sustain distance running, new habits must form.
Getting up in the morning (even when you’re NOT a morning person), to get your run in for the day, will slowly and painfully become routine. You’ll find beauty in the sunrise and the way you feel for the rest of the day. Drinking copious amounts of water to ensure you’re not dehydrated will become second nature. And likely, a canned response of “I’d love to, but I have to run first” will begin rolling off the tongue.
And when it comes to growing a business and the value customers receive from your product, continuously testing new ideas needs to become routine.
Constantly aligning your team on the biggest growth opportunities (or objectives) will become a regular point of conversation. And likely, a canned response of “Great idea… we should test it!” will begin rolling off the tongue.
Using data to test growth assumptions needs to be habitual. The entire team needs to understand and develop this habit. At first it will be hard, just like running can be. But after a few weeks of testing and adding new learnings to your company’s knowledge base, you’ll start to reap the benefits and get hooked on the “endorphins” of finding new wins.
When one idea works, great, take it one step further by operationalizing wins and generating new ideas to test from what you learned. When an idea doesn’t work, learn what you can from what didn’t work and use it as fuel for creating new ideas that can be tested.
Your goal should be to run tests and analyze them. Consider a test that has been added to your company’s knowledge base to be a run that you’ve completed in your “training”. One step closer to the finish line, with plenty more runs to go. As time goes on, you’ll want to increase the testing throughput, just as runners increase their mileage. Which brings me to the next point…
2. Be calculated and intentional
Training for a marathon requires plenty of planning and continuous tradeoffs. To properly train, you‘ll likely encounter a training program like the one I used below.
Hal Higdon’s Intermediate 1 Marathon Training Program
To put it simply, you can’t train for a marathon on a whim. It requires scheduling when you’ll run to ensure the weather isn’t too hot to totally dehydrate you and where you’ll run to ensure you don’t end up lost or in a bad neighborhood. All while ensuring your day job and friendships aren’t compromised in the process.
As a leader of growth, you must plan for resources to be available and evaluate the tradeoffs to ensure you’re prioritizing growth over routine activities.
Growth doesn’t happen magically. You need to understand how your customers receive value from your product, and then constantly prioritize new tests with clear hypotheses as to how the particular ideas will grow the customer value
Just as a runner plans for their runs to get longer, you should also project your team’s throughput to increase as time elapses.
3. More inputs = more outputs
In training for a marathon, if you try to increase the mileage per week without increasing the amount of food you’re adding to your diet, you will not perform to the best of your ability and your training will be unsustainable. I’ve learned this the hard way and don’t recommend it.
And in growth, if you try to grow anything (acquisition, activation, retention, etc.) without adding new ideas to the testing process, your growth will also be unsustainable. One winning test in your team’s knowledge base is not enough to rest on your laurels. Instead, you should be looking for new ideas from the winning (and losing) tests to try implementing next to help ensure growth doesn’t stall.
New ideas are the leading indicators of growth for any organization. If there are a lot of ideas contributing to your growth objectives, you’ll have plenty to test and your learnings will increase. However, if there are no new ideas from your team, your inputs for growth will be non existent and the learning that contributes to growth will be obsolete.
As the co-author of Hacking Growth and product manager at Facebook, Morgan Brown, explains…
“Most people think of companies like Facebook, Uber and Airbnb as once-in-a-generation ideas that are a bit like catching lightning in a bottle. That somehow they were destined to be great.
That’s actually not true, it turns out. All of these companies faced existential moments of crisis that could’ve killed (or could still kill) any of them.
What they all do, which goes under appreciated I think, is that they learn faster than anyone else what it takes to grow, and they use that speed of learning as a massive competitive advantage.
All of the companies, regardless of business model, learn faster than anyone and use that learning to grow faster.”
4. Run your own race
Getting into distance running, you start to realize that each person is likely challenging themselves more than they ever have in their life. Whether it’s training for a new PR or simply to finish a marathon, it becomes clear that the race is against yourself.
It’s easy to look around and compare yourself to others. And even easier to get down if and when your training partner starts to train faster and outpace you. If you don’t focus on training to make yourself and your race better, it will be very easy to get distracted and give up.
In growth, this is also true. You can look at other companies that are taking off and try to be just like them. You can try all of their tactics and when the tactics fail for your company, you’ll be left in the dust wondering what went wrong.
That’s why it’s important to understand your company’s growth is like no one else’s growth. The hard work that your team puts in will determine its success.
You need to be aware of your surroundings, but you can’t focus on them. Instead of obsessing on the competition and how fast they are running, turn that obsession inward to your own company. Ask how to make your own processes more efficient, how to provide value to your customers that no one else can, and don’t be afraid to test new ideas.