Stages in the startup growth cycle

Growing up and getting older is something that happens to us all, whether we are consciously aware of the aging process or not. We are born, and then immediately starts a period of physical, mental and emotional growth taking us from a new born through childhood, merging to the teenage years and then adulthood milestones.

Throughout, this journey remains personal and subject to flux, both good and bad things happen, opportunism and fate both intervene and have a hand on points of inflextion. Of course, upon reaching adulthood the aging process continues (it accelerates!) and we reach another watershed, that of old age.

Hopefully we enjoy a lifespan over a good number of years. It’s a deeply personal and unique journey, life stages filled with learning, health, relationship and cultural influences, psychological changes and expectations.

Birth happens as a result of the chance encounter nine months earlier of Jack Sperm and Jill Egg, the throw of random dice. the slow motion bloom of the foetus consciousness. the beginning of life free and independent of umbilicus, placenta and amniotic fluid.

From there we learn to walk and talk, ride a bike and go to school. Having your first kiss, passing your driving test and losing your virginity, casting your first vote…to first job, marriage, first house, kids, life is a series of milestones as time passes.

Startup ventures have similar stages of growth just as the human development lifecycle, although obviously a different set of laws apply, but there are chronological steps of business growth milestones akin to the stages in the human journey.

Being born: problem-solution fit

The starting point is the momentous event of birth that emphatically announces your arrival. Your expulsion from your mothers’ body jump-starts your being as a singleton, singularity stemming from the amorous clash of parental chromosomes, the emergence of a fresh life into a brand new day.

What was the genesis of your startup? Human birth is as romantic as that of any two startup adventurers first meeting – Jagger and Richards on a train platform, Hewlett and Packard at a family party, Jobs and Wozniak at a geeks club trading computer spare parts. Serendipity, chemistry and collision in both.

In response to Malvolio’s caption from Twelfth Night, some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them, the birth of a startup is the start of a unique journey and a chance to make your mark in business.

At the very beginning of the startup lifecycle, you’ve got your idea and you are ready to take the plunge. But first you must assess how viable your startup is likely to be. At this point, ask yourself two questions: What problem am I solving? Does my proposed solution solve it effectively? If you have a clear answer to the first question and a confident ‘Yes’ for the second part, then you’ve got problem-solution fit and a hypothesis, and it’s time to start testing with potential users.

Learning to walk and talk: MVP

Learning to walk and talk are the next stages. At the outset, walking involves conscious intent, like the seismic convulsion twelve months earlier, nothing can halt the urge to stand up and move.

Walking plots our journey in life, homo erects marks a triumph, four to two reprises Darwin’s evolution in a moment in time. When we stand up we join the same category as creatures as quirky as ostriches. George Orwell had the same opinion.

Of course babies’ first steps are theatrical, learning to walk usually takes place in a domestic theatre of relatives urging and applauding, capturing incremental advance on camera for posterity. So it is with a startup, stumbling around, unsure of the initial direction, a sense of clumsy movement often falling over to pick themselves up again.

Making physical contact with another person means crossing the room, the feet enable the touching of hands, socialisation starts, as the first encounter with the first customer with your MVP. New language means a period of babble, a sound of nascent expression so subjective it leaves an infant stranded between private articulation and public incomprehension.

Be careful your first articulation of your startup with potential users is a clear conversation, not babble. This is the riskiest stage of a startup. Much of your time is spent tweaking your MVP based on feedback of your first pilot users. You’re just starting to walk and talk your idea with potential customers and there will be noise.

The purpose of this next step is to test your product hypothesis with the smallest possible investment of time and capital, hence, minimum viable product. You are proving demand and learning about customer behaviour, while minimising risk.  Once you’ve validated your MVP and confirmed customer pain points with traction, focus on building a customer base and get out of the building into the market.

Learning to ride a bike: product-market fit

Learning to ride a bike is often the first learning process we undergo, it’s not like starting to grow armpit hair or adopting social norms, it’s about consciously learning to do something, creating a freedom of movement not experienced before.

Learning to ride a bike, boyhood youth and summertime, it’s a defining activity of childhood. It has a giddy purposelessness to go round in circles, free wheeling without regard to why and where. It is about freedom of movement independently, mastery of technical domination of the machine keeping the handlebars steady and level, not breaking too hard and maintaining pressure on the pedals.

It’s also the mastery of self, getting your legs to do new things in conjunction with your hands and eyes. The bike gives you a chance to coordinate and bring chaos from order. Balancing on two thin discs of metal.

Yet the overriding sense you need when learning to cycle is embracing risk, as sooner or later the person pushing you has let go. Without getting into cycloanalysis, the moment when conviction meets doubt is that leap from dependence to independence, self-determinism, the madness of a decision the split second when reason must in the name of action go into suspense and you start to pedal away on your own.

For a startup, this is the moment of risk for product-market fit, getting out into the market and winning customers to prove your value proposition. As Einstein said, to keep your balance you have to keep moving, no longer stationary, tottering to balance on two unsure legs, now you have to hurtle forward from safety to risk. You’re on your way, my boy, but keep those knee plasters readily to hand.

In a startup, now it’s about managing fear and doubt, to focus on the wide horizon ahead, and you make something of it for yourself. The urge to dig in your heels and pedal hard, to cut an arc into this new panorama, but the freedom means you have to make decisions, with options of straight on, or turning left then right.

With dad left behind you, shouting encouragement proud and panting, you are now off on your own. The peculiar sound of riding a bike, an auditory rush of inner silence, a paradoxical sense of self-esteem, random deviations for you to control your own direction and pootle about. Note to self: I did it.

Your MVP gains traction, you’re learning and iterating, you’ve got paying customers, they buy again and keep using your product on a regular basis. These are the signs of product/market fit, an elusive entrepreneurial goal.

It’s about creating trust with customers, building credibility through exceptional experiences. It’s about building trust with yourself on that bike, pushing off, ready to go, and enjoying exceptional experiences.

Facial hair: scaling

When I turned thirteen, I promptly grew stubble, overnight, the first shadows of facial hair grew rapidly and randomly. The rite of passage that is the first shave at the onset of puberty is monumental. Hormones central. Frisky hair sprouting up all over the frisky body.

While shaving may be new to teenagers, it’s been around a long time. As early as 3000BC soldiers would pluck hairs using two clam shells as tweezers. Alexander the Great encouraged his soldiers to shave so their hair couldn’t be pulled and twisted in combat. The word barbarian comes from the image of a man who was hairy and unshaven, basically unbarbered.

Beards are back and the ‘hipster’ style is alive and kicking, as a walk in Manchester’s Northern Quarter reveals. Here are dudes sporting neatly trimmed Vandykes, as Charles I wore to the scaffold, or the sharp goatee of an old-time religionist, or even the waxed mustachios’ of villains from a Victorian melodrama. There are even a few with what I describe as the ‘Captain Birdseye’, a rampant bushy display, often resembling a mass of seaweed lifted from the beach and stuck on the face.

After the Victorian mania for chest-covering growths and mutton-chop whiskers (also known as Dundreary whiskers, Piccadilly weepers or bugger grips), the early C20th trend was clean-shaven. It was always assumed that beards were camouflage for something: a scar, or a weak chin.

I have never been tempted from clean-shaveness save for occasional bout of laziness, I am too afraid of emulating Edward Lear’s Old Man With a Beard, who finds it has become a home to Two owls and a hen, four larks and a wren. For me, the constant dread would have been stray bits of piecrust lying dormant and wasted.

Businesses in this puberty stage often see rapid changes in their business model, as venturing out into the market, fumbling and discovering, offers lessons building a repeatable, scalable sales model and customer acquisition process. It can still be a hairy experience as your conversion and retention rates bristle, but you’re growing up, it’s time to scale, by investing in people and process.

Your first kiss: high-growth

A first kiss, like Romeo and Juliet, the emotion and meaning, the climax of that tete-a-tete, the sensory neurons in the lips that fire off impulses to the brain. A kiss is a matter of delight, a delicious fluttering feeling of hope, expectation, anxiety, curiosity, relief, abandon – this blog could be a sonnet.

The romantic idyll and wondrousness of Romeo and Juliet playing with each others words, fondling where formality mocks the courting protocols, and before you know it, it’s a snog without ending.

In Shakespeare’s words, a kiss becomes poetry, a pleasing rhyme between two faces that tenderly meet, the poetic, sensual ceremony, a ritual and romantic interlude. For unlike mowing the lawn, there is not a natural conclusion to a kiss. A lust for life, as Iggy sang. Kissing opens a different mode of communication in a relationship. Although we can’t talk while we kiss, kissing eventually speaks volumes.

In the startup growth cycle as you’re growing and scaling, you’re metaphorically kissing a lot of customers. The turning point in the process of growing up is when you discover the core of strength within you that survives all hurt from those that say no – as it is in real life. When you’re seventeen, you aren’t really serious, just enjoy the moment, but that’s when the high-growth kicks in.

Summary

Not all startups will experience these stages of the growth lifecycle, and those that do may not necessarily experience them in chronological order. Some businesses may see astronomical growth and the jump to scale can be as painful as puberty where the hormones run wild, a troublesome teenager where behaviour is unpredictable and at times, unruly.

Everyone’s biological clock has its own time line, likewise your startup. As John Lennon said, life is what happens to you whilst you’re busy making other plans, and in reality, your startup plan will not survive its first encounter with a customer.

Positivity, confidence and persistence are key in life generally, so never give up on yourself in startup mode. Equally to succeed in life, you need three things: a wishbone, a backbone and a funny bone, and that’s no different in a startup either.

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