All hands on deck.
Hey folks 👋
In military circles there’s a concept known as total war. You’re likely familiar with it.
As a little refresher… it’s the state in which a nation mobilises the entire resources of society towards fighting a war. Every civilian, asset, and relationship is leveraged and optimised cohesively into an efficient combatative machine.
The people within such a society are galvanised by inspirational leaders and become resolutely united in the common objective to win. They live and breath it everyday, fueled by a strong sense of comradery and a deeply energising mission.
Why? The stakes are incredibly high. Total war is an existential struggle— a ‘winner takes all’ paradigm. It’s imperative to win. There is no other choice.
Under this dynamic innovation accelerates and rules get broken. Calculated risks and experiments are carried out that would otherwise not be. Breakthrough technologies and operational systems emerge. Human ingenuity and character are pushed to the limit.
It also gets really, really ugly—death, destruction, and devastating acts of cruelty. Let’s not forget that for a single second.
Why bring this up?
Recently I was up late watching history documentaries when my brain suddenly made a connection between the concept of ‘total war’ and the metamorphosis a startup must go through—once it has found scaleable product-market fit—in order to scale fast and win.
Obviously, the connection wasn’t violent in nature. Or, anything to do with warfare.
What, then? If you abstract away the product of total war (armed conflict) what remains is an organisation supremely preoccupied and geared towards achieving a single *very clear* objective.
Everyone has a role to play that directly contributes towards achieving the single objective. And, there is a sense of understanding *how* individual actions move the needle.
A national objective does not have to be winning a war. It could be something else—like colonising Mars.
In the case of a startup with product-market fit, it’s growth. Growth is the single *very clear* objective.
Like a nation in a state of total war, a startup must mobilise the entire resources of the company for growth. Every employee, asset, relationship, and investable dollar should be leveraged and optimised cohesively into a compounding engine for growth.
Why? Because the stakes are so high.
The consequences of actions and processes taken during the early phases of a startup’s lifecycle magnify over time in line with company growth. To the degree they have an outsized impact on the possible eventual enterprise value of the company. If actions and processes are not optimised towards growth they are are optimised towards something else. This creates a huge delta when compounded over time.
Startups are also usually a winner takes most or all proposition. A race to navigate and lay claim to the bounty of a vast blue ocean, before others. Everyone involved contributes towards the
land ocean grab. It’s all hands on deck. No one can remain ashore.
This absolute focus can be characterised as total growth.
Total growth is different from regular growth in the same way total war is different from regular war.
In a traditional company ‘regular growth’ is the norm—it’ll grow at a steady 3-20% per annum in a 'red ocean’ market where things like 1,000x growth and existentialism are not realistic possibilities or major concerns. Often, there are designated personnel and departments (e.g. marketing and sales) that are tasked with growing the business in near isolation.
The remaining personnel of the company are focused on achieving internal objectives distinct to their given role or department. Such personnel receive revenue and new business closure updates, but their day-to-day work feels detached from growth. They live out their work lives unburned by the growth effort.
This is similar to the way a society in a state of war—but not total war—still largely functions as normal. Only the government, military, and those employed within the military-industrial complex are tasked with winning the war. Most civilians are not involved in the war effort and only receive updates via the media and leaders (politicians).
Conversely, for a startup in a state of total growth, everyone perceives their individual actions materially contributing to growth. Everyone is by default on the ‘growth team’ no matter what their role is. How? I’ll dive into that shortly.
To be clear, total growth also seeks to be maximally efficient. Like a nation engaged in total war, waste is costly and can lead to defeat.
That means decisions are based on projected outcomes that will likely lead to more growth. And, prioritised according to ROI.
Pumping resources into initiatives that handsomely inflate KPIs in the short-term but don’t create more growth is vanity growth, not total growth.
Next, I’ll breakdown the cultural components of total growth. 👇
Declaring total growth is one thing. Enabling and sustaining it another.
Total growth is not a short-lived campaign or ‘Q4 push’ that can be reduced into an easily replicable fifteen-minute recipe. It’s a systemic competitive advantage that has to be wielded into the DNA of company culture in order to function effectively.
The ideology has to emanate from the leadership team clearly and robustly. A strong narrative and sense of actionability are key (more on that below). This spreads throughout the team and beyond, attracting more talented people to join. A total growth culture is infectious precisely because it’s inclusive.
Given there are many moving parts to building a powerful and productive startup culture, this messaging can become diluted, therefore undermining it. How? Growth is so implicit to a startup’s exsistence that it can become underweighted within culture-setting frameworks.
For example… the ‘move fast and break stuff’ ethos. Many startups center their entire culture around it. But, there’s an inherent weakness in doing this. A common interpretation naturally gravitates growth responsibility to personnel who are on the frontline of company initiatives deploying code and testing audiences—making it exclusive.
In reality, ‘move fast and break stuff’ is a function of growth culture that should permeate throughout the entire organisation in a slightly altered state (making it more inclusive). Maybe something like ‘move fast and hustle’.
To detail how, I’ll jump into the foundational principles of total growth next.
A startup’s mission plays a meaningful role in attracting and retaining top talent.
Example mission: banking the world’s unbanked.
But, there’s a problem here when it comes to growth. There is no implicit sense of urgency or energy.
That is why JFK added the specific criteria of “before this decade is out” to his declared mission of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
This constraint is deeply galvanising and sets the tone for what level of resolve an organisation expects and is shooting for. It recalibrates a grand abstract proposition into an exciting tangible result. Everyone immediately understands the ambition and sense of purpose.
Likewise, a total growth narrative has to inspire and drive urgency. It’s a race to win. A moonshot upon which to place a victorious flag. But, in order to do that, the end destination and circumstances have to be defined.
What is a startup team shooting for, specifically? And, how to communicate this?
A moonshot goal.
Similar to JFK, setting a moonshot goal in the *distant but tangible* future is one way to acheive this. I am not talking quarters or intra-year here. Short-term cycles are too heavily impacted by randomness and one-off overweighting influences. There were moments during the 1960s when landing a man on the moon by 1970 seemed far out of reach.
So, I’m talking years, to achieve a moonshot goal that serves as an *ultimate definition* of success. This is more likely to keep well-oiled teams working together for the duration to acheive it. Along the way are short-term objectives that serve as milestones to keep the team on the right trajectory and pace.
In the case of my prior mission statement example, a moonshot goal could be to ‘bank 100 million unbanked people within ten years’. Or in the case of a language education platform, to ‘teach basic mandarin to 100 million people within ten years’. These numbers a cumlative, so they are always going up and are therefore reinforcing of positive momentum.
Notice those examples also tie moonshot goals to solution impact. Personally, I would not tie a moonshot goal to revenue or valuation. It’s psychologically less investing since a team member can always jump ship to join another startup with loftier or better proven revenue targets.
Plus, people just connect more with product and the human experience that goes along with it. Kind of like how McDonald’s retrospectively advertise ‘Over 99 Billion Sold’ for their hamburgers. It drives a strong sense of material world-altering consequence and thus purpose. If they said ‘Over $1 Trillion In Revenue’ it would trigger an entirely different psychological response.
“To become a unicorn” is a goal that inspires no one.
Once this narrative has been established, the next key step is setting up an inclusive framework of actionability.
The team is psyched. Now it’s time to convert the energy into action.
Total growth actionability is a mindset. There are no tools or prescribable resources.
Leadership must instill in everyone that they *individually* have the power to help grow the startup. No matter what job function.
Every role is now a growth role. This can be difficult to communicate due to precedent bias, since sales and marketing teams acheive this so obviously. For example, how does a financial controller help grow the business?
One way to convey this is by example.
Invoice collecting may seem like a banal job disconnected from growth. But, it’s not. A startup in total growth mode can invest $1 and make more, usually quickly. Cash is king. The faster and more reliably cash receivables come in, the faster they can be reinvested, creating a compounding growth loop.
An invoice collector at a company in ‘regular growth’ mode follows a standardised process and achieves standard results.
An invoice collector at a startup in total growth mode is a ‘growth invoice collector’. This person negotiates shorter payment terms, is more creative with chasing payments, and probes for better methods to increase the speed and reliability of receiving payments. They hustle their role because getting cash faster and more reliably materially helps grow the company faster.
The same principal applies to other job functions in different ways. It’s not feasible to explain every possible scenario to everyone’s role individually, so the most optimum solution is to create an environment that celebrates pro-active growth wins.
This serves as fantastic team building apparatus and can be incepted by leadership. How? Each team member is invited to constantly criticize and consider how what they are currently doing or have control over could be done better to *aid growth*. This creates a sense of ownership over growth and a deeper understanding over how everything is ultimately connected to growth.
Reductionist thinking should be applied. Everything is broken down to unpack both the the actual cost and opportunity cost involved. Leadership should join in, too.
Tests are put into action based on identified areas of improvement and wins are reported back to the group. This can be actioned in real-time with an accompanying weekly team update detailing the ‘who, what, and how’ of all wins.
When the environment is tweaked just right, the positive energy generated by this is palpable. People feed off each others ingenuity and become inspired by example. Competetive comraredy emerges. Creativity is pushed.
One of the notable aspects of total growth is it trascends the various growth stages of a startups lifecycle.
What do I mean by that?
Consider Andrew Chen’s growth stage framework:
Each stage represents a critical development phase in the growth of a startup. This entire time period can represent a decade (or more).
Cold Start. Hustling to critical mass.
Tipping Point. Testing a series of scalable growth channels and finding one that works.
Escape Velocity. Testing and doubling down on 2-3 growth strategies that work in concert.
The Ceiling. Navigating growth once the low-hanging fruit is gone.
The Moat. Using network effects to fend off competitors.
Total growth is in effect until at least The Ceiling.
Even though each stage looks and feels wildly different, the basic premise of total growth applies. But, operationally, its implementation has to adapt in order to accommodate the then current growth stage. The specifics of each are outside the scope of today’s newsletter, so I will aim to return to this subject at a later date.
— That’s it for today. Until next time. 👋
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