4 Steps to Revolutionary Business Growth

Best-selling author Seth Godin presents a guide for business breakthroughs—his can't-miss tactics to secure a robust future for your company.
June 10, 2014

You’ve tried just about everything else. Perhaps these four counterintuitive approaches to growth might be what you’ve been looking for:

1. Go Slowly.

The very best way to get to Cleveland is to drive. Or even to walk. Point yourself in that direction and start.

Most people don’t do that, of course. They decide that they need to get there fast, so they plan on flying. But often, in their rush to get to the airport, they forget something important. And when they get to the airport, they’re so excited, they jump on the first available airplane, regardless of where it’s going. When that doesn’t get them any closer to their destination, they get off, run to the next plane and start over. That’s expensive and  frustrating.

The alternative, no metaphor intended, is to figure out where you actually want to go and just go there. Deliberately. Step by step, incrementally closer to that place you’ve already decided to go. And, yes, it’s true, if you don’t know where you’re going, it doesn’t really matter how fast you go, does it?

One more thing—slowly doesn’t mean dawdling, meandering or stalling. Slowly means inexorably, and without holding back. Forward progress on a clear path.

The year MailChimp was founded, 2001, was a crazy time to be starting a company. It was about a year after the NASDAQ had crashed, and dot-coms had become dot-busts. Ben Chestnut and his co-founders set out to create a company that would take the ideas of permission marketing and make it easy (and even fun) for organizations to market via email.

For the five years previous to their founding, the shortcuts were everywhere. There were funding shortcuts, marketing shortcuts and hiring shortcuts for every company that was part of the bubble. “Get big fast,” was a working mantra, what every CEO heard from every board member.

Ben and his team have avoided that thinking at every turn. They’ve gotten big slowly. They keep customers for a very long time. They gain customers the old-fashioned way, via word-of-mouth. They have refined and obsessed about the service they offer, instead of jumping from one fad to another as fast as they can. They don’t sponsor the Super Bowl—instead, they eagerly support the smallest, most dedicated entrepreneurs and nonprofits they can find.

Drip, drip, drip. Day by day, customer by customer, email by email, they step directly toward the goal they outlined 13 years ago.

2. Act with generosity.

Moving your way up, building your project, influencing the market—these are all difficult projects, tasks that take virtually all of your available resources. The temptation is to close up, become self-focused and (at least for now) ignore those around you. It’s surprising to note, then, that this instinct is actually self-defeating.

Try generosity instead. What if you devoted a third or even half your time and resources to giving others a hand? What if you taught people, with no ulterior motive? What if you shared insights, pooled resources, and stepped up and acted as a leader?

It turns out that the more you give your community, the more clear your own thinking becomes. It turns out that we’re more likely to trust and connect with those who, with no clear incentive, choose to trust and connect with us.

Fred Wilson is one of the most successful venture capitalists in history. He’s been an investor in GeoCities, Yoyodyne, Twitter, Delicious, Etsy and Tumblr. It’s easy to imagine that someone who has racked up as many big wins as Fred would be secretive, inaccessible and just a little bit selfish.

It turns out that one of Fred’s not-so-secret success secrets is that he’s none of those. For nearly a decade Fred has been blogging daily. Every day he shares insights, describes his investment approach and even highlights the work of those he hasn’t invested in. Fred spends hours every day interacting with his readers, leading a community and eagerly sharing what he knows.

Beyond that, he is the co-founder of a public magnet school in New York that teaches high school students how to get ahead by programming. He spends time giving interviews and speaking at conferences as well. Why do this?

One (incomplete) analysis is that he’s a unique character, someone driven merely by a self-defeating need to help his community. While it’s largely correct that this is Fred’s nature, the larger truth is that by becoming part of the ecosystem (and improving it) he improves the quality of his options. His eager transparency and generosity make him the first choice for the most talented entrepreneurs, and his unquestioned integrity means that he can do more, better and faster deals—trust is hard to create if you live in a locked room.

3. Be unlike Apple

(or Tesla, Zappos and Amazon, too). The media has gotten far better at telling the stories of successful companies, and so good at telling those stories that it often appears to readers as though all it takes to have lightning strike is to act a lot like the tree that got struck last week. The thing is, these companies are worth writing about because they are interesting and unique, not because they’ve discovered a magical formula that’s guaranteed to work for you, too.

The next time you find yourself being as brusque as Steve Jobs or laughing like Jeff Bezos, realize that the market is far more likely to embrace you when you act like you.

Maury Rubin is a baker. Well, not just a baker—he’s an entrepreneur. Founder of the City Bakery, a beloved institution near Union Square in New York City, he also runs the Birdbath chain of bakeries and is a cookbook author as well. Every morning, the City Bakery in Osaka, Japan, sells out of the thousands of pretzel croissants it bakes. Every single morning.

People who meet Maury always say the same thing. They can’t quite get over how nice he is. In an industry known for turnover that can be measured in weeks, his staff has been with him for decades. In a city where it’s not unusual for a successful business to open dozens of outlets as quickly as it possibly can, Maury is taking his time, finding locations and partners that can stand the test of time.

When City Bakery installed a quirky salad bar featuring kale salad and roasted farmer’s market cauliflower, it was six years ahead of its time. And that’s precisely why it worked—he wasn’t chasing a trend, he was inventing one. That’s what Maury does. Not what you should do, but what he does, because that’s who he is.

Who are you?

4. Fear and approval:

Look for one, avoid the other. Surprisingly, you should consider looking for fear and avoiding approval, instead of the run-and-hide approach most of us instinctively take.

Fear, the voice of the lizard brain, is the sign that you’re on the right track. We’re not likely to form a line out your door after you build something obvious and easy. You can’t change the world and make your mother-in-law happy at the same time.

An analysis of the book, music or film business will show you that just about all hits are surprise hits. The obvious must-succeed titles rarely hit their expectations, and it always seems as though the next Harry Potter, Cee Lo Green or Memento came out of left field. The reason is simple: Nobody knows anything. Nobody knows precisely what people are going to be talking about next, about how the dice are going to come up.

And now, every project and business is like show business. Websites and snack foods, and even methods of selling insurance, are all subject to the vagaries of mass opinion and what people choose to talk about. Which means that no one knows anything and that the one thing you can count on is that conventional wisdom is wrong.

Conventional wisdom, of course, is the route without fear, the method for gaining approval at every step. Conventional wisdom is the MBA and the safe job. That safe job is clearly not safe like it used to be, though, and it turns out that people following the road less traveled might be on the right path after all.

Sarah Jones won a Tony Award for her one-woman show, a breakthrough that changed the way people saw those around them (and changed her career forever). In Bridge & Tunnel, her multi-character performance of various U.S. immigrants set a new record for box-office sales. To start with, only a famous person is supposed to have a one-woman show. And the other thing is, you probably should have a playwright, but Sarah both wrote and performed the whole play. And of course, it helps if you don’t base your work on the invisible people around us, and you should certainly avoid making the people in the audience uncomfortable.

But Sarah did all of those things. She stared the fear in the eye and did it anyway, without blinking.

It’s easy to look at people like Sarah and Ben and Fred and Maury and call them heroic outliers, but of course, they’re not. They have the same voice in your head that you do. The same naysayers around them. And most of all, the same set of basic human fears. The fear of going too far out on a limb, the fear of being humiliated and seen as a fraud, the fear of letting people down….

We work overtime to insulate ourselves from these outcomes and these fears, and that insulation, perversely, is precisely the cause of our lack of progress. The world of business has never been more open, has never offered more leverage to more people. You don’t need a fancy degree or a well-equipped factory. All you need is the passion and dedication to care enough to dance with your fear instead of hiding from it.

We need you and your ruckus and your reality. The one only you can bring us.

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