The underpinning tenet of chasing exponential growth is that anything less than “all of it” is never enough. If there’s more possible, more out there, then it’s your gawd damn duty to hunt it down and make it yours.
Such a pursuit is undoubtedly exciting in its Napoleonic grandeur. Why stop at making a dent in the universe, if you can bend it whole? Glory awaits only those who stand atop all others.
Or at least so goes the virtue of conquerors. Dominators. WINNERS! It’s what we’re being sold over and over again as The Way. The path to relevance and impact. And who doesn’t want to bathe in those.
But it’s not the only paradigm available for rent. Once you realize that the prevailing narrative of entrepreneurship is a paradigm, and not an immutable natural law, you open your eyes to alternatives. One of which is that of enough.
Big enough. Ambitious enough. Profitable enough.
But how much, exactly, is enough? Well, obviously that depends. What’s easier than trying to pin down a goal a priori is to accept when you’re past it.
That’s where I am right now. At enough. Hell, I’m probably a fair bit north of enough, but like going from darkness to light, it takes a while for your senses to adjust. For ambition to stop running on autopilot. For your stomach to realize its full.
Enough is the opposite of hunger. The counter to paranoia. The antidote to anxiety.
But one thing is to recognize when you reach enough, another is to take its consequences. If things are going well in business, growth happens. And growth can’t help but change and mutate its host. And what luddite creature is against change? It’s the only constant™!
Oh, please. Change can be good, sure, but it so much certainly can also be the opposite. One of the most common changes in a business that grows is the increasing distance between owners and product, owners and customers, owners and employees. The more layers of delegation you stack to cope with growth, the further away you get.
Now some people clearly like that. To be generals in the modern sense of the world, safely placed at a desk far from the front lines. But there’s nothing inherently noble in such a preference.
My personal preference is to only be a general if it can be in the Roman tradition of charging in with the first wave. And I know I’m not alone in that.
The most common reminiscence I hear when talking to entrepreneurs who make it big is about The Early Days. Back when necessity required them to be intimately involved with actually making things with their own hands and head. Not merely as a drop-in supervisor or exclusively as an editor. When they couldn’t just derive strategy and rely on others for the tactics.
Yet in the recount of all these stories, there’s an underlying premise that of course it could not last like that. The inevitable price of success is that you must give up the direct involvement. That ever taller ladders of reporting is unavoidable.
Why? Why is that inevitable? Why is that unavoidable?
One explanation is that if you don’t chase all growth, someone else will, and when they’re finished with what you didn’t pursue, they’ll come back for your slice. Thus the only way to defend yourself is to buff up by gorging the business on whatever it can devour, and then you’ll be safe.
Tell Blackberry or Nokia that. Giants tumble all the time. At the current churn rate, 75% of the S&P 500 will be replaced by 2027. More mass does not protect you from calamity, and often quite the contrary. And even if it doesn’t outright kill the business, it may well render it a shadow of its former self.
The longest lived businesses in the world aren’t the ones that were biggest in their day. Many of them are family firms, or small to mid-sized enterprises content with steady evolvement of their niche. Content with enough.
Bigger isn’t automatically better, and may well simply be more brittle. Bigger risks, bigger dangers, harder falls from grace.
Another explanation is that chasing growth is simply the fiduciary duty of a company, as a means to extract maximum profits out of the enterprise in service of its shareholders.
But here too the objective may well not be best served by getting as big as possible. There’s a long parade of companies that placed growth above all else, got big, then never got to actually extract any profits because the market disappeared or self-inflicted wounds took them down.
Taking profits every year, along the way, insulates owners from ending up as the last, biggest fool to buy a stake before the valuation stops growing.
So this brings us back to answering the question of why is growth inevitable? It won’t guarantee longevity, and it doesn’t promise profits. And aren’t those the two main, economic concerns of a business? To be ongoing and to make money?
When I look at the business Jason, I, and the employees have built in Basecamp, I can easily satisfy those basic, economic demands: We’re still here, we’re still making plenty of money.
Which brings me full circle to why this question fascinates me so much. Having reached a personal fulfillment of enough, having reached a business fulfillment of longevity and profitability, what would I give up to push any of that further? The answer is not much.
In the abstract, it’s easy to rationalize why we should push further still. Basecamp has reached just a small sliver of the addressable market, and there are so many more businesses that could benefit from using it!
So the question is better presented in the form of concrete trade-offs, like, would I double the size of the business, if it required growing from ~50 to ~150 people? No. Would I grow the profits of the company 20%, if it meant having to spend millions of dollars in advertising with companies like Facebook? Again, no.
The freedom of enough is the freedom to say no. No to the expected, no to the conventional, no to the “no brainers”. There’s a deep satisfaction in such “no”s that the lure of future potential just can’t match.
Ultimately, what defines enough is up to you. The paradigm shift is to decide that there is such a point, and that the point is below “all of it”.
Does the idea of having enough and being satisfied with that tickle your fancy? Then you’ll probably enjoy these related essays on the topic, like RECONSIDER and Exponential growth devours and corrupts. Hell, you might even like the product I make, Basecamp.