The world needs more modest, linear growth companies. Please make some.

14 years of linear growth at Basecamp.

Exponential growth gets all the glory. Every startup story that lands on the cover of a magazine has a hockey-stick chart to flaunt. Yes, disruption is driven by such violent expansion, and the world needs some disruption some of the time. But for the other 360 days out of the year, what it also needs is some modest, linear growth.

Linear growth is what happens in domains that aren’t animated by network effects (and when no artificial growth hormones are injected!). It’s the simplicity of good products sold at reasonable prices that find happy customers. These customers talk to friends and colleagues in other businesses, and over time that word of mouth spreads the good vibes, which turns the business up.

But the limelight has no patience with such simple, slow methods as word of mouth. It’s not infectious enough. Not exponential enough. That’s a shame.

Because the world is full of problems that needs solving by people who are willing to put in the work for the long haul. I’m not talking about the freakish 120-hour/week, seven-year death marches, but the patient, sustainable work that might last a lifetime. Problems that yield better to people sticking with it.

These problems rarely provide the world with more platforms, but the world has enough platforms. If everyone wants to be the foundation, then there’s nobody left to serve as the beams or cladding or tiles. That’s a recipe for a concrete and corporate wasteland.

It’s also a recipe for monoculture. Network effects have given us spectacular stories of unfathomable growth, but it’s also given us monopolistic conglomerates that poison the market and its variety.

I’m no particular fan of advertisement, but it’s still clear as day that the world is much worse off for having all the value of that trade captured solely by Facebook and Google. Yeah, that’s disruption, and no, it’s not the kind that makes the world better off. It’s creative destruction without creative regeneration. More black hole, less forest-fire cleanse.

Capitalism as a system is prone to all manners of dysfunction, but few are as fatal as that of monopolies backed by exponential growth. Markets as a force for good quickly break down and get perverted when only a few power players remain to call all the shots.

Maybe such concentration is “natural” in a few domains, but that doesn’t mean we should stand idle by and let it corrupt both business and society. In an era past, trust busters knew how to protect the common good by opposing the behemoths of industry with antitrust fights and laws. AT&T had a “natural” monopoly, and it still deserved to be broken up. Such memories are unnecessarily quaint now, and even when brought up, it’s through a myopic literal lens (Facebook + Google aren’t causing “higher prices”, therefore they’re not bad monopolies. Bullshit).

But the discussion of whether the regulators will once more mount up shouldn’t distract us from doing what we can today. Which is to inspire a new generation of entrepreneurs to nobler goals than simply to become caliph instead of the caliph.

Which is pretty much all the business press and other spectators (and speculators) are obsessed with these days. Who’s going to be the next Google? The next Facebook? The next Apple? These are interesting questions, but they’re not the only questions, and by posing them over and over again ad nauseum, we’re restricting the conversation and constricting our imagination.

What if the next NEXT THING wasn’t a supplementation of an existing network-effect megacorp, but a proliferation of a thousand or million smaller businesses that were given the time and place to breathe and thrive?

But for that to happen, it needs not only to be seen as feasible, but desirable. That to eschew the exponential demands of investors is a sign of strength, not a mark of weakness. That to be content with linear growth is streak of independence, not absence of vision.

We are in dire need of such reprogramming of the entrepreneurial boot loader. So many faithful decisions are taking in the early stage of a business that locks its course for perpetuity. Very few ventures get to turn back the clock and have a do-over on their cap table. Epiphanies that come too late might as well not come at all.

You can’t move a tree by blowing at it softly once the roots are down. But you can radically change where a seed will land by doing the same.

I promise I’m not trying to make a lame plea for “children are the future”, although that’s both trite and true. New businesses are started by adults of all ages. Every single one of them have the power to pick how they’ll nurture their growth when it’s started. Choosing to chase the exponential is just that, a choice. Which also means that choosing the linear is a choice too.

Which I guess is really my chief argument here. Or appeal, even. That more people choose the path of linear growth. That they embrace it with vigor and pride. That they make no apologies for wanting a modest and sustainable business that can live in harmony with other shops of the same description.

The path of linear growth has been the trajectory of Basecamp for 14 years today. It’s brought beauty and warmth to millions of people who’ve used our product. It’s brought stability and a home to the fifty-odd people we employ at the company. And it’s brought the deepest of meanings and satisfaction to Jason and I for owning it.

May you make your own fortune as you take a swing at the same.


Does this tickle a fancy? Stroke a nagging? I’m sure you’d like my other writings on the topic, then. Start with RECONSIDER, then Exponential growth devours and corrupts, then maybe Enough. Well, my whole back catalogue is full of these kind of ideas, really. So do dive in.

Enough

This guy never had enough, is that really you?

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.

https://basecamp.com/svn