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How to deal with non-explosive growth

Updated: May 3

A guide to spotting the mindsets and biases that get in the way of commercial success.


Tales of business innovation often take place in the extremes.

We celebrate the rise of "overnight unicorns" and dissect epic failures to find lessons and principles of success. Yet, spending time with corporate innovators and start-up founders as taught me that reality is far less sensational. For most, growth manifests through modest bursts of success, fuelled by hope and hard work.

After a while on this tempo, leaders often begin to question their model's sustainability. Progress feels slow, scalability issues remain unsolved and leadership fatigue sets in.

I call this the “non-explosive growth syndrome”.

Dealing with "non-explosive growth" can take a toll.

In conversations with leaders feeling stuck in this growth purgatory, I've identified a few patterns, narratives and biases that commonly show up at that stage.

I wrote the below as a “check-in sheet”, to bring some awareness to the leadership mindsets that can get in the way of explosive growth.

The success confirmation bias

When IKEA first entered the US market in the 1970s, its sales of small glass vases skyrocketed. The Swedish giant quickly realized that the commercial success of the vases had nothing to do with flower arrangements; customers were buying them as drinking glasses because they found the ones sold by IKEA to be too small.

Many cite this story as a lesson in market adaptation, and the importance of tailoring your offer to local preferences.

But the real lesson here is the importance of being able to question your own success: where you see a vase, your customers may see a glass.

In this example, assuming that people in the US had a greater need for vases than in Europe was ludicrous, and IKEA had to dig deeper. However, when teams experience growth or commercial success, their default reaction is to not question it. We attribute our success to our original understanding of the market. That’s often correct.
Other times, it leads us to mistaking our early success for market-fit.

This “success confirmation bias” can become problematic for multiple reasons. First, it leads us to stop learning and refining the value proposition. Second, instead of delving deeper into what caused our initial success, we pour all our efforts into chasing new growth opportunities, thus diluting our real customer value.

To end the IKEA analogy: explosive growth is about giving customers a better glass - not a better vase.

As business leaders, we’re hardwired to solve problems and focus our attention on what doesn’t work. But, when faced with stalling growth, it's essential to not just focus on the issues.

You need to take the time to revisit your earliest hypotheses, question your success and spend time with your “fanbase” to double down on what makes your customers really love you.

The pivot-as-punishment perception bias

For other ventures, the need to pivot the offer to unlock growth is more obvious.
Yet, within founding teams, pivots are more often positioned as a painful punishment for not hitting commercial targets than a strategic business shift towards opportunities worth exploring.

Business leaders become exceedingly protective of their initial customer base, overestimating their engagement and loyalty. The prevailing fear is that any significant change might not only be heavily scrutinized but could potentially alienate those early adopters.

If building a new venture was a game of Monopoly, the “pivot” card would read “Go back to the drawing board, do not scale and risk alienating your hard-earned base of early adopters.”

This “pivot-as-punishment perception” bias is particularly strong among teams that have struggled to achieve early success.

In my experience, reframing the idea of a pivot is the first step to unlocking potential; it should be less about correcting past failures and more about seizing new opportunities.

So how would you transform what might seem like a retreat into a strategic advance?
How can you make the pivot enjoyable for your teams?

The exit fantasy bias

In some instances, a hard look at facts and context will show that explosive growth is just not on the cards within an acceptable timeframe. The harsh reality of needing to “call it quits” sets in.

Here again, founders and leaders find themselves caught between two extremes: envisioning an exit as either a spectacular windfall or a complete failure.
An eye watering pay-day … or bust.

However, much like the average new venture, the average exit doesn’t have to be explosive to be meaningful. The "exit fantasy bias” can lead to overlooking substantial, yet less obvious, opportunities for value realisation.

When Segway launched its famous two-wheeled, self-balancing personal transporters in 2001, they expected to revolutionise urban transportation. Despite the hype, Segway didn’t get much further than overpriced city tours and the occasional mid-life crisis purchase. However, trusting in the value of their proprietary self-balancing technology, Segway focused their efforts on perfecting it, and were acquired by Ninebot, a Chinese robotics and personal mobility device manufacturer, in 2015.

Today, Segway’s pioneering self-balancing technology has been implemented through Ninebot into service robots, used in hospitals, airports, and other large facilities.

So, when the time has come, thinking creatively and expansively about the value you have created since the start of your venture could help you find an exciting ending to the proposition you’ve created.

Be it in the form of customer data to re-sell, processes to transfer, technology to re-purpose or end-of-life partnerships … there can be value in letting go.

Steph Renucci

Steph is the MD & Founder of UNPITCHD: the innovation agency for changemakers.
We give you the tools, the skills and the team to make change happen.
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