We’re Stunted by Growth

December 18, 2019

In business, growth isn’t everything. It’s important, sure. More is more. But it’s a single variable. And it’s one our culture obsesses over at its own peril.

Our growth fixation leads to a laundry list of problems, without providing much offsetting value: undercooked and often poor-quality products brought to market, inefficient operations, deep cultural issues, and on and on.

It’s no surprise that, in recent years, we've seen a string of high-profile growth companies crash and burn. Zynga. Crumb. WeWork. And, perhaps soon, Uber. Each experienced a similar arc. A swift ascent, accompanied by a chorus of adulating media, followed in whiplash succession by a sudden collapse and a series of self-satisfied “I told you the business wasn’t sustainable!” proclamations from the same pundits. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Digital agencies were once at the center of this frenzy. The industry was birthed sometime in the early to mid-90s, and the money poured in. (What a young industry we are. For reference, JPMorgan Chase, our beloved client of over a decade, finds its roots in The Manhattan Company in 1799). The fundamentals simply weren’t there at the time. Cue the dot-com bubble.

In fairness, the exuberance growth companies engender, while irrational, is understandable. The upside is obvious: Early money momentum snowballs and results in tremendously lucrative returns for shareholders. These healthy returns will continue into the future, right? Sure, shareholders tell themselves, as they pass the baton at the most crucial leg of the race – achieving sustainable scale and profitability. Despite the many growth companies that have let us down, growth and parabolic expansion still seduce us – and stories like this continue to move hearts, minds, and markets.

But the reality is, growth is just one element of the multi-variate equation that characterizes the health of an organization. The true source of lasting success is a proper understanding of your market that’s built upon balanced fundamentals.

I’ve been reflecting on this topic lately because we’re approaching a milestone. I’m proud to say, we’ve taken a very different path than the aforementioned organizations.

Now, I don’t want to oversell our old-fashioned virtue. The truth is, increased revenue and profitability have always been, and will always be, at the forefront of our thinking. Nor do I intend to position us as a peer to the giants I referenced above. Though we’re considered mid-sized within the digital agency universe, we’re quite small in the grand scheme of things. But there remains a meaningful difference between us and organizations like WeWork: We understand our growth as a byproduct, not an engine, of our success.

The real prime mover for us was and remains the satisfaction of our clients. The performance indicators we focus on are shaped by this recognition. Possess an intimate understanding of each of our clients’ businesses – and what they, and their customers, need to thrive. Deliver uncompromising creativity and quality. Prove our worth through real business results, and own the successes and shortcomings alike.

We’re certainly not an overnight success, nor have we captured the imagination of financial writers with some meteoric rise. What we are is an organization that knows what it is, and whose growth has been upheld by the strength and stability this understanding provides. We aren’t WeWork. That works for me.