We use the phrase all the time, but sometimes forget that it refers to the amount of plutonium you need before you get an atomic bomb. One minute, it’s just a pile of incredibly toxic stuff. A few grams later, it’s enough to blow up a small city.
I thought about this as I talked with a few friends running neat Internet businesses, including the mighty mighty Meetup. Business might be good (or bad) before you reach critical mass, and then — boom — something happens. Suddenly, large numbers of people are aware of you. Suddenly, millions have made up their minds. Suddenly, people have decided they want and need you.
There are two pitfalls worth mentioning here:
- You might never reach critical mass. There might not be a critical mass. Assemble all the Heinz Ketchup on earth, for example, and you still won’t have a weapon of mass destruction. Betting on the idea to turn a corner when it doesn’t work in the small is for idealists and fools, I’m afraid. The tipping point is a nice idea, but it’s unusual.
- Failing to invest properly to get there. If you’re betting on critical mass, then get there. Don’t focus on the wrong metrics or hesitate. If your plan is to be Google, then be Google. They’ve never run an ad or traded out their ultimate vision. The whole thing could have been a total failure (see #1) but in this case, they nailed it. It works because everyone wants it to work, because it has reached its critical mass.
The stock market might be ignoring Internet math, but you don’t have to.
P.S. It works off the Internet, too. Just ask the poor coffee shop owner who sighs every time he sees someone crossing the street to go to Starbucks instead.