From a young age, we learn that growth is good because it’s the opposite of decline. We carefully track the rise of cities and companies and gauge the health of our economies by how much—and how quickly—they grow. Growth is optimism. It’s the promise of spring, versus the frosty advance of winter.
But for entrepreneurs, a “growth at all costs” mindset can be destructive. Founders who fixate on expanding markets or metrics tend to lose sight of their underlying reason to solve a problem for other people. They forget the reason why their business exists in the first place, and as a result, and that’s the key to sustainable success.
The importance of caring for your customer
For the first 10 years after launching my company, JotForm, we only tracked new sign ups and total active users. Even 13 years ago, data analytics were widely available; we just chose not to watch vanity metrics like weekly growth rates and site visits.
Anyone who runs a subscription-based business knows that new sign ups are good. They keep the lights on. Yet, active users are even more critical. Why? After all, a paying customer is a paying customer—my gym profits when they enroll a new member, not when she returns to hit the treadmill. But active users are engaged users. These are the people who will spread the word about your business, support your latest products, and tell you what’s working and what’s not.
Caring about customers is good for business. And focusing on the people you serve is even more essential if you’re bootstrapping. Instead of obsessing about growth or tracking inconsequential numbers, here’s how to move the needle in your company.
Listen closely to your customer
In his now-famous essay entitled “Startup = Growth,” entrepreneur and Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham claimed that a push for expansion defines startups. “The only essential thing is growth,” writes Graham. “Everything else we associate with startups follows from growth . . . The good news is, if you get growth, everything else tends to fall into place. Which means you can use growth like a compass to make almost every decision you face.”
I believe customers should be your compass, not the drive for growth. Eventually, even the most well-funded rocket ship has to engage a group of satisfied users or paying customers. That means asking people what they think. Conduct usability tests. Run surveys. Watch people interact with your products or services, and keep the lines of communication wide open. Be prepared for honest answers, and when you repeatedly hear the same feedback, take it seriously.
Stretch your resources to minimize churn
New businesses rarely have unlimited resources, both human and financial. Instead of optimizing your website fonts, what else could that small-and-scrappy team be doing? Sure, A/B testing an email headline might translate into 0.005% in growth, but that doesn’t mean customers care about the change. Serve their needs instead. Equip them with great tools, make their lives more comfortable, and help them to thrive.
Established companies also need to fight customer churn. If people buy once or sign up for a free trial, never to return, your bucket is leaking. You’ll forever be hunting for new customers just to maintain the status quo. Keeping people happy is ultimately the best way to minimize churn, so focus on making improvements that matter.
Play the game together
At JotForm, we have marketing and growth teams that collaborate to spread the word about our product and engage with customers. In a nutshell, the marketing group strategizes, and the growth team executes, but the labels really don’t matter. Everyone on your team should know where you’re heading—and why. What metrics do you track? What does success look like? What drives your customers? These are the questions that you and your employees should be able to answer in an instant.
Innovate to empower your community
When you put customers and clients on a pedestal, everything changes. As entrepreneur Paul Jarvis writes in his 2019 book, Company of One: Why Staying Small Is the Next Big Thing for Business, “when your customers win, you do too. In truth, your customers don’t care if your business is profitable—but if you help them become profitable too, they’ll never leave you.”
Swap “profitable” for whatever adjective fits your business, and the point remains the same. Instead of fixating on your own expansion, stretch your creativity to help your community grow. Listen and learn from them. Sure, you can A/B test along the way and set motivational targets. However, when you push consistently to make your product more beautiful, more useful, and more relevant, you’ll see that growth will follow.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collection, and more.