5 for 5000: widen the goalposts for success
- Publish Date
- Justin Searls
We got some surprising news this summer: Test Double made the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies in America, coming in at #2,109.
More surprising: somehow, this is the 5th year in a row we’ve made the list.
When your company is featured on the Inc. 5000, exactly two things happen. First, your inbox swells with B2B solicitations for office supplies, WordPress design services, and season tickets to sports teams on the other side of the country. Second, acquaintances ask for your advice on how to grow a company.
I never know how to give advice about growing a company. Getting bigger has never been the point of what we do at Test Double. (Our CEO Todd has already written about how we think about growth better than I could, anyway.) The upshot is that sustainable long-term growth is a consequence of running a business well, and its primary benefit is to enable a company to make a bigger impact and achieve more ambitious things.
I’ll be the first to admit: I am deeply skeptical of lists like these. They measure gross revenue, which can be gamed in unsustainable and deceptive ways. I’m also wired to prefer things be done right as opposed to big. So I was as surprised as anyone that learning this was our fifth consecutive year on the list actually, somehow, meant a lot to me. A company can fake its way to a big growth percentage for a year or two, but to keep growing at a steady clip year-after-year must mean they’re doing something right.
Then, contemplation happened. What have we been doing right?
So, here we go. Five pieces of advice that (apparently) can lead to steady, healthy growth for your team or company, even when you’re not particularly focused on growing:
- Widen the Goalposts for Success (this post)
- The Customer is Usually Right
- Profits are Good, Actually
- Do Right by Everyone
- Find your Leading Indicators
Make success easy for yourself
For most of us, in most stages of life, somebody else dictates what is required of us to be considered successful. But when you’re starting your own thing, you get to define what success means for you and your new endeavor. Too cheesy? You’re free to skip this step if you want, but be warned: when times get tough, you’ll be asking “is all this worth it?” often enough that it’ll be handy to have some way of answering that question.
As career-long consultants, we’re always eager to under-promise and over-deliver, even when managing our own expectations. Look at it this way: if founders have the power to define what success means and yet the vast majority of businesses manage to fail anyway, why not lower the bar for yourself and increase your odds of success?
In terms of money and market share, we didn’t set lofty goals. If Test Double could just find enough work to keep us two founders busy without going bankrupt, we’d have been happy. Come to think of it, even though we spent years taking home less money than we had at our previous jobs, I don’t remember either of us ever complaining. At the risk of sounding cliché, we were never in it for the money. In fact, our rock-bottom financial expectations did more than make success easier, it made failure less scary. I’ll never forget my wife encouraging us to take the leap: “worst case, you fail, and find a job that pays better than this one.”
But success is about more than just money, it’s about impact. This is a Business™ blog post, so I’ll take this opportunity to meet my quota of apocryphal Steve Jobs quotes with, “we’re here to put a dent in the universe. Otherwise why else even be here?” Financial goals can answer what you want out of an investment, but settling on your desired impact expresses why you’re in business in the first place. It’s ultimately about purpose.
One thing nobody tells you about starting a business is that others will ask you the reason for your company’s existence. However you answer becomes part of your origin story. At the time, these two paths made sense in my mind. Whichever explanation we chose to repeat to ourselves and others would ultimately shape our trajectory in profound ways:
So which of these two missions would have better set Test Double up for success?
So that’s why it was never really up for debate that the point of the company would be to improve how the world makes software. Is that mission incredibly vague and impossibly audacious? Yes, but those are good things! Being vague means the business can adapt to changing industry conditions and success can be measured incrementally at any scale, even by asking ourselves, “did we leave things better today than we found them?” And the purpose’s audacity serves as our north star, because “improving the world” is an asymptotic goal; the work will never be truly finished.
In hindsight, this experience taught me that the best definitions of success for a company intending to grow organically over the long-term are both incrementally achievable and extraordinarily ambitious. Our purpose is why I could log off for the evening and be just as proud of the day’s work when we were 2 founders as I do today with 60 colleagues, and as I would be in some far-flung future where we were 2000 people.
Otherwise, why else even be here?
[Continue to part 2: The Customer is Usually Right]