The paradox of success

May 2, 2014

For the longest time, I imagined success as a compounding asset: as you became more successful, each future positive achievement became easier. I looked at large companies and famous founders and wondered how they could possibly fail.

A single experience has reversed my opinion on the subject: the perpetual struggle to see high month over month growth as a startup [1].

When companies are small, it’s easy to grow fast. We add 100, or 1,000, or 10,000 users and our graphs go up and to the right. It’s beautiful and exhilarating, but things get hard quickly. Every user we add this month makes the one we add next month less valuable. Every success we have this month makes achieving a success next month that much harder. Our past successes start to inhibit future ones [2].

As we meet goals and milestones, expectations are raised. Yes, for the investors who have a material stake in a company, but also for the friends, family, and peers who follow our progress.

The emotional and financial pressure to keep succeeding becomes overwhelming. The thought of publicly discussing the failures we have, or not succeeding in a bigger way next month, becomes terrifying.

It’s easy to become paralyzed in a constant uphill battle by the paradox of success.

Jesse Pollak may not always exceed expectations. Follow him on Twitter here.

[1] If you’re not familiar with this concept, it’s the go-to growth metric for measuring the success of a startup. Essentially, every month you want to convince more people to start using your product than you did the month before.

[2] The obvious counter-point here is that the ‘virality’ of your product achieving ‘product-market fit,’ means that much of this growth comes naturally. This may be true for some startups, but from my conversations with hundreds of other founders, especially those of SaaS products, there’s some of this, but most early growth is earned with a shit-ton of hard work and sales (and it does get harder to grow faster every month).

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