Everything Starts Small

It’s a situation founders know well: the agonizing wait to see if the product/service they’ve launched will take off. The reality is, it takes months and even years to find product-market-fit. And once that happens, the struggle doesn’t really end because there’s always another, more complex problem to solve. It can begin with product-market-fit then morph into customer/user acquisition and engagement and then shift to monetization. For entrepreneurs, building a business can feel like a never-ending cycle of wait-and-see. 

When we launched Wattpad 13 years ago, my co-founder Ivan and I immediately started monetizing with ads. And when I say we “immediately monetized” the site, I really mean we earned $2 in monthly ad revenue a full year later. A minuscule amount. 

When we first launched our Android app, we saw about 10 downloads in the first month. Even in 2011 when Android really started to take off our download numbers were still puny. 

Today, we see more than 60,000 Android users sign up every day and half of our daily usage comes from Android users. Our monthly advertising revenue is in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. We’re no longer talking about trivial amounts. It’s been a long road that had to start somewhere. 

‘Everything starts small’ is a valuable mantra for any entrepreneur. Look at Spotify: When it first launched in the US in 2010 it had 100,000 paid subscribers. Today, Spotify’s number of paid subscribers is about to cross the 100 million mark.

Not too long ago, we launched Paid Stories and we also introduced a subscription model called Premium at Wattpad. The numbers are still small. But they won’t stay that way forever (especially since we’ve rolled out these programs globally). As long as we keep improving, keep optimizing and keep promoting — basically, if we continue to hustle and grind as all great entrepreneurs do — the numbers will go up.

But we can’t expect a silver bullet. No single feature or no single promo or no single country launch will 10x these numbers overnight. While it’s not impossible to find a 10x growth hack, the reality is that it’s probably better to find 100 little things to grow 10%.  

My fellow entrepreneurs, please remember: Tomorrow will be better than today. The day after tomorrow will be better than tomorrow. Everything starts small.

Embrace tension to move even faster

As a startup scales, it’s natural for tension to creep up among different teams who are working on disparate objectives. Either of these conversations sound familiar?

Showing users more ads can help generate more revenue, but it could also hurt engagement. Do we optimize for revenue or engagement?

We have a limited budget. If we spend it on A, B, and C we won’t be able to pay for X, Y, Z. What should we choose?

The best way entrepreneurs can embrace and then ease tension among their teams is to establish a set of principles. Principles can help teams avoid indecision and move fast.

In the example above about serving ads at the expense of user engagement for instance, if the team has previously established that ad experiments can’t impact engagement by more than X%, it becomes easier for them to test different combinations of ads to drive the most revenue without negatively impacting engagement.

Establishing principles streamlines decision making, eliminates unnecessary meetings and propels the company forward. Everyone knows what to do and understands how much (or how little) leeway the team has.

Of course, there will be times when you may not have a principle to fall back on. That’s when the teams representing the conflicting priorities need to escalate the matter further and involve an arbitrator. Most times decisions are reversible and having an arbitrator can resolve issues quickly. In the world of startups, a quick decision always trumps a slow decision (or worse, no decision at all).  

Tension is natural and a sign your company is growing. But as your business grows and becomes more complex, decisions aren’t as straightforward as they used to. Creating a set of ground rules that inform your team’s priorities and outcomes can help avoid unnecessary confusion and conflict.