On growth

Okay, this might sound stupid but I’m going to go ahead and throw it out there anyway because it involves a subject that I find endlessly perplexing: why is it that corporate entities, whether they’re publicly or privately owned, are always so hell-bent on growing? I suppose what rekindled this mild fascination was the release of Nick Denton’s “unique” memo earlier today where he outlined what he thinks the various Gawker Media properties need to do in order to grow in 2010.

The memo reminded me of a thought I’ve had for a while, which is this: once you’ve achieved a certain level of success, what’s wrong with simply being content with where you are?

By shunning the urge to grow, you can focus your resources/energy toward maintaining what made you popular in the first place with your core customers/audience, rather than channeling those resources/energy into tinkering with the formula that made you successful in the first place just so you can bring in new customers/audience members?

A company I’ve been fascinated with for the longest time, Starbucks, is a perfect example of the potential pratfalls inherent in the relentless pursuit of growth. Once upon a time, and it’s almost too long ago to recall now, Starbucks was a spunky little upstart chain that achieved great success selling a product that most people made at home, coffee. They became popular by simply providing a really good product that was sold by friendly, knowledgeable employees. I used to love Starbucks, as did millions of others. But that all changed rather rapidly.

Fueled by a seemingly insatiable desire to conquer the world, i.e. to grow, Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz started popping up everywhere touting all of the things Starbucks planned to do “to better serve our customers,” which just about any idiot knew was a thinly veiled euphemism for “what we need to do in order to grow.” So Starbucks started opening more stores, both domestically and abroad, at an astounding rate. They also started offering all sorts of crap food. This led to a bit of a problem…in order to staff all of the new stores, Starbucks had to lower their hiring standards a bit and then had to train these new, less-educated and less-motivated employees rapidly. Additionally, the food they were serving would often take time to prepare, which led to longer lines in the stores, not to mention that serving food took the focus off of the product that made them successful in the first place…COFFEE! So then what you wound up having were less than stellar employees serving a less than stellar product to increasingly pissed off customers, all in the name of, you guessed it, GROWTH!

Eventually, many of the core Starbucks customers, people like myself who would make multiple trips to their stores each day, abandoned them, and the company went into the shitter financially. To his credit, Howard Shultz recognized the company’s mistakes and took steps toward righting the ship by closing stores and eliminating some of the food items, but it may have been too late. Personally, I think I’ve had one Starbucks coffee in the past month, a far cry from the days when I was purchasing 2 or 3 per day, and frankly, I doubt that I’ll ever give Starbucks another chance. They just left me with too bad of a taste in my mouth, no pun intended.

I suppose it’s the natural order of things for human beings to aspire to grow, both personally and professionally, but just once, I’d love to hear of a company founder or CEO who has the balls to just put the damn thing in cruise control once they’ve passed their competitors with nothing but open highway on the horizon instead of continuing to push the pedal to the proverbial metal.

"You know what…I’ve got (insert number here) people per day consuming my product. I’ve got a nice house. A nice car. I take great vacations. I’ve got all I’ve ever wanted and more. So I plan on just doing everything I can to maintain doing exactly what we’ve been doing to make us so successful. By trying to attract new customers, we may alienate the customers we worked so hard for so long to build loyalty with."

That’d be kind of refreshing, wouldn’t it?

What is it that they say about not trying to fix something that isn’t broke? Perhaps I’m naive, but I’m sure they do say that for a reason.