You can’t build an institution overnight

Last week when I was interviewing Marilyn Schlossbach for Restaurant Owners Uncorked, she said this: “You have to have patience with your passion. Nothing happens overnight, and if it happens overnight, I’m a little nervous about that. Things should take time to grow and be deep rooted.” I couldn’t agree more, and just as Marilyn is working to build deep-rooted institutions along the Jersey Shore, we’re working to build a deep-rooted institution in the restaurant services industry.

It took Schedulefly six years to hit 3,000 customers, which we did a couple of months ago. That’s an average of 500 net new* customers per year. That’s about 42 net new customers per month. Or about 1.4 per day. That is a very manageable, steady rate of growth. So, while we are definitely growing faster today than we were five years ago, I am thankful that growth has been relatively slow and steady. It’s worked incredibly well for us, and I wouldn’t change a thing. 

However, when I started five years ago I would have predicted that we’d have many more customers by today than we do right now. In fact, I sat down on a flight to L.A in January of 2009, when Wes and I were going to present Schedulefly to a large chain (we thought for a short period we might be able to serve chains), and ran through projections, forecasting increased growth brought on by higher trial conversion rates, successful sales efforts, partnerships, marketing, PR, etc.**, plus the accelerating natural growth from word-of-mouth and increased industry adoption rates. We finished 2008 with 178 customers, and I projected a best-case scenario where we had 1,486 customers by the end of 2009. Guess when we actually hit 1,486? Somewhere around Sep. of 2011. That’s right, nearly two years later!

Admittedly, on that flight I made three projections for the end of 2009, and 1,486 was the most unlikely outcome. I called it the “Possibility” scenario, and balanced it with a “Conservative” scenario and an “Aggressive” scenario. The funny thing is, my “conservative” estimate, which I thought was painfully, painfully conservative, was still wrong. We didn’t hit that number until two months into 2010. We hit my “aggressive” number at the end of 2010.***

Truth be told, I really thought we had a legitimate chance of hitting 1,486, because I had so much confidence that every lever we pulled would move mountains, and that industry adoption of web-based restaurant employee scheduling software and word-of-mouth would keep growing quickly. So you can imagine how many customers I would have projected us to have by now. Probably 10,000. And at that time, on that flight, in January of 2009, I would have said I’d be disappointed if we didn’t get there by August of 2013. I guess I was envisioning Schedulefly becoming a bit of an overnight sensation, falling prey to the idea that great things in fact can happen overnight.

Yet as I sit here typing this I’ll tell you that I couldn’t be more thankful that we didn’t grow faster than we have. Of course it’s not like our growth has been slow. On the contrary, having lived through it, I can’t believe how fast we got here. But had we grown at a more rapid rate, especially if fueled by partnerships, marketing, sales efforts, and so forth, it would be so difficult to keep it up. You see, all those engines for growth require fuel, which equates to time and money. And the faster you rev them, the more time and money you burn through. And here’s the real kicker: no matter how fast you rev them, it’s never fast enough (Did I just unintentionally steal a line from one of the dozen or so “Fast & Furious movies?).

But seriously, when I think of rapid-growth environments, I imagine an anxious, angry person loudly telling his team (which he would probably call his “troops”), “We grew by 1,000 net new customers last year. We have to improve that by 20% this year. We need 1,200 net new customers. We need more partnerships, more marketing, more sales, more PR, more of everything! Offer discounts with deadlines! Post more banner ads! Make more sales calls! Push harder! Work more! Spend more! We simply have to accelerate growth!!!”

Ahhhhhhhhh! Stop! Serenity now! It makes me anxious just typing this stuff, because I’ve been in those environments. I know what it’s like. I know it’s the way many businesses grow, especially big businesses that have managers whose incomes are tied primarily to growth metrics. And it’s not a good environment to be in. It’s unhealthy, stressful, leads to burnout, causes lots of employee turnover,  unfulfilling, risky (burns cash, leads to repetitional risk, etc.), and, even if successful for some duration, is ultimately unsustainable. Had we chosen that path, even if it had worked, I’m positive that by now we’d be so beaten up and worn out and stressed, we’d be ready to be a “module” in somebody else’s “platform,” and not excited about building a great company for years to come.

So while we are definitely excited that our growth continues to occur a little faster every year, we are more thrilled that it’s happening at a manageable pace, and that we’ve had the ability to be patient and calm and let it happen in a natural, organic way. That way we can stick around for a while and take our time, and try to build a truly deep-rooted institution.

Overnight sensations come and go. Institutions endure.


Here’s a post Wes wrote recently about a similar topic, and here’s one I wrote last November. I guess we’ve made our point by now.

* We lose about 1% of our customers per month, so “net new” is the real measure of our growth.
** Early on we (sigh) did all of that stuff. We don’t do any of it now.
*** I learned from that scenario that I was way too aggressive with forecasts. I later learned that most people are way to aggressive with forecasts, so I don’t really trust them. More on this topic in a future post.