Entrepreneurs and investors are on a perpetual quest to have hockey stick growth for their startups. Hockey stick growth happens (hopefully!) after you get product-market fit and start ramping. If growth accelerates, the revenue curve maps to the curve of a hockey stick — smoothly up and to the right. But, in reality, startup growth is never smooth and fraught with bumps and cuts along the way that are often masked by the larger curve.

bronto rev growthBronto grew its revenue from zero to fifty million dollars, over fifteen years. See from the graph — the curve is up and to the right. It would seem like smooth sailing but, in reality, it was with continual stream of discouraging setbacks.

I think of these setbacks as paper cuts throughout the growth of a startup as growth by a thousand paper cuts. Constantly losing customers and employee, even if we were growing overall, was demoralizing. Two steps forward. One step back.

Here are some Bronto examples:

  • We always lost our largest customer. Inevitably, we stretched too far to acquire them and ultimately couldn’t deliver. Although not fun to lose them, this stretching prepared us to handle more customers like them in the future.
  • Every year, we lost 15% of our customers. Customers are hard fought with a lot of hustle. Even if our net revenue for the year exceed 100% (growing the revenue from a subset of the customers), it was still demoralizing to see the others go. Emotion and spirit isn’t mathematical.
  • We lost employees. At the time of acquisition, we had about 250 employees but we had hired 1234 over the years. That means, we had lost almost 1000 employees through the years — employees who we worked hard to hard to recruit and celebrated when they are started. We had a great culture but life changes on the personal and professional front take people different places.

Winston Churchill wrote “success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” That was the story Bronto. If you dig into any successful entrepreneurial story, you’ll see the same thing: a broad upward curve, strung together by many failures.

To quote a more famous thinker, Rocky Balboa said in Rocky 5 — “It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”

Startups are hard, even when you are successful. Its growth by a thousand little paper cuts. But, the joy of the small successes along the way make it worth it, especially if you end up building something truly great.