What Is Blitzscaling?
Blitzscaling is what we call both the general framework and the specific techniques that allow companies to achieve massive scale at incredible speed. If you’re growing at a rate that is so much faster than your competitors that it makes you feel uncomfortable, then hold on tight, you might be blitzscaling!
Amazon’s incredible growth in the late 1990s (and up through today) is a prime example of blitzscaling. In 1996, a pre-IPO Amazon Books had 151 employees and generated revenues of $5.1 million. By 1999, the now-public Amazon.com had grown to 7,600 employees and generated revenues of $1.64 billion. That’s a 50 times increase in staff and a 322 times increase in revenue in just three years. In 2017, Amazon had 541,900 employees and was forecast to generate revenues of $177 billion (up from $136 billion in 2016).
Dropbox founder Drew Houston described the feeling produced by this kind of growth when he told me, “It’s like harpooning a whale. The good news is, you’ve harpooned a whale. And the bad news is, you’ve harpooned a whale!”
While blitzscaling may seem desirable, it is also fraught with challenges. Blitzscaling is just about as counterintuitive as it comes. The classic approach to business strategy involves gathering information and making decisions when you can be reasonably confident of the results. Take risks, conventional wisdom says, but take calculated ones that you can both measure and afford. Implicitly, this technique prioritizes correctness and efficiency over speed.
Unfortunately, this cautious and measured approach falls apart when new technologies enable a new market or scramble an existing one.
Chris earned his MBA from Harvard Business School in the late 1990s, during the dawn of the Networked Age. Back then, his MBA training focused on traditional techniques, such as using discounted cash flow analysis to make financial decisions with greater certainty. Chris also learned about traditional manufacturing techniques, such as how to maximize the throughput of an assembly line. These methods focused on achieving efficiency and certainty, and the same emphasis was reflected in the broader business world. The world’s most valuable company during that time, General Electric, was beloved by Wall Street analysts for its ability to deliver consistent and predictable earnings growth. But efficiency and certainty, while innately appealing, and very important in the context of a stable, established market, offer little guidance to the disrupters, inventors, and innovators of the world.
When a market is up for grabs, the risk isn’t inefficiency--the risk is playing it too safe. If you win, efficiency isn’t that important; if you lose, efficiency is completely irrelevant. Over the years, many have criticized Amazon for its risky strategy of consuming capital without delivering consistent profits, but Amazon is probably glad that its “inefficiency” helped it win several key markets--online retail, ebooks, and cloud computing, to name just a few.
When you blitzscale, you deliberately make decisions and commit to them even though your confidence level is substantially lower than 100 percent. You accept the risk of making the wrong decision and willingly pay the cost of significant operating inefficiencies in exchange for the ability to move faster. These risks and costs are acceptable because the risk and cost of being too slow is even greater. But blitzscaling is more than just plunging ahead blindly in an effort to “get big fast” to win the market. To mitigate the downside of the risks you take, you should try to focus them--line them up with a small number of hypotheses about how your business will develop so that you can more easily understand and monitor what drives your success or failure. You also have to be prepared to execute with more than 100 percent effort to compensate for the bets that don’t go your way.
For example, anyone who knows Jeff Bezos knows that he didn’t simply mash his foot down on the gas pedal; Amazon has intentionally invested aggressively in the future, and, despite its accounting losses, generates a ton of cash. Amazon’s operating cash flow was over $16 billion in 2016, but it spent $10 billion in investments and $4 billion paying down debt. Its seemingly meager profits are a feature of its aggressive strategy, not a bug.
Blitzscaling requires more than just courage and skill on the part of the entrepreneur. It also requires an environment that is willing to finance intelligent risks with both financial capital and human capital, which are the essential ingredients for blitzscaling. Think of them as fuel and oxygen; you need both to propel the rocket skyward. Meanwhile, the infrastructure of your organization is the actual structure of your rocket, which you’re rebuilding on the fly as you rise. Your job as a leader and an entrepreneur is to make sure that you have sufficient fuel to propel your growth while making the necessary mechanical adjustments to the actual rocket ship to keep it from flying apart as it accelerates.
Fortunately, this is more possible today than it has ever been in the past.
Software Is Eating (and Saving) the World
Historically, stories of breakneck growth involved either computer software, which offers nearly unlimited scalability in terms of distribution, or software-enabled hardware, such as the Fitbit fitness tracker or Tesla electric car, whose software component allows the company to innovate on software timescales (days or weeks) rather than hardware timescales (years). Moreover, the speed and flexibility of software development allow companies to iterate and recover from the inevitable missteps of haste.
What’s especially exciting these days is that software and software-enabled companies are starting to dominate industries outside of traditional high tech. My friend Marc Andreessen has argued that “software is eating the world.” What he means is that even industries that focus on physical products (atoms) are integrating with software (bits). Tesla makes cars (atoms), but a software update (bits) can upgrade the acceleration of those cars and add an autopilot overnight.
The spread of software and computing into every industry, along with the dense networks that connect us all, means that the lessons of blitzscaling are becoming more relevant and easier to implement, even in mature or low-tech industries. To use a computing metaphor, technology is accelerating the world’s “clock speed” (the rate at which Central Processing Units [CPUs] operate), making change occur faster than previously thought possible. Not only is the world moving faster, but the speed at which major new technology platforms are being created is reducing the downtime between the arrivals of each wave of innovation. Before, individual waves would sweep through the economy one at a time--technologies like personal computers, disk drives, and CD-ROMs. Today, multiple major waves seem to be arriving simultaneously--technologies like the cloud, AI, AR/VR, not to mention more esoteric projects like supersonic planes and hyperloops. What’s more, rather than being concentrated narrowly in a personal computer industry that was essentially a niche market, today’s new technologies impact nearly every part of the economy, creating many new opportunities.
This trend holds tremendous promise. Precision medicine will use computing power to revolutionize health care. Smart grids use software to dramatically improve power efficiency and enable the spread of renewable energy sources like solar roofs. And computational biology might allow us to improve life itself. Blitzscaling can help these advances spread and magnify their sorely needed impact.
The Types of Scaling
Blitzscaling isn’t simply a matter of rapid growth. Every company is obsessed with growth. In any industry, you live and die by the numbers--user acquisition, margins, growth rate, and so on. Yet growth alone is not blitzscaling. Rather, blitzscaling is prioritizing speed over efficiency in the face of uncertainty. We can better understand blitzscaling by comparing it to other forms of rapid growth.
Classic start‑up growth prioritizes efficiency in the face of uncertainty. Starting a company is like jumping off a cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down; being resource-efficient lets you “glide” to minimize the rate of descent, giving you the time to learn things about your market, technology, and team before you hit the ground. This kind of controlled, efficient growth reduces uncertainty and is a good strategy to follow while you’re trying to establish certainty around what the authors Eric Ries and Steve Blank call product/market fit: your product satisfies a strong market demand for the solution to a specific problem or need.
Classic scale‑up growth focuses on growing efficiently once the company has achieved certainty about the environment. This approach reflects classic corporate management techniques, such as applying “hurdle rates” so that the return on investment (ROI) of corporate projects consistently exceeds the cost of capital. This kind of optimization is a good strategy to follow when you’re trying to maximize returns in an established, stable market.
Fastscaling means that you’re willing to sacrifice efficiency for the sake of increasing your growth rate. However, because fastscaling takes place in an environment of certainty, the costs are well understood and predictable. Fastscaling is a good strategy for gaining market share or trying to achieve revenue milestones. Indeed, the financial services industry is often happy to finance fastscaling, whether by buying stocks and bonds or lending money. Analysts and bankers feel confident that they can create elaborate financial models that work out to the penny the likely ROI of a fastscaling investment.
Blitzscaling means that you’re willing to sacrifice efficiency for speed, but without waiting to achieve certainty on whether the sacrifice will pay off. If classic start‑up growth is about slowing your rate of descent as you try to assemble your plane, blitzscaling is about assembling that plane faster, then strapping on and igniting a set of jet engines (and possibly their afterburners) while you’re still building the wings. It’s “do or die,” with either success or death occurring in a remarkably short time.
Given these definitions, you might wonder why anyone would ever pursue blitzscaling. After all, it combines the gut-wrenching uncertainty of start‑up growth with the potential for a much bigger, more embarrassing, more consequential failure. Blitzscaling is also hard to implement. Unless you’re like Microsoft or Google and can finance your growth from an exponentially growing revenue stream, you’ll need to convince investors to give you money, and it’s much harder to raise money from investors for a calculated gamble (blitzscaling) than for a sure thing (fastscaling). To make matters worse, you usually need more money to blitzscale than to fastscale, because you have to keep enough capital in reserve to recover from the many mistakes you’re likely to make along the way.
Yet despite all of these potential pitfalls, blitzscaling remains a powerful tool for entrepreneurs and other business leaders. If you’re willing to accept the risks of blitzscaling when others aren’t, you’ll be able to move faster than they will. If the prize to be won is big enough, and the competition to win it is intense enough, blitzscaling becomes a rational, even optimal strategy.
Once you convince the market for capital and the market for talent--which include clients and partners, as well as employees--to invest in your scale‑up, you have the fuel required to start blitzscaling. At that point, your objective switches from going from zero to one to going from one to one billion in an incredibly compressed time frame.
A company might employ different types of scaling at different points in its life cycle. The canonical sequence that companies like Google and Facebook have gone through begins with classic start‑up growth while establishing product/market fit, then shifts into blitzscaling to achieve critical mass and/or market dominance ahead of the competition, then relaxes down to fastscaling as the business matures, and finally downshifts to classic scale‑up growth when the company is an established industry leader. Together, this sequence of scaling generates a classic “S‑curve” of growth, with slower initial growth followed by rapid acceleration, eventually easing its way into a gentle plateau.
Of course, this canonical sequence is greatly simplified. The scaling cycle applies not to whole companies but to individual products and business lines; the aggregate curves of these scaling cycles generate the overall scaling curve for the company.
For example, Facebook began as a classic blitzscaling story. The year-over-year revenue growth during its first few years of existence were 2,150 percent, 433 percent, and 219 percent, going from zero to $153 million in revenue in 2007. Then the company went through a key transition, and growth dropped into the double-digit range as Facebook struggled with both monetization and the shift from desktop to mobile. Fortunately, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made two important moves: he personally led a shift from desktop-first to mobile-first, and he hired Sheryl Sandberg as the company’s COO, who in turn built Facebook into an advertising sales juggernaut. Growth rose back into the triple-digit range, and, by 2010, these moves had pushed Facebook’s revenues to over $2 billion. We’ll examine both of these key moves in greater detail later in the book, with Facebook’s shift to mobile featured in our analysis of Facebook’s business model, and Facebook’s hiring of Sheryl Sandberg in the section on the key transition from contributors to managers to executives.
Apple illustrates how this overlap looks over multiple decades. In its storied history, Apple went through complete scaling cycles for the Apple II, the Macintosh, the iMac, and the iPod (with the cycle for the iPhone still under way). It’s worth noting that Apple failed to launch any blitzscalable products after the Apple II and the Mac until Steve Jobs returned and launched the iMac, iPod, and iPhone. It was part of Steve’s rare genius that time and time again he was able to pick the right product for Apple to blitzscale, even without slowing down for a period of classic start‑up growth to gather feedback from the market.
The scaling curve applies to every blitzscaler, regardless of industry or geography. The same multiple S‑curve graph that describes Facebook or Apple also describes Tencent, which launched with QQ, then added a second curve for WeChat after QQ reached maturity in 2010. Just when you’ve finished blitzscaling one business line, you need to blitzscale the next to maintain your company’s upward trajectory. And as blitzscaling continues to spread, established companies with mature business lines should consider turning to intrapreneurs to blitzscale new business units.