Linear Work In Nonlinear Environments


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Josh Summers


Josh Summers is the entrepreneur in residence at DN Capital. Previously he founded Shufflehub.

We are constantly bombarded by nonlinear success stories: The Facebook-MillionsOfDownloads-Airbnb-10,000Followers-ExponentialGrowth-AcquiredFor$200M-Snapchat-Uber-Zilla is stomping through our tech magazines/Twitter feeds/life every day.

Our poor brains. We can’t help it, but this becomes the baseline for success. This is what our brain holds ourselves accountable to.

And in some ways, this is correct — this is what top-tier success looks like today, and it is true across the board. Whether you’re a writer, a filmmaker, a games developer or an entrepreneur — nonlinear results are out there and people who aren’t you are getting them!

Work Is All You Have

You can sit around eating pizza hoping that nonlinear success will ride into your bedroom, grab you by the waist, hoist you onto the rather pointy-nosed horse and ride off into the sunset — but you know that probably won’t happen. So you work.

But work is always linear — you cannot give more hours than there are in a day, you cannot exponentially speed up your learning, your content creation or your software development. But as we see every day, exponential success is possible (and don’t feel guilty if you want it, you’re probably just scared that you haven’t got it yet).

When we do our linear work and produce content (or code, or anything else that scales nicely) that we believe to be good and nonlinear growth does not come, we can feel disheartened and stop doing work. But we should not. We need to remind ourselves that any work that we, or others, do is linear, but that today we are working in nonlinear mediums.

Back In Time

If we travelled back 500 years and talked to the founder of a wooden-chair making business and asked him how he imagined the progression of his company over the next 30 years, it is likely that the concept of growth would have literally been missing from his thought process.

Check this note from an article about Tudor Britain:

Most London workshops were probably small, located within the master’s residence, with the master taking a full share of production (only later developing the role of supplier of goods), with 1 or 2 apprentices, and hired journeymen as needed… Joiners typically worked 6 days per week, 12 hrs p.d. in summer, a minimum of 8 hrs in winter. Most of those involved in the building trades were paid a daily wage or piece rate, the wages slightly higher in London.

Wooden chairs are a linear medium. In a world where you could not easily scale production or communication, flat linear progression (requiring much hard work) would have been considered good, or at least the norm.

Wooden chairs are very different from the mediums in which we produce work today. A vast amount of the content created today is digital. And digital scales! Meaning a large number of nonlinear success stories happen (and as news is also digital, you’re very, very aware that these success stories have taken place).

In Scalable Mediums, Tweaks Matter

Anyone who is familiar with the concept of viral loops will understand the insane difference between your viral coefficient (the number of additional users that each new user invites to your software) being less than or greater than 1.

Viral coefficient = V in the chart below.



If you do want nonlinear success (and again, don’t be ashamed if you do) you need to realize that it is continued linear work that gets you there. Repeatedly adjusting your offering, systematically testing different acquisition channels or user flows, etc. are all linear processes that can eventually generate nonlinear results. Small tweaks (V from 0.9 to 1.1) in scalable mediums can signficantly change the trajectory of your business/project.

Some entrepreneurs or individuals are fine with this, they know how to plug away and not lose faith. For others, myself included, the sensitivity of one’s lack of success can be so large that when the nonlinear success does not arrive immediately we shut up shop and stop working. This is a mistake.

How Do You Track Success When You’re Not “Successful”?

When building in nonlinear mediums it is important to look for small signs of positive feedback. If you’re blog post is read by 100 people and one person joins your mailing list, this is a sign of considerable success to come. Your mailing list may only have one person on it, but it looks like it is your distribution channel that is at fault, not the quality of your work. It’s time to apply persistent linear work to solving that part of the puzzle.

So trudge on, produce work that can scale, systematically experiment and realize that small signs of success are actually very big.

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