Whether it's customers, revenue, locations, leads, mentions, or profits, you've got to play the growth game if you want to be successful in business.

Growth is fundamental to a business' survival. Roughly 66% of businesses survive their first two years in operation, 50% make it to the five-year mark, and just 33% will celebrate their tenth anniversary. Those numbers are remarkably consistent across most industries -- but they also highlight how important it is to plan for growth from day one.

In 2018, 53% of American SMBs planned to grow, and 22% planned to hire additional staff. That marked an impressive uplift from the 2017 figures of 46% and 9%, respectively. A concrete growth strategy is more than a marketing strategy, it's a crucial cog in your business machine. Without one, you're at the mercy of a fickle consumer base and market fluctuations.

So, how do you plan to grow?

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Strategize, consider the available options, and build it into your business plan. Depending on the kind of company you're building, your growth strategy might include, among others:

Your particular industry and target market will influence your decisions, but it's almost universally true that new customer acquisition will play a sizable role.

Not sure what that looks like for your business?

Start by learning from the most successful companies. Identify their strategies, test them in your niche, and see what works best. Here are four companies and their primary growth strategies to get you started.

Growth Strategy Examples

1. Dropbox

Growth Strategy: Viral Loops

As a trailblazer in the cloud storage software arena, Dropbox launched in 2008 and introduced the world to the ease of keeping files in the cloud, rather than on a physical device.

We take that convenience for granted today, but it wasn't always the case. In fact, Dropbox faced an uphill battle to convince users to abandon their trusty USBs and external drives in favor of the "cloud," itself a new and unknown idea.

Dropbox knew it had a premium product that everyone from students to executives would find invaluable. They just had to get the word out.

But they succeeded. The service hit its million users milestone by April 2009, doubled to two million only five months later, and to three million just two months after that. Currently, Dropbox boasts 500+ million users worldwide.

How did they do it? Viral loops.

The basic premise of a viral loop is straightforward:

  1. Someone tries your product
  2. They're offered a valuable incentive to share it with others
  3. They accept and share with their network
  4. New users sign up, see the incentive for themselves, and share with their networks
  5. Repeat

As its best, a viral loop is a self-perpetuating acquisition machine that operates 24/7/365.

Dropbox works on a freemium to premium model, offering all users 2GB of storage with the free account. But their incentive? An additional 500MB for every friend they refer who signs up, allowing users to get up to 16GB for free.

The result? The service grew by 3,900% over a 15-month span.

Viral loops are not guaranteed to go viral, of course, and they're less effective than in Dropbox's era since they've become more commonplace, but the potential is still there. Part of the appeal is that the viral loop flips the traditional funnel upside-down:

Viral Loops StrategySource: CleverTap

Instead of needing as many leads as possible at the top, a viral loop funnel requires just one satisfied user to share with others. As long as every referral results in at least 1.1 new users, the system continues growing.

2. Harry's

Growth Strategy: Milestone Referrals

You might remember when Dollar Shave Club burst on the scene in 2012 with the promise of high quality, but affordable blades delivered right to your door. Harry's followed suit the next year, launching not with a viral video, but with through the savvy use of milestone referrals.

It worked like this: visitors to a pre-launch landing page signed up to receive email updates. They also received a referral link to share via email, Facebook, and Twitter. The more they referred, the more they could earn in rewards.

Harry's Growth StrategySource: Harry's

In this case, the "milestones" were X number of referred friends. It was easy to share, easy to hit the milestones, and delivered a tangible product as a reward.

The result? Harry's collected 100,000+ emails before it ever officially opened for business.

3. Slack

Growth Strategy: Word-of-Mouth

In less than six years, Slack has become the go-to platform for online collaboration and communication for both professional and personal users.

From just 8,000 users at launch in 2013, Slack hit one million daily active users in late 2015. Today, the service boasts 10+ million DAUs. That's a pretty stellar growth metric. How'd they do it?

In the beginning, Slack made itself available to large, established companies like Rdio and Flickr, generating plenty of early press coverage. The company focused on user satisfaction above all, answering thousands of help tickets and tweets each month, and leading directly to positive word-of-mouth amongst its early adopters.

Even Slack's leadership team was blown away by the success of its word-of-mouth approach. In 2014, co-founder Steward Butterfield stated, "The growth has been completely insane and almost entirely on word of mouth. In fact, we just hired our first marketing person, but he doesn't begin until next week."

Word-of-mouth is organic - and, as seen in Slack's case, it's effective. 83% of Americans say a recommendation from a friend or family member makes them more likely to purchase or try a product, and 50% would go with word-of-mouth if they could only choose one source of information.

The secret of such effectiveness lies in a deeply rooted psychological bias all people have: we subconsciously believe that the majority knows better. That's why social proof remains the #1 instrument in sales copywriting and overall marketing content, and that's why most brands draw focus toward their online reputation.

They know in today's customer-driven world, when communication methods change and the information is available to all, a single negative blog post or tweet can send all marketing efforts to the bottom. As the father of digital word-of-mouth growth, Pete Blackshaw says, "satisfied customers tell three friends, angry customers tell 3,000." That's why Slack focused on user positive experience to grow that number of satisfied customers and do that wave of loyal feedback.

Focus on delivering a spectacular user experience, and users will spread the word for you.

4. WhatsApp

Growth Strategy: The "When They Zig, We Zag" Approach

When entering a crowded marketplace, you've got to stand out. Your value proposition needs to clearly demonstrate your competitive advantage over others. Why should users go with your product or service instead of someone else?

WhatsApp wasn't the first cross-platform messaging app when it launched in 2009, but it has gone on to become one of the most successful, with 1.2+ billion monthly active users.

Its founders, Brian Acton and Jan Koum, wanted to create a product that eschewed the crap plaguing other apps at the time. They intentionally opted for no ads, no marketing, and a free first year to attract users fed up with other providers.

And it worked. They stood out by being dramatically different from every other option at the time.

In short, they zigged when everyone else zagged. They created a product that was brilliantly simple for sending and receiving instant messages. People started to use and share it as a result - so much so, in fact, that WhatsApp's growth far outpaced the likes of Facebook, Skype, and Gmail in its first four years.

Leverage this effect by asking what's wrong with the current options in your niche? Can you improve or eliminate it entirely? Highlight that, and get users talking.

The competition zigs. You zag.

Successful companies plan for growth. They work for it. They earn it. So what's your plan?

To learn more, check out this growth hacking playbook next.

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Originally published Apr 18, 2019 8:30:00 AM, updated April 18 2019