A growth engine without a profit engine is incomplete thinking


I just saw this diagram on Growthhackers in an article explaining Uber’s success. And they have had a lot of success. In case you’ve missed it they have recently raised money at a $40bn valuation, they operate in 35 cities and have grown headcount from 75 to 300 over the last year. I haven’t seen any revenue numbers but I’m sure the growth there is strong too, and I hear them talked about all the time in London now, and not just in tech circles.

What follows is not a criticism of Uber. I’d be very surprised if they don’t have a good plan for getting to profitability.

My issue is that entrepreneurs seeing the diagram above and seeking to emulate the success of Uber might latch onto a strategy that delivers growth but not a sustainable business. Last month veteran Valley VC Bill Gurley wrote a warning to investors in $100m late stage growth rounds with the following quote:

Investors must realize that it is materially easier to take a company to substantial revenue if you generously relax the constraint of profitability. Customers will love you for giving away more value than you charge, and therefore, focusing exclusively on revenue success is a sure-fire path to risk exposure.

Looking at the diagram it’s easy to understand why Uber grew so fast and have raised so much money. Steps 1-3 are expensive to deliver, but done well they will result in superfast growth. The hope, of course, is that the quality of the experience will lead to high levels of repeat business and cheap word of mouth driven marketing in the future, which will make the business profitable. That may well transpire, but simply following this diagram you could spend a lot of time and money building a business where customers value your product at less than it costs to provide.

In addition to a growth engine, companies need to understand their profit engine. It’s simple, but critical – the cost to deliver a service must be less than customers are happy to pay for it and the cost of acquiring customers must be less than that delta. Companies using the diagram above to design their strategies should also make sure they are comfortable that customers won with a heavily discounted service will eventually pay a higher price, that the cost of customer service will decline to manageable levels as the business scales, and that they have scalable marketing channels through which they can acquire customers at low enough prices.