The War Between Driving Growth and Profitability


Biz Growth Photo_HL

I have previously written about WHEN it is better to drive growth vs. profitability. But, what wasn’t clear in that post, which I want to better explain now, is that it’s mathematically impossible to try to maximize growth and profitability simultaneously. The math just doesn’t work. I have come across many companies I that are trying to do both, so I am going to show you what can go wrong.

The Math

What specifically drives growth? More sales people for B2B companies and more marketing budgets for B2C companies. Both of these typically have a ramp-up period before they drive up revenues. For example, if you are selling enterprise software, you will most likely incur salaries for your sales team today, well ahead of the sale that will close a year from now (given the long sales cycle).

Or, as another example, many B2C companies rely on a high lifetime value of their consumers to get a payback on their upfront marketing investment to acquire that consumer. In other words, they may need to spend $100 in marketing today, which may drive $500 in cumulative gross margin over five years, at $100 per year (with a break even in year one, and profits starting in the second year). What did you see in both examples above? Growth comes with near-term costs that eat into the company’s near-term profitability.

You Need to Choose Between the Two Roads

I won’t reiterate WHEN you should focus on driving growth vs. profitability, as I already did that in the linked article I referenced above. But, understand, you need to prioritize one route. You are either in a rapid growth phase with near- term losses before the revenues show up. Or, you are in maximizing profit phase, which means lifting off the accelerator and cutting back on sales and marketing expenses.

For example, a 40 percent growth company may be operating at a break even, and a 10 percent growth company may be operating at a 20 percent profit margin. If you are committed to driving both, you really only have one option: a medium growth scenario that drives medium profits. Continuing the example above, this could be a 25 percent growth company driving a 10 percent profit margin (the midpoints of the above examples).  But, to be clear: using the above examples, it is mathematically impossible to get a 40 percent growth rate and a 20 percent profit margin at the same time, so don’t even waste your time trying.

Which Road Do Investors Prefer

Since many of you desire to attract investment capital for your business, it is a fair question to ask which route investors prefer. The answer is: it depends what type of investor you are trying to attract. Most venture capital firms are perfectly fine sacrificing near-term profitability in exchange for maximizing growth. Frankly, many venture investors who see a race to lock up market share as a first mover in your space, may want you incurring big losses in the near-term to sign up as many customers as possible today before a competitor does.

On the flip side, most private equity firms need some base level of profitability before they will invest, as they will most likely want to lever up the business with debt to reduce their equity investment. And, debt service will require cash profitability to pay the interest expense on that debt. So, if you are trying to tee your company up for a sale to a private equity firm, this would be a good time to lift off of the growth accelerator and start driving some profits.

Closing Thoughts

As a marketer, it baffles me when a business leader doesn’t truly understand what drives growth. Growth doesn’t just happen on its own. You need to invest in growth by increasing expenses around your sales and marketing investment. The minute you say expenses need to increase, that means profits can only go down. So be smart, understand the basic math and pick which route is best for your business. However, be prepared to hit a fork in the road and make a decision. Like I’ve said many times, trying to maximize both at the same time is a fool’s errand.



Reprinted by permission.

Image Credit: CC by Benjamin Rougier

About the author: George Deeb

George Deeb is a managing partner at Red Rocket Ventures, a Chicago-based startup consulting and fundraising firm with expertise in advising Internet-related businesses. More of George’s startup lessons can be read at “101 Startup Lessons — An Entrepreneur’s Handbook.”

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