What an awful title. But it's intentional, and if you get why, the rest of this may not hurt. For everyone else, let's talk about the first traction channel we get handed when we start our "businesses" (using this loosely here): word of mouth.

Like those Lucky Strikes many of our grandfathers received upon landing in their theatre of war, word of mouth is both tempting as hell and terrible for you. And like Camp Lucky Strike, it's "either heaven or chaos" (go ahead, I'll wait).

But the Virality

Yes, I get it, you tell someone, and they tell someone. And if this repeats and they tell even more people than you, 'this sucker is gonna grow like an unattended bonfire at a Texas A&M frat party! Gig 'em!'

This model of the world is like that initial model of the atom they showed you in 7th grade. The one with the concentric rings of electrons that had an uncanny similarity to like the planetary rings you just got done memorizing.

Except in both cases we were lied to! Our solar system is a vortex, and electrons — it's a cloud ... sort of. (All of the other lies in your education I leave as an exercise to the reader.)

But hey, don't feel bad (yet), neither of these matter to your business because you aren't doing anything with subatomic particles or orbits ... probably.

But you're choosing to be a founder now, so we can't let you get away with an 7th grade understanding of word of mouth any longer.

Oh It's So Much Worse (or Better?!)

Like good scientists, let's try to invalidate that simple model with a quick test:

  • People know about your startup (infected count > 1)
  • People talk to people (telling others >= 1)
  • Your startup isn't growing exponentially

Feel free to argue with the last bullet, it's both the checksum and the kicker.


So what's going on?

Our model is grossly correct, but missed a few steps. Let's add them:

  1. You tell people about your startup in a compelling way Nx per Y period of time.
  2. You have an audience of size A with a reach (who hears it) rate of a%.
  3. Of those that hear your message, t% get infected with the idea in any lasting way.
  4. That infection takes d days to develop (incubate) such that they feel confident sharing it.
  5. Every once in a while, some of those people lose interest, or their life changes, or they stop loving your brand.
  6. Of those that remain, they have a relevant opportunity to share your app or service with their audience of size A', N'-x per Y' period.
  7. Their success at transmitting the idea is worse than yours (game of telephone decay), so they infect people at t'%.
  8. Those newly-infected folks return to the incubation period (step 4) and join the pool of fans.
  9. If you're still alive and doing step 1, this cycle repeats.

Even this is a model, which doesn't do justice to the real world, but we can test it too, to see if the data matches our world a bit better than the caveman model.

This model says if I as a solo evangelist tell my audience on Twitter of 15k folks about Summit in a compelling way once per week (solid!) and reach 20% of them, and 1% of them get infected with the idea, and yet it still takes 90 days to nurture that idea into fandom, and those disciples tell their audiences (with an average size of 1k followers, reaching 20% also), and their transmission rate is half a percent (they're not as good as me), and those new disciples' disciples enter the fan base, and the fan base loses 10% of its population each month:

At the end of 12 months I have 833 fans.

If the fan to customer conversion rate is ~20%, I'll have ~91 customers after 12 months.

Here's the model as a diagram:

"Class, I lied."

And here's the data:


This is a real Jonah Hill 'ok, ok, ok' moment.

Are those steadily-growing green bars bad? I mean, sure, I'll take 91 customers (based on a lot of assumptions).

But this game isn't making my dreams come true.

(But if you want to play it, here's a link to the interactive model [full disclosure: powered by my startup].)

Word of Mouth Is an Effect

Does this mean you shouldn't do word of mouth? Yes. No!

Well, you should never say "do" word of mouth. And yes, I know, I put those words in your mouth. But if you're building a product thinking that people are just going to tell each other about it and that's going to get you to fit, you are at least telling yourself that you're doing word of mouth.

But word of mouth working with sufficient velocity to drive rapid growth is far, far outside of your control. That is the stuff of Series A community managers and growth teams. Your message isn't clear enough yet. The people you tell won't be able to tell others with the necessary brevity or cleverness to infect them. You aren't doing mass media capable of incubating your audience's audiences. This just isn't your game.

Your game isn't scalable.

You're door-to-door, testing, testing, to see if anyone gets it. Does my neighbor even understand me? Then it's city-to-city, tirelessly pitching your heart out, wishing there were just a few more people here tonight to hear you speak. Along the way, it's hoping they'll tell their friends, but never counting on it.

Your game is heads-down, one-at-a-time conversions.

Fully attending to the prospect in front of you.

Are you doing word of mouth?