Every entrepreneur dreams of the moment when their business goes ballistic. After months and even years of small improvements and steady growth, everything they've worked for suddenly takes off. The product flies off the shelf or the servers, clients sign up and they're scrambling to put in practice their scaling plans.
In practice, it rarely happens that way. Success doesn't usually happen overnight. Even Angry Birds topped charts in small markets like Greece before it became an international success. There are always signs that you're about to hit the big time. They give you fair warning. Here are ten of them.
1. You're being copied... but not well.
Whenever a product starts to generate interest, you can be sure that rivals will start trying to eat your lunch. They'll look at what you're doing and they'll try to do the exact same thing. But they can only take your first-mover advantage if they can spot your weaknesses and improve them. If they're not making a better product than you, they're just proving you've got a giant market.
2. You don't need to talk about your product. Customers are doing it for you.
Movie companies spend millions to generate buzz for their products but if the difference between a hit and a flop is the size of the marketing budget then John Carter would have been as big as Avatar. What really matters isn't what the PR people say; it's what the people say. When early adopters are talking up your product, you're getting ready for lift off.
3. The watercooler is a fun place to be.
If you've ever been in a company on the way down, you know that the mood around the watercooler is always miserable. People complain about the product, moan about the reaction from customers and most of all, they worry about their jobs. But when the talk in the kitchen is full of laughter and optimism and excitement at the results, things are looking good and on their way to getting better.
4. Feedback from users is blowing you away.
Staff know when they're making a good product but the most important people are customers. You should always be asking for feedback. When most of the feedback from your beta users comes from people telling you that your product is exactly what they wanted, you need to prepare for a big launch.
5. Partners want in.
It's not just copycats who will want a cut of a success that they can see coming; partners will always want a share of the rewards. It's not easy to remember a time when the iPhone didn't have an App Store, but the device was already a year old before Apple allowed third party apps. The store launched in June 2008 with 500 apps. By January the following year, it had 15,000 apps and had generated half a billion downloads. Those third-party providers knew a good thing when they saw it.
6. You know how to scale... and you're ready to do it.
When was the last time you saw Twitter's Fail Whale? It's pretty much extinct now but in Twitter's early days, a day spent following tweets wasn't complete without a sighting of the great white beast. Twitter didn't know how to scale and that failure slowed its growth considerably. If you've planned your scaling, you know you have a market, you know it's big... and you know how to meet it.
7. The sales team is as noisy as the product engineers.
It's too easy when you're making an awesome product to focus on the features. You hire the best engineers you can find and you show off the amazing work they're doing for you. But a sales team's work is less visible. It takes the form of meetings and phone calls, many of which will result in a "no." So an average sales team can be invisible in a company. They're in their office, making lead lists and hitting the phones. A good sales team makes a sound. They congratulate each on their deals and they talk to the engineers about their customers' demands.
8. Investors set real and achievable benchmarks.
A pile of money from an investor is the rocket fuel many companies need to hit the stars. But investors will only come in when they can see signs of success, and every start-up gets rejected at some point. In 2008, seven venture capitalists turned down the chance to buy 10 percent of AirBnB for $150,000. "No" is their normal. But when that rejection comes with specific benchmarks--and you know you can hit those benchmarks--it won't be long before you're hearing a "yes."
9. You've had crises... and survived.
Every business has dark moments, times when the schedule slips, a test fails or a vital member of staff walks away. Successful businesses, though, don't have too many of them so if you've already had yours, and the company is still going strong, you can hope that lightning won't strike twice... and know that you've got the strength to keep going if it does.
10. You use your product.
It's wonderful to see people using your product but the best sign that your business is going to go big is if you use it. That will tell you that you're meeting a need, and your passion for it will make sure that you keep meeting it. Evgeny Tchebotarev is one of the founders of photography site 500px.com. His Twitter timeline isn't about the company or his life. It's all about the photos he puts on his own site. When the boss is the product's biggest customer, it's going to have plenty more.