If you spend enough time digesting hackneyed business or self-improvement advice, you've probably seen someone wax poetic about the following image:

This is meant to be an illustration of the power of incrementalism (often referred to as kaizen when the writer is trying to be particularly obscure/profound) [1]. Get 1% better every single day, and then a year later you're one and a half orders of magnitude better!

This is a very lovely concept, and I like it in the abstract. The thing that I butt into every time I see it deployed is that getting 1% better is actually quite hard once the thing is a non-trivial size.

In general, it's a pretty useful practice to napkin-math out the impacts of various initiatives, but one impact doing so has is that you realize how hard it is to hit 1% from object-level work:

You get the idea.

This isn't to argue against that work — that kind of incremental work is my favorite, and I'm the happiest when I get to point to small object-level improvements that make a real difference. But it's important not to overstate their efficacy.

Instead, I argue three things:

  1. Devote outsized amounts of incremental work to the most well-paved parts of your product. Focusing on grace notes for a nascent SKU with only a couple dozen MAUs makes less sense than on the tentpole part of your app.
  2. Be really, really cautious when making product or strategy decisions that exclude portions of your userbase. Gating a really compelling feature behind a specific price point might make sense in the short term to drive expansion revenue, but makes it much harder to justify additional work against that feature because a very small subset of users will glean the results. [2]
  3. Shoot for .1% better instead. 1.001 ^ 365 only gives you 1.44 — not quite as gee-whiz astounding — but 44% per annum is a pretty damn good return, plus whatever big roofshot projects you end up taking on as well.

  1. Let's be clear: I am the guiltiest of them all when it comes to this. ↩︎

  2. For the maximally obvious example of this behavior, consider: every single PE-acquired SaaS which has changed branding and marketing pages three times in the past five years without shipping a single new feature to the app dashboard. ↩︎

Lightning bolt
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