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3 Steps to Balance Steady Growth with Big Bets

It's not an either/or thing. You need both.

Hey folks đź‘‹, I'm Kenneth Burke. #BurkeBits is where I share stories, data, and frameworks to help you become a better marketer. Subscribe for free to level-up.

One of my biggest marketing challenges has been figuring out when to focus on small percentage improvements and when to focus on big home run ideas. That’s partially because the advice is conflicting.

On one hand, they say: Get 1% better at something every day. After a year you’ll be 3,778% better. (Yes, that’s really how the math shakes out.)

And on the other: Only focus on things that have a chance of creating a 10x or 100x return. Look for order of magnitude improvements.

The frustrating truth: You need both.

That’s challenging. It’s doable, but it’s challenging. It takes two completely different mindsets, a budget carve-out, and a lot of task-switching.

I’ll show you how I’ve learned to tackle both.

How We Figured It Out

The oversimplified history of our marketing at Text Request is:

As a bootstrapped tech startup, we had no money for anything, so we put a lot of time into things. After a few years we had profits to reinvest, so we kept doing the free stuff, and started spending money on things we thought would work.

Most of what we tried didn’t work. I made a ton of mistakes. But the things that did work paid for themselves, the failed experiments, and then some.

Over time, we started running more experiments simultaneously, and those experiments got bigger. And we figured out how to properly approach those experiments (more specifics in my Entrepreneur article on “marketing bets”).

Here’s what we figured out.

3 Steps to Balance Consistent Progress with Massive Growth

1. Put about 3/4 of your time into consistent growth.

These are the 1% improvements, the tweaks and revisions that help take something already working and make it more effective or more efficient.

It looks different for everyone, but it could be:

  • Updating your pitch to set more customer meetings

  • Clarifying copy on your website to improve conversions

  • Inviting customers and connections to follow your company’s LinkedIn page, so you can get your message in front of them

  • Building your email or SMS subscriber list

  • Asking for reviews and referrals

  • Posting consistently on social media

  • Updating your blog titles and meta descriptions to get more traffic

Things like this typically take awhile to show that they’re having an impact—they’re 1% improvements, after all—but they work and they’re worth the time.

2. Once it’s replicable, hire someone else to do it.

Once you’ve figured out how to do one thing well—creating good blog content, running search ads effectively, throwing customer events, etc.—it’s your responsibility as a marketing leader to find the next thing that works.

So once you’ve figured out how to do something well repeatedly and profitably, follow these steps:

  1. Create the playbook for how to do it, detail all the steps you take

  2. Have someone else do it for you, someone you don’t need to manage closely (could be a full-time employee or a contractor)

  3. Have them run your playbook (and improve it over time)

  4. Experiment with other safe ideas until you find another that works repeatedly and profitably

  5. Repeat

Massive companies across industries—Nike, DataDog, and Shopify come to mind—have used this process as part of their growth plan. It works.

3. Put the rest into big bets.

These are the risky attempts that have a chance of paying off 10x or 100x. These projects tend to be big and fun, but also stand as good a chance of producing nothing in return.

What’s considered a “big bet” is relative to your company, but could be things like:

  • Being the title sponsor of a key event

  • Producing a commercial campaign

  • Recreating your website from the ground up

  • Going all-in on a new partnership

  • Heavy outbound or account-based marketing

  • Launching a new product or in a new market

These things don’t have to cost a ton of money, but you’ve only got two resources—time and money—and they will take a considerable amount of at least one.

Make sure you never bet more than you can afford to lose here. The worst case scenario should be that you’re out some cash, but everyone keeps their jobs and their reputations.

For most, using 10% of your budget for big bets is a decent rule of thumb.

How long do these things take to pay off?

It’s rare that any good marketing has immediate effects, and those campaigns that do tend to be a long time in the making.

Generally, you should see signs of your 1% improvements being effective within a few weeks. The big bets may be near-instant (tons of leads from a big event), or may take months to show a real impact (going all-in on a partnership).

Before you start, you should document everything about your experiment, including the timeline, costs, and what outcomes are expected. The best pre-experiment plans also include what early signals of success you’ll be looking for, and how you’ll determine if it’s not working.

Do those things, and even risky bets begin to feel safe.

If you like #BurkeBits, you might also like:

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Have questions about this topic or something you’re working on? Ask away! I’m an open book and happy to help.