In his classic management book, Good to Great, Jim Collins shares an idea called a flywheel. That concept can help you and your company define what drives growth and then do more of those things over time. It’s a powerful tool for strategic clarity.
Collins recently expanded on the concept in a recent manifesto called Turning the Flywheel. Here’s how he describes a flywheel related to the role it plays in helping companies create sustained success over time:
In creating a good-to-great transformation, there’s no single defining action, no grand program, no single killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no miracle moment. Rather, it feels like turning a giant, heavy flywheel. Pushing with great effort, you get the flywheel to inch forward. You keep pushing, with persistent effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn. You don’t stop. You keep pushing. The flywheel moves a bit faster. Two turns… then four… then eight… the flywheel build momentum… sixteen… thirty-two… moving faster… a thousand… ten thousand.. a hundred thousand. Then at some point — breakthrough! The flywheel flies forward with almost unstoppable momentum.
We’ve had many conversations about our flywheel at ConvertKit. In this post, I’ll share our current iteration of our flywheel and then give you a series of questions you can ask and answer to create your own.
An Example Flywheel from ConvertKit
Our flywheel at ConvertKit is built to serve our mission, vision, and values.
Our mission is to help creators earn a living. Our vision to to help 250,000 creators earn over $1B in revenue by 2025. In the process, we hope to grow to $100M in annual recurring revenue with a small, remote team and no funding.
Here’s a drawing of our flywheel as we’ve defined it:
Here’s a bit of commentary on each element of the flywheel:
#1: Be a part of the creator community
From day one, a major part of our success at ConvertKit has been thanks to our founder’s connection to the creator community.
Because he was a designer, blogger, and podcaster, he was already connected to other creators. Those creators knew Nathan and trusted his work, which led to that trust transferring to the company as a whole.
We’ve been able to extend the impact of this by continuing to hire creators over time. We encourage side hustles at ConvertKit. Given two equally qualified applicants, we’ll hire the one who spends time creating in their spare time over the one who doesn’t.
As the company continues to grow, we’ll continue to invest in fostering a sense of community amongst creators. We already run our own annual conference for creators. We also sponsor other events for creators. Now we can look for new ways to bring creators together in a community.
#2: Build software to connect creators to their audience
At the core, we have expertise in building software. We’ve always used that expertise to build software that specifically connects creators and their audiences.
Limiting ourselves to 1) software and 2) software that helps creators connect with their fans means we know whether we’re stretching beyond our core advantage.
It also leaves room for us to do more than email in the future if. We see that as the best way to serve creators. SMS, events, content, and selling products are all ways of connecting with an audience that would fit this element of the flywheel.
#3: Provide an incredible customer experience to create raving fans
We believe in the power of raving fans. The best marketing is peer to peer. When a customer recommends you authentically and in their own words, it’s taken more seriously, especially for highly-connected creators.
We also believe the best way to create raving fans is to obsess over the customer experience. From the time someone first interacts with our brand to the time they cancel their account with us, they should have an incredible experience. The same should be true afterwards because a past customer is just another name for a potential future customer.
Our content marketing should help creators achieve positive outcomes in their businesses. Our marketing site should have delightful copy and complete information to help a creator make an informed decision about whether to use our tool.
Our product should be inviting and focused in every way possible to make it seem effortless to use. Our support team should respond quickly, kindly, and knowledgeably no matter when and where you write in to us.
Our webinars should help you grow your business. Our events should be the best investment you’ve made in yourself this year.
We should obsess over every element of your experience with our company. That is what creates raving fans.
#4: Tell creator stories to inspire and educate other creators
We like to think we’re analytical creatures. We want data and hard proof to support our decisions. Data makes us feel serious and respected.
In reality, humans are emotional processors. We make conclusions based on stories and feelings, even when we want to be analytical. Then, we seek out data to support the decision our emotions are already influencing us towards.
We want to harness the power of stories to inspire current and future creators to get started and keep going. It’s hard and lonely putting original work into the world. Hearing about others who have done the same thing is an incredible way to stay motivated.
Beyond that, we want to use stories as a way to illustrate larger trends that show how others have done what you’re trying to do. They should reflect data that reveal truths about what works and what doesn’t when you’re running a creative business.
These stories should have fantastic production value no matter the medium (writing, audio, or video). They should be beautiful and interesting.
Stories create change. We want to tell the stories that create the most positive change possible.
We use this flywheel to help us set our priorities. With every year’s strategic plan, we’ll ask ourselves how we’re driving each aspect of the flywheel through systems and projects.
As each element becomes a core focus, it helps fuel the other elements.
Building community connects us to creators, which helps us understand what tools creators need to connect with their audience.
Building software for creators gives us the privilege of serving tens of thousands of creators as our customers.
Serving tens of thousands of creators exposes us to fascinating stories.
Telling those stories celebrates the creator community and encourages that community to grow with time.
Each element fuels the next element. In the process, our company grows towards our vision and we ultimately achieve our mission to help creators earn a living.
A personal flywheel is just as useful as an organizational flywheel
Jim Collins created this concept in the context of what great companies do differently. It applies equally well to you as a person.
You probably do things that are unique and special as compared to the people around you. Understanding your personal flywheel can be equally useful to understanding an organizational flywheel.
For example, here is my first iteration of my own personal flywheel:
- Embrace adventure / risk taking to create a better life
- Do everything with enthusiasm and grit
- Share what I learn through writing, speaking, podcasting, and mentoring
- Be the person who shows up consistently for the people I care about
- Foster a sense of taste and curate experiences for an intentional community based on that taste
I’ll have to test this over time, but hopefully it demonstrates the usefulness of a personal flywheel. It’s a good reminder of what got me here and what needs to continue to or start to happen for me to live the best version of my life.
Even if you don’t run an organization, a flywheel is a powerful concept for understanding the place you show up to work everyday. It’s also a powerful tool for understanding how you create value at work and in your community.
How to define your own flywheel
By now, my hope is that you believe in flywheels enough to use it as a thought exercise at a minimum.
Here are a few questions to ask to find your flywheel:
- What can you be best in the world at? Is this different from what you’re doing now? If so, should your future flywheel be different from what got you here? (This one is straight from Collins’ work)
- What have you done in the past that has led to surprising forward momentum or breakthroughs?
- What do your customers or friends say when they recommend/introduce you?
- What do you do that’s unlike any other person or company you know?
- If you asked the five people who know you best, what would they say is unique about you?
- Why do customers choose you over your competitors? Why did you get hired in your last job?
In defining your flywheel, Collins recommends creating a hypothesis version at first and testing it out for a period of time. We’ve found that to be useful at ConvertKit.
Sometimes your initial ideas prove themselves to be wrong upon reflection. Don’t let this stop you and don’t be afraid to iterate until you find what you think really moves the needle for you.
You’re in the best position to understand your flywheel. Trust your own judgment in the end — even if you hear thoughts from colleagues, customers, friends, and family that differ from your own.
Your Flywheel is Your Competitive Advantage
It can be hard to understand your own success or progress when you’re in the thick of things. Living each day making tiny adjustments makes it challenging to see the wide angle of your growth over time.
Defining your flywheel will help you continue to focus on the qualities and activities that make you different, better, and special.
If you do it right, your flywheel can give the perfect context for setting personal goals every year or driving strategic plans for your company. When progress stalls, you’ll probably find that you’ve let one or more aspects of your flywheel go dormant.
Your flywheel is a competitive advantage. Keep it turning to create faster growth with the same amount of effort over time.