Growth and scale aren't the same thing. Here's what you need to know if you're serious about getting to scale.
At Mulago, we obsess on the notion of social impact that goes to scale. Since we’re usually willing to pay for lunch, people often come to talk about “going to scale” and “scaling up our work.” Most of the time, the word “growth” would better capture what they have in mind. Growth is a fine thing, but scale is what solves problems, and so scale is what we look for. When we talk about “going to scale,” this is what we mean:
Call it exponential, geometric, what have you—the point is that the curve steepens, and impact (I) accelerates dramatically over time (T). We know it takes a while; we know that “the hockey stick” is bullshit, but in the end we need to see something that looks like that curve.
Since we need to talk about scale—and design for it—with lots of organizations doing lots of different things, we wanted to find a simpler, more usable way to talk and think about it. Over time, we realized that if you want to get to real scale, two questions really matter: 1) Who’s the doer, and 2) who’s the payer?
You’ve got a proven model at big scale—the thing you do. Who’s going to replicate—do—it, and who is going to fund that replication?
Thinking about the doer is simplified by the fact that there are only four choices:
That’s all you get. Pick the doer that will dominate at a scale of a million and beyond. They’ve all got pluses and minuses, like this:
That’s it. Pick one, and pick it early: A model will only scale if it is designed with the doer in mind. Governments don’t do complicated (nor, in most cases, do other NGOs). For-profits too often leave out the very poor. NGOs that grow really big usually can’t maintain disciplined replication of one solution, because they have to meet a burgeoning payroll (see dysfunctional funding market).
Got one? OK, now pick a payer at scale. Conveniently, there are only four them as well:
Investment gets a business growing, but eventually you need to sell a lot of stuff to a lot of people. Most poor governments don’t collect much in the way of taxes. Big Aid is big, but the paperwork and restrictions are a huge drag. Private philanthropy is a mess, but once you get some momentum, it gets easier—up to a point.
Once you’ve picked your doer and payer, you’ve got the context you need to think usefully about the scalability of your model. Three questions:
So if you’ve picked your doer and payer at a million beneficiaries (and sometimes there can be more than one of each, but it is usually better to design around one), and think you’ve got something scalable, try this: Pick the next order of magnitude from where you are now, lay out your doer(s) and payer(s) for that, then do the same for the next order of magnitude. If you’ve laid it out for a million, go to 10 million – hell, go to 100 million. What emerges from that is the outline of a strategy to get to scale—and the chance to assess whether you’ve got a solution that can make the trip.
Everything must be iterative; your doer and payer may change over time, and your model will certainly evolve in response to the reality bath that is the real world. It won’t be easy, but it can be a lot of fun, and this simple framework can help you make sense of the changes and maybe even get ahead of the curve.
Go forth and scale.