Critical Mass

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There’s a turning point where the glorious beast starts to feed on it’s own momentum…

It’s called the hitting critical mass. defines that point as:

  1. The smallest mass of a fissionable material that will sustain a nuclear chain reaction at a constant level.
  2. The amount of matter needed to generate sufficient gravitational force to halt the current expansion of the universe.
  3. An amount or level needed for a specific result or new action to occur: “The sudden national uproar over drugs and drug abuse has reached politically critical mass in Washington” (Tom Morganthau).

In simpler terms, it’s the moment some kind of movement or reaction becomes self-sustaining, gains it’s momentum without being pushed from the outside and begins to take off.

I’ve lived through it in business, in publishing, in blogging, in school and life.

In business, it’s the moment your client base begins to grow largely by referrals or word of mouth. In publishing, it’s the moment you’ve got enough readers who love your work that the impact of their voice outstrips the impact of your marketing. In blogging, it’s the moment that you move beyond having a small number of friends help promote a particular post or idea and watch it just explode across social media.

Thing is, critical mass can be either magical or horrific.

Chances are we’ve all been on the short and long end of both. When a business hits that point where it’s clientbase becomes big and vocal enough to generate enough new business through word of mouth…it’s magic. And, when enough people want to tear you down that their message, whether based in truth or not, becomes self-fueling and propagating…it’s disastrous.

So, the question becomes, how do you reach critical mass that’s magic and avoid the critical mass that horrific?

And, the big challenge in answering both is…nobody knows exactly where those points lie. They’re moving targets. Every initiative carries with it different momentum, evangelists and detractors. For one business, it could take weeks, while another might take years.These days, in social media, it could take seconds.

Some ventures never hit it.

And, when that happens on the magic side of the equation, you end up with a business that requires exponentially more time, money and effort to grow, indefinitely. That doesn’t mean it’s a failure, it just takes a lot more to sustain it and the burden will likely never ease.

While I can’t say where the critical mass point for any given venture, though, I can say I’ve noticed certain critical elements need to be present:

  • Energy/remarkability – the idea, subject or business needs to be remarkable in it’s own right, it needs to emit energy.
  • Transferability – that energy/remarkability needs to be easily transferable. There needs to be some easy mechanism to spread it or spread news about it.
  • Innate desire to share – it needs to inspire people to evangelize the idea, not because they are compensated, but because they are innately energized by it.

Are there other elements? Sure. In fact, I’d love know others you think of in the comments.

Can you pump money into a market to create a bazillion buyers and a huge installed client base faster? Yup. But in my experience, the likelihood of that working is far less than if you facilitate mechanisms to share the idea, then encourage it to happen more organically.

So, I’m curious, what do you think about the concept of critical mass?

Any other elements to add to the recipe for it?

Can you buy it? Or, must it be grown?

Let’s discuss…

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11 responses

11 responses to “Critical Mass”

  1. Having not yet experienced critical mass, I can’t say what it looks like, but I can say what I think will happen for me:

    I will touch a variety of people in small ways through a variety of media making a strong enough impact that my name sticks with them and when they or someone close to them needs to bust their Somedays, my services will come straight to mind.

  2. I think critical mass works great in nuclear explosions but I am not so sure about in business. Yes, there are certain franchises (everything from McDonald’s to Seth Godin) where the brand has enough momentum and prior customers so that certain attributes are a given. But McDonald’s still has to spend billions a year on advertising, and Seth still has to blog every day, to keep the momentum going. If critical mass in business were really true, Mickey D and Seth would be on a beach somewhere. Or maybe not. Good question though.

  3. This concept is really interesting. From the sounds of it, it can be awesome or awful depending on the situation (and your reaction to it). I’m not sure if it’s something that can be bought, but that’s an interesting thing to think about…

  4. Gerald says:

    Critical mass in a business is a little like trying to capture lightning in a bottle, but it can be done. To Mitchell’s point, McDonald’s still spends a ton on advertising. Of course they are- all businesses advertise. The question is how much MORE would they be paying for the same headcounts. Obvioulsy, they would be spending less.

    In the auto business, critical mass is easily achieved if you are King of Cars with a t.v. show, or with a particular hook. Since there are so many brands and there is such a great reputation of car sales people in general, critical mass is more difficult (impossible?) to achieve in this industry. Perhaps social networking will make it easier and more attainable.

  5. It kind of like applying heat to ice, nothing happens, nothing happens then all of a sudden it melts. Although it seemed nothing was happening, all that heat was need to bring the ice to a melting point.

  6. Dave Pancost says:

    I think that critical mass is something not to worry about. It’s an interesting concept, but I’m not sure it’s actually achievable and/or maintainable.

    I believe that what is most important is that you be true to your vision, committed to doing your best, and building great relationships. That will draw to you those who resonate with your vision. I believe in the 1000 true fans concept, and you don’t build true fans when you are focused on appealing to the masses.

    Of course all of this depends on your goals, which are always personal. Building and maintaining a business doesn’t have to be a burden, though. If your business vision is connected to a deep passion, then working on your business becomes a source of pleasure not a burden.

  7. Laurie says:

    I truly believe that my business has the potential to hit critical mass. People are energized by what we offer to schools. It hits the greatest need here in TX and does it in an innovative way. We were presenting at one school and the teacher left for a moment and returned giving us her resume. I think we inspired her!

  8. Patty says:

    The whole concept of critical mass here sounds like many of the concepts discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”. What’s interesting is that, in his model, even established brands can reignite critical mass. In the very first chapter, he talks about Hush Puppy shoes and how they almost disappeared until someone started wearing them and passing the news along to others and before you know it, Hush Puppies brand didn’t have enough existing stock to maintain demand!

  9. Tisha Morris says:

    My thoughts exactly to the commenter above. Critical mass is like the Tipping Point. And it is alive and well. If someone puts enough energy into something that is in alignment with them, it will eventually hit its tipping point whether it be that one important person that wears your product (like the Hush Puppy story) or enough people that spread the word about your service.

  10. David says:

    I don’t know how many people remember the “pet rocks” or other frenetic bandwagon marketing campaigns. One minute it was here then it vanished. Other products seem to peak and then are able to sustain themselves in the marketplace. Critical mass, to me, is like “Tipping Point” something is suddenly “here.” FaceBook and all these other social interactive sites are based connecting people and sharing information. This is a basic human characteristic. The “critical mass” in this comes when most people realize there is a new tool available to facilitate social interaction. I think if we dig deep enough, we’ll find a human feeling behind the popularity of those silly old pet rocks.

  11. I know exactly what you mean about critical mass. About a year and a half ago, I could pinpoint exactly when my business hit critical mass, and it was amazing. We ended up selling the business and now I have a new one, and it hasn’t hit yet, but I believe I have the characteristics you listed to do so.