cdixon blog

Exponential curves feel gradual and then sudden

“How did you go bankrupt?”
“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
― Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

The core growth process in the technology business is a mutually reinforcing, multi-step, positive feedback loop between platforms and applications.  This leads to exponential growth curves (Peter Thiel calls them power law curves), which in idealized form look like:

The most prominent recent example of this was the positive feedback loop between smartphones (iOS and Android phones) and smartphone apps (FB, WhatsApp, etc):

After the fact, exponential curves look relatively smooth. When you are in the midst of them, however, they feel like they are divided into two stages: gradual and sudden.

Singularity University calls this the “deception of linear vs exponential growth”:

Today, smartphone growth seems obviously exponential. But just a few years ago many people thought smartphones were growing linearly. Even Mark Zuckerberg underestimated the importance of mobile in the “feels gradual” phase. In 2011 or so, he realized what we were experiencing was actually an exponential curve, and consequently dramatically increased Facebook’s investment in mobile:

Exponential growth curves in the “feels gradual” phase are deceptive. There are many things happening today in technology that feel gradual and disappointing but will soon feel sudden and amazing.