Orders of magnitude

 
When people say they're looking to grow by an order of magnitude they usually mean ten times.[1] For example, if I grew my visitors by two orders of magnitude that would be 10x10 = 100 times.

I find framing things in orders of magnitude is a really useful way to measure progress and think about the future. Not much changes structurally if you grow by a factor of two; usually your technical and non-technical infrastructure can handle that kind of growth pretty easily. But when you grow by a factor of ten (an order of magnitude) something usually breaks. And yet thinking much beyond ten times can be very challenging because you'd look a lot different then (as many things would break).
An order of magnitude of growth also makes you a substantively different company. Generally that would mean you have ten times more customers. At that level it can be harder to move the needle with the same traction verticals, or will at least require significant changes to do so.

Since starting, DuckDuckGo has grown by about 4.5 orders of magnitude for the one metric that matters to us, real direct searches. We were at about 1,000/month after launch settled down and now we're at about 50 million/month. I'm really proud of this growth, but we're still about one order of magnitude from making a measurable dent in the search market and two from a major one. You can easily put yourself in perspective by thinking in these terms. 

Needing that many orders of magnitude to make a dent speaks to the size of the search market, and more generally to consumer Internet. There are billions of people on the Internet now, and the most mass-market services are going after at least 100M of them, and the very biggest all over them. Non-mass-market services (e.g. B2B) operate in fewer orders of magnitude for customers, though the biggest reach similar amounts in terms of revenue, e.g. $10,000/year to $1,000,000,000 -- that's just five!

While things may change internally when you grow by an order of magnitude, to the outside world things may not look that different. To many people who weren't using our product we probably seemed the same during these order of magnitude changes and still do. Even to savvy investors I speculated our valuation may not have changed much through periods of that growth, and that makes some sense. After all, even though you may have to operate differently to absorb and create another order of magnitude doesn't necessitate that your expected terminal value will change significantly.


[1] Technically, it doesn't have to be base 10, but 10 is assumed if not otherwise specified. I got to thinking in order of magnitudes in college doing my Physics degree where it is common to ask yourself "do I have the right order of magnitude" for this or that answer, or even more colloquially to tell someone "it is on the order of..." In Physics, you deal with very big and very small numbers (sometimes in close proximity) and so it ends up being an effective way to communicate, at least it was for us lowly undergrads!

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I'm the Founder & CEO of DuckDuckGo, the search engine that doesn't track you. I'm also the co-author of Traction Book, the book that helps you get traction. More about me.

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