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Growth Studies

In part one of our look at GitHub, we provided an overview of their explosive growth, and identified a few of the key factors driving their early traction, particularly their ability to solve a challenging problem for developers while establishing an effective network effect with a powerful lock-in.

In Part 2, we continue our analysis of the growth levers for a company that has now become an industry standard, including the unique company culture, 'just ship it' mentality, and more...


Optimize for Happiness

GitHub Office image

Photo Credit: Ariel Zambelich/WIRED

Delight isn’t just a concept GitHub uses to drive word of mouth—it’s built into the company’s entire philosophy. Preston-Werner explains, "We're in a different kind of situation than we were a hundred years ago. We're not factory workers anymore, and we need to behave differently in order to optimize what matters to us—creativity and quality of life." [10] This is a part of the company culture, but, as Wanstrath explains, at the company’s inception:

“We just wanted to work on something cool. I’d love to say that’s all you need, but we’ve learned there’s more: you need to have a vision and a philosophy. Everyone (all the founders, at least) need to be on the same page. The hard part is finding that page.” [8]

In our discussion of HubSpot’s growth engine, we talked a bit about company culture, and it’s worth pointing out that, like the HubSpot Culture Code, GitHub takes a similarly active approach to company culture. They approach it as an evolving, collaborative effort not unlike the software that people use GitHub to develop. Indeed, much has been written about GitHub’s work environment—or perhaps lack thereof, since, employees can work anytime and from anywhere. But before that happens, they must be hired, which is noteworthy in and of itself. Of GitHub’s hiring process, Wanstrath explains:

“We talk about [vision and philosophy] during the hiring process, which we take very seriously. We want any potential GitHubber to know what they’re getting into and ensure it’s a good fit. Part of that is having dinner and talking about stuff like the culture, philosophy, mistakes we’ve made, plans, whatever.” [8]

As CEO, one thing Preston-Werner focuses on is hiring people whose “taste” matches what they’re doing at GitHub. In an interview with Fast Company’s Drake Baer, Preston-Werner shares the following “feeler questions” he uses to gauge potential hires:

Do they care about improving as a person? Do they believe in products? In supporting users? In making developers' lives better? In making it easier for people to work together? Are they self-motivated? Do they value communication skills? Do they appreciate the freedom to self-direct and make the best possible decision? [10]

Finding the right kind of employees is critical for GitHub, since the 230 person company has no managers to delegate tasks or hold employees accountable. As Preston-Werner points out, “Everyone has management interests. People can work on things that are interesting to them. Companies should exist to optimize happiness, not money. Profits follow.” [6] This is a core tenet of the company’s philosophy—the idea that letting people work on what they’re passionate about and allowing anyone to throw in his or her idea leads to better products.

As Preston-Werner explains, “optimizing for happiness” is perhaps the most significant force within GitHub’s company culture:

“If you [optimize for happiness], then profits will arise naturally because happy team members create great products. Great products have users who love those products and are willing to pay for them. A wide user base willing to pay for great products—well, that makes shareholders happy. And then the virtuous cycle continues.” [10]

While this culture may fly in the face of traditional ‘growth-oriented’ cultures, it actually is a powerful expression of culture/market fit. The company understands what matters to its users and to the developer ecosystem, and embraces it in all that it does. This deep understanding ensures that the company’s products, services and behaviors all well aligned with the market it serves, powering it’s success.


Ignore the Advice of Others and Build What You Love

Another important element of the company’s philosophy involves ignoring the advice of others. This is a theme that pops up among many of the most successful startups, and it’s evident at GitHub too. The concept embraces an ethos of self-fulfillment first: rather than try to build something to suit others, build what you need and solve your problems, and they will naturally find an audience with similar needs and problems. This idea is key to GitHub’s philosophy.

Wanstrath describes GitHub as “the company of the compelling argument—every decision needs to stand on its own merit.” He continues, “That someone successful (or unsuccessful) tried something before might matter in a discussion, but what matters more is how the idea itself applies in the situation.” [8]

Everyone’s ideas hold equal weight, which is why, as Preston-Werner explains, GitHub has "changed the way software is developed by lowering the barrier to entry." This philosophy is also reflected both in GitHub’s decision making process. Despite being advised to abandon some services because they aren’t as profitable (such as Git Training), the company bases decisions on what’s right for them and their customers rather than what has (or hasn’t) worked for other companies.


“Just Ship It”: Minimum Viable Product

Another core component of GitHub’s company philosophy is the Lean Startup concept of MVP, or minimum viable product. As Wanstrath explains, “We’ve learned it’s much better to ship it now and fix it later, once you can see how people are using it, than it is to let it linger in development forever. Just ship it.” [8]

Rather than making assumptions about what customers do and don’t want, GitHub enlists them to test things via private beta as soon as possible. As Wanstrath points out:

“You can’t always be right and nothing’s ever going to be perfect – embracing this is a huge competitive advantage. Shipping early and often lets you see how people are actually using your site and allows you to react accordingly. Does that feature you shelved even matter? Is a feature you didn’t think of sorely needed? Has anyone even hit that bug you were worried about? It’s very easy to get too close to something and get a bit myopic.” [8]

Their “Just Ship It” philosophy means that the company can more easily uncover bugs and hidden potential, as well as gain a better understanding of how people engage with the product and which features really matter.

This is reflected not only in how GitHub rolls out new features, but also in the way the company was launched. As we’ve already discussed, GitHub began as a solution to the founders’ problem of collaborating on Git. Wanstrath explains, “As soon as the basics were in place we started using GitHub at my day job, a startup I had cofounded with PJ Hyett.” He continues, “It was a great way to improve the site, as PJ and I were using GitHub daily and really getting a feel for what was missing and what was working.” [8]

It wasn’t long after they worked out the initial kinks that the earliest version of GitHub was introduced to users in the form of a free public beta launch for the founders’ friends. And because there was an overwhelming need for a service like GitHub, people latched on to the site immediately.



It should be little surprise that GitHub is an exceptionally sticky product. From the large number of fork and pull requests, to the bug and issue tracking, to the overall collaboration on projects, GitHub isn’t a hit-and-run destination. Their users spend a large portion of their time interacting with their product.

GitHub recognizes the need to keep the community and platform vibrant and relevant, and has focused on several product releases to drive site stickiness and engagement. Their focus on new ways to explore and discover repositories is one example. And their most recent release of GitHub pages goes even further. Pages lets developers power their web pages right off their GitHub repositories. Just another reason for developers to love and stick with GitHub [16]


The Remaining Pieces

Because of all these factors—in particular, the solved collaboration problem and associated network effect, GitHub has become the industry standard. When applying for jobs, developers now submit GitHub as a kind of portfolio, and sites across the web now have a “Sign in with GitHub” functionality.

It’s as much a social platform as a software-development platform, allowing businesses to find, scope out, and recruit new hires, as well as facilitating connections between people who want to come up with and execute new ideas.

As the company continues to evolve, this collaborative nature will certainly be a guiding force. Preston-Werner explains, “The efficiency of large groups working together is very low in large enterprises. We want to change that.” While their scope was initially limited to code, GitHub is increasingly being used for, as Preston-Werner explains, “not just code, but anything that involves working on files on a computer: books, hardware projects, schematics for circuit boards, legal documents—anything that ends up in a digital format.” [5]

GitHub users are currently working on books and hardware projects, and both the U.S. and U.K. governments use the site.  The company’s vision, as Preston-Werner explains, is “to make it easier for people to work together than to work alone.” [4]

David ten Have, GitHub user and founder and CEO of Ponoko, echoes this sentiment, explaining:

"GitHub makes [the kind of work we do at Ponoko] easier and faster, because it has a platform that enables the collaboration and, most important, the social norms to encourage people to look at the world collaboratively. That is fundamentally why GitHub is important beyond software: Ethos and attitude are transferable—into lawmaking, product design, manufacturing, biology, chemistry, dance, music, moviemaking, books, cooking... The list goes on." [5]

In addition to their move to expand beyond code, this past year GitHub has worked exceptionally hard to promote workplace diversity. Alongside Etsy, GitHub co-sponsored the 2013 Hacker School to help train women engineers. In 2013 alone, the company sponsored around 30 initiatives promoting women in technology.

Hacker School image Photo credit: Sitong Peng/WIRED

GitHub’s Julie Ann Horvath is behind Passion Projects, a series of monthly talks featuring successful women in technology sharing the work that inspires them. These efforts can be understood as an extension of the company’s philosophy of optimizing happiness—as Preston-Werner explains, “We can build better products and have better services for our customers if we have better representatives from a more holistic demographic.” [12]

GitHub isn’t resting on its twin growth engines of network effects and marketplace either. They hired Brian Doll in 2012 to run marketing for the organization. And are busy spreading the word about GitHub around the world. In fact, GitHub will send any employee and a fellow GitHubber to conferences where they’re invited to speak—all on the company dime. [15] It’s these types of initiatives that are well targeted to potential users and groups, and that align their growth efforts with their cultural investment in their employee’s success, that help GitHub grow in a way that makes sense to their mission.

We hope this analysis serves as encouragement for startups who are trying to solve a problem but are unsure of whether it will be profitable. Not only does GitHub prove that people are willing—and even happy—to pay for services that solve their “pain-in-the-ass-problems,” but they do it in a way that optimizes for happiness on the part of employees as well. By solving a problem and working hard to do so in the best way possible, GitHub managed to find product-market fit almost instantly.


What did we leave out? Is there anything you see as integral to GitHub’s becoming the world’s most powerful software development tool in just over five years?

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Contributing Authors:

Dylan La Com

Everette Taylor

Written by
Morgan Brown
  • SE

    Sean Ellis

    over 7 years ago #

    Another great write up by Morgan Brown on breaking down an impressive company’s growth. Had no clue that GitHub was pushing a billion dollar valuation.

    When you compare this to the other company growth studies http://growthhackers.com/companies/ you definitely start to see some patterns. Sustainable growth is much more than a single growth hack. This type of growth is a force of nature driven by an awesome product, passionate team and overall customer driven culture.

    Read part 1 first if you missed it: http://www.growthhackers.com/companies/github/

  • MB

    Morgan Brown

    about 7 years ago #

    UPDATE (3/19/14):

    The recent claims made by Julie Ann Horvath (one of GitHub's key engineers) in this TechCrunch article http://techcrunch.com/2014/03/15/julie-ann-horvath-describes-sexism-and-intimidation-behind-her-github-exit/ lead me to believe that the GitHub culture, while celebrated by some, is not what it has been made out to be in the press.

    Horvath claims intimidation and sexism led to her leaving the company, and if this is indeed true (based on some of the comments on Secret and other places, it seems like it is) then GitHub's culture is nothing more than a carefully crafted PR stunt that finally cracked. There is only so much you can learn from the outside, and the intimate nature of Horvath's nightmare was imperceptible to the outside world, until now.

    Sadly, there are far too many stories like this about companies and female employees —particularly those in technical positions. Github was inspiring because it was supposed to be the opposite. Now it appears to be one of the worst of it's kind.

    I hope that this can someday be used as a lesson for entrepreneurs on how to create real company culture that celebrates the contributions of the entire team, not just a PR hyped mirage that looks good in the press but doesn't hold up under closer scrutiny and doesn't create a truly inclusive environment. Great culture isn't created for the few at the expense of all.

    I also hope that this serves as a wake up call to entrepreneurs and startups everywhere. The technology industry is made up of people from all walks of life, they all have dreams and deserve the chance to pursue those dreams free of the sexism and entitlement that is rampant in the tech workplace.

    GitHub will suffer from this loss, it will suffer from the loss of credibility, and it will hurt it's momentum. It remains to be seen whether they can fix this issue—but culture runs deep and is hard to change. It has to start at the top.

  • ET

    Everette Taylor

    over 7 years ago #

    I admire most where the company is headed and not necessarily what it's done already which is amazing. It's growth as a social platform allows the company not to over position itself and the possibilities are endless (for example: GitHub serving as a job portfolio).

    I'm encouraged to hear that they are branching out with books and developing hardware while still sustaining growth with its initial product that not only do users enjoy but also the work environment they provide for their employees is just as enjoyable.

    They are doing things the right way and I'm fascinated to see what the next step is for GitHub.

  • about 5 years ago #

    Thanks for sharing. I had no clue that GitHub was doing that well

  • GS

    Göran Svensson

    about 5 years ago #

    Interesting. How is Bitbucket doing compared to GitHub?

  • AT

    Abi trav

    about 4 years ago #

    This is very interesting. I agree with Sean in that the so called secrete seems to be hard work, perseverance and focus.

  • MO

    Marketing Octiive

    over 1 year ago #

    GitHub is so crucial and so cryptic. Thanks for taking time to translate for the laypeople.