Donnie Berkholz's Story of Data

GitHub’s vanishing acceleration

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In 2013, I successfully predicted GitHub’s growth from 3 million to 4 and 5 million users respectively, with sub-month accuracy.

This time around, my news is less cheerleading and much more concerning. As I began work to follow up on my growth predictions this year, the numbers stopped matching up. Using the old equation, I kept overestimating where GitHub’s user numbers would end up.

Finally I started looking into growth numbers on a monthly basis, and things got a little clearer. It looked like relative growth over previous months might have been slowing down, but the numbers jumped around so much it was hard to tell for sure. So I plotted it and used a fancy smoother called LOWESS, which is particularly good for nonparametric data (i.e. you don’t know what’s in it but want results anyway). Then it got crystal clear:

Methods: Data were acquired from GitHub search API, then LOWESS smoothed with a fraction of 0.5 and 3 iterations.
Methods: Data were acquired from GitHub search API, then LOWESS smoothed with a fraction of 0.5 and 3 iterations.

Although individual monthly data points are very noisy, there’s a clear downward trend over the longer term. Even varying some of the inputs for the LOWESS smoother didn’t change things in a meaningful way. Since GitHub started, it’s been growing a little bit slower (on a percentage basis) every month, even though its userbase is nearing 7.5 million. More explicitly: every month in 2008 got around 10% more new users than the previous month. By late 2014, on the other hand, every month has roughly the same average number of new users.

GitHub has reached an inflection point

Yesterday on Twitter I was talking about inflection points because they’re surprisingly misunderstood, and Ed Saipetch pointed to this excellent visualization of what they are. One example is when your growth begins to plateau, which is indicated by a slower velocity every month. GitHub’s still growing — don’t get confused about that. But it’s not growing as fast as it used to, and if continued, this will cause its growth to trail off well before I’d predicted.

The other type of inflection point is the one that GitHub needs to target next: shifting back from neutral or deceleration into acceleration mode again.

Moving beyond the plateau, or dodging it entirely

To regain its acceleration, GitHub has many options. Although I’m not going to be exhaustive, let’s dig into a few of them.

It can provide better offerings to existing audiences, who have stopped signing up in the same “exponential growth”-style numbers that it’s become accustomed to. Increased investment in GitHub Enterprise is one way to go about this, for example through partnerships with current giants who don’t have competitive offerings, or whose customers are requesting GitHub anyway. Embedding GitHub into tooling, whether it’s developer-facing or a backend for an office suite, whether for internal or external use at a company, is another way to advance its position.

The GitHub team could also choose to focus on competitive barriers, trying to make it increasingly easy to migrate code in and increasingly difficult to migrate code out. It could take a page from Michael Porter’s five forces and move up and down the supplier stack, while simultaneously targeting competitors (largely proprietary, as well as entrenched open-source options like CVS and Subversion) and substitutes, like ignoring version control altogether.

Another turnaround strategy is outreach to entirely new audiences — e.g. turning GitHub into a platform play rather than a version-control system for developers. Take for example the movements around pulling lawyers and legal code, or data journalists, onto GitHub. Or GitBook for authoring as another.

What’s missing, in many cases, is that platforms are rarely successful without applications — and enough of them to paint a picture of the platform’s potential. GitHub needs to invest in creating more applications for non-coders to make this type of platform play a success. Perhaps GitHub’s Atom editor or Team collaboration app could prove a useful core.

As noted by Ian Bull, geography is another approach to untapped audiences — GitHub search shows around 25K users who report living in China and 23K in India. While likely underreported, especially in China, it’s a nonzero number but clearly has huge amounts of room for growth.

Regardless of the method GitHub chooses, hitting the plateau is inevitable without significant changes in direction.

Disclosure: GitHub has been a client.



  1. Well at some point it was going to plateau, just a matter of time. Also depends on what new and amazing program has been released, always a plus.

  2. Or, *shock horror*, they switch gears to focus on revenue and start monetising that install base. It’s rather old fashioned, but then so is money.

  3. Interesting, but why is endless exponential growth such a necessary goal for Github? Maybe stabilising at ~8-10million users is fine :- there are only so many good software engineers and programmers on the planet after all 😉 Github is not a straight-out social network like Facebook and shouldn’t pretend to be. If world population is just over 7 billion people, then 7 million Github users is 1/1000 people – seems about right to me. And re previous comment, they are already ‘monetising their install base’ by offering various premium paid options like private repositories. It’s a model I like, similar to Dropbox. I do hope Github isn’t based on highly-leveraged VC funding though hoping to turn it into a goldmine, as it’s such a valuable and useful service as is. Hopefully the paid-premium model is enough for financial sustainability.

  4. Two followups: (1) the student developer pack (, and (2) this paper on GitHub for collaborative education [pdf]:

  5. There is a simple stock and flow dynamics that provides an explanation for this data. The stock of potential users is very large, but not infinite. The rate at which new users are acquired is governed by the number of potential users. When a business is very successful, like Github is, it may deplete the stock of potential users significantly, by converting them to actual users.

    There is a well-defined mathematics of this, called Strategy Dynamics, which I highly recommend for businesses that need to understand and manage their growth.

  6. This is a common pattern in successful businesses. New users are drawn from a stock of potential users. The rate at which new users is gained is proportional to the size of this stock. As the business succeeds in converting potential users to actual users, it draws down the stock of potential users, and so the flow of new users diminishes gradually. The image below sketches this model.

    There is a well-described mathematics of such processes, called Strategy Dynamics ( I highly recommend it for businesses that need to understand the factors that govern success and failure over time.

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