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:
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.