Critical Mass = ONE : You and Your Disruptive & Viral Idea !!!


((update May 7, PS.1 and 2))

1. A common misconception about innovation is that it will only take off beyond a certain number (critical mass) of users/ clients. Image: an airplane taking off from an airfield, it must first gather speed before the wings get enough ‘lift”. Others talk about the ‘tipping point‘ beyond which an innovation starts to spread. These concepts are borrowed from nuclear physics where beyond a certain threshold amount of a substance it can start a chain reaction, see: .

2. This notion is very well established and is often used by innovators to convince venture capital providers to continue funding a project during rollout because “the critical mass is nearly reached”. “We are just before the hockey stick bend in the curve”. Charming but untrue IMHO. There IS no sudden bend in the curve. That is only perception and clever use of graphic diagrams.

3. What happens in real life is that a very good idea/product/service is adopted when seen by other people like a virus they catch. And which they transmit (show) to several other people. The strength of a virus is not depending on the amount of people who have it but on its virality/ catchiness/ attractiveness.

Good ideas are not sold but are absorbed/adopted by users depending on their virality, and that can be measured from day one when it is made public.

Viral ideas grow in an exponential way, which means the spreading has an fixed doubling time. Note: you can P2P “infect” several people, etc. with your enthousism about this new thing, but the curve can be calculated back to doubling.

So to show you how this works, I list the doubling development in time:








128  (try this on your calculator app: 1 X 2  click on the = button)














What you may notice in this doubling sequence is:

a. It starts very flat, with slow growth of the amount of adopters. Hence the airfield image. Techno-nerds like me hate this since it is hard to convince digibete managers and others that anything is happening at all. “Such a small success of your invention” your boss will say. We geeks overestimate the impact in this starting phases.

b. After a while the doubling seems to grow through the roof. This is when the managers have to admit that they have underestimated your invention, and competitors will not be able to catch up with your product or service.

c. There is nowhere a bend in the curve. The point is that we tend to perceive growth in straight lines (see example of PS.1). So subconsciously we draw one nearly horizontal line through the “slow curve” of a. and another line nearly vertical through the explosion curve of b.  And where these to imaginary lines meet we think there is the sudden bend/ tipping point. Which is not there. This perception fault can be avoided by using a logarithmic scale for the vertical axis. In the example of PS.1   10, 100, 1000 each having a same distance on the vertical. The result is a straight line in which the real growth can be charted over many orders of magnitude.

So we have only one parameter to measure for the success of an innovation : The Virality (catchiness) which I defined as:  1/ doubling time ; [1/number of days]. And I introduced the W (double U) as the doubling time [days]. So Virality = 1/W .

[Note this definition is different from that of ‘the Viral Coefficient’ about response to invitations for a service, which does not include the TIME it takes to spread]

4. To be honest the curve will start to level off to horizontal after a while when every body who could get the virus had it. In other words, market saturation. This introduces a second parameter which unfortunately can only be measured very late in the curve: the total candidate population. Marketeers seldom quarrel about the virality but they do about estimates of the total user population size. I remember for is instance that for GSM Cell Phones the first rollout networks where built for a small number of company directors in BMW’s or Mercedeses who would ever be able to afford “car phones” as they where called then. Now about 6 of the 7 billion people on this planet use one or more cellphones !!

5. The most successful innovations that do make use of viral spreading are “Disruptive Innovations”, which can overcome obstacles on the rollout by intentional or mental limitations of the projected user size. For example Henry Ford after the invention of his very affordable T-Ford car had to wait ten years and fight a lobby of expensive carmakers like Olsmobile who did protect their market share with patents and not wanted him to make cars too cheap. Ford was a rebel who staged car races and sold the T-Ford to his own factory workers to break through the lobby barrier, see [1]. Yes he was disruptive. There are two kinds of innovation. Sustained innovation makes a certain product-line cheaper and adds performance and function improvements in new releases for the same capive client group. The other kind is Disruptive Innovation. This is generally characterized by:

it works and is implemented by users themselves, DIY, without asking anybody’s permission,

– and it reaches a much bigger and different client group, which grows bottom up,

– the price/performance is much better, although at the start of the innovation quality can be lower. But by doing people learn to improve it fast, resulting in superior products/services. So after a while the vested interest parties (like the expensive car makers) are forced stop their now outdated product line and join the new market.


An example of the critical mass of, well, two: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak designed and built the Apple One kit and showed it at the Home Brew Computer Club in Silicon Gulch, as they called it for fun. And everybody there who saw it work WANTED ONE. The rest is history. So, young rebel, my advice to you is: develop your bright idea with some clever friends into something you can show to work, and watch people want it and then show it to their friends. Do not wait for state funding and planning, do not wait for greedy venture capital or reluctant bankers who want in on the act. Just start and DO invent.

PS.1 Example of forecasts with straight lines, while in reality it has exponential growth:

Example exponential

PS.2 Sure running a startup can be a rough ride with many ups and downs, which can differ from the doubling chart rose garden of theory, but do have patience and do not let you and your team be stopped by anyone !!!

startup reality

[1]  Market Rebels: How Activists Make or Break Radical Innovations, prof. Hayagreeva Rao

jaap van till, theConnectivist

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