Growth curves of startups

Pick whatever metric you want for gauging the success of a particular startup: profits, revenues, pageviews, etc. A graph I’d love to see is those metrics, graphed over time, for a wide variety of startups. From my experience, you’d be surprised how often those graphs show sudden growth. Something happens in the world (an “exogenous shock”) and the startup suddenly takes off.

I remember first observing this when I worked at Bessemer. For example, there was a startup that supplied services to video websites. For years, the company soldiered along, barely growing. Then, suddenly, YouTube blew up and this company took off along with it.

As a founder, these exogenous shocks are out of your control, but you can 1) understand what exogenous shocks you depend on, 2) try to guess when those shocks will hit, 3) manage your runway so you survive long enough for them to hit.

Pivoting into a new corporate structure

This hasn’t happened to me, but I keep hearing stories about situations like the following: 1) startup raises a seed financing round while working on a preliminary idea, 2) founders later “pivot” into a new idea that looks more promising and/or gains traction, 3) founders decide to raise a new round of financing, 4) founders argue that the new idea is so different from the original one that it should be part of a new company, and that the original seed investors shouldn’t own any part of it.

At Founder Collective, we think of ourselves as investing primarily in people, and only secondarily in ideas or products. I have to admit that until I heard about these situations happening, I hadn’t even conceived of the possibility of “pivots into new corporate structures”. In retrospect, I suppose it was inevitable given the founder-friendly market and the rapidly evolving venture environment.

As a legal matter, assuming the founders worked on the idea on the original company’s time and/or money, the seed investors probably have a strong claim. Founders and employees normally sign “invention assignment” agreements that would make the new ideas and products property of the original company (again, these aren’t situations I’m personally involved in so I am just speculating on the specifics).  The reality is that most professional seed investors aren’t going to sue founders and will likely instead try to work out some compromise.

This is not to suggest, by the way, that founders are indentured servants to investors. It is perfectly fine, if an idea isn’t working out, to wind down the company, return the remaining capital, and go off and work on new ideas. If one of those new ideas shows promise, the founders are then (legally and morally) free to form a new corporate entity and raise new financing from whomever they choose. From news reports, it sounds like this is what the Odeo team did before they pivoted to Twitter. It’s the conventional and, in my view, correct way to handle these situations.

Here’s what really worries me. If it becomes a norm for founders to jettison seed investors when their company’s focus changes, seed investors who invest “primarily in people” will stop doing so. I think that would be a real shame: we’d lose an important source of capital and a lot of innovative startups wouldn’t get funded.

Experiment: blog in Kindle book form

There is an amazing amount of useful, free information available on tech blogs for fledgling tech entrepreneurs (this list is a great place to start). I think sometimes we techies forget that this wealth of content is unknown to the non-startup world. I was reminded of this recently when I met a first-time entrepreneur who said when he was first starting out he tried finding books on Amazon, Googling for stuff etc. He described it as an epiphany the first time he stumbled upon Fred Wilson’s blog, which then led him to Brad Feld, Mark Suster, Eric Ries, Venture Hacks, etc.

So this weekend I thought I’d try an experiment. I took about 100 of my blog posts (the ones that I thought were most “evergreen”), bundled them as a PDF and submitted them to the Kindle Store. The Kindle submission process was surprisingly easy. You give your book a name and upload the PDF and then choose pricing.  They force you to charge a minimum of $0.99.  Also, strangely, if you charge less than $2.99, Amazon takes 70% of the revenue, but if you charge between $2.99-$10 they only keep 30%.

I decided to price my book at $2.99 and donate all of the proceeds (~$2 book) to HackNY, a non-profit that “keeps the kids off the Street” (encourages college students to join/start tech startups instead of working on Wall Street). All of the content in the book is available for free on cdixon.org. The only reason to buy the book is to get this blog in a different format and to support a good charity. It is available in the Kindle Store here.

I don’t expect many people to buy the book but maybe some first-time entrepreneurs will stumble on it and from there discover more tech blogs. Think of it as “Kindle SEO” for tech blogs.

Finally, I am having trouble getting the links to work on the Kindle version. I’m not sure if this is an Amazon policy or if I am just doing something wrong (the links work fine in the PDF I uploaded to Amazon). So here is an alternative version on Scribd that has working links.

Selling pickaxes during a gold rush

There is a saying in the startup world that “you can mine for gold or you can sell pickaxes.” This is of course an allusion to the California Gold Rush where some of the most successful business people such as Levi Strauss and Samuel Brannan didn’t mine for gold themselves but instead sold supplies to miners – wheelbarrows, tents, jeans, pickaxes etc. Mining for gold was the more glamorous path but actually turned out, in aggregate, to be a worse return on capital and labor than selling supplies.

When a major new technology trend emerges – say, the rise of online video or social media – entrepreneurs can try to capitalize on the trend by creating a consumer product (mining for gold), or by creating tools to enable consumer products (selling pickaxes).  For most technology trends, the number of successful companies created in gold mining and pickaxes are comparable, yet the gold mining businesses tend to get much more attention. In online video, YouTube is often thought of as the big winner; however, to date, more money has been made by online video by infrastructure suppliers like Akamai. Y-combinator is known for their high-profile B2C startups but their biggest exits to date have been in infrastructure (most recently Heroku which rode the popularity of Ruby on Rails to a >$200M exit)*.

When you start a company, the most important consideration should be working on a product you love (a startup can be a 5+ year endeavor so if you don’t love it you probably won’t be able to endure the ups and downs).  A secondary consideration should be matching the skills of the founders to the market.  Tools companies tend to require stronger technical and sales skills, whereas B2C companies tend to be more about predicting consumer tastes and marketing skills. A final consideration should be the supply-and-demand of startups in the space.  Because B2C companies tend to be “sexier” and get more press coverage, many entrepreneurs are drawn to them. This tends to lead to greater competition even though the market opportunities might not justify it.

There are many exciting technology opportunities emerging today: some are horizontal like mobile, location, and local; others are vertical like fashion, art, real estate, education, finance and energy. If you are an entrepreneur thinking about starting a company around these trends, consider selling pickaxes.

* Note that there are many great B2C YC companies, so the list of exits will no doubt change and probably skew more towards B2C over time.

The “thin edge of the wedge” strategy

Establishing relationships with new users is the hardest part of growing a startup.  For consumer products establishing relationships can mean many things: installs, registrations, purchases, or even just getting users to think of your website as a place to go for certain purposes.  For B2B products, establishing relationships means getting internal users or testers and eventually contracts and payments. For business development partners – for example API/widget partners – establishing relationships usually means getting functionality embedded in partners’ products (e.g. a widget on their website).

One common strategy for establishing this initial relationship is what is sometimes known as the “thin edge of the wedge” strategy (aka the “tip of the spear” strategy).  This strategy is analogous to the bowling pin strategy: both are about attacking a smaller problem first and then expanding out.  The difference is that the wedge strategy is about product tactics while the bowling pin strategy is about marketing tactics.

Sometimes the wedge can be a simple feature that existing companies overlooked or saw as inconsequential. The ability to share photos on social networks was (strangely) missing from the default iPhone camera app (and sharing was missing from many third-party camera apps like Hipstimatic that have popular features like lo-fi camera filters), so Instagram and Picplz filled the void. Presumably, these startups are going to try to use mobile photo sharing as the wedge into larger products (perhaps full-fledged social networks?).

Sometimes the wedge is a “single player mode” – a famous example is early adopters who used Delicious to store browser bookmarks in the cloud and then only later – once the user base hit critical mass – used its social bookmarking features. Other times the wedge lies on one side of a two-sided market, in which case the wedge strategy could be thought of as a variant of the “ladies night” strategy. I’m told that OpenTable initially used the wedge strategy by providing restaurants with terminals that acted like simple, single-player CRM systems. Once they acquired a critical mass of restaurants in key cities (judiciously chosen using the bowling pin strategy), opentable.com had sufficient inventory to become useful as a one-stop shop for consumers.

Critics sometimes confuse wedge features with final products. For example, some argue that mobile photo sharing is “just a feature,” or that game mechanics on geo apps like Foursquare are just faddish “toys.” Some go so far as to argue that the tech startup world as a whole is going through a phase of just building “dinky” features and companies. Perhaps some startups have no plan and really are just building features, likely with the hope of flipping themselves to larger companies. Good startups, however, think about the whole wedge from the start. They build an initial user base with simple features and then quickly iterate to create products that are enduringly useful, thereby creating companies that have stand-alone, defensible value.