Developing new startup ideas

If you want to start a company and are working on new ideas, here’s how I’ve always done it and how I recommend you do it.  Be the opposite of secretive.  Create a Google spreadsheet where you list every idea you can think, even really half-baked ones.  Include ideas you hear about (make sure you keep track of who had which idea so you can credit them/include them later).

Then take the spreadsheet and show it to every smart person you can get a meeting with and walk through each idea.  Talk to VCs, entrepreneurs, potential customers, and people working at big companies in relevant industries. You’ll be surprised how much you’ll learn.  The odds that someone will hear an idea and go start a competitor are close to zero.  The odds you’ll learn which ideas are good and bad and how to improve them are very high.

Every conversation will contain some signal and some noise. Separating the two is tricky. Here are some broad rules of thumb I’ve developed for how to filter feedback based to the profession of the person giving it to you.

1) Employees at relevant big companies. These people are great at providing facts (“Google has 100 people working on that problem”) but their judgment about the quality of startup ideas is generally bad. They tend to have goggles on that makes them think every good idea in their industry is already being built within their company.  For example, every security industry person I talked to thought SiteAdvisor was a bad idea.  (If it wasn’t, they think, someone at McAfee or Symantec company would have already built it!)

2) VCs. VCs are good at telling you about similar companies in the past and present and critiquing your idea in an “MBA-like” way:  will it scale? what are the economics? what is the best marketing strategy?  I would listen to them on these topics but pretty much ignore whether they think your idea is good or bad.

3) Potential customers.  If your product is B2B, remember you’ll be selling to that person 2-3 years from now and by then the world and their priorities will likely have radically changed.  If your product is B2C, it’s interesting to hear how regular consumers think about your product but often they really need to use it fully built and in the proper context to really judge it.

4) Entrepreneurs. This is the one group I listen to without a filter.

Even though I have no intention of starting a new company for a long time (if ever), I still keep my idea spreadsheet and update it periodically.  Some of the ideas I wrote down a few years ago are now companies started by other people (some successful, some not).  A few I had the chance to invest in. It’s interesting to compare my notes and ratings of each idea with how those companies have actually performed. I also keep a list of “on the beach” ideas in case I have time in between startups. These are mostly non-profit ideas.  I don’t know if I’ll ever get to those but they are particularly fun to think about.

* Thanks to James Cham for inspiring & contributing ideas to this post!

Don’t be creative about the wrong things

When founding a tech startup, there are certain areas where you should spend time trying to be creative/innovative. Generally these should be:  product, recruiting, marketing etc. One slightly disturbing trend I’ve noticed is founders trying to creative about stuff like legal terms that really are better left in their “default” form.

Here’s my advice: hire a “default” law firm like Gunderson and take their “default” advice. Yes, you should form a C corp in Delaware of CA or wherever they tell you; yes you should have 4 year vesting with a 1 year cliff; yes founders should have vesting; yes your deal terms should be plain vanilla. Etc. These things are time tested and you are far more likely to screw things up than create value by tinkering with them. Also, they are just not what you should be spending your time on.

Selling to enterprises

For some reason when you are selling information technology, big companies are referred to as “enterprises.” I’m guessing the word was invented by a software vendor who was trying to justify a million-dollar price tag. As a rule of thumb, think of enterprise sales as products/services that cost $100K/year or more.

I am by no means an expert in enterprise sales. Personally, I vastly prefer marketing (one-to-many) versus sales (one-to-one), hence only start companies making consumer or small business products (advertising based or sub-$5000 price tags). But I have been involved in a few enterprise companies over the years. Here’s the main thing I’ve observed. Almost every enterprise startup I’ve seen has a product that would solve a problem their prospective customers have. But that isn’t the key question. The key question is whether it solves a problem that is one of the prospective customer’s top immediate priorities. Getting an enterprise to cough up $100K+ requires the “buy in” of many people, most of whom would prefer to maintain the status quo. Only if your product is a top priority can you get powerful “champions” to cut through the red tape.

My rule of thumb is that every enterprise (or large business unit within an enterprise) will, at best, buy 1-3 new enterprise products per year.  You can have the greatest hardware/software in the world, but if you aren’t one of their top three priorities, you won’t be able to profitably sell to them.

One final note: enterprise-focused VC’s sometimes refer to products priced between (roughly) $5k and $100K as falling in the “valley of death.” Above $100K, you might be able to make a profit given the cost of sales. Below $5k you might be able to market your product, hence have a very low cost of sales. In between, you need to do sales but it’s hard to do it profitably. Your best bet is a “channel” strategy; however, for innovative new products that is often a lot like trying to push a string.

Incumbents

Almost every startup has big companies (“incumbents”) that are at some point potential acquirers or competitors.  For internet startups that primarily means Google and Microsoft, and to a far lesser extent Yahoo and AOL.  (And likely more and more Apple, Facebook and even Twitter?).

The first thing to try to figure out is whether what you are building will eventually be on the incumbent’s product roadmap. The best way to do predict this is to figure out whether what you are doing is strategic for the company. (I try to outline what I think is strategic for Google here). Note that asking people who work at the incumbents isn’t very useful – even they don’t know what will be important to them in, say, two years.

If what you are doing is strategic for the incumbents, be prepared for them to enter the market at some point. This could be good for you if you build a great product, recruit a great team, and are happy with a “product sale” or “trade sale” – usually sub $50M. If you are going for this size outcome, you should plan your financing strategy appropriately. Trade sales are generally great for bootstrapped or seed-funded companies but bad if you have raised lots of VC money.

If your product is strategic for the incumbent and you’re shooting for a bigger outcome, you probably need to either 1) be far enough ahead of the curve that by the time the big guys get there you’re already entrenched, or 2) be doing something the big guys aren’t good at. Google has been good at a surprising number of things. One important area they haven’t been good at (yet) is software with a social component (Google Video vs YouTube, Orkut vs Facebook, Knol vs Wikipedia, etc).

The final question to ask is whether your product is disruptive or sustaining (in the Christensen sense).  If it’s disruptive, you most likely will go unnoticed by the incumbents for a long time (because it will look like a toy to them). If the your technology is sustaining and you get noticed early you probably want to try to sell (and if you can’t, pivot). My last company, SiteAdvisor, was very much a sustaining technology, and the big guys literally told us if we didn’t sell they’d build it. In that case, the gig is up and you gotta sell.

What’s the right amount of seed money to raise?

Short answer:  enough to get your startup to an accretive milestone plus some fudge factor.

“Accretive milestone” is a fancy way of saying getting your company to a point at which you can raise money at a higher valuation.  As a rule of thumb, I would say a successful Series A is one where good VCs invest at a pre-money that is at least twice the post-money of the seed round.  So if for your seed round you raised $1M at $2M pre ($3M post-money valuation), for the Series A you should be shooting for a minimum of $6M pre (but hopefully you’ll get significantly higher).

The worst thing a seed-stage company can do is raise too little money and only reach part way to a milestone. Pitching new investors in that case is very hard; often the only way keep the company alive is to get the existing investors to reinvest at the last round valuation (“reopen the last round”). The second worst thing you can do is raise too much money in the seed round (most likely because big funds pressure you to do so), hence taking too much dilution too soon.

How do you determine what an accretive milestone is? The answer is partly determined by market conditions and partly by the nature of your startup. Knowing market conditions means knowing which VCs are currently aggressively investing, at what valuations, in what sectors, and how various milestones are being perceived.  This is where having active and connected advisors and seed investors can be extremely helpful.

Aside from market conditions, you should try to answer the question: what is the biggest risk your startup is facing in the upcoming year and how can you eliminate that risk?  You should come up with your own answer but you should also talk to lots of smart people to get their take (yet another reason not to keep your idea secret).

For consumer internet companies, eliminating the biggest risk almost always means getting “traction” – user growth, engagement, etc. Traction is also what you want if you are targeting SMBs (small/medium businesses). For online advertising companies you probably want revenues. If you are selling to enterprises you probably want to have a handful of credible beta customers.

The biggest mistake founders make is thinking that building a product by itself will be perceived as an accretive milestone. Building a product is only accretive in cases where there is significant technical risk – e.g. you are building a new search engine or semiconductor.

Now to the “fudge factor.”  Basically what I’d recommend here depends on what milestones you are going for and how experienced you are at developing and executing operating plans. If you are going for marketing traction, that almost always takes (a lot) longer than people expect.  You should think about a fudge factor of 50% (increasing the round size by 50%).  You should also have alternative operating plans where you can “cut the burn” to get more calendar time on your existing raise (“extend the runway”). If you are just going for product milestones and are super experienced at building products you might try a lower fudge factor.

The most perverse thing that I see is big VC funds pushing companies to raise far more money than they need to (even at higher valuations), simply so they can “put more money to work“. This is one of many reasons why angels or pure seed funds are preferable seed round investors (bias alert:  I am one of them!).