Monday, September 24, 2012

How to kiss your elbow

Even before Paul Graham's Growth post the recent VC meme was that entrepreneurs just aren't as ambitious as they used to be. They are too careful, husbanding their cash rather than boldly investing it in growth. I've heard this kvetch four or five times since Labor Day, each time from a smart and well-respected VC. They blamed the ease of raising seed money compared to the relative difficulty of Series A and B money, the incubators and angels corrupt the entrepreneurs.

I've had this conversation with many of my entrepreneurs over the years: the market's going to pass you by, carpe diem, etc. But I never really thought of it as a trend, it was just the usual learning opportunity for first-time entrepreneurs--there's no starting gun, no one is going to tell you when to start seizing the day, just do it. This has always been a conversation in the fifteen years I've been investing in early-stage. Is it really now a wider phenomenon?

I don't know, but I heard it enough that I ran the idea by a couple of my entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs sighed and rolled their eyes. You advised me to raise just the money I needed to get to the A, they said, Paul Graham says I should "not need money." Which is it, they ask? Do you want me to not need money or do you want me to get aggressive and raise my next round sooner, maybe without the metrics I need to get a good valuation?

Fair enough, the world is full of conflicting advice. And I understand how annoying it can be when it's the same person giving you both sides of it.

And let's be clear: the dichotomy is not necessarily between the lean startup and "go big or go home." Suster makes the case that the latter is not always the best route. No argument. This is more along the lines of when to hit the gas, not if. I only invest in entrepreneurs who tell me they can and want to go big and then I try to get them to stick to what they told me. My favorite question when these conversations happen is "what's the bottleneck?" What can we do, who can we hire, who do we need to partner with or talk to or get in front of to make what we both think can happen actually happen, now?

When I ask this, the entrepreneur always knows the answer. In fact, they've usually been thinking about it night and day. But they also usually want to take it more slowly than I do. They want to take less risk. Once you've spent the money, that money is gone, and if you're too early it's gone for good.

So how do you know when it's not too early?

Christensen tells a story in The Innovator's Dilemma about Honda's entry into the US motorcycle market. Honda's entry strategy, after much examination, was to give Americans what they clearly wanted: large bikes to ride long distances at highway speeds. Honda's expertise was in designing small, efficient engines, as in their Supercub delivery bike. But Honda designed a big, fast bike for the American market and in 1959 sent three reps to live in LA to begin marketing it.

The bikes sucked. At highway speed they leaked oil and burned through clutches in record time. The cost of sending replacements for the warrantied bikes almost put Honda out of business.

To burn off steam the Honda reps used to go out and ride their Supercubs--small, zippy, 50cc bikes--in the hills east of LA on the weekends. Over time people started asking where they could buy one of these 'dirt' bikes. The reps special-ordered Supercubs from Japan for people. After a couple of years of this a buyer from Sears tried to place a bigger order. Honda ignored him. Finally the Honda reps convinced Honda to change direction, that the big bike strategy had failed but a small bike strategy would work. Innovative distribution channels were forged, sales took off, market entry was achieved.

But if Honda had been more aggresive with their strategy in 1959, if they had sent reps to Miami and Seattle and Dallas and Atlanta and Denver and Las Vegas at the same time as LA, there's an excellent chance Honda would have not only failed to enter the market but actually gone out of business. By taking it slow until they had found a product that fit the market, they bought the time they needed for success.

Bit of a buzzword that, product market fit. Mark Andreesen says "you can always feel product/market fit when it's happening." Unfortunately, this is simply not true. Honda took a couple of years to feel it and even longer to properly trust it. In B-to-B startups you can have a lot of buzz and a few amazing clients banging your door down and still have a product that doesn't really do much. Or you can have a product that is absolutely amazing that great clients are beta-testing but that no one is paying for. In B-to-C you can have a hundred thousand users and still be serving nothing but tech industry curiosity seekers. Or you can have millions of members and few users. These are not product-market fit.

There is a case for going slow, to a point. Your product has to provide real value to your users. You need to have a viable business model, know the metrics you need to make it work, and be on the path to meeting those metrics. And then you need a way to get to customers and convince them to sign up and/or pay. You need all these things before you can feel comfortable ramping up the spend. But if customers love your product, if those customers are profitable customers, and if those customers start presenting themselves, either directly or by making themselves extremely easy to get in front of, then you should let them become customers. And if there are more of them than you can get in front of personally, then you should hire a salesperson. If there are more of them than your salesperson can get in front of, then you should hire more salespeople. If you have a product and you have a market for that product, you should stop worrying and start scaling.

In the old hockey-stick curve there is a flat part and there is a steep part. That transition, the elbow in the curve, is hard to see, especially when you're spending all your time trying to run your company. Here's a question to ask yourself: if you think you can double revenue next year, what's holding you back from increasing revenue by 10x? If the answer is that there's no market yet, then keep grinding away at it. If the answer is not enough people or hardware for scaling, then start spending the money on hiring them, today.

The best possible Series A story: "we don't really need your money, but if we had it we could grow ten times faster starting tomorrow." Term sheet before you get home, guaranteed.

1 comment:

Ed Zimmerman said...

Great post. It raises a few questions:
--start-ups used to be far less reported on and we also experienced a trend in which consumer-facing tech start-ups couldn't get arrested, let alone funded.
Do you feel like the abundance of coverage of the sector makes it more difficult, particularly for consumer web companies, to understand the moment of product-market fit and the likelihood/predictability of early churn?
How does this impact your view on when and to what extent start-ups should seek PR/coverage?