Hockey stick growth curves are a desirable path for startups. The idea is that growth is slow and steady, much like the base of a hockey stick, and then at some point it really starts to take off, much like the long part of a hockey stick. There’s another concept, escape velocity, that isn’t talked about as much but is still important.
According to Wikipedia, escape velocity is the speed at which the kinetic energy plus the gravitational potential energy of an object is zero. You can think of it as the point where something breaks free from whatever is holding it back, and thus carries on indefinitely. For startups, escape velocity has to do with becoming the dominant vendor and growing indefinitely. All too often, a startup goes through the hockey stick growth path, only the fast growth eventually plateaus and the startup has slow or no growth. The startup didn’t fully achieve escape velocity.
A company like Salesforce.com that’s still growing at double digit rates, even with billions of dollars of recurring revenue, achieved escape velocity and shows no signs of slowing down. Few startups achieve the hockey stick growth curve and even fewer achieve escape velocity. Pay attention to the growth paths of other startups and ask yourself if it achieved escape velocity.
What else? What are your thoughts on escape velocity?
Recently I was meeting with an entrepreneur who’s out raising a Series A round from VCs. He’s already raised an angel round, built an almost complete version one of the product, and has a handful of customers. Personally, his goal is to build a large successful company, on someone else’s dime, and then do it again on his own timeframe without investors in the future. The clock is ticking now.
When the founder started asking questions about raising money from VCs I quickly asked what his value multiplier was to raise VC money. That is, how much money would he make on his current growth path with an exit in five years vs raising multiple rounds of money from VCs and also exiting in five years. Now, I believe the best companies don’t have an exit strategy but I understand that’s not the standard view.
Here’s a super simple way I think about the value multiplier to raise VC money from a spreadsheet jockey perspective:
- As a co-founder you own 40% of the business with another co-founder that owns 40% and a stock option pool representing 20%
- At the end of five years you still own 40% assuming you don’t raise money and don’t have any dilution
- As a co-founder that owns 40% of the business, assume you raise three rounds of VC financing (roughly one every 18 months). VCs buy approximately 33% of the business with each round of financing and assume the option pool grows by 10%, so multiply the ownership stake by .57 (representing the amount sold to the VCs and the amount for the new option pool, not taking into account liquidity preferences). Here’s the math: .4*.57*.57*.57 which equals 7.4%.
- Assume everything else is equal, which it isn’t, the value multiplier to raise VC money is 5.4. That is, it makes financial sense to raise VC money if the business will be significantly greater than 5.4 times more valuable in five years.
- A quick example: if you can build a company worth $10 million with no VCs, the same company would have to be worth $54 million for the personal gain to be financially equivalent.
Raising VC money creates a number of other opportunities and challenges and shouldn’t be viewed just as money. If it is viewed purely to create more personal wealth then the approximate value multiplier is 5.4 for a five year window.
What else? What are your thoughts on the value multiplier to raise VC money?
For years I’ve been a Skype user — not a heavy user but a regular one. With Skype video a few years ago it became even stronger because conversations are better when you get to see and hear the person on the other end. With our daily check-ins we had a standard call-in number for anyone not at the meeting. After Skype came out with group chat we started trying to use it for our daily check-ins but the friction was too high as one person had to initiate the connection to the other people potentially on the call, which was too time consuming for a daily 10 minute meeting.
Google Hangout came along and solved our problems.
Google Hangout is great because you can make a private room, XYZ Startup, and then share it as a link with other members of your team. Everyone can bookmark that link and then whenever a meeting occurs anyone invited can join the hangout room and have full voice and video capabilities. There’s also screen sharing and other collaboration tools right in the virtual room.
Oh, and the best part is that it’s free.
What else? What are your thoughts on Google Hangout?
Have you ever worked on a project and felt like there wasn’t enough communication? Now, have 100 projects going on around you with a small group of people — that’s how it is in a startup. If there wasn’t enough communication with one project imagine how it is with 100 simultaneously. You should always over-communicate in startups.
Over-communicating is different than micro-managing. I’m a big fan of empowering people through autonomy, mastery, and purpose where autonomy comes partly from trust. Now, with so many things going on in a startup it can be difficult to find time to communicate. Don’t let that happen.
The most effective communication tool I’ve found is the daily check-in. Daily check-ins are simple — everyone on your team meets for 10 minutes in-person and/or over Skype Video to answer three simple questions. The questions are what did you accomplish yesterday, what are you going to do today, and do you have any roadblocks. Simple and powerful. And, yes, you do this every single day.
What else? What are your thoughts on over-communicating in startups?
The startup community is great because it’s both tight-nit and inviting. Every year a handful of startups break out of the noise and become the pretty startup at the party with heaps of attention pilled on. It’s an amazing feeling to be recognized, especially after all the hard work necessary to get things off the ground.
As an entrepreneur there are a few things to remember when you hit the limelight:
- External validation is great for PR and should magnified through social media, SEO, etc
- Winning an award does not equal more revenue from customers
- Requests for your time for coffees, lunches, etc will go up and can take away your most precious asset — time
- Don’t get a false sense of progress from recognition when happy customers are the true measure
Being the pretty startup at the party is great fun but be cognizant of the demands on time and what’s truly necessary to be successful.
What else? What are your thoughts on being the pretty startup at the party?
In the book Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us by Daniel Pink he talks about the three most important areas necessary to maximize success with knowledge workers: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy and mastery are straightforward to promote in a startup whereas purpose is more complicated. Sure, the purpose might be to create great XZY software but I don’t think that’s inspiring to team members outside engineering.
A startup’s purpose is much more powerful when it involves improving society or making an impact beyond a profit. Here’s Starbuck’s purpose:
To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.
A startup’s purpose doesn’t have to be as grandiose. For us we have a simple one: provide a platform for good work, good people, and good pay. Our purpose is centered more around being a great place to work and a great place to be a customer with corporate culture as the driving force.
Spend time on your startup’s purpose and make it relevant and motivating.
What else? What are your thoughts on a startup’s purpose?
ExactTarget had a very successful IPO last week pricing above it’s expected range and then promptly gaining 32% in value the first day. ExactTarget is one of the most impressive SaaS companies due to their strong corporate culture (Orange Culture), growth rate north of 40% at scale, and headquarters in Indianapolis (outside the Silicon Valley echo chamber). It’s a small group of Software-as-a-Service companies that have had successful IPOs and the market has rewarded them handsomely in terms of valuations (SaaS IPOs are sexy article).
Based on today’s stock price of $26.32 for ET, the company is valued at $1.7 billion. At a little more than $200 million in recurring revenue that puts them in the 8x revenue club (the company is valued at more than eight times their revenue, which is extremely high). Bill Gurley, a famous venture capitalist and long time blogger, has a great post All Revenue is Not Created Equal: The Keys to the 10x Revenue Club where he talks about factors that contribute to extremely high multiples of revenue (think LinkedIn, OpenTable, etc).
Here are the factors Bill Gurley lists:
- Sustainable Competitive Advantage (Warren Buffet’s Moat)
- The Presence of Network Effects
- Visibility/Predictability are Highly Valued
- Customer Lock-In/High Switching Costs
- Gross Margin Levels
- Marginal Profitability Calculation
- Customer Concentration
- Major Partner Dependencies
- Organic Demand vs. Heavy Marketing Spend
ExactTarget has most the factors including #2 (The Presence of Network Effects), #3 (Visibility/Predictability are Highly Valued), #4 (Customer Lock-In/High Switching Costs), #5 (Gross Margin Levels), #6 (Marginal Profitability Calculation), #7 (Customer Concentration), #8 (Major Partner Dependencies), and #10 (Growth). A sustainable competitive advantage is there but not as obvious as lower cost providers continue to proliferate. In addition, there isn’t organic demand but rather very heavy marketing spend ($30 million in losses last year due to sales and marketing). With eight of the 10 factors readily identifiable, and the stock trading at 8x revenue, it’s squarely in the 8x revenue club.
What else? What are your thoughts on ExactTarget in the 8x revenue club?
People buy from people they like — we all know that old adage. All too often people purchase inferior products even after reviewing the superior product. Yes, there are reasons like price, functionality, implementation timeframe, etc that drive purchasing decisions but people underestimate the importance of the relationship in the sale.
My guess is that the relationship with the prospect is 70% of winning the deal and the product details (features, price, etc) is 30% of winning the deal. The relationship really is that important. Some companies win a number of deals because their brand and marketing muscle open the door for relationships to begin. Companies that are market leaders get 10-100x more publicity than the second place vendor, and thus get in the door even more.
The next time you win or lose a sale ask yourself how you did on the relationship building side of the equation. Was it better or worse than you had hoped? How important was the relationship in winning the deal? Almost always when I talk to sales people that just lost a deal they down play the importance of the relationship.
People buy from people they like, especially with complex sales — it’s never going to change.
What else? What are your thoughts on the percent of the deal attributable to the relationship and the percent of the deal attributable to the product?
An idea we borrowed from Zappos several years ago is a corporate culture book. The book is a physical manifestation of our culture that sits prominently in our lobby on an ornate wood pedestal. In the book we’ve documented the history of things like Free Food Friday, inside jokes, and other aspects of the business so that new hires can get a better understanding of why we do the things we do. By being so visible in the lobby, it sets the tone for everyone in the office that corporate culture is out top priority.
Here are some quick details on a corporate culture book:
- Have all stories in the book come directly from employees
- Invest in a high quality cover for it
- Place it in a noticeable position
- Update it on a regular basis
- Encourage new hires to read and spend time with it
A corporate culture book is a fun and powerful way to emphasize the importance of corporate culture.
What else? What are your thoughts on a corporate culture book?
One of our Shotput Ventures speakers from three years ago gave a great talk about his experiences as an entrepreneur. About halfway through his talk he was giving advice about what to look for in a mentor and angel investor and he said a line I’ll never forget: watch out for someone who is rich because they were in the hallway when the money ball exploded. The idea is that some people had immense financial luck without gaining the experience of building a sustainable business because they were at the right place at the right time.
Josh James, the co-founder of Omniture and Domo, sent a tweet out recently saying that sometimes success comes in spite of what you did and not because of it — pay attention to the truth:
The next time you’re seeking a mentor or angel investor find out if they were in the hallway when the money ball exploded or if they were something else.
What else? What are your thoughts on deciphering how success was achieved by someone?