In startupland there’s always been talk of startup success begetting more startup success. The idea is that successful startups expose hundreds, if not thousands, of employees to what it’s like in a startup. Then, after a big exit, a number of newly wealthy employees become the next generation of angel investors and entrepreneurs. Ideally, the cycle repeats itself and each subsequent generation is more successful than the last.
While it sounds nice and makes logical sense, the time horizons are often incredibly long with 7-10 years for the first success. Assuming another 7-10 years for the next round of successes, this process can take decades to play out. Building a substantial startup community requires a long time horizon.
Recently I read Jim McKelvey‘s excellent The Innovation Stack: Building an Unbeatable Business One Crazy Idea at a Time. In the world of business books, Jim is especially unusual with his quirky, fun writing style complete with eclectic analogies on every page. The big idea is that startup success isn’t one breakthrough idea — e.g. using a credit card reader plugged into the headphone jack of an iPhone at Square — but rather the aggregation of a number of ideas that coalesce over time.
Wildly successful startups stack one innovation on another, without consciously thinking of it as innovation, all in an effort to make the customer happy. Only once success is achieved, it’s possible to look back and see the different innovations that emerged. Here’s what he cites as the innovation stack for the company Square (market cap $100+ billion) that he co-founded:
No Live Support
New Fraud Modeling
Balance Sheet Accountability
These are easy to see now, but back in 2009 this was anathema to the credit card processing industry. The provide the best customer experience possible, innovation was required across multiple dimensions.
Now, let’s apply this thought exercise to the early days of Pardot (company founding through the first five years):
All-in-One Marketing Platform – By incorporating the most important marketing modules like email, landing pages, forms, automations, and integrations into a unified platform, marketers were able to run higher performing campaigns
Customer Care Culture – With our culture of people who were positive, self-starting, and supportive and a focus on being the best place to work and the best place to be a customer, our bootstrapped company was able to out-compete heavily funded competitors from the coasts
Tech Stack – Building an app from scratch in 2007 using PHP on Symfony with a MySQL backend enabled our engineering team to deliver customer requests faster and iterate quicker than the incumbents
Product Pricing and Packaging – Everything was built around a price point that was the maximum amount we could charge a marketing manager without having to sign off from finance (~$1,000/month) while delivering the most bang for the buck
No Contracts – Without contracts, we had to earn the business of our customers everyday. This forced us to work harder and ensure we were delivering value. Every competitor had annual contracts.
Innovation stack is a way to reflect on the elements of the business that enabled success. At Pardot, it was part people, technology, business model, and more that allowed us to win. Thanks to Jim for writing an excellent book that captures this idea that innovation is necessary across all disciplines in a business.
One of the more popular questions I get is, “What do you look for in a startup?” Startupland is part art and part science, so I’m always looking for frameworks and ideas to increase the chance of success. One of my favorite frameworks for what to look for in a startup is the Triple T: Team, TAM, and Timing.
Everything starts with the entrepreneurs. Where did the idea come from? Why work on it? What’s worked well so far? What hasn’t worked well? What’s next? There’s a story or arc to the entrepreneurial journey. Part of it is listening for examples of uncommon grit and perseverance that will prove beneficial as challenge and obstacles continually present themselves. Part of it is feeling the emotion in the pitch and assessing how that will translate to recruiting team members, finding investors, and signing up customers.
After team, the next area to assess is the Total Addressable Market (TAM). TAM is a way of asking the question: if all goes well, how big can this startup get? The best startup ideas are ones where the TAM is small today, but fast growing, such that in 7-10 years it’ll be a huge market. Of course, predicting the future is terribly difficult. On average, entrepreneurs I talk with don’t spend enough time thinking through TAM and pursue ideas that appear too small in the long run. TAM should be small today and massive tomorrow.
We’ve all heard someone say, “I had that idea years ago.” Being too early is no different than being too late. Much like Goldilocks choosing the bed that was just right, timing needs to be just right. Ideal timing is starting a few years ahead of peak market adoption such that there’s a strong foundation, great team, quality customers, and an excellent story. Then, when the market really takes off, all the pieces are already in place. For timing, be a little early, but not too early.
The next time you’re thinking through a startup idea, or talking to an entrepreneur, use the Triple T framework and assess the team, TAM, and timing.
In Christopher Nolan‘s thriller Inception there’s a important line repeated throughout the movie, and every entrepreneur should know it:
An idea is like a virus. Resilient. Highly contagious. And even the smallest seed of an idea can grow.
Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the movie Inception
Of course, an idea is the starting point for every startup. Only, a well constructed idea must be like a product. It needs to be nurtured, refined, and marketed. Value comes from impact and distribution. Too often, entrepreneurs get caught up in the general progress of the business and let the core idea languish.
Opportunities to improve the idea abound. Every new piece of customer feedback is an idea opportunity. Every new iteration of the product is an idea opportunity. Every insight from the team is an idea opportunity. Continuous improvement and nurturing of the idea helps it grow.
Ideas are massaged into a variety of formats. In startupland, the common formats are vision, purpose, elevator pitch, one-liner, and origin story. Each style is complementary to the next and valuable independently. A specific style isn’t what matters. What matters is that the idea is nurtured to evolve and grow with time.
Never underestimate the power of ideas and continuously nurture them.
As startup aficionados, we like to think of our understanding of the search for product/market fit and stages of the startup lifecycle as more evolved and sophisticated when compared to our predecessors. Only, entrepreneurs are an intuitive bunch that have been scraping and clawing their way to success since the dawn of time. I’m reminded of this when reading the book Secret Formula: The Inside Story of How Coca-Cola Became the Best-Known Brand in the World recently and learning the story of John Stith Pemberton, the inventor of Coca-Cola, as he searched for product/market fit in 1886:
As Pemberton made his adjustments in the formula for the new syrup, “it was taken to Mr. Venable’s soda fountain for the purpose of trying it and ascertaining whether it was something the people would like or not.”
Here, the pharmacist believed he was onto to something. People wanted a sugary drink that was refreshing and had a bit of cocaine for medicinal purposes (later replaced with caffeine). Then, through an iterative loop of tweaking and testing, came up with the secret formula that has since sold trillions of cases of product over the last 130+ years.
“Ascertaining whether it was something the people would like or not” sums up the most important next step of the post-idea entrepreneur journey.
When searching for product/market, remember that every entrepreneur goes through the same experience, including the inventor of Coke in the 1880s.
Last week I was talking to an entrepreneur and he said something that’s stuck in my mind ever since: feedback is a gift. As entrepreneurs, we have happy ears where we’re continually seeking validation and clues as to the best direction to head. Almost always, the best ideas come straight from customers in the form of feedback. Only, it’s up to the entrepreneur to define the culture and ensure that feedback is sought out and treated as a gift.
Cultures that treat feedback as a gift are self-reinforcing in that they regularly ask customers for input and adapt the business based on that feedback. The more feedback, the more tweaks and optimizations to the company. Sometimes the feedback might get overwhelming, but it’s always better to have too much rather than not enough.
Cultures that don’t treat feedback as a gift are often a monopoly or on the decline. Customers that don’t feel their feedback is heard and appreciated will seek out new providers and vendors. Startups that don’t embrace and encourage feedback aren’t able to adapt and innovate as fast as ones that do.
The next time you’re on the receiving side of feedback, ask the question: does this feel like it’s a gift? Do I want this? What happens to this? Feedback is incredibly powerful and should be encouraged.
Every entrepreneur should work to make feedback a gift in their startup.
Over the last couple years a business concept has dramatically increased in popularity: the North Star Metric. As expected, the North Star Metric represents the most important indicator of the health of the business. Put another way, if you were to only track one single metric for the entire company, this would be it. And in the spirit of the Simple Strategic Plan, the North Star Metric brings clarity to an area that’s often over complicated: measuring what matters.
At a board meeting last week we were talking about startup products that were working well in different portfolio companies and I was reminded of our early fundraising efforts at Pardot. Three years into Pardot we decided to raise money in an effort to accelerate growth. Personally, I started asking people in my network for intros to VCs and we were connected to one in Boston. I jumped on a call with this particular VC and he said something that has always stuck with me, “I just saw Pardot metrics in one of our most recent board decks. When I saw the intro request, I immediately accepted.” Hmm, I thought, instantly knowing what Pardot customer was also a portfolio company of this particular investor.
As expected, there’s tremendous value in having a customer that’s a portfolio company of a potential investor. Potential investors want to talk to unbiased customers. Potential investors want to understand the good and bad about a startup. What better source than an existing portfolio company where there’s a strong relationship and economic interest?
In this example, Pardot was even more compelling to the VC because it was the source of truth for marketing. By incorporating Pardot’s metrics in the board deck, it was telling this potential investor that it was a mission critical product with strategic value to the business.
Ultimately, after meeting 29 VCs, we decided not to raise money due to soft valuations (this was during the Great Recession) and our continued growth without capital. Today, the calculation is completely different. Capital and valuations are much more entrepreneur friendly.
When raising money, entrepreneurs would do well to find potential investors that already work with one or more of their customers. With this comes instant credibility and interest that’s invaluable when trying to find the right financial partner.
Learning where great startup ideas come from is a passion area of mine. Naturally, ideation and “light bulb” moments aren’t actually glamorous, but the ability to profoundly change the lives of so many people creates a sense of awe.
Last week I was reminded of this when hearing an entrepreneur pitch her business over Zoom. Her idea instantly met a number of key characteristics:
Obvious idea that needs to exist in the world
Clear offline analogy that hadn’t been brought online yet
Limited competition currently (some competition is ideal)
Small, high growth market with potential to be massive
Genuine authentic demand whereby people clamor for a solution
Key innovation available due to an advancement in technology
Most ideas don’t emerge fully formed. In fact, the best ideas often come from first exploring a related idea and stumbling upon a better idea. Putting together a simple list of characteristics provides a heuristic to evaluate against. Entrepreneurs would do well to put more time upfront in the selection of their idea, knowing it takes 10+ years to build a meaningful business.
When evaluating business ideas, start with these characteristics and adapt them to your own preferences.