Category Archives: Starting a Business

You Have to Know When to Quit

I recommend you read Nat Eliason‘s piece No More Struggle Porn. He’s attacking one of the more pervasive startup myths around, the idea that the struggle itself, the overwhelming and overpowering struggle that pushes everything else out of your life, is a good thing. He defines struggle porn as:

I call this “struggle porn”: a masochistic obsession with pushing yourself harder, listening to people tell you to work harder, and broadcasting how hard you’re working.

And his take on it, in a nutshell, is this:

Working hard is great, but struggle porn has a dangerous side effect: not quitting. When you believe the normal state of affairs is to feel like you’re struggling to make progress, you’ll be less likely to quit something that isn’t going anywhere.

The Myth of Persistence

I agree with him. Emphatically. I’ve posted here before on The Myth of Persistence:

Why: persistence is only relevant if the rest of it is right. There’s no virtue to persistence when it means running your head into walls forever. Before you worry about persistence, that startup has to have some real value to offer, something that people want to buy, something they want or need. And it has to get the offer to enough people. It has to survive competition. It has to know when to stick to consistency, and when to pivot.

So persistence is simply what’s left over when all the other reasons for failure have been ruled out.

Knowing When to Quit

And, with that in mind, I like Seth Godin’s take on quitting, which is the main point from his book The Dip (quoting here from Wikipedia🙂

Godin introduces the book with a quote from Vince Lombardi: “Quitters never win and winners never quit.” He follows this with “Bad advice. Winners quit all the time. They just quit the right stuff at the right time.

Godin first makes the assertion that “being the best in the world is seriously underrated,” although he defines the term ‘best’ as “best for them based on what they believe and what they know,” and ‘world’ as “the world they have access to.” He supports this by illustrating that vanilla ice cream is almost four times as popular as the next-most popular ice cream, further stating that this is seen in Zipf’s Law. Godin’s central thesis is that in order to be the best in the world, one must quit the wrong stuff and stick with the right stuff. In illustrating this, Godin introduces several curves: ‘the dip,’ ‘the cul-de-sac,’ and ‘the cliff.’ Godin gives examples of the dip, ways to recognize when an apparent dip is really a cul-de-sac, and presents strategies of when to quit, amongst other things.

Don’t let the struggle porn startup myths get you down. I’ve been through startups. I’ve been vendor and consultant to startups for four decades, and I started my own and built it past $9 million annual sales, profitability, and cash flow positive, without outside investors. And I’ve never believed that anybody is supposed to give up life, family, relationships, and the future to build that startup with 100-hour weeks and forget-everything-else obsession. Here’s what I say:

Don’t give up your life to make your business better. Build your business to make your life better.

 

 

 

Pervasive Startup Myth: Don’t Work for Free

Startup myth: The one about founders having to work for free to impress angel investors. This supposedly shows passion. Don’t believe it. Investors want people committed to working their startups, and that usually takes getting them paid. I’ve been getting a lot of upvotes on my answer to this question in Quora:

How do entrepreneurs live without a salary to sustain their families and pay bills?

My Answer

That startup founders are supposed to work for free, and that investors want them to work for free, even as there is capital to work with. That’s just a myth. IMO.

As an entrepreneur, I built a business and supported my family at the same time by continuing to consult in the same field I was developing software for. That’s not unusual. I did not have the luxury of not making an income. When I started Palo Alto Software, we already had four kids and a mortgage. Not making money was not an option.

So that was a lot of work. It was hard. But it’s what really happens most of the time … entrepreneurs do a lot of work on the side, in between, to build their business without the luxury of working full time for free.

As an angel investor, I expect founders to work without formal compensation only during the very earliest phases, because they have to. I expect that to be temporary. And when I invest in them, I want there to be enough money to pay them. I don’t believe startup founders working for free is a sustainable idea as they grow a business. People have lives. They need money.

I don’t like it when founders promise to work for free over any extended period. It doesn’t work. They burn out. They need jobs and income so they quit.

(Click here for the original on Quora.com)

My Advice to Startups Seeking Angel Investment

Over the weekend I was asked what advice I’d give to founders of a startup seeking angel investment. Here’s my list.

  1. First, make sure you really want angel investment. Read 10 good reasons not to seek investors for your startup. Take it to heart. If you don’t need investment, really, you are better off without it. And also, read startup sweet spot too.
  2. If you do, then next, make sure your business is a good investment. Read up on what makes a business a good investment. It’s about the team, the growth potential, ability to scale, traction, etc. Many great businesses are not good investments. Read Do you have what investors want and angel investment self assessment.
  3. Wait until you’re ready. Don’t seek investors before you have a team in place, milestones met, numbers to show, good evidence of traction and validation. Investors invest in businesses, not plans, and definitely not ideas. Sometimes they invest in people, like known startup successes with great track records; but if you were one of those, you’d know it.
  4. Know the basics. Understand the normal process. Research investors near you, interested in your industry, and target specific people and groups. Never spread cold emails all over the map.
  5. Investors  invest in your business, not your pitch. What they buy into is the business, the facts, the achievements; not the pitching. If you don’t have milestones met, progress made, concrete numbers to show, then don’t waste your time. You need an intro or profile or summary first, and then a pitch, and, if they are still interested, a business plan for due diligence. But don’t ever mistake the plan, profile, and pitch for what matters. You tell them about the business.
  6. Do a lean business plan first, before the profiles, before the pitch. It’s for you, not the investors. It’s just bullet points, milestones, metrics, and projections. You need to know how much you need, and what you’re going to spend it on, before you start. Review it and revise it. A pitch without a plan is like a movie filmed without a screenplay. Don’t sweat the big plan with all the summaries and descriptions, at least not at first. Maybe not ever. But have a plan, keep it fresh, review and revise often.

(Note: I posted this first as an answer to a Quora question.)

10 Common Mistakes with Startup Financial Projections

I was glad to be asked about common mistakes with financial projections. I read about 100 business plans a year for angel investment and business plan competitions. Most show unrealistic profitability. More people doing business plans should realize that most startups are unprofitable at the beginning; and that high growth correlates with losses, not profits. High projected profits indicate lack of understanding, not reasonable expectations of profitability.

Profitability mistakes

  1. The most common mistake is with profitability. Most of the business plans I see project profits too high, or profits too early. In the real world, startups choose growth or profits, not both. The plans I see are aiming at angel investment. And for that, the investors win on growth, not profitability. Think about it: If a startup is profitable early on, it doesn’t need investors.
  2. The second most common mistake is underestimated marketing expenses. Many successful tech businesses, especially software and web businesses, spend 30% or more of sales on marketing.
  3. Don’t underestimate development expenses, testing, certifications, and expenses of regulations.
  4. If you are selling physical products, don’t underestimate the impact of selling through channels, as distributors and retailers take their margins and often demand admin and co-promotion expenses. And distributors often pay very slowly, like six months or so after receiving the goods.
  5. Never project sales by applying a small percentage to a large market. That doesn’t work. Nobody gets half a percent of a $10 billion market. Instead, sales forecasts should be built on drivers as assumptions. Drivers might be web visits and conversions, emails sent, paid search terms, or, for physical products, channel assumptions such as distributors, chains, stores, and sales per store.
  6. Don’t project big growth in sales with only small increases in headcount. If you are going to sell $100 million in the fifth year, get a clue: you won’t do that with only $2 million in employee expenses. Divide your projected sales by your headcount, and compare that to industry benchmarks. For most industries, $250,000 per employee is really good. If you are getting $2 million per employee, that doesn’t mean you’re going to be that efficient. It means you don’t understand the business.

Cash flow mistakes

  1. Having a profit doesn’t mean you’ll have cash in the bank. Good startup financial projections need to include cash flow. Always. For more on that, see points 4, 6,
  2. Another very common mistake affects cash flow. Businesses selling to businesses (B2B) normally sell on account. A sale generates not money directly, but money owed, to be paid later, which goes on the balance sheet as Accounts Receivable, or AR. Every dollar in AR is a dollar that shows up as sales in the P&L but not in cash.
  3. Many plans underestimate the length of the sales cycle and expenses related to selling directly to enterprises.
  4. Many plans underestimate the cash flow affect of inventory. Every dollar in inventory is a dollar that hasn’t yet shown up in the P&L but may have already affected cash balances.

5 Secrets of Creating a Great Business Team

team working together

My favorite five secrets of a great business team? This list came to me first as an answer to the question how do you build a great business team on Quora.  These five points aren’t something from the business school curriculum. They come from the experience of actually doing it, recruiting a team and growing a business from zero to millions. (For more on that story, click here).

My list

  1. No skill or experience justifies lack of integrity. You need to trust the people you work with, and particularly, the people who become key team members to build on.
  2. Diversity makes better businesses. Not for fake political reasons, but for real business reasons. Teams of different kinds of people – gender, background, ethnicity, and so forth – have broader vision than teams of people who are all the same. Diversity has been given a bad name by bigots. It’s not just morally correct, it’s also better business.

What diversity does and doesn’t mean.

  1. Different skills and experience. You don’t want all developers or all marketers, you want developers, marketers, administrators, producers, leaders, and so forth. I see student groups that are three and four people who share the same major; that rarely works.
  2. Shared values create strong bonds. Palo Alto Software was built by a team that shared my founder values about good business planning, startups, and small business. Jurlique was built by a team that shared founder values about cosmetics with only natural organic ingredients not tested on animals. And don’t confuse shared values with diverse types of people, skills and backgrounds. They are compatible, not contradictory, ideas.

Avoid the all-C-level-officers team

  1. Beware of title inflation. Having the first four people all have C-level titles is usually a sign of youth and lack of experience. In the real world, founders are rarely all fit to be C-level officers for the long term. I recommend vague non-committal titles in the beginning, like “head of tech,” “marketing lead,” and so forth. Leave room to recruit stars later on, as needed, with the big titles.

 

Top 10 Pitch Fails

I was asked recently for a list of things that annoy me in angel investment pitches from startups. I’ve done this before, so there will be some duplication here. But here is my top 10 pitch fails list. 

  1. Profits. Talk of profits, overestimated profits, the failure to understand that investors make money on growth, not profits; startups with high growth rates are rarely profitable; profits in high-growth startups stunt growth and reduce the odds of successful exit. That’s why you need to spend other people’s money, right?
  2. “I don’t need no stinking projections.” Surprises me how often I’ve seen it. “We all know,” the pitcher says in a cynical tone, “that all those projections are useless.” And dismisses the idea, often with a wave of the hand. Or sometimes it’s a holier-than-thou tone. But no. I need you to think though unit costs, realistic volume, the conceptual links between marketing spend and volume, what it takes to fund growth. I want to know that you know, roughly, that you’re growth will take a ton of marketing spend, and that when you get to $20 million annual sales you are going to have a big payroll and overhead.
  3. Expecting me to believe your numbers. You’re damn right I want to see them, but don’t expect me to believe them. I use them to guess how well you know the nuts and bolts of your business. But at the moment of truth, I’m going to trust my instinct for what I think you can sell, and how much I think you can grow, given the stories you’ve told me and the markets you’ve carved out.
  4. Discounted cash flow. IRR and NPV. Amazing how people can believe numbers that project the future based on a compounded absurdity of assumed sales, less assumed spending, multiplied by an assumed discount rate, five years from now. And yet, I see young people crushed because I wanted something that had a lower IRR than their thing. Y’see, I didn’t believe the IRR either way. I went with the people and the market. This is actually a particularly annoying subset of the point above it.
  5. The annoying myth that nobody reads business plans. Big mistake: confusing the obsolescence of the big pompous formal use-once-and-throw-away business plan of the past with not wanting or needing planning. Ask the two faces of lean startups, Eric Ries and Steve Blank, whether startups need to set strategy, tactics, milestones, metrics, and essential projections for revenue, spending, and cash, and they’ll say the equivalent of “yes of course.” But they are (mis)quoted often as saying don’t do a business plan. What they mean – ask them – is don’t do an old fashioned business plan. Keep it lean, revise it often, and manage with it.
  6. Knowing everything. Sometimes people think investors want founders who know everything, answer each question no matter what, and are the world’s leading expert on any possible subject to come up. No. I want people who know what they don’t know, and aren’t afraid to be not certain.
  7. I don’t want people who get all defensive when challenged. The win is in the relationship, long term. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen private discussions between investors, after a pitch, go negative for somebody who investors feel “isn’t teachable.” It’s easier to work with people who listen, digest, than with people who think every doubt is a challenge to their leadership and authority.
  8. The small piece of a huge market. No, please, don’t ever tell me that your $10 million sales figure is realistic because it’s only one percent of a $10 billion-dollar market. Or 1/10th percent of a $10 billion market. That logic never works. Build your forecast from the units up, not from the top down.
  9. Oversharing the science or technology. I want to hear about the business, not the physics, not the biology, not the chemistry. Pitches and plans are not the right place to show off all of your knowledge.
  10. Not needing the money. If you don’t need the money then don’t seek investment. Own it yourself. Never seek outsider money you don’t really need. People who can live off of their generated cash flow are never going to exit
  11. (bonus point) Stock words and phrases like “game changer” and “disruptive.” Don’t tell us that you are either that. Cross your fingers, and hope we tell you that you could be.

This is another of my Quora answers. The original is at: What are the things that annoy you when entrepreneurs pitch to you Angels and VC? And someday I’m going to answer the question what annoys me about my fellow investors. Because writing these items generates a thought about that side of the table too.

What Are the Normal Steps for Angel Investment?

Question: What are the normal steps for angel investment? What’s involved in submitting a business plan?

I decided to answer this question here because I see it so often in email and in question and answer sites on the web, especially Quora, which is where I first saw it and answered it.

Yes you do need a business plan

In the U.S. market the business plan generally stays in the background while investors look at summaries first, then pitches, and only eventually, after a lot of screening, if they are interested enough to do the detailed study called due diligence, then the business plan.

You want a bare-bones lean business plan to guide your summary and pitch deck. You need to know strategy, tactics, milestones, and essential projections. But investors screen startups based on summaries and pitches before they look at full business plans.

But that’s not what you show investors first

So here are the normal steps:

  1. Summary. That’s either summary memo, or profile on Startup Funding & Investing and AngelList, or similar.
  2. If and only if the summary is interesting, then the pitch. There is a lot more information on the business pitch here on bplans. And for more of my posts, on this blog, choose the business pitch category.
  3. If and only if the pitch is interesting, investors will want to see a full business plan for due diligence.

However, this applies as general norm only, and in the U.S. market only. Generalizations are never always true. There are always exceptions.

(note: this first appeared as my Quora answer to What are the steps involved in submitting a business plan?

Good Data Debunking Popular Startup Myths

Contrary to popular startup myths and misunderstanding, tech founders aren’t mainly younger than 30. They are generally well educated, not dropouts. They tend to start up where they are, instead of moving to Silicon Valley or other tech hubs.

Here’s a summary of data published by the Kauffman Foundation:

We observed that, like immigrant tech founders, U.S.-born engineering and technology company founders tend to be well-educated. There are, however, significant differences in the types of degrees these entrepreneurs obtain and the time they take to start a company after they graduate. They also tend to be more mobile and are much older than is commonly believed.

Founders are in their late 30s, 40s, and older

  • The average and median age of U.S.-born tech founders was thirty-nine when they started their companies. Twice as many were older than fifty as were younger than twenty-five.

90+% have college degrees

  • The vast majority (92 percent) of U.S.-born tech founders held bachelor’s degrees. Additionally, 31 percent held master’s degrees, and 10 percent had completed PhDs. Nearly half of all these degrees were in science-, technology-, engineering-, and mathematics- (STEM) related disciplines. Onethird were in business, accounting, and finance.

  • U.S.-born tech founders holding MBA degrees established companies more quickly (in thirteen years) than others. Those with PhDs typically waited twenty-one years to become tech entrepreneurs, and other master’s degree holders took less time to start companies than did those with bachelor’s degrees (14.7 years and 16.7 years respectively).

  • U.S.-born tech founders holding computer science and information technology degrees founded companies sooner after graduating than engineering degree holders (14.3 years vs. 17.6 years). Applied science majors took the longest (twenty years) to create their startups.

Top-rank universities are over represented

  • These tech founders graduate from a wide assortment of schools. The 628 U.S.-born tech founders providing information on their terminal (highest) degree, received their education from 287 unique universities. But degrees from top-ranked universities are over-represented in the ranks of U.S.-born tech founders. Ivy-League universities awarded 8 percent of the terminal degrees to U.S.-born tech founders in our sample.

  • The top ten universities from which U.S.-born tech founders received their highest degrees in our sample are Harvard, MIT, Pennsylvania State University, Stanford, University of California- Berkeley, University of Missouri, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California, University of Texas, and University of Virginia. U.S.-born tech founders with Ivy-League degrees tend to establish startups that produce higher revenue and employ more workers than the average. Startups founded by those with only high school education significantly underperform all others.

They start closer to home

  • Nearly half (45 percent) of the startups were established in the same state where U.S.-born tech founders received their education. Of the U.S.-born tech founders in our sample receiving degrees from California, 69 percent later created a startup in the state; Michigan, 58 percent; Texas, 53 percent; and Ohio, 52 percent. In contrast, Maryland retained only 15 percent; Indiana, 18 percent; and New York, 21 percent.

 

 

 

 

Do You Believe the Legendary Startup Failure Statistics. I Don’t.

This recent piece on startup failure statistics caught me eye on Twitter first, and I followed the links to discover Startups: Conventional Wisdom Says 90% Fail. Data Says Otherwise. | Fortune.com. Here’s a direct quote from author Erin Griffith:

“I recently found myself carelessly repeating a statistic that I’d heard dozens of times in private conversations and on public stages: ‘Nine out of 10 startups fail.’ The problem? It’s not true. Cambridge Associates, a global investment firm based in Boston, tracked the performance of venture investments in 27,259 startups between 1990 and 2010. Its research reveals that the real percentage of venture-backed startups that fail—as defined by companies that provide a 1X return or less to investors—has not risen above 60% since 2001. Even amid the dotcom bust of 2000, the failure rate topped out at 79%.”

I was happy to see this because I’ve agreed, including here and here on this blog and also here in the bplans.com articles, that failure statistics are bogus. Overblown. Exaggerated. And taken for granted.

What drives the startup failure statistics myth

I’m not so sure about Erin’s explanation of why that occurs. She says, in the paragraph explaining the one above:

Yet the denizens of Startup Land continue to cite the 90% figure because it serves a purpose. It comforts failed startup founders who burned through their investors’ money, laid off staff, and shut down their companies. It supports the startup world’s celebration of failure. “Sure, you failed, but that’s the norm,” the thinking goes. “The odds were against you.”

I don’t buy Erin’s explanation there. She’s too kind. I think the 90% myth is driven by bogus would-be experts who clutter the web and even business publications spouting worn-out startup clichés to bolster their alleged expertise. I think it’s a side effect of our everybody-is-a-publisher society. People can get attention with certainty untempered by experience. I did a rant on that subject here, not that long ago: Bogus experts give bad startup advice.

An important clarification

Although it doesn’t quite support my point, I can’t leave the subject without pointing out that the data we’re looking at there is not for all startups. It’s just about venture-backed startups, which are the cream of the crop. Of course they do better than the average startup. They are the ones that get through the investment filter process.

And this also shows that so much of what we value in information depends on the definitions. What’s a startup? To me it’s a new business of any kind. To many other experts, the term startup applies only to high-growth new businesses suitable for outside investment. So we have to look, with any of these studies, on what they are really studying. All businesses, or just high-end tech businesses?

And then, before we leave the subject, there’s the obvious thought that not all businesses, startups, small business, or whatever, are equal. When you start your own business, if you do, your odds are not the same odds as everybody else who starts a business. Your odds depend on what you’re trying to do, how well you do it, how well you plan and manage, and what resources you bring with you.

Last thought: I can guarantee you that your odds of failure go way down when you run your business with good planning process. Start with a lean plan and review and revise it regularly.

 

 

How to Raise Money and Succeed Long Term (Video)

Jess Lee (Partner at Sequoia Capital) and Aaron Harris (Partner at YC) discuss raising money as an early stage company, and how to think about the fundraising process. Ali Rowghani (CEO of YC Continuity, previously CFO, COO @ Twitter, CFO @ Pixar) shares his thoughts on how to be a great leader and succeed long-term. Thanks to Stanford Online.

The direct link for the YouTube source is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZXU84_sGXo&feature=em-subs_digest