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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Business Models

There's been some discussion in the tech blogosphere about startups and their need to have a clear business model, and some confusion from entrepreneurs about why it's ok for some businesses not to have known business models when they are expected to show three year pro-formas and be grilled about their model during any investor pitch.
I generally believe that for many technology companies, you need not necessarily have any idea how you will make money when you get started, and if you show good progress on the product and customer adoption, you need not make any commitments to a business model for some time. You do need to intimately understand where you sit in the proverbial value chain and what your position there means for your company, but you don't need to know precisely how you will extract value. In fact, I'll go farther and say that focusing on business model too early can hurt a company's prospects. When asked about Google's lack of a clear business model when he backed the company, John Doerr is said to have responded "With this kind of traffic, we'll figure it out". It's hard for some people to make sense of this when juxtaposed against their own experience pitching VC's, during which an obviously best-guess business model is grilled and questioned. What's going on here?
I have said before in this blog (or if not here, then certainly in my own mind) that I think all startups should think of the long road in front of them in three phases: during phase 1, you need to be passionate about the product (or service); during phase 2, you need to be passionate about your customers (*and* the product); during phase 3, you need to be passionate about revenue (*and* customers *and* the product). That may sound like some statement out of a "7 Habits of Highly Successful Startups" manual, but what does it really mean?
First, it's important to remember that you (you being the startup or entrepreneur) have limited resources. In the beginning, you are the most limited in terms of resources but the least limited in terms of range of motion. It's easier to innovate and change directions in the early days, but it's harder to do nine things at once. This is probably the founding team's favorite part of the lifecycle of the company. Everything is possible, and you can really focus on building the most awesome product/service possible, nimbly making changes in direction on the fly and rolling out different or new capabilities easily while simultaneously shutting down capabilities that seem to make no sense as part of the evolving vision. This is one reason I hate to see very early stage companies sign a big customer before the product is baked. You are encumbered by product commitments and customer support before you truly know what the market wanted. You have to be passionate about a customer and the product when you should be laser focused on the product. The customer's needs and your goals vis a vis the market may diverge. In an effort to show progress, however, the marquee customer is attractive in the belief it will help attract investment (and this may indeed be true). In a previous life before FeedBurner, my founders and I made the mistake of signing a big name customer to a paid monthly contract before we really knew what the product's place in the market should be. Won't ever do that again.
So, you grow, and the product gets to the point where it's usable and people start climbing in the bus, and if you're really lucky, it's growing like a weed and customer adoption is rampant. So, now we come to this curious world in which some people start to say "sure it's great, but what's the business model" while other people are saying "don't worry about the model right now, grow grow grow" (which is in turn interpreted by the first group as either "forgetting what happened in the bubble" or greedy or just stupid). I strongly believe that while you are growing in this phase, and expanding your initial team, you need only be passionate about the product and passionate about the customer. So, what does it mean to be passionate about the customer? Come closer and pay attention because I might not say what you think i'm going to say. If you ask a customer what being passionate about the customer means, you might generally hear "great customer service". This is not necessarily what I mean in the business sense. Passionate about the customer means that you are doing everything in your power to a) get more customers and b) make sure that your existing customers have little reason to want to stop using your product (what's referred to as "churn" in the antiseptic parlance that is preferred by some). Is great customer service one way to accomplish this? It can be, yes. What are some other mechanisms by which you can be passionate about the customer? Well, if you want to minimize churn, your product needs to be as usable and bug-free as possible. Nothing offers the competition an opportunity to show its stripes like your product not working. I think of response time, for example, as part of the passionate about the customer bucket, not the passionate about the product bucket. Slow response times can reduce new customer growth and give existing customers reason to try out a competitive offering.
It is absolutely critical, however, that you not make the fatal mistake of interpreting "passionate about the customer" with a mindset of being in reaction to a specific customer or customers. What the heck does "in reaction to a specific customer" mean? Ted Rheingold, the founder of Dogster and Catster, likes to say "the customer that emails you all the time is not all your customers". If you have a thousand customers, and you think that you are being passionate about the customer because you immediately respond to the two customers that repeatedly send emails like "YOUR SERVICE IS ACTING LIKE A *$#@! !!! PLEASE FIX THIS NOW. WHY CANT YOU PEOPLE GET A CLUE AND GROW THE !@#$! UP???", then you aren't being passionate about the customer, you're just feeding the raccoons. It is really really hard to get this through your head. You want to help everybody that's using your service. Here are a couple people that seem to want to use your service but repeatedly complain like this...if you are trying to help them, then you must be passionate about your customers. Instead, all you're really doing here is causing your team and company a lot of aggravation. I'll use a stupid analogy for those of you who play golf. When you make a bad shot, your inclination on the next shot is to think specifically about fixing that thing you just did wrong and think about making sure you don't do those two specific things wrong again. Of course, this is a recipe for disaster. The right way to play the game is to have a very consistent approach to every shot, irrespective of what just happened on the very last shot. So it is with an approach to being passionate about the customer. You need to understand what things you are going to do, how you are going to communicate with ALL your customers, etc. in order to maximize the number of new customers that will try your service, and at the same time minimize the number of people who you give a reason to try something else. Maybe this includes responding immediately to all caps emails that contain > 50% vulgarity, maybe it means ignoring those. Maybe it means being in reaction to every blog post you see, maybe it means never responding to any of those but frequently letting your community of customers know what's going on at HQ. Maybe it means using your constrained resources to do no communication at all and focus 100% on having the fastest and most highly available service. That's for you to figure out. We happened to be of the "hypercommunication with customers" mindset and practice at FeedBurner, but I know of wildly successful internet companies that had absolutely no customer feedback mechanism and yet almost never lost a customer because the service just worked.
So, we come to the point of the whole post: business model. Let's say you have 20 people in your company working with you. Let's say your initial product is a big hit, and people are adopting it with such enthusiasm that your growth rate is beyond your wildest dreams. The product is still in its relative infancy, but you're working out the kinks. Is it critical that you figure out your business model as soon as possible? No. Is it critical that you have enough cash to make sure you can grow the business? Yes. Might it be the case that you can't get access to capital unless you have a sound business model? Yes. Is life fair? No.Don't you ultimately have to figure out how the heck you're going to make money? Of course, but....
You've got limited resources. It's still early. It is very likely the case that the first business model you try will not work (or will need to be amended or supplemented with other mechanisms). So, while you should be laser focused on having your company be passionate about product and passionate about customers, you don't need to be (and in fact you shouldn't be) passionate about revenue until the business model reveals itself. How the heck does a business model reveal itself? You try different things....the less you worry about fixating on a specific model, the more different things you can try. Maybe it's an ad model, maybe it's a free/premium model, maybe it's a private label model, maybe it's something else altogether. But leave yourself room to be in that quantum state of "it could be this or it could be that" until you figure out what works. Only then do you have to ramp up sales, finance, sales engineering, etc. and go out to the market with a very specific model. Announcing your model to the market before you really figure out what works forces you into multiple binds....the model may not scale, the model may be wrong, and you're now in a position where you have very limited resources and you are trying to get your company to be passionate about three things: product, customer, revenue. You also signal to the market and your investors that the clock is now ticking. Didn't hit your q1 revenue number? Uh oh, you're now going to be a lot more focused in q2 on figuring out how to hit that revenue target but you're also still in hyper-growth mode so the product and customer base require everybody's critical attention. Much better to be internally focused on fostering continued growth and innovation while tinkering around on the side with potential models, knowing that the ultimate model may not present itself for some time.
Conundrum: if this is true, then why do potential investors always drill you on your business model?! Because they want to understand how you think of the company and the business. It will ultimately have to go through these three phases. Does any of your thinking about business models sound even remotely plausible? Is it the case that you are starting a company in an area in which many others have tried and failed? If so, then why do you think yours will work? What you are hearing when potential investors ask you this question is not: "I don't see how that business model will make the 9 million in top line, with 39% margins that you show on page 10", instead you are hearing "help me understand how you see this ultimately functioning as a business". It may be that your answer is "look, we think there is a free/premium model here that works if X and Y are true. However, if A and B are true, and so far that appears to be the case, then it's more likely that we go go go on product innovation for the next year and then attack this as a private label model when enterprises follow consumers into the market". Bottom line: Investors are trying to see how you're thinking about this, not whether you have the right answer.
Conundrum Part II: Our service is free and because we don't have a business model, should we pursue charging for it as one of the potential models? Uh, I suppose you could, but why would you do that if it's going to impede growth? Look, there are plenty of great business models based on charging a subscription fee. It's also the case that we've all been burned by "now it's free, now it's not" services in the past (think ATM's, for example....it's free until we're all using it, at which point it's $2 per withdrawal). Nonetheless, it would appear that models in which revenue and earnings accrue to a company as an indirect function of its free use are the models that have the most powerful impact on the Internet today, and you work against that trend at your own peril. This is probably true even where specific industries continue not to admit it. When you add costs to using a product/service, you add friction to customer adoption (he said, stating the obvious). If somebody else comes along and figures out how to make money on such a service by providing it for free, then it's not so much fun to be you because your competitor's lack of friction is going to make life harder for you. And time and time again on the Internets, we see that somebody ultimately comes along and figures out how to make a lot of money by offering for free a service for which somebody else is charging.
When do you need to figure out your business model? Before you run out of cash.

Picked up from ASK the wizard

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