betashop:

It has now been 150 days since Fab completed its 2013 restructuring which saw us cut our operating expenses by two-thirds and go from more than 750 employees to around 300 today.

Since then, armed with tens of millions of dollars, a great brand, loyal customers, a passion for design, an…

Vision

In a lot of ways the term “vision” is highly overused. When company leaders talk about the grand company vision the common response from employees is an eye-role. When sales people talk about the company vision with customers those customers nod politely and then simply tune out. The reason is simple, nobody believes in it.

Look back 30 years ago and you will find countless examples of companies crafting long winded jargon filled epistles called vision documents. These vision documents had very little relevance or truth about who they are as a group and less to do with where they are going as a company.

About a 20 years ago the vision statement became a popular alternative to the vision document. It was in most accounts just a shorter version of the vision document. Filled with meaningless buzzwords like; enterprise class, thought leader and best of breed. A quick google search will find hundreds of vision statement creators that would fill in random buzzwords into a generic template that would end up reading and sounding just like the real thing.

Now comes the post-dot-com era of the last 10 years and the elevator pitch replaces the vision statement. The point of the elevator pitch is to sell who you are as a company in 2 minutes or less. The time it takes to travel up a few floors. The brevity of the elevator pitch is really quite smart but the problem with an elevator pitch is people try to stuff their entire company history into 2 minutes or less. To much information is crammed into the pitch, leaving their audience lost and confused. The result is people fail to take them seriously.

Today it’s vogue to have a brand story. The goal is to take a vision statement that is told in an elevator pitch format and add in an “emotional twist”. However many brand stories come across as cheesy and weak. And people looses interest and fail to take them seriously.

Now here is the kicker, I actually believe that a brand story is a incredibly useful tool. A elevator pitch is the right amount of time and the right format to tell a company’s market position. A vision statement is a great way to say where a company is heading. And truthfully a vision document can be the best business plan crafted.

The eye-roles, polite nods from customers and disinterested employees are all reactions from people who don’t believe it. They don’t believe in the vision or in you, it’s because YOU don’t believe in your vision. Your lack of conviction is replaced with extraneous content, buzzwords and filler sentences.

But when you believe in your vision, truly have conviction and faith in a different and yes better future something incredible happens — people will follow, they will share your vision, and they will believe in you.

Look back further in history and you find visions told clearly and briefly that have changed the world; President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech, and yes even the constitution is a vision that millions have and still believe in.

The reason that these visions resinate with us is because the authors and speakers behind them believe deeply in them.

Most of us will never have a seat at the statesman table, but we do have a seat at our company or teams table. And there it’s not just okay to have a grand vision for the team but it is welcomed. It’s a true exercise of faith in the talents and skills of those who you work with.

When you believe deeply in your own vision and most importantly you believe in your people — that vision can be told briefly, clearly and confidently. And people will follow.

“Given all the problems that technology can solve, the hard part is finding a real problem that people want solved.”

Basic Corporate Humility

I read this at the end of a HBR (@HarvardBiz) article today.

"In the spirit of collaboration and improvement we would like to invite anyone to help advance this thinking, by challenging our results to date, making suggestions to improve the methodology, or adding to the data set with data of their own. We think that over time the data set itself can become a valuable public source of inspiration and evidence for agents of change…"

http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2013/07/good_companies_are_storyteller.html

I respect HBR’s approach. This type of thinking goes well beyond just opening up the data for critical experimentation and review, it opens HBR to public debate and criticism.

More companies and people alike could learn how valuable this level of transparency can be. In a world so hesitant to be viewed as vulnerable, HBR’s courage to be open, stands out as true humility.

Every Start-Up Needs a Well-Articulated Strategy

I recommend you read Fred Wilson’s recent blog post about the need for a well articulated business strategy before pushing a particular business model.

Since Arrested Development is back, I thought I’d resurrect Gob Bluth’s answer when he was told he needed a “business model” — he quickly figured out that he was missing one so he asked Starla, the Bluth company secretary, if she would be his business model.

He then brought her to board meetings so nobody could accuse him of not having a business model.

I guess this is the ultimate definition of implementing a business model when you’re not clear on strategy!

I found myself in violent agreement with Fred’s blog post(s).

My take on his argument is this:

1. You need to first create a compelling product.

Compelling in the sense that you solve a real problem a target group of potential customers has with a product that is significantly better than the alternatives on that market.

In my opinion, no amount of clever marketing or chest beating at conferences can create a market if you don’t have an amazing product to begin with.

My most read post on marketing tips highlights this — please pay attention to tip number four — you can’t have great marketing for bad or mediocre products.

2. You need product / market fit.

Put simply — you need enough users in a segment who care about what your doing to dictate investing further in the product or in sales and marketing resources.

If you solve a deep problem for a niche user group but not enough users have the problem you won’t achieve product / market fit.

Or if you solve a problem for a big segment but your solution isn’t significantly better than alternatives — you won’t have a fast-growing, successful business. I often call this “going a mile wide and an inch deep.”

The answer to either problem may mean simply refining your product to solve deeper problems or expanding the product scope to meet a larger group of customers’ needs.

Product / market fit is everything.

I see many companies these days that just race to raise capital. They see capital raising as the success validator. Sometimes they rush to raise cash because they don’t have a well articulated product / market fit and they think having more money will help them have more time to prove the business.

I know what is going through their collective heads, “The more money I have, the more time I have to figure things out.”

True.

On the other hand, sometimes, “mo’ money, mo’ problems.”

Raise yours wisely. Spend it wisely. Figure out the appropriate time to step on the gas with more funds. There is no right answer.

***

I know that the acronyms or business sayings change over time. But the search for product / market fit has been around in various form for a long time.

A. CROSSING THE CHASM

In the 90’s, we all talked about “Crossing the Chasm" in which Geoffrey Moore encouraged us to think about solving really deep problems in a particular customer set and then using that satisfied customer set to move on to tangental markets.

The idea of “going deep” with customers has always shaped how I think. Shallow and superficial and racing from segment to segment in search of some take up has never been a strong strategic plan for me.

B. INNOVATOR’S DILEMMA

Second, I was then influenced greatly by Clayton Christensen’s work, “The Innovator’s Dilemma" in which he argued that "disruptive technology" came from companies who offered products that were significantly cheaper and less functional that the existing market and ended up capturing the needs of customers who previously couldn’t buy products due to price / complexity.

He calls this competing with “non consumption.”

It was the most profound business strategy book I had read and greatly influenced how I thought about company building and certainly how I think about investing.

I have written this up before if you’re interested — I call it Deflationary Economics.

But when you create a product for a large segment of users who previously couldn’t afford products due to price or complexity and if that product can work at “Internet scale,” you have the chance to do something truly amazing.

Like DeviantArt.

With 30 million registered users on a global basis. 65 million monthly actives. 2.5 billion monthly page views.

All totally free. It has become the largest art community on the web with huge pockets of global users who never had a website in which to express themselves amongst peers and also find ways to monetize their talents on a global basis.

C. LEAN START-UP MOVEMENT

And finally there is the most modern spin on these concepts by two individuals who have built tech start-ups and have done an excellent job at describing the process. In Steve’s case, it is “going in search of a business model.”

He wrote two legendary books, “Four Steps to Epiphany" and more recently "The Start-up Owner’s Manual.”

And Steve’s desciple (or as Steve will tell you, “He’s way past me now!” is Eric Ries who wrote the must own, “The Lean Start-up.”)

***

I think all of these great works (all must reads) scratch at the same thing — the search to solve a real problem a market has by creating features that add compelling value to your customer such that they will do what customers hate to do — change behaviors (i.e. use your product).

And in the words of my friend Bill Gross, “Your product has to be 10 times better than what exists in order to be a success.”

If you don’t want to click through to the link, I’ll tell you the answer — if you’re in a competitive market and you aim to solve problems assume you’ll have strong competitors so if you need to aim for 10 times as much innovation to end up being three times as good as the market and you need to be three times as good as the market for rapid adoption. But if you have time later — please watch video with Bill. He’s awesome to learn from.

3. Business Model

Fred’s third argument is that you need to be careful not to try and scale up your operations (sales staff, marketing, etc.) until you feel clearly you’ve achieved product / market fit.

He published another MUST READ post about being careful not to confuse early revenue traction with product / market fit.

The money quote:

One of the things I have observed over the years is that a hard charging sales oriented founder/CEO can often hide the defects in a product.

Because the founder is so capable of convincing the market to adopt/purchase the product, the company can get revenue traction with a product that is not really right.

And that can hide all sorts of problems.

That’s Sofa King true.

The Need for Strategy

It’s something I worry about with companies.

Are we winning because we create compelling marketing materials and have hard-driving sales people that get customers buying product or are we solving a deep-seated customer need?

If it’s the former, your company will definitely start to top out at some point.

It’s why I never get too excited about sales unless I can scratch the surface of the elusive “why.”

  • Why are they buying from us?
  • What are their alternatives?
  • What problem are we solving?
  • How will it benefit them financially (more sales, fewer errors, reduced customer churn, etc.)?
  • How will it save them time /drive productivity?

If you’re not solving a deep seated problem you’ll become “shelfware" and won’t have a repeatable, scalable business.

So that’s why I believe companies need a well articulated strategy. Not a mission statement, mumbo gumbo bullshity, groupthink happy clappy statement to be published on your website.

But a clear, crisp articulation of:

  • What problem are you solving for today’s users of your product? (Really. Why did they buy? No spin.)
  • What in your product is truly differentiated in the market to solve this problem? (Where do you believe you are strong against the competition in functionality or delivery? Note: This is not a statement about strengths / weaknesses in marketing. It is about product.)
  • Where do you think your customers’ needs will evolve to based on your world view of changes in the marketplace in the next two to three years? (i.e. changes in computing devices, regulations, end user adoption of technologies such as wearable computers, watching online video, whatever.)

Based on the problems you are solving in today’s customer base, your unique skills in solving these problems and where you see the market going, the big question becomes …

In which direction should your company evolve?

Admitting that you will have limited resources and strong competition both in today’s market and in the markets you want to enter is the right start of the conversation.

You need to pick wisely because whatever you do, you must do better than other people staring at the same information as you. (Also known as your competitors or future competitors)

I work with many companies.

In some — like Maker Studios — we have a very clear and shared purpose for what makes us unique, why we are growing so rapidly and where we think the market is heading (and thus how we must evolve). The team has stated it and has built metrics around key goals for future success.

At other companies, we have very strong revenue growth and an intuition on why we’re doing well but a less well articulated case for why people love us today, where we stand relative to alternative options and where we want to evolve as we perceive our customers requirements will evolve.

What I can tell you is this.

I don’t work with a single team that isn’t trying to pull together a stronger case for our strategy.

In the early days of the company, it’s ok to launch a product that you believe will solve a customer problem with a strong intuition about where the value will lie. That can be your “going in strategy” but you know it will need to evolve.

And as you know, the initial product strategies are like war plans, “they never survive first impact with real customers.”

Customer Use

That’s when you learn. That’s when you must reflect on how your customers are using your product. That’s where you must cull or refine features people aren’t using. That’s where you need to separate out your market spin from your internal reality of how customers are (or are not) using your product.

It’s why in early-stage teams I personally invest in strong teams not in strong product strategy.

I sometimes see VCs debate ad finitum about a company’s strategy. They think they know “here’s how your product will be adopted, blah, blah, blah.”

I don’t mind having the debate but a VC who thinks early on that he/she REALLY knows what is going to happen in the market his fooling him/herself. Markets decide. We simply have a ring-side seat and hopefully make our next moves based on market signals.

From customer feedback, you need to define your company’s strategy.

When you know the value of what you provide to a constituency (either your end users or somebody who will pay to interact with your end users) then you can begin to define a strong business model.

Hopefully one more scalable than Gob Bluth’s.

This post originally appeared on the blog Both Sides of the Table. 

The failure option

This post originally appeared last week in the Wall Street Journal as part of their Accelerators Program in answer to the question “When and how should you wind down a failing business.”

Some entrepreneurs and investors subscribe to the creed “failure is not an option.” I’m not one of them.

I strongly believe that there are times you should call it quits on a business. Not everything works. And — even after trying incredibly hard, and for a long period of time — failure is sometimes the best option. An entrepreneur shouldn’t view their entrepreneur arc as being linked to a single company, and having a lifetime perspective around entrepreneurship helps put the notion of failure into perspective. Rather than prognosticate, let me give you an example.

My friend Mark’s first company was successfully acquired. After being an executive for several years at the acquirer, Mark decided to start a new company. I was the seed investor, excited to work with my friend again on his new company.

Over three years, this new company raised a total of $10 million from me and several other investors over several rounds. The first few years were exciting as Mark launched a product, scaled the company up to about 40 people, and tried to build a business. But after two years we realized that we weren’t really making any progress — there was a lot of activity but it wasn’t translating into revenue growth.

In year three we tried a completely different approach to the same market with a new product. Mark scaled the business back to a dozen people in an effort to restart the business. Over the course of the year we tried different things, but continued to have very little success.

By the end of the year there was $1 million left. Mark cut the company back again — this time to a half dozen people. He started thinking about how to restart for a third time on the remaining $1 million.

Mark had never failed at anything in his life up to this point. He was proud of this, and the idea that he couldn’t at least make his investors’ money back was devastating to him. But he was stuck and started exploring creating an entirely different business, in a completely different market, with the $1 million he had left.

Mark was newly married and was working 20 hours a day. We were talking at the end of the day during the middle of the week and he was so tense, I thought his brain might explode. I told him that as his largest investor and board member, I wanted him to turn off his cell phone, take his wife out to dinner, have a bottle of wine, and talk about whether it made any sense to spend the next year of his life trying to restart the business with the remaining $1 million.

After resisting turning his phone off, I insisted. I told him that I gave him permission to decide that it wasn’t worth the next year of his life at this point and that as his largest investor it was perfectly ok to shut the business down and declare it a failure. I then said I was hanging up the phone and would talk to him in the morning. Click.

He called me back early the next morning. He was calm. He started by saying thanks for giving him permission to consider shutting down the company. This had never occurred to him as an option. During dinner, he realized he needed a break as he was exhausted. He wasn’t coming up with anything to do to reinvent the business and was just desperate to figure out a way to pay his investors back.

By morning, he realized it was time to shut things down, return whatever money was left, and take six months off to recover from the previous three years while he thought about what to do next.

We gracefully wound the company down and returned five cents on the dollar to the investors. Mark took six months off. He then spent six months exploring a new business, which ended up being extraordinarily successful. And he’s now very happily married.

Failure is sometimes the best option if you view the process of entrepreneurship as a lifelong journey.

There are a lot of founder stories. Many are sensationalistic, focusing on super-human efforts and events that are directed by providence. Some true, many not. But what most all founder stories fail to do is drive to the heart of why founding and then building something that revolutionizes the way things around us work, matters.

I have a number of people who I look up to within the business community and one of them is Jack Dorsey of Square and Twitter. Not necessarily from his accomplishments, however impressive that they are, but more because of how he slows down to ask really interesting questions.

Slow down and take the time to listen to his founder story. It will change the way you ask questions and maybe it will change the way you think a little.

My first blog post is still one of my most honest and heartfelt.

Much has happened from when I posted this almost two years ago, but the truth of the story has stood the test of time.

Simplicity

I have been thinking about simple things, simple ideas, and why my last startup failed.

I am a software engineer by trade. I have been trained to scrutinize the details. It is within the shadows of details that bugs hide. Engineers like myself are very good at finding and fixing bugs.

We get great satisfaction when we fix something and that is why many engineers make the entrepreneurial jump. It is also why many of us fail. We tend to fixate on the problem and overlook something very important - value.

I founded a company. I assembled a great team of people. We built cool tools. Our code base was awesome. The math was wicked smart (and patentable). VC were performing due diligence, the final step before investing. We had paying customers and more in the pipe. I had some whales in my sights that would catapulted us to sustainable profitability. We where in the middle of a growing market. Then the economic downturn of 2008 hit.

The crash forced our clients to ask what they could do without, investors pulled out of deals and I lost traction. Business no longer needed help fixing business bugs, they needed to survive.

I found myself in the wrong business at the wrong time. I was selling cool tech when I should have been selling value.

I had the chance to talk with a Disney exec and asked him what his division sold. He said “Disney sells a dream”. That value pitch clearly describes the Disney brand.

Marketing experts argue that a company brand has nothing to do with the product. I agree. People remember the brand and not necessary products. We as customers want something out of the deal. We want value even if that value is a dream.

Maybe that is why I have come to love a restricted business space. A short sales cycle. A clean and basic website. A simple business model. Value can’t hide when things are simple.

The right culture for us?

Culture is a hot topic for many companies. Start ups talk about establishing a great culture. Candidates are looking for the right cultural fit in a prospective company and vice versa. Successful companies attribute culture as the secret to their success. Failing companies talk about changing their culture as part of a turn around plan. Then there are the clichés that companies have “a world class culture” or they have “an agile culture”. But what does it all really mean? What is culture?

One thing is for sure, culture is one of the most powerful forces in business. A company culture sets the tone and direction for the organization. The way the culture goes so do the goods and services. How the goods and services go, so does the market.

In many ways a company culture is a living thing. It fights for its very survival. A company that’s struggling for its existence or is seeking a new product-market fit can be seen as having a startup culture or startup mindset. A culture that is well established and deeply entrenched is fighting to live by leveraging managers who are afraid to try new things. Employees like those at yahoo are fighting against change in leadership and changes in policy to maintain a established culture while leadership is trying to shift a culture to be more open and communicative.

Many companies like Apple, Disney, Instagram and Twitter have a culture that is for the most part in harmony with their markets and enjoy the success that comes from a mutually beneficial relationship.

So where does culture start and where does it end? In my experience culture begins at the top. The example, words used and priorities set by executive leadership is where culture is nourished but it is the rank and file, the individual contributors who are the ones that are growing the culture.

The national culture is influenced by Hollywood and the images of culture that they sell. Yet it is the moviegoers who translate what they see into our national conscious and collective culture. In much the same way businesses are using marking to influence their customers to create and foster a consumer culture.

When a competitor is able to sway away customers from an incumbent it is more that they are swaying customers cultural perspective away from their rival. The products that delight them are more in line with the cultural expectation than by the common definition of “product-market-fit”.

Successful startups are actually recognizing a cultural shift and apply the right culture-product-fit to draw in customers. When the culture-product-fit is right, the market shift can be incredibly fast.

For example consider how fast Instagram was adopted. In just 90 days they went from zero to over one million users and then sold to Facebook in just 551 days. The share-alike culture and personal nature of pictures simply resonated with the culture.

Some of the most powerful features of twitter, such as the @name, hash tags and re-tweeting came not from product mangers imaginations but from watching how their community was using the app. The community grew the features but the company had a culture that was in line with the community culture to help make it happen.

So for corporate and business leaders the most powerful act is one where you act in accordance with the culture and in the direction you want your organization to grow. Align your behavior with the right consumer-cultural-fit and your business will find its natural home. It is your responsibility to find a home of growth or not.

“I don’t believe leadership is defined by the size of the team you’ve managed but the size of the challenge you’ve faced.”