To illustrate the major milestones in the growth of a software startup. Each startup may have its own unique journey. Startups other than software will have similar growth stages.
This article first outlines a startup that evolves through four stages to become a successful company.
Stage 1 Launch a startup
Stage 2 Create a company
Stage 3 Rapidly grow the company
Stage 4 Continuously improve a mature company.
Then there is a section regarding success or failure of startups.
Finally, there is a section regarding investors.
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What is the big difference between successful and unsuccessful startups?
- Successful startups constantly, and throughout their journey, seek to find and understand customers with urgent problems for which they are able and will to spend money to address. The startups evolve a solution to meet market demand.
- Unsuccessful startups first build a solution and then try to find customers.
- Successful startups survey and interview potential customers to understand their problems and needs. Unsuccessful startups ask potential customers about their solution. This is like asking vegetarians what kind of beef they like.
Stage 1 Launch a startup
What is a startup?
A startup is a temporary organization designed to search out a repeatable, scalable, and profitable business model.
What is a business model?
A business model describes how a company creates value for itself while delivering products or services to customers. What is the startup building and for whom. What customer problems are being solved? What customer needs are being addressed? What benefits and value are customers to achieve?
Incubators and accelerators
Many startups work with incubators and accelerators.
Some startup work with several incubators and accelerators.
#1 The founders have an idea
- The founders have an idea. They first agree upon: equity split, their expectations regarding startup, how decisions will be made, the purpose of the company, and who has the title of CEO.
- The never-ending process of interviewing and surveying potential customers and users.
- Before building anything, 100 potential customers and users will be interviewed and 100’s more surveyed. This begins the never-ending process if understanding the problems of potential customers
#2 Create the business model canvas
A business model canvas is a one-page document which easily defines and communicates the business model. There are 9 components to the business model canvas: customer segments, customer value proposition, customer relationships, channels, key partners, key resources, key activities, cost structure, revenue streams. On day one, this canvas will be only assumptions. The interviewing and surveying process will validate or invalidate assumptions and identify new assumptions
This is the customers and users perception of value. What are all the financial and non-financial benefits achieved? e.g. time savings, convenience, status, reducing negative emotions or risks, benefits achieved (financial and non-financial) achieved by the customers? What are all the costs incurred by the customer (purchase costs, costs to switch to your company, other adoption costs, ongoing costs)?
Customer journey map
The customer journey map is a visual representation of the customers’ experiences with your company across all touchpoints. Customers interact via social media, email, live chat or other channels, mapping the customer journey out visually helps ensure no customer slips through cracks. The journey also illustrates the customer interaction with influencers and other who impact the customer. The following are some example of customer journey maps.
The business model canvas, value proposition, and customer journey map are continuously updated through all four stages.
#3 Startup funding at this point is solely from the founders, friends, and family.
#4 Create a Wireframe
Provide a visualization of the potential user/customer interface of what will the customers/users will perceive in the MVP. Note that customer/user interfaces are evolving to include voice interaction, hand gestures, augmented reality, neural monitoring, etc.
#5 Create Proof of Concept
The purpose of the proof of concept is to gain customer/user and domain expert feedback to validate specific critical assumptions of the future MVP
#6 Create a Functional Prototype
The hardware or software prototype is only the hardware or software components of the MVP. The prototype’s purpose is to enable learning from customers/users and support demonstrations to customers/users.
#7 Pilot Solution
This is the MVP, including onboarding, customer support, and exiting. The customer may not be paying for the pilot. The two-fold purpose of the pilot is to identify any issues which prevent customer/user problems and needs being solved and to identify any issues which prevent the customer/user from being delighted. The pilot is providing specific feedback on the value the customers/users are achieving. The pilot helps determine what price should be charged.
#8 MVP (Minimum Viable Product)
This should really be called Minimum Viable Solution. Aproductor service with just enough features to have delighted early cash paying customers by enabling them to solve some urgent problems or needs, and to provide customer/user feedback for future development. The MVP includes onboarding, customer support, and customer exiting. What the customer does not see or interact with (i.e. all the behind the curtain resources and activities) will likely be inefficient, have manual components, technology that is temporary, etc.
Customers/users determine whether or not there is an MVP, not the startup team. If the MVP does not solve some core customer/user problems and needs that the customer is willing to pay for there isn’t an MVP. The startup needs to learn from customers and users what needs to change to enable an MVP. It may take several attempts before there is an MVP.
The initial MVP will have a small number of customers and users
#9 Evolve the MVP until there is product market fit
The MVP will be iterated and enhanced until there is product market fit.
How do you know you have product/market fit?
You have product/market fit if:
- Your customers are so delighted that they are recommending it to others.
- Your customers would be extremely disappointed if your solution disappeared.
- Your customers can describe the big problem they had and the big benefit they achieved from your solution.
- There is clear demand in the market place for your solution.
- You are clearly and obviously differentiated from competitors in terms of the value customers achieve.
- There are a large number of potential customers who believe their problems are urgent enough to buy your solution, and they can also afford your solution.
You do not have product/market fit if:
- Your customers are not recommending you to others.
- Your customers would not be extremely disappointed if your solution disappeared.
- You customers cannot describe the big problem they had and the big benefit they achieved from your solution.
- The marketplace is not demanding your solution. You have to persuade/educate your customers that they have a big problem with a big opportunity.
- You are not clearly and obviously differentiated from competitors in terms of the value customers achieve. Your only differentiation is price.
- There are a not large number of potential customers who believe their problems are urgent enough to buy your solution, and they can also afford your solution.
The facts and analysis show that:
- There are a large number of potential customers who believe their problems and needs are urgent enough to buy your solution, and they can also afford your solution.
- The customers and users believe you have a better value proposition than the competitors.
- The Net Promoter Score is excellent.
- Churn is low and retention is high.
- There is a metric for new customer value achievement (e.g. for Slack it was 2,000 team messages sent within 60 days).
- Measuring and analyzing new customer value achievement metric (e.g. % of new customers achieving new customer value achievement indicator within 60-90 days).
Marc Andreessen’s definition of product/market fit:
“The customers are buying the product just as fast as you can make it — or usage is growing just as fast as you can add more servers. Money from customers is piling up in your company checking account. You’re hiring sales and customer support staff as fast as you can.” The following is a link to the article with quote: On product/market fit for startups
#10 The startup is still a startup.
There is a potentially repeatable, scalable, and profitable business model with a large number of customers with urgent problems and needs they are willing and able to spend money to address
- The leadership may not be able to create and lead a company that can scale. e.g. A Chief Technology Officer who was a great coder many not have the skills to manage a team of coders.
- The existing processes and technology may be inefficient and unable to scale cost efficiently.
- Many processes to enable rapid growth will be missing e.g. the capability to recruit, onboard, and develop large numbers of employees, profitability analysis by customer segment, cohort, channel, and partner.
- Customer acquisition costs may exceed the lifetime value of the customer.
Stage 2 Creating a company
Stage 2 creates a repeatable, scalable; and profitable business model.
- Ensure the leadership able to create a company is in place.
- Changes may be required at the board of directors, advisory board, CEO, C-Suite, advisors, and consultants.
- Develop a plan to create the company. New and changed talent, processes, technology, channels, and partners are required.
The role of the CEO changes.
There are three things only the CEO can do, and no one else in the company:
- Create and maintain alignment of people with the purpose of the company;
- Nurture the company’s values, morals, and ethics (often referred to as culture);
- Hire the leadership team and ensure they work well together. Up to 50% of the CEO’s time will go hiring and managing the leadership team. At least 1/3 of the leadership team hires will not work out and must be exited.
Customer understanding continues
- Interviews and surveys continue.
- The solution is enhanced to enable the company to understand whether or not customers and users achieve value, and how many achieve that value.
Stage 3 Rapidly grow the company
- Execute the plan from stage 3.
- Add additional geographies, channel, partners, and customer segments,. Drop unprofitable ones.
- The customers and users are profitable (i.e. life time customer value is much larger than customer acquisition costs). The cash flow and accounting statements may show a loss because the customer acquisition costs are incurred upfront while the customer profits are achieved over the lifetime of the customer.
- Continue to maintain or improve the value achieved by customers and users. Improvement actions are based on: Ongoing customer interviews surveys, and analysis of customers; Ongoing analysis of the competition, adjacent market, trends in the ecosystem including technology and customer behaviour.
Stage 4 Continuously improve a mature company.
- The company has now reached the point where all potential customers and users globally have been contacted and revenue growth has plateaued.
- The company still needs to be continuously improved due to ongoing competition, changes in customers problems and needs, and trends in the ecosystem.
- The company must continuously monitor the external world to determine if major changes are required. Blackberry and Nokia used to be leaders in phones. Their leadership crumbled due to changing customer problems and needs combined with competitors focused on meeting those changes.
Success or failure of startups.
The facts are that most startups will fail and most large companies will either end up failing or generating little value.
Most early startups depend upon founders, friends and family for funding.
- Only 24% of angel deals in the US in 2019 were for pre-revenue companies.
- in 2019, only 2.4% of the applications to angel groups received funding
How do startup investors get their money out?
- Successful investors in early stage companies will avoid startups for which there would be no likely future buyer.
- IPOs are rare.
- Commonly an acquisition is done by either an existing business or another investor (e.g. Venture Capital, Private Equity, family office, pension fund, etc.)
“The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers” by Ben Horowitz.
Ben describes the incredibly tough challenges and experiences he went through in the process of his ultimately successful startup. He then became a successful venture capitalist.